When I first arrived, I didn’t expect to meet anyone of any significance. I planned on playing along, eating my meals, saying what was necessary, swallowing my pills and getting out. No friends. No guidance. Just play along and I’d be free. I was only here because others thought I should be. I didn’t sign myself up. I had scared my college roommates so bad that they felt the only possible solution to the problem was to call the police and let them deal with me.
The first time I saw her I couldn’t take my eyes away. She was young. Her hair was a deep chocolate brown and it had a natural curl that bounced loosely on her shoulders with little to no product involved. Her skin was soft and clear, as if she had never stepped into the sun’s damaging rays. She was too beautiful to be in a place like this. Our eyes met in a gaze for only a moment as I took a seat at a nearly empty table at the back of the room as my first group therapy session began.
The counselor passed out pamphlets with the word “DEPRESSION” slapped onto the front page in big bold letters. That was our topic for the day. We went through the literature, someone reading a paragraph out loud. As if in high school, many of us cowered in fear of being called upon in class to read aloud. After the mundane information was recited, the counselor put on a video recorded in what had to have been the late 1980’s and we all watched in silence and boredom. I later found out in my days at The Center, most of the time inside was spent watching the clock, counting down the minutes until we could go outside for only fifteen minutes and smoke a cigarette as free men and women, letting the sun hit our skin and talk about things other than Prozac dosage and designated visiting hours.
I watched her as she huddled with a small group of women, offering to light their cigarettes as she was in charge of holding the only lighter that was available to us. I guess the administration trusted her to be responsible enough with an item capable of hurting another patient and/or herself. She was a god capable of controlling light and warmth with the simple flick of her thumb. Everyone gathered around her as they held the only source of freedom admitted to them for the entirety of the day.
She smiled and laughed and started small talk with the people around her. It being my first full day at The Center, I puffed on my cigarette alone in the corner, only catching glimpses of the seemingly normal conversation happening around me. I felt at ease for a moment knowing that although I was somewhere strange and taboo, normalcy could still be acquired and I closed my eyes and let myself soak in the fifteen minutes of sun I was permitted to experience.
The line was long but I stood in silence as I awaited my nightly dosage of medication. They had me prescribed to the usual cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, but tonight they were giving me a high blood pressure medication that was believed to help with nightmares. I was having difficulty sleeping soundly through the night, according to my roommate who claimed I had awoken last night screaming and unable to be calmed down. I accepted the new prescription without any objections because at this point, I didn’t care what I consumed, as long as it made me feel a little better.
I slept with ease but awoke feeling lightheaded and woozy, struggling to get to my feet when the 6:00am wake up call commenced. I was to be out of bed and present at breakfast by 6:30am and when I got out of bed I felt as if the floor was moving beneath my feet. I sat back down and asked my roommate to grab a nurse because something wasn’t right. I was soon informed that the high blood pressure medication would make me feel light headed in the mornings but it was nothing to worry about. I quickly said I was not interested in taking a medication intended for something I didn’t struggle with so I had them take it off my prescribed drug cocktail.
After breakfast, we were hauled into the group room where we proceeded to have our therapy session, discussing the topic of the day. Yesterday had been depression which we all seemed to suffer from and today’s topic was anxiety.
Much different than yesterday, people began to open up about their experiences with anxiety and how it had caused issues in their day to day lives.
(We later joked that this was because our meds had kicked in)
She was the third person to speak but the only person I remember with great detail.
Her name was Erin and she was 32, a mother of two beautiful children. She first experienced anxiety when she competed in beauty pageants as a young girl. Her mother would drag her around and make money off of her daughter’s striking good looks and unwavering charm and forced her to stand on stage and have hundreds of people criticize her and make comments about her personal appearance. She admitted to feeling uneasy throughout the entire process, but it wasn’t anything to worry about until one particular competition. She was 12 years old and had just won her first major competition. After months of dieting and preparation on an already underdeveloped body, she had defeated dozens of girls her own age, many who had been working harder than her in hopes of taking home the crown. After being awarded first prize, Erin stood on the sidelines, accepting praise and congratulations from contestants and parents alike, until she felt a chilling pressure against her temple. Without any movement, she heard the disgruntled ramblings of a mother who had poured thousands of dollars into her daughter’s chances of winning. A gun pointed at the 12 year old girl’s head at the hand of a fully grown adult, so overwhelmed with jealousy and rage towards a child beating her own in a silly competition. Erin told the story of fear and acceptance of her own death at 12 years old over a piece of plastic and silk pink sash.
We all sat in awe listening to the story, the image of a child with a gun being pointed to her head burned into our minds for the rest of the day. Erin explained how since then anytime she’s in a room full of strangers or she hears a loud noise, she imagines herself being held at gunpoint unable to defend herself because within any moment her own life could be yanked out from under her.
She continued on to describe how she managed her anxiety quite well on most days but after being married and having children of her own, she goes through patches where she just wishes that the woman had pulled the trigger; keeping her from dealing with every emotion that has haunted her since.
I found myself wiping away tears in the back of the room as I heard her story. I felt foolish for even feeling as if my own feelings of anxiety meant anything because I had never been through anything that terrifying in my life. I felt invalidated and inadequate of the help that was being offered to me. Erin had known fear. I knew nothing.
During our next meal, I sat alone and poked at my fruit cup, trying to desperately get the image of a child being held hostage over something as trivial as high heels and a plastic crown. My thoughts were interrupted when a man sat down beside me and pointed out a cut on my arm.
“What happened here, girl?”
I was completely stunned. Not only by the fact that someone had finally paid any attention to me, especially enough to strike up a conversation, but also by the fact that he had the audacity to bring awareness to my biggest mental health issue: the main focus of why I was here in the first place. I was unable to formulate a coherent sentence so I sat with my eyes diverted towards the floor and ignored the man in front of me. He didn’t get the hint that I was uninterested in conversing with him, so he proceeded to have a conversation with himself about me, unconcerned with my feelings about the subject.
“Did you do that to yourself? Now I just can’t understand why someone as young and as pretty as you would want to hurt themselves. Just don’t make no sense to me. It’s just downright crazy, that’s what it is.”
At this point I could feel everyone in the room looking at me. Their eyes burned into my flesh, hot enough to leave scars of their own. I felt my breathing pick up as my panic began to take hold. I left my fruit cup abandoned on the table and left the room with tears down my cheeks and my head in my hands.
My room was locked as we were unable to stay in our rooms alone during the day, so I searched for a place to be as alone as I could as I collapsed into myself. A chair offered its solace as I coiled into it, trying to block out as much of my surroundings as I could manage. I needed to be away from this place. From these people that didn’t know me and didn’t understand me. I needed to breathe but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how.
After a few moments of being alone, I felt a presence beside me. It was a counselor, I could recognize his voice by his calming tone as he tried to talk me through my panic attack. I was unable to receive any more of my anxiety medication because I had already taken my limited dosage for the day, but he wanted to let me know that he was there for me if I needed him. He sat with me and talked me through my attack until I felt calm enough to return to the group.
I later found out that Erin had informed the counselor about my attack. She had witnessed the man confront me about my self harm and had seen my reaction and was worried about me. She sent help. She noticed. She cared.
As I returned to the group, Erin walked to the back of the room and looked at me as if she were about to ask permission for something but didn’t actually say a word. She sat beside me, never breaking eye contact, and she placed her open hand onto the table. I looked at it with confusion until realizing it was the only thing I had wanted all along. I placed my hand in hers and she clasped it tight and turned away, both of us sitting together in silence, listening to what ever topic was planned for the day.
Erin became my mother in that place. She looked after me and offered her support because she saw something in me that reminded her of herself. She never preached or asked questions. She just knew. And that’s all I needed at the time in my life.
To this day I wonder about where she is and if she’s okay. Did she ever go back to school like she told me she wanted to do? Are her kids okay? Is her husband worried about her constantly? I want to know these things but I also know it’s not my place to worry. She was a part of my life for a short period of time but in that time she helped me more than any other person ever has had the ability to.
She made me realize that no matter how beautiful you are or how stable you may seem, you never know what’s going on with another person. Youth and beauty does not eliminate pain and suffering. We’re all feeling something. We’re all going through the same shit.
March 23, 2013 I was entered into The Center and around this time every year my mind gravitates towards Erin and how much she helped me in the smallest way possible. I worry about her and I hope she knows she doesn’t have to worry about me.
The guns have been put down.
She can sleep at night, and thanks to her, so can I.
I hope you all sleep well tonight, crybabies.