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My Very Own Trail of Tears and The Journey to My Smile
“I spit, stutter stuff and clutter worries in my worried corner” –Eve 6
I never considered myself different compared to other kids my age when I was growing up. On the outside I looked like the average kid: I played sports, took dance class, had play dates, had a great family, and went to school every day. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my life or the way I was raised. I had a better than average childhood filled with family vacations, toys and lots of friends. There was nothing missing that would lead to my problem, there was nothing that happened that would lead to my problem. My problem was a problem, which was all I knew. It existed and I just could not seem to get rid of it.
Ever seen your parents cry? Ever seen your dad cry? I have seen my parents cry multiple times and I can safely say the cause was always me. I can remember sitting on the floor of the bathroom in my house with my mom and dad sitting on the edge of the bathtub. They kept asking me why it was that I just would not sleep in my own bed. I really had no answer that was worthy of my behavior. I was too scared. Being in my room alone at night with the lights off was the most frightening thing I could imagine. I spent all day worrying about having to go to my bedroom at night to sleep. I tried my hardest to convince my sister to let me sleep with her at night, but it becomes a little strange when the older sister wants to sleep with the younger sister because she is scared. And when my sister had had enough and didn’t want me with her anymore, I relocated to a mattress on the floor of my parents’ room. If only I could say this all occurred when I was around five or six, but no, these events took place when I was in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
Before I moved a few streets over, from Maple Ridge to Alden Circle, I was perfectly fine sleeping in my room alone. My sister’s room was right next to mine and my parents were right across. Although when I was little either my mom or dad would lie with me until I fell asleep, this was much more normal for a younger child. Often times I would try to stay awake as long as possible, in the hopes that they would fall asleep in my bed with me and not leave to go to their own room. I just loved having the comfort of knowing someone was right there next to me for protection. Not that I needed much protection. I grew up in a suburb of Boston, a nice town with expensive taxes, a fantastic school system, and lots of rich white kids. I really had nothing to be scared of in my house with my family all around to protect me. But sleeping was always troublesome for me and when I was finally able to fall asleep on my own without anyone in the room, I still needed the background noise of my parents watching their television in bed to lull me to slumber. I needed the comfort that I was not the only one awake in my home at the time, and if ever I woke up in the night, my immediate reaction was to run to my parents’ room to ask my dad to tuck me back in. It did not matter how many times I woke up in the night, my dad always walked me to my room and kissed me goodnight. I’m sure this was not the most convenient thing for him to have to do, but if it were not done I would refuse to sleep the rest of the night. Stubborn? Yeah, I know, I’ve been told.
I had a really hard time when my parents decided to move when I was in the sixth grade. I had spent eight years in my current home, basically my entire childhood, and I was sad to have to give that up. Granted my new home was beautiful, much bigger than the old one and only two streets over I was still upset. The night before I moved, my dad picked me up from gymnastics and we drove around the town a little before heading back home. We talked about all the memories I had made in our house and how I was just going to make more in our new house. I was a little sad and teared up a few times, but overall decided I was ready for the big change.
The day we moved was very exciting. I left for school from one house and came back to another one. All my stuff was in boxes in my room and was ready for me to start unpacking. I thought it was so much fun being able to reorganize my room and arrange it any way I wanted. Plus, I had gotten all new furniture for my room too, along with a new bedspread and curtains. The room was mine to make however I wanted and I loved the way it came out. The layout of our new house had my and my sister’s bedrooms upstairs, along with a guest room and bathroom. My parents’ new bedroom was on the second floor, kind of their own little suite. In the beginning I had no problem sleeping upstairs with just my sister and me. It was even kind of nice to be able to have my own space for myself. Adjusting to my new home was easier than I had thought, and I spent the summer having lots of fun and really not worrying about much at all.
As August rolled around I began preparing to pack for the week-long overnight summer camp I was going to be attending with my best friend, Michelle. Michelle had been going to Camp Rotary for three or four years and had asked me to accompany her this summer. Of course I was overjoyed to be asked and immediately signed up for a week with her. We talked about it all summer and were so excited to be away from our parents and siblings for a whole week. I was not nervous at all as we drove the twenty minutes to camp, and was excited as we unpacked our belongings and settled in. I kissed my parents and my sister goodbye and was alone with Michelle and a few other girls in our cabin for the week. The first day was so much fun, and we spent the time playing games, swimming and signing up for other activities. As we got ready for bed and I wrote my parents the first letter, I was still happy and having fun, and told them about how great camp was and how I didn’t even miss them at all.
As Tuesday afternoon ended and we were heading from the pond to the cabin to get changed for dinner, something about my experience at camp changed. I realized there were still five days until I would see my parents again, and I panicked. For some reason something in my head clicked and I wanted to go home at that very second. I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed by my feelings and began to cry as I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and headed down the hill to dinner. My counselors took me outside and asked what was wrong, and I explained to them that I wanted to go home. As they asked why, I couldn’t think of a logical answer besides, I want to talk to my mom. Of course they would not let me, as it was against camp policy to have campers call their parents during the week. I begged and cried and even wrote a letter to my parents telling them how much I hated camp and just wanted to go home. Obviously, my counselor saw what was written and decided not to send it until she was sure it would not be received until I was safely home. My counselors weren’t doing this to be mean to me. They always had their share of campers who were homesick and they were simply doing their job. I finally realized my crying and carrying on was not going to change the fact that I was stuck at camp, and I decided to just have fun while I was there. I went to my activities, went swimming and hung out with all my new friends. I did everything except eat. For some reason I could not bring myself to eat because I was making myself so upset. I wanted to go home and see my family, and since I couldn’t do that, I would not eat. I ended up weak and shaky by the end of the week and got so sick I threw up bread and water on Thursday night. I had worked myself up so much that I was physically sick and losing weight. As soon as my parents came to pick me up on Saturday morning, I was basically running from the camp. I was so happy to be home and told them how I was never going back because I absolutely hated it. Not the answer they were expecting, I’m sure, but my answer nonetheless.
From Camp Rotary it was a downhill spiral. My friend Michelle and her family had rented a condo in New Hampshire the last week of the summer, and even after my outrageous behavior at camp she asked me to come stay with her for a few nights. I went, knowing I was safe with Michelle’s family and could call my parents if I needed them at any time. As soon as I got there my feelings changed. I began to cry and beg my parents to either stay or take me back home with them. The last thing I wanted to do was be stuck without them overnight, again. I basically ran after the car crying because I wanted to leave so bad, but they made me stay for at least a night and said they would call in the morning to see if I was okay. Of course I was not okay. It was now official; I hated being away from my family. I wanted to spend the night in a house, with them, not my friends, not my friends’ families, not my extended family, just my mom and dad. I cried and cried on the phone the next day with them and my dad reluctantly agreed to come pick me up and take me home. As soon as I knew he was on his way, I was fine. I knew he would be there and I would be safe and sound at home, and that was all I really needed.
Seventh grade began and I was perfectly fine at school and hanging out with my friends, I just did not do sleepovers. If I was at a sleepover I could not be with my parents or see them, and that was not okay. I never looked like a crazy, anxious girl, I just was. My heart was constantly pounding and I was always nervous about something. I used to love sleepovers and would go to my friends’ houses and spend the night all the time, but after Rotary something changed in my mind. I was so afraid that while I was away something would happen to my parents. I thought they would die and I would never be able to see them again. Of course, now I understand that this fear is irrational and that something could happen to them whether I am there or not, but at the time I did not see my fear that way. I was convinced that if I was not with my mom and dad, sleeping in the same house, something terrible would happen and I would be left alone. I could not deal with the thought of being left behind. I couldn’t deal with the thought of potentially losing my parents. My rationale was to always be with them, because then nothing could happen. I could function perfectly normally during the day, and went to my friends’ houses, school, and all activities as well, but something about the nighttime scared the life out of me. In the dark, anything could happen, and for me the things that could happen were horrible and were going to happen to the people I needed and loved the most. I was never afraid of myself dying, because if I were gone then I wouldn’t be left behind; it was only others dying and leaving me alone that scared me.
I think seventh and eighth grade are the years when everyone starts to watch scary movies. The Ring, The Grudge, The Amityville Horror, White Noise and The Exorcist of Emily Rose. I dumbly chose to participate in the Friday nights when my friends would get together in someone’s basement and cuddle up to watch these movies. I hated scary movies and had trouble falling asleep for weeks after I watched them, but I still continued to do so. Maybe I was trying to prove to myself I was braver than I thought, but I wasn’t. The night after I watched The Ring, I lost it. I was scared shitless. I was so afraid Samara was going to come out of the television and mutilate me like she had done to the people in the movie. I was scared the child in The Grudge would come sliding down my stairs and kill me. I was afraid the ghosts from Amityville Horror would find a way to my home and destroy my family and me. I sort of knew deep down that the likelihood of any one of these things happening was slim to none, but I couldn’t bring myself to be unafraid. I was afraid to sleep in my room: lights on, door open, it didn’t matter. No matter how many different things my parents and I tried, I was always afraid. I spent the majority of the nights sleeping with my sister and then with my parents. If I was with someone else, no matter who, I was safe and nothing could get me. My fear had turned from being afraid of my parents dying and leaving me alone, to me being killed by some anonymous creature that I had once seen in a dumb movie. I was becoming more and more scared of life every single day.
My fear got to the point where even during the day I refused to be alone. After school, before my dad came home from work, I would sit outside for hours waiting. Literally, it did not matter what season it was, the middle of summer or the dead of winter, I refused to go in my house alone. If I was alone in my house I would secure myself in one room and refuse to leave, and constantly call my mom to talk with her so I wouldn’t scare myself to death. I was thirteen years old and I was unable to sleep in my room alone, be home alone, or even be in a room alone. I was a mess.
My anxiety was always with me, it just came out more in certain situations that made me uncomfortable. I always had butterflies in my stomach. The butterflies were the equivalent to a stomach drop. That is what I always felt, like my stomach had just dropped out of my body and onto the floor. When I felt really worried or stressed, my head would be filled with so many crazy and irrational thoughts about all the most horrible things that could happen to me or my loved ones. My tears would flow like rivers and would not stop for hours. I could not make them stop, no matter how hard I wanted to stop crying. I couldn’t breathe. It became harder and harder to tell anyone how I was feeling as I got more and more anxious. I would get tense, like all my muscles were flexed at the same time, and I would shake. I would get the chills and my teeth would chatter. I would not be able to stop my body from shivering uncontrollably. My face would be red mess of puffy eyes and wet cheeks and I would rock my body back and forth begging anyone or anything to make the feelings go away
During my routine physical in seventh grade, my mom described my behavior to my doctor and some of the events that had occurred that were really concerning to her. My doctor suggested I see a counselor for my fears as a first attempt to relieve my worries and anxious tendencies. The therapist was situated in Salem, right near my mom’s office, and I met with him every Friday. To this day, I cannot remember his name; clearly he didn’t have much of an effect on me. Even this therapist could not understand where my fears were coming from. His simple mind made sense of my problem as a minor fear of the dark. His remedy for fixing this was to lock me in a pitch-black room in the basement of an ancient building. This was not abuse or anything, just his way of showing me that when I was alone in the dark nothing was going to happen. Obviously I knew that. It was daytime and he and my parents were outside the door. He also decided that part of the reason I was refusing to sleep in my room was because there were no consequences when I didn’t. So he began to take things away from me: my new jean skirt from Abercrombie, my iPod. He even tried to take my cell phone, but that’s where I drew the line. I wasn’t feeling any less nervous when I got into bed at night and I wasn’t feeling any better about being alone during the day. My mom and dad decided that this therapy was not working for me and we needed to try something else before my behavior got any worse.
In the eighth grade, after countless bribes, sleepless nights, tears, fights, screams and yells, my doctor decided the last resort to fix my fears was a prescription medication, Celexa. Celexa is used to treat anxiety disorder and depression, which have many of the same symptoms. Anxiety disorder is what I had. I guess it was good to have a name for it, but it’s not like my fears magically disappeared as soon as I took the pill. I still worried, still had trouble sleeping, still hated sleepovers. There was no light-bulb moment when I realized I had been acting insanely for the past years. I just took the pill and gradually was able to do more things. I took baby steps. Instead of sleeping in my sister’s room, I slept in my room and my dad stayed upstairs and watched television in the guest room until I was asleep. I slept over at my cousins’ homes, where I was very comfortable, and gradually began to stay over at my good friends’ houses too. I thought everything was getting better and that I was becoming a more normal kid, so once again when Michelle asked if I wanted to go to Camp Rotary with her for a week in August the summer before freshman year of high school, I accepted the invitation. As soon as I was signed up I began to regret my decision. Thinking of camp brought back all the awful memories I had of missing my parents and being so worried and nervous I was physically sick. I did not want to go, I could not go, there was no way I could do this. Even though my younger sister was going to be at camp the same week with me, I was worried sick. As the summer rolled on and camp got closer and closer, I worried more and more. I knew I would not be able to stay if I had the same feelings as last time. The night before camp I cried and cried and worried and shook with fear. The next morning as we packed up the car, I was convinced I was not going to stay. I was miserable, scared and distraught. How could camp make me feel this way? As we got closer and closer I got more and more anxious. I was shaking and clinging to my mother. I was not a baby or a toddler anymore, it was not normal to act this way.
I wish I could tell you that I got to camp and saw my friends and the peppy counselors and knew I wanted to stay, but that isn’t true. I refused to bring my belongings up to the cabin, and I refused to leave my mom. She was so angry and disappointed in me; I could see it in her eyes. They were trying to help settle my sister in, while I was standing there crying and telling them there was no way I was staying. I think they thought that once I got there I would make the decision to stay and be strong, but I knew there was no way that was going to happen. Once I had my mind made up about something there was no way to change it. I unmade the bed my mom had put together, gathered up my pillow and walked back to the car. I was leaving and there was nothing they could say to change my mind. On the way home, they cried and yelled. They could not understand how their fourteen-year old daughter could be so scared of something that should never cause a child fear. I think they were more scared of the fact that I might live the rest of my life like that. They wanted to see me succeed, and all I was doing was letting them down over and over again. I could see the pain in their eyes, but I could not make them understand how I felt. I did not even understand how I felt. I just felt like everything was falling down around me and covering me with problems and worries. I felt trapped in my body and my mind. I felt like I was in a cage and would never be able to get out.
Surprisingly enough, Michelle forgave me for leaving her at camp. She never really understood my problem, but I think she knew that it was something I couldn’t help. I was not purposely trying to leave her and make her mad. My actions were a direct result of the crazy tangled web of emotions and feelings buzzing around in my head. As we began freshman year of high school, we forgot about the Camp Rotary mishap and went on with our lives. We were both busy with cheerleading and schoolwork, and I barely had enough time to worry. After the Camp Rotary incident, my dosage of Celexa was raised and my feelings started to change. As I entered high school I became more and more mature. As I grew in my body, my anxieties and fears seemed to fall away. I was not cured, I was not perfect, but I was better. I slept in my own bed, went to sleepovers, and rarely worried about my parents dying or a creature coming to kill me. My life was better and I was better. I was never worry-free, I just worried less, and for that I was thankful. My life did not revolve around those butterflies always in my stomach and those irrational thoughts always racing through my mind.
During my sophomore year of high school I signed up to go to Europe for ten days on a school trip with lots of my friends. The trip would be taking us to Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. I was so excited to go on this trip, but clearly my parents were worried. They had been through me deciding at the last minute to not attend camp, and they had picked me up in the middle of the night during sleepovers. They had seen me cry and scream about how scared I was to be in my room alone, and had seen me beg to sleep with my sister. How could they not fear I would decide right before the trip that I was too scared to go? Of course, I worried a little as the trip became closer, but not enough to make me not want to go. I wanted this trip because I knew it was going to be the time of my life. I wanted to have fun and prove I was not that scared little girl anymore who ran from anything that made her jump. I packed, got to the airport, and said good-bye to my parents without a tear or worry. I flew on a plane to Europe with my friends and had the best consecutive ten days of my entire life. We saw the most amazing and beautiful places, and not once did I wish I was home with my family. Words cannot express how proud I was of myself. Words cannot express how proud my parents were of me when I got back. I had changed and it was only for the better.
And here I am today, telling you about my life and my anxiety, and I’m pretty sure most of you are doubting I am even talking about myself in this story, but I promise I am. I do not come off as anxious or worried. I know I seem carefree and obnoxious most of the time. I talk a lot, and always tell people exactly how I feel. I love to go out and I love to dance and I love Saint Michael’s. I think there are so many people in my life who doubted I would ever make it to this point. And most of the time I doubted myself too. I was stuck in a rut of fear and sadness and worries, and I could not get out. It took me so many tears and years to make it to where I am today. I have never been happier than here at Saint Michael’s, and if it wasn’t for my medicine and my doctor, well, I don’t really even want to know where I would be today.
When I look back on high school, my mind doesn’t fill with images of my parents sobbing or me running from something. I see my cheerleading team excelling at various competitions, I see first love, and I see college acceptance letters. When I look back now, I can smile on the more recent years of my life, rather than wish they were different. I have learned through all of this that being worried and fearful is not a way to live. I have to be able to push past my emotions and see the hope and faith that I know is somewhere inside me. I’m no miracle and I’m far from perfect, but I am better and I am happy, and that is all I can ask for. You see, for such a long time I let my anxiety define who I was. I let my friends talk about how I was too scared to sleep over, and my family say I was too worried to sleep alone. I let my life revolve around my anxiety and I got so wrapped up in being fearful of what would happen that I never lived through any of the good moments. When I look back now, most of the times I remember are times that I was uncontrollably fearful of what would occur to my family or me. I wish I could say that the good times overpowered the bad ones, but they didn’t. The bad memories are the ones that have stuck with me, and I don’t want anymore of those. I want to be able to look back on my life and think I actually lived. I had fun, I experienced the world, and I learned a lot. I think I’m beginning to do just that.
My anxiety has helped me grow as a young woman, and although I cannot say I am thankful for the events I went through, I know they made me stronger. I do not have a bad life; I do not have a perfect life. But I have a life that I live every single day. I have a life that I am thankful for, and I want to live that life for a long time without fears overpowering me. I’m not the girl that fears sleep and death. I’m just Emily, the girl that got voted “most talkative” in high school, the girl who laughs a lot and talks really loud. My life is on a better path than I ever imagined possible. I’m out of that rut and I’m never looking back, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.