The pain was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I was doubled over in my bed, on top of the blanket, with my knees tucked in close to my chest and my arms wrapped around them. My knuckles were white from gripping so tightly. Seconds later, I released my legs and laid flat on my back, staring longingly at the ceiling through the blurry window of my tears. I rolled onto my left side, again tucking my knees into my chest, and for a moment, I gave into the pain, letting my head lull on the pillow, feeling the tightness in my chest increasing. It was three in the morning and I knew I had to get up early for work, but nothing would make the pain stop, or even ease. I had experienced this same pain on two other occasions in the last 6 years, and I think it could be likened to heartburn, but I imagine much, much worse. It felt like there was something trapped inside of my rib cage, right at the bottom, where the left side meets the right. This ‘something’ seemingly wasn’t sure whether it wanted to be in or out, because it would tighten one minute, and then the next minute it felt like it was pushing against my rib cage, almost to breaking point. The scariest part is that it was so painful to inhale, and every breath seemed to become shorter and more strained. I had tried heartburn relief when I experienced this pain before, with no luck. During this specific episode, I was blinded by pain and must have dosed myself with a questionable number of ibuprofen tablets, but nothing helped. It was mid March in England, absolutely freezing, and yet I had droplets of sweat pouring out of my skin at an alarming rate. The last time I experienced this same pain, I was with my ex-boyfriend, who was aware of what I was going through, and so I felt safe knowing that if I needed to go to the hospital, he was there to take me. This time, I was alone. I had moved to the UK late December in a ‘quarter-life-crisis’ fashion, hoping to see some of the world while gaining some career experience. I guess I was technically not alone, as I lived in a dark and dingy share house with 6 other people who I barely knew (constantly closed bedroom doors never did lead to building those ‘lifelong friendships’ that people always rave about after going traveling). Regardless of the other inhabitants residing in the High Wycombe icebox we called ‘home’, I had never felt more alone and terrified. I was conflicted; the rational part of me knew that the pain would eventually subside, as it had done in the past, and that I had to ‘stop chucking a wobbly’ (classic dad term for throwing a tantrum) and get on with it; the two other sides of me were arguing back and forth between calling out for help from one of the sleeping strangers in the house, and just accepting that I was going to die. None of my thoughts won that battle. I am not entirely sure how I got to sleep, whether the ibuprofen eventually did its job or I passed out from the pain, but either way I have a vivid memory of seeing the numbers 5:49 light up as I tapped my phone before drifting off and thinking...fuck.
The all-too-familiar trill of my alarm broke the still silence in my room at 6:20am, and I clutched both sides of my head as I felt the sounds reverberating inside of my skull. I felt physically and emotionally shattered, and had the soft black smudges of my lazily left on mascara staining my pillow, reminding me of the excruciating pain I endured during the night. For the last three months, the routine weekday wake-up had been painful. The damp cold air would seep in through the walls during the night, so the dash through the dark kitchen into the bathroom was always put off as long as possible. If my brain was alert enough to remember the heater, the return to my bedroom was the most enjoyable part of the morning. I would then pull layers of clothing around my goosebump-enveloped skin, planning carefully for the icy cold, sometimes wet, and always dark journey to the bus station. Although that day started like any other, it brought with it a whole other level of hurt an anxiety. Not only had I managed to deposit a mere 31 minutes of sleep to my sleep bank, I was also completely weighed down with the knowledge that I needed to tell someone, and I needed help.
When I was filling in applications for university towards the end of year twelve, I was one of the few lucky teenagers who knew exactly what they wanted to do. I had taken graphic design as a subject for the last two years, and my teacher, who nurtured my creativity and conceptual thinking skills, encouraged me to pursue it as a career. I had Visual Communication Design down as my first preference, because it was my passion, and teaching as my second, because I wanted to be that person to impact student’s lives positively, as my teacher did for me. Fast-forward past the conversations with dad about taking a gap year or studying something more practical, I was heading off to the University of South Australia in Adelaide to study graphic design. This chapter of my life deserves its own moment in the spotlight, so I’m going to leave it for the time being. About 5 years later, after completing my bachelor degree and working for a little while, I decided that I wanted to do more with my life. My happiness always has, and always will, stem from helping other people, and I felt that I needed to do exactly that. I researched ways to get into teaching, and after one heartbreaking rejection for studying to be a primary school teacher, I was accepted to complete my Masters of Teaching in Secondary Education. We are going to fast-forward again here, because there are more pressing issues at hand than telling you about my endless days and nights glued to a computer screen learning about Vygotsky and the lawsuit that can be filed against a teacher if (when) you forget your lunch duty and a child injures them self. So, this is how I landed myself in the UK, huddled up in a ball of pain, alone, in my freezing cold bedroom, knowing the next day would be horrific. I secured a job teaching art at a school in Buckinghamshire before I left Australia. On the day of my interview, I nervously entered a room where a British head teacher had traveled over to meet with potential candidates. She commented on my appearance, saying I was ‘the arty type’. Looking back now, it was probably the fact that I was still in somewhat of a ‘sharpie eyebrow’ phase with my hair back-combed for days. Nevertheless, I landed the job and was absolutely ecstatic. Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified of the prospect of leaving Melbourne and moving to the other side of the globe where I didn’t know anyone, but at the time it seemed like the perfect escape from the turmoil that was my life. I was working two late night hospitality jobs living pay-check to pay-check, and also stuck in that strange part of a break up from a long-term relationship where you are still secretly fucking him but also telling your friends you’re so over it and trying to convince yourself of exactly that by going home with average boys after a night out and then vigorously scrubbing your skin off and despising yourself for the next week. Yes, not my finest hour, but I’m getting off track again. The process of moving was such a blur. One moment I was unloading all of my life that I had stuffed into my small 4-door hatchback at dad’s house and saying tear-jerking goodbyes to my family and friends, and the next moment I was in a tiny downstairs room of an air bnb in Buckinghamshire falling asleep at 4:30pm every afternoon because it was pitch black. Luckily the space of time between me arriving in the UK and when I started work was so short that I didn’t fall into a depression induced psychosis trying to understand why I had left everything behind. I didn’t sleep for two weeks though, so I wasn’t exactly myself. I started work at this school, and I was so lucky to have been welcomed so warmly by the three ladies who made up the art department. They went above and beyond to make sure I was eating, sleeping, and ultimately functioning like a normal human being, despite my decision to uproot myself and set up shop somewhere completely foreign. If I didn’t have these women in my life, I can guarantee my time in the UK would have been so much harder. Circling back now to that horrific day, after my night of no sleep and next-level heartburn.
I arrived at school just after 8am. Mentally I felt numb, but physically I could feel everything; the tightness in my chest, the lump in my throat, and the weight of my tired limbs as I dragged my body up the icy steps. My eyes were stinging from the crisp English air and fighting so hard to hold back tears. I knew Caroline would already be there, which both terrified me and gave me a sense of comfort. She was one of the three ladies who gave me the kindness and care that I will be forever grateful for. I didn’t expect Lucy to be there as well, so I had to ask to speak to Caroline privately, as she was the Head of Department. I walked ahead and sat down at my desk. Nervous sweat began prickling the surface of my skin like tiny little needles, and fat salty tears began rolling down my cheeks before she had even sat down. I don’t usually cry in front of other people, and if I do, I tend to hold back as much as possible, reducing myself to silent sobbing and swatting tears away quickly with the back of my hand. All throughout my teens, I had been conditioned to hide my emotions, but that is another story again. In that moment, sitting across from Caroline, in my own classroom where I would get up in front of 30 adolescents, having them listen and learn from me, I broke down. I could feel the weight of my tears as they toppled over my cheekbones, landing heavy and hard on my sleeves, joining together to create small patches of damp on my already dewy coat. Caroline jumped instinctively to my side, her warm hands placed gently but securely on my shoulders. There were very few people in my life that knew what I was about to tell her, and although I felt like I HAD to open up to her for the security of my employment, I genuinely felt like I wanted her to know. She didn’t rush me, or push me into telling her what was going on. She comforted me, and waited until I was ready.
As the flow of tears slowed and I could uncurl my hunched shoulders, I dabbed at my face with a paper towel, the rough texture stinging my red cheeks. I drew in a deep breath and held it, paying close attention to the feeling of air inside my lungs, which is something I had learned to help calm me down. My heart rate slowed and I gripped my shaking leg. Words started falling out of my mouth and I remember hearing my voice and thinking that it didn’t belong to me. I explained to Caroline that I hadn’t slept, and that the pain in my chest was something I experienced because of my bulimia.