There are some moments that will change your life forever. Moments you can’t prepare for and that you subsequently drag around for years, reliving them over and over again. Luckily, the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have to know about your moments. You can hide the truth pretty easily if you put up a good act. But no amount of acting can make that moment any less real to you. Personally, no matter how much I act, I can still remember my moment like it was yesterday.
I’m driving down the road in my brand new to me dark gray 2010 Honda Civic with the windows down. It’s October of my senior year, and the weather is great. I can’t help but smile when thinking about how free I am compared to everyone else in my class, since dual enrolling at Clayton State means that I only have to attend one class at my high school. While everyone I’ve been taking classes with for the past 6 years toils away, I’m on my way to see a guy.
He’s a mystery to me. 23 years old, working in video production. He created and then filmed music videos for all kinds of musicians. Some of them were even well known. He showed me pictures of himself with people like Lil Wayne or Florida Georgia Line on the sets of their music videos. It’s so exotic. He lives in a world I couldn’t possibly be further from, and I am drawn to it. I desperately want to escape my boring, fairly normal life.
He never finished college, and he barely finished high school. Brain cancer tends to ruin people’s plans for a normal life. I already saw the medical bills he’s trying to pay off, thus why he’s living in the guest suite of his sister’s house in exchange for taking care of her kids. He smokes weed out of a vape pen, which I still don’t really understand. I mean, I didn’t even know about any drugs until I met him, and I certainly didn’t know what vape pens were or how they worked. He’s offered to let me take a hit, but I’m too scared.
My heart starts to race as I turn down the winding road to his house. I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing, so I just pretend it isn’t happening. Then I see the increasingly familiar mailbox, and the already familiar car, and the man I’ve been thinking about the whole way over. There he is, with his shoulder length blonde hair, mostly green eyes with tiny brown flecks in them, and neatly trimmed beard. I park my car, take his hand, and then follow him into the house.
It’s been about an hour, and we are watching the latest season of BBC’s Sherlock. It isn’t actually out yet, but he knows that I love the show and has connections in the industry to exploit for his romantic endeavors. Before we can reach the resolution, he pulls me into his lap and starts kissing me. We’ve kissed a few times before, but never like this. It feels like he’s hungry and trying to devour my entire being. I start trying to push him away, but he wraps one of his arms around my waist and tangles his free hand in my hair, crushing me against him. I want to stop, to breathe, but he won’t let me. I want to speak, but I can’t seem to get any words out. Can’t we talk about this? I’m only just starting to get to know you!
His hand is in my shirt, but I don’t know how it got there. I can feel his chest hair but I don’t know when he took his shirt off. I’m naked but I don’t remember taking my clothes off. I’m in his bedroom but I don’t remember getting off the couch.
He grabs me and tosses me onto the bed like I’m nothing. I squeeze my eyes shut as he takes off his pants and approaches the edge of the bed. The next thing I know he’s on top of me and I can’t breathe. I’m gagging on something but I don’t understand until I open my eyes and look up at his torso towering over me. He meets my gaze and smiles, but not the smile I’ve been getting to know. He is a lion and I am nothing.
He moves away and I try to catch my breath. It feels like I’m breathing in maple syrup and that’s why my chest is so tight and why I can’t see straight and why everything seems to be happening so fast but I can only move in slow motion. I can feel him grabbing my legs. I can see his outline hovering over me. And I can feel the moment it happens. And I can’t do anything.
He starts moving and I hear the bed start creaking. It starts hitting the wall loudly. I thought that only happened in movies. And I thought it would be special. And I thought it wouldn’t hurt. But I was wrong, because I can hear the thump, thump, thumping, and at the beginning I think about screaming for help. But no sound comes out of me, not even a whisper, and there is no one around to hear anyway. So I become indifferent. I check out of my body and stare at the wall, memorizing the details of the wooden panels there. I think about the wood grains, and how tiny they must be. Are there things living on that wood? How small are they? I wish I could be that small. I wish that I was like them and couldn’t be seen with bare human eyes. Maybe they would take me into their community…
When he stops, I realize that he tied my hands to one of the bed posts. I can’t move even if I want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to do anything ever again for as long as I live.
He disappears into the bathroom and comes back with a towel to wipe off the strange wetness all over my hips and stomach. Once he’s finished with that, he brings my clothes over to the bed and unties my hands. I don’t think he notices that I haven’t made any effort to speak or move, until he speaks.
“Aren’t you going to get ready? You have to leave for class soon.”
What else is there to do? I slowly sit up and put my clothes on. He walks me out to my car, opens the door for me like a gentleman, and gives me a kiss goodbye before heading back into his lair. I put my car in gear and head to school. I’m just going to pretend that nothing happened. No one has to know.
It’s been a little over three years now, and I’ve been through a bunch of counseling, but I still haven’t gotten over that moment. As it turns out, time doesn’t heal all wounds and mental illness doesn’t make things any easier. I have always struggled with depression and anxiety, and this event did nothing to help me. I’m scared, angry, and extremely sensitive to being touched by anyone or anything. He lives his life without a care in the world, while I secretly live in fear of my next panic attack.
Having a panic attack is always a unique experience. No two are exactly alike. In some cases, something that only happens for maybe a few minutes could feel like it goes on for hours or even days. In others, you could be sitting still, but your heart is racing like you’re competing in a marathon, and you can’t catch your breath. It could make you feel like you’re sweating and burning and freezing at the same time. Or it could be something much more extreme. The best part is that at any point in time, something could trigger one of these attacks. Something as simple as a car ride…
I’ve never been so angry in my life. Why? What’s wrong with me? I’m hyperaware of everything. So much stuff is touching me. This seatbelt is too tight. It’s cutting my throat and it’s ready to crush my ribs and waist as well. The steering wheel feels almost sticky. My clothes are so constricting. The seam of my jeans feels like a knife in my leg. I can feel the seam of my sock on the tips of my toes like a metal wire ready to slice through them. Normally the seam is on top of my toenails so I can’t really feel it. Why did my socks slip down? My glasses are heavy and my hair is scratching my ears, face, and neck. I grab a chunk of hair and start pulling. I want to rip it all out. I can feel every follicle on my head. My skin itches and burns everywhere. It feels like there are bugs all over me, coming out from under my skin.
I pull over the car as soon as I can and slam it into park. It jerks violently to a halt. Someone is saying something to me but I can’t hear them because I’m clawing at my skin and pulling my hair and my vision is fading and suddenly I’m doubled over screaming. I don’t recognize the sound, but I have a vague awareness that it’s coming from me. I thrust my body upright and look at the body in my passenger’s seat without recognition. All I see is their fear as a guttural scream rips out of me again. I’m growling like a wild animal as I push my palms hard against my eyes. I guess my glasses fell off at some point. Then I slap my open hands against my forehead over and over until my faceless passenger finally says “stop!” loud enough for me to hear it. I bang my fists into my thighs with all of my might and scream back “no!”
Suddenly they are free of their seatbelt and start wrapping their arms around me. I can’t stand the feeling, but somehow I know they won’t let me be free until I stop screaming, so I try to calm down. It’s Aaron. My Aaron, the boy I always loved, the one who would never hurt me. He asks if I’m done hurting myself and I nod, afraid to let another noise come out of me. He moves back into his seat, still holding my hand tightly. It’s starting to feel nice. I trust him. His heat is seeping into me. I take a deep breath, put the car back into drive, and finish the last two minutes of our drive to Pigs and Peaches.
As we walk in to the biggest BBQ festival in Georgia, no one notices us at all. We are just a normal couple on a normal day, moving through the crowds to find lunch. We are just like everyone else. It’s as if nothing ever happened.
Something as simple as shopping for clothes…
It’s almost winter, and I need a jacket. My mom wants to get me a waterproof one, but I’m not sold on the idea. As we walk into the local Dick’s Sporting Goods, I can feel the familiar dread of being in a crowded building. I can feel my throat starting to constrict, but I take some deep, calming breaths and tell myself that everything will be fine. I focus my vision on the back of my mom’s head and try to ignore everything else around us as she leads me to the jacket section.
She keeps asking me which ones I like, but I don’t have an answer. She keeps asking me to touch them, but I don’t want to. I can tell she’s losing her patience, so I reach out my hand and briefly touch the jacket closest to me. It feels greasy, vaguely sticky. She pulls one off the rack and the rustling sound of the fabric makes me cringe. I tell her that I don’t like it, so she moves on to the next rack of torture devices. The routine continues.
Each time I touch another jacket I can feel the layers of whatever disgusting material is used to waterproof clothes accumulating on my fingertips. I keep trying to wipe it off on my jeans, but I can’t escape the feeling. My thumb constantly brushes over the rest of my fingertips, like maybe I can use friction to clean my hand. The register dings loudly. Clothes hangers scrape across metal rods as people sift through the racks to find their size. People’s heavy booted footsteps shake the floor while the vibrating hum of the heater shakes the lights loosely secured to the ceiling. The automatic door slides open and thuds shut over and over again. Everyone is talking and laughing and rushing around and I can’t move. They are using all of the air and soon I’ll run out and die and they’ll trample my body without so much as a pause.
My mom realizes what’s happening and grabs my arm, pulling me towards the glowing red exit sign. She’s seen enough of these to know that there’s nothing she can really do. Silent tears are streaming down my face. We get to the car and once the doors close I take a huge, gasping breath. I’m still rubbing my fingers together, so mom quietly finds some hand sanitizer and squeezes a glob into my palm. At first it soaks into my flesh, but then my constant rubbing turns the liquid into strange black strands. It reminds me of making snakes out of Play-Doh. The sticky feeling is about the same too. I stare at my fingers and keep rubbing until the car stops in our garage. I run to the closest sink and wash my hands over and over until my skin is raw. We silently agree to forget about the incident, and we never speak of it again.
I’m driving down I-75 North with Twenty-One Pilots blaring through the speakers of my now worn in little Honda. Head bobbing, bass thumping, singing loudly, having a good time. Traffic is bad like it always is on Wednesday afternoons. I look over as a car passes me on the right, aggravated that their lane is making more progress than mine. It happens so fast. A male face, shoulder length blonde hair, his body tilted slightly to the left so his arm in pressed against the door, with his right hand draped loosely over the top of the steering wheel. My heart stops, and suddenly my vision blurs. The only thing I can see clearly is the white car zooming ahead just to brake again. What kind of car is it? He definitely drove a small car like that. Was his white? I think it was blue. No, maybe it was white. I really think it was blue though. Even if it was blue, who knows what he drives now? It’s been so long.
I can’t hear the music anymore, but I can feel the bass thumping. It’s like how the bed was thumping thumping thumping—no. I can’t let myself go there again. Focus. Maybe if I can just see for sure what the guy looks like, I’ll be ok. It’s probably not him. I accelerate and then immediately brake. What if it is him? It’s probably not. The bile rises and my throat constricts with a familiar burn. I accelerate again to catch the car, but then traffic blocks my way entirely. What if he is here? How did he find me? Maybe he is just passing through, on his way to another music video. But what if he found me? I wasn’t careful enough. Too many people figured out that I’m here. I left home for Carrollton after graduation, but he knew I was there, so I had to get out. I didn’t tell anyone outside of my immediate family that I was transferring to Kennesaw. I didn’t try hard enough to keep my secret. I should have hidden better from people I knew back home. I shouldn’t have let my roommates be my friends on Facebook. They tagged me in posts about being roommates. That’s so obvious! My privacy settings are up but Facebook isn’t really all that secure. Do I need to pick up my life and move again?
Oh no, there’s the first sign for my exit. What if he can still see me? What if he sees it and connects that I go to KSU? I can’t miss the exit though, or I’ll be late. I shift over a lane, slowing down significantly to put more distance between myself and the white car before shifting over again. Other drivers are aggravated and speed around me. Good. More cars in between us. I exit and realize I’ve barely been breathing for who knows how long. I’m gasping for air as the tears begin to flood my eyes and cascade down my face. Get it together, or they’ll know. They might ask questions that I can’t bear to answer right now. I dig the nails of my right hand into my palm, focusing on the current physical pain. It brings me back and I pull myself together.
By the time I pull into the parking lot of the Owl’s Nest, there’s no sign of tears. I walk in and hand my ID to the desk attendant, trembling slightly. She swipes it, returns it, and tells me to have a good workout. I walk into the gym and see my workout group, who had arrived on time for once. I clench my fists and plaster on a smile. No one suspects a thing.
Some moments linger. They wait around, causing trouble when you least expect it. They live inside of you, lurking in the darkest shadows, waiting for any sign of vulnerability. They constantly remind you that they cannot die, at least not as long as you are alive. They are your constant companion: the darkness you can never shake; the cold chill that washes over you suddenly for seemingly no reason at all; the invisible weights holding you in bed no matter how awake you may be; the eyes that you feel watching you, both in your quiet moments and in a crowd.
I desperately want to be free of my moment. I want to be just like everyone else, going about my life in peace. I want to be able to leave my apartment and not be utterly drained by the time I get home because I’m so exhausted from trying to keep up appearances. You see, not everyone has to know what goes on beneath the surface. My moment left no visible wounds. I have the luxury of not having to explain my story to everyone I encounter, unlike someone who has an obvious physical deformity. I have learned to take advantage of this. I have learned how to show the world the person I want to be, not necessarily the person I am. With the exception of events like the aforementioned when my façade crumbles, I can at least seem normal.
If I walk into a room, you’ll see a typical college kid. A girl with glasses, brown hair, and a pretty average build, wearing whatever t-shirt was at the top of her drawer. A girl who smiles. Who laughs. Who has no worries beyond when her next assignment is due. Who looks tired, but pretty much all college students do. Whether it’s due to staying up too late after procrastinating writing a paper or being out all weekend having fun, we may never know.
You’ll talk to a girl who is obviously educated, with a serious command of the English language. Who has no clear accent because she grew up in Georgia but was raised by parents fresh out of New York. Who is relatively monotone, without much emotion in her voice. Who tends to be soft spoken, but can still speak confidently.
You’ll get to know a girl who is in a stable relationship. Who tries to talk to her mom, or at least text her, every day. Who adores her dad. Who grew up with two white middle class parents, who are still happily married. Who is driven, taking on leadership roles, competing on a university equestrian team, working two jobs, and still earning a Bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four. Who won’t let anything get in her way.
Really, is it even a façade anymore? They say you just have to fake it until you make it. Before, I thought that this meant you put up a front until things got better. Now, I’m starting to think that you put up an act until that act becomes your truth. Maybe I really am the person I show the world, not just some broken form hiding inside my shell. After all this time, maybe I have become the person I want to be. Maybe, just maybe, I am normal.