real life

"I’m 10 years old, and I can’t eat..."

Content warning: This article deals with anxiety and suicidal thoughts and may be triggering for readers. 

I’m 10 years old and I can’t eat.

I’m camping with my parents. Flies thrum in the humidity and I wave them from my face like I fan away the smoke from the campfire. Somehow, in the wilderness, my dad has obtained the most sacred of modern conveniences: a steaming box of pizza. I’m an only child with no siblings to argue about toppings so it’s my favorite kind of pizza: ham, bacon, and pineapple. I love pizza with the ferocity only a preteen can muster.

I grab a foam plate and a slice of pizza. But I can’t eat it.

“What’s wrong?” my mum asks.

I don’t know.

A chasm has yawned open behind my sternum. I place a trembling hand to my chest, and then to my throat. I’m a smart kid and I know that there’s nothing to be afraid of but I am afraid and I can’t smother it. It’s burning in my chest like the campfire roaring and smoking at me. My heart beats the dum-dum-dum of a bass drum in my ears, at my temples. I feel the blood drain from my face.

“I don’t know.”

I take a small bite of pizza and suddenly I’m crying, salt in my mouth, salt on my cheeks. My parents are concerned but my throat is closing up and I have no way to speak to them. I chew as if there’s concrete in my mouth. The act of swallowing seems repulsive and besides, I suddenly can’t remember how. Physically, the act doesn’t make sense, doesn’t seem possible. I have forgotten how to move the muscles in my throat and the more I think about it — the more I will myself to relax — the more tense I get, every inch of me contracted, folding in on itself.

I’m going to choke, I realise. I’m going to choke and I’m going to die. It’s going to be painful and scary, and I’m 10 years old, I’m not ready to die. I want to go home and I want to enjoy my pizza but I’m crying and my parents are asking what’s wrong and I’m going to choke if I tell them, I’m going to, I’m going to, I’m going to —

I spit the pizza out. I barely eat for weeks.

How to talk to people with anxiety. Post continues after video.

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I’m 15 and it’s raining, an indecisive mist, the kind that still coaxes petrichor from the ground. All I can do is stare out the window. I’m laying on the couch and crying, silently. I’m hormonal, I’m moody, and everything is changing. This is nothing new or particularly exciting but it’s coming from a hollowness so profound, I feel like I’ve been scooped out with a spade.

“What’s wrong?” my mum asks.

I don’t know.

I can’t form the words to explain that I’m a cookie-cutter girl — I’m not the sweet pliable dough, I’m the cold metal shape with no interior substance. I have no eyes, no face, no insides. I am immaterial, I cannot be touched or seen or heard. The words that do tumble out are regurgitated from other mouths; the thoughts that cyclone in my brain are indecipherable, innumerable.

I fear I’ve never actually thought for myself — that I am a paltry imitation of every facial expression I’ve ever mirrored, every argument I’ve ever absorbed, every interest that someone else has mentioned.

“I don’t know.”

I do know.

“I don’t know,” I say, “who I am. I don’t know who I am, or what I like or dislike, or want to do, or anything. I don’t know what I believe. I don’t know anything about myself and I feel like no one actually knows me or likes me.”

My mum did her best to reassure me. She laid with me on the couch and I let myself be wrapped up in her arms. I can’t help but wonder which parts of her I’ve already absorbed, imitated, and made a part of my not-self, which sliver of her personality I’ll project to the world. I wonder who I won’t be today.

***

I’m 19 years old and I’m pregnant.

Except I’m not.

In the shower, I press shuddering palms to my belly, my lower back. The skin is soft and pliable beneath my fingers. Deep beneath, far beneath, I imagine something shifting, waking up inside me.

Tears are spilling from my eyes so hard that I can barely breathe. I let the shower water drum against my screwed-shut eyelids. It’s impossible for me to be pregnant. I know I’m not. And yet I know I am, on a level of cognizance that I don’t have access to, one that only shrills at a high-pitched frequency in the back of my mind. If I keep my eyes closed and part the curtains of my mind, this thought that blinds me as if I were staring directly into the sun. I can’t see anything else.

“What’s wrong?” my boyfriend asks.

I don’t know.

There is no possible way I can be pregnant — save for divine intervention, and I’m no Mary — and yet I’m still convinced. What else could explain this heaviness, that pain, this tenderness, that food aversion? I spend hours skipping class to Google pregnancy symptoms and document them in my journal. The more I read, the more similarities I find. I am increasingly, devastatingly convinced that I am going to have a baby.

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I cry every day for hours at a time. What will my parents think? What will my boyfriend do? I stop eating, I eat more, I sleep throughout the day, I lay awake at night cradling my stomach. A constant buzzing in my head pervades. I am not pregnant. I cannot be pregnant.

My brain still screams at me that I am.

I want to think new thoughts, clean thoughts, pure thoughts, not this buzzing, humming, shrillness screaming at me every moment of every day.

“I don’t know,” I say.

I spend $15 on a pregnancy test I don’t need. It’s negative. There was no other possibility.

I cried for weeks after, mourning a loss I never had.

Mia Freedman talks to Dr Jodie Lowinger on everything you need to know about anxiety. Post continues below.

***

I’m 25 and I’m in the hospital.

It’s my first and last time in isolation — self-imposed because I asked to go write in my journal somewhere quiet. The room has a cot without any blankets, walls painted a pale yellow, a linoleum floor, and nothing else. I can’t bring myself to lay on the cot so I sit on the floor instead.

My heart has been broken twice, at this point, so thoroughly that I can’t imagine it surviving any further damage. I spent a month in bed because I wanted to die and couldn’t think of a way to do it that wouldn’t inconvenience someone in some way.

My parents would be sad. My roommates would be indefinitely scarred. Who would clean up the blood, if there was any? Who would find me?

I’ve spent some time in bed, here, too. In the cot with light blue sheets, the thin white blanket pulled over my head. I’ve listened to my roommate cry herself to sleep; she’s starting ECT and doesn’t want to forget her graduation or her wedding day. I’ve wandered up and down the ward at 3 a.m., a paperback forgotten in my hand, padding across the linoleum in teal socks with white grips in the shape of a smiley face on the bottom. Everyone looks tired under fluorescent lights.

On the floor, I write in my journal until a therapist looks into the room.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

What’s wrong is that I’m tired and I want to f*cking die.

“I don’t know,” I say.

I’m out of the hospital days later, and back in bed.

***

I’m 26. I’m in therapy.

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It’s work; it’s hard. Some days I stare at the wall with my arms crossed, pale lips pursed tightly together. Some days I lay on the couch and cry. (I eventually stop wearing mascara to appointments.)

We poke and prod at trauma and confusion and pain, and I put bandages over the emotional bruises, waiting for them to heal.

My therapist, one day, suggests confronting my inner child, and I stiffen.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

I don’t want to see my inner child. I can’t face her. I know she needs protecting — my 10-year-old self, my 15-year-old self, all the selves I’ve been before, after, and beyond. I’ve failed her. I had a responsibility to her, to become the person she wanted me to be, and instead I became — what? Jaded, disillusioned, depressed, and unmotivated. Anxiety moves me across the board of my life like a pawn.

“I don’t know,” I say.

She doesn’t believe me.

If I settle into the chair just right, and slow my breathing just so, it’s like I drift into a dreamscape while still awake. And, eventually, I see her: tall for her age, freckle-faced, wearing green high-tops with the toes colored in with highlighter. She stands with her head tilted, her nose wrinkled, surveying the person she’ll become with curiosity. She’s waiting for me to ask her what’s wrong, I think. I start to ask, but the words get caught in my throat.

Instead, I take her by the hand.

“You’re not wrong,” I tell her.

Something shifts — something brightens — not blinding, just illuminating a sliver of moonlight in the darkness. I see her as she is now, and at ages 10, 15, 19, and last year, surveying me, holding my hands, holding me close to all of them. I feel the ancient beat of our hearts, a life that won’t end, a mind that’s still whole, a soul that still shivers at sunsets, puppies, and the feel of someone’s hand in ours. I know we are tormented by our own selves, that our own brain can turn against us. But more than that, I know that I am her and she is me and we are all of them — all of us — and there are more of us still, each waiting to be seen, greeted, and inhabited. Waiting to be realised.

She’s not wrong and neither am I. We grin at each other, at this confirmation. We have the same lopsided, squinty-eyed smile.

When I get home, I order a pizza. Ham, bacon, and pineapple.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

This story originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Dani Mohrbach, you can find her here.

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