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“Can you tell me why you felt that way?”
“Was there an event? Something that triggered the attack?”
“Jennifer, I really need you to work with me. These anxiety attacks aren’t getting any better, and-”
“I don’t know what sets them off. I don’t. I’m fine one minute, and the next my head’s in the toilet.” I’m exasperated. I’m tired of talking. I should start keeping a diary.
Doctor Cooley, or David as I call him, let a smile break through his professionally objective expression. That smile would probably annoy most in my position. Instead it’s comforting, and I smile, too, “Listen, I’m telling you all I know. Sometimes I just get crazy.”
“You’re not crazy, Jennifer. You’re just nineteen.”
“What’s the difference?”
This time he laughs, and I laugh with him. The thing is, I really like David. He’s great company, and talking at him the past year has done wonders. But he’s wrong. I am crazy. I may not hear voices, I may not plan to kill myself, and I may not see people and objects that aren’t there, but I am crazy. I am.
“Okay, okay. We only have a few minutes left. Are you sure there’s nothing you want to tell me?” I want to tell him everything. I want to tell him how one sour look from someone I don’t even know makes me want to hide. I want to tell him every time my best friend doesn’t pick up her phone, I sleep for three hours. I want to tell him every time my boyfriend shows even the slightest bit of exasperation, I want to bury my head in the toilet and heave out everything I can. But I can’t say any of this.
“Nope. Nothing,” I give him my most innocent and charming grin, “Thanks, David. You’re the best.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
My name is Jennifer Hart, and I suffer from acute anxiety. It doesn’t sound that bad, I know. It sounds like it should be a mild inconvenience like a crick in your neck or a pollen allergy. But a crick eventually gives up, and pollen goes away after spring. Anxiety, on the other hand, is like a disease that slowly ruins your perception of reality and forces you to do and think things that don’t appear to make any sense to the people around you for the rest of your life. It chews you up and swallows you, then leaves you alone long enough to think it’s gone. You let yourself believe you’re safe and normal. But then your mom comments on a shirt that fits you too tightly, or your boyfriend smiles at another girl, and off it goes! You’re crazy again. I’m crazy again. I’m always crazy.
“Where are you coming back from? It’s pretty early for you to be up.”
Thanks. “I was at counseling.”
“Oh, that’s right. How was it?”
“Great! He’s such a goof.”
Darcy, my roommate, offers a tired smile. She doesn’t sleep. Never. Well, not never, but rarely. She has too much work to do to even conceptualize sleep.
“Well, I guess I should get started on some work,” I say, as Darcy struggles to keep her eyes focused on me.
“But it’s Friday, you shouldn’t have to worry about work. Go back to sleep,” Darcy yawns.
The thing is, I’m always sleeping when Darcy is awake. I usually sleep in on weekends, and I go to sleep before she does when I’m not sleeping at my boyfriend’s dorm, so I’m constantly feeling lazy.
“No, no, I’ve got a lot to do this weekend,” I insist and lie, “Plus, we have to set up for our party tonight.”
Darcy must look up at me since she’s sprawled out on the floor working on three different courses at once, “Shit! That’s tonight?” She hits her head in frustration and collapses forward in defeat, “I’m never going to get any work done, am I?” she groans.
I kneel down and prepare to take on my role as best friend and roommate, “Darcy, listen, you always get your work done. There has never been a time when you’ve actually just failed,” I say, truthfully.
She looks up at me, the whites of her eyes overpowered by the redness of sleep-depravation, “If I take a nap, could you wake me up in twenty?” I nod, and she drags herself over to bed.
Darcy never gives me any trouble. I love her. We never fight, we never have disagreements, and we never have to be passive-aggressive with each other. She may be the only person on Earth who doesn’t trigger my anxiety. Who doesn’t make me run to my Xanex bottle. Who doesn’t make me puke everything I eat. Then again, she has issues of her own. The girl is a blonde bombshell, and she treats herself like troll. Guys literally drool as she struts by, and sometimes that makes her feel better. But some days she can’t even notice it. Some days she locks herself away where no one can see her. Some days I worry. But she always bounces back pretty immediately. I, on the other hand, am weak.
“Stop freaking out. There’s nothing to freak out about,” Adam, my boyfriend, says, trying to soothe me. I can’t stand it when he says my fears are “nothing to freak out about.” I want to punch him in the face. I have a very legitimate reason to be nervous about this party! I just can’t articulate, is all.
“That isn’t fair,” I argue, keeping my voice steady.
“What? What are you so scared of?”
I can feel the exasperation drip from his skin, his mouth, his eyes. His arm is wrapped around me, but I can feel it slacken. I know he’d much rather be doing his homework than calming me down from my overreactions. But that leaves me in a bind. If I say “don’t worry about it” and walk out the room, he’ll get worried and even more exasperated, because I’ll be acting like a drama queen. But if I stay, like I’m planning to, he’ll just be fidgeting to get rid of me. We both hate it when I’m in this mood.
“I’m afraid of people, babe. I’m afraid of all the drunk people I don’t know spending their drunken time in what’s supposed to be mine,” I complain and rest my head on his shoulder. We’re sitting on his bed, and all I really want to do is lie down on it and sleep. I always want to sleep.
Adam sighs, “Then why did you agree to the party?”
“Because everyone else wanted it!” I whine into his chest.
“So you’re ignoring your own mental health in order to please everyone else? That’s great.”
“Stop it! Stop villainizing me! What would you do?”
I look up to see his blue-green eyes soften, “I would do exactly the same thing.” He smiles with one corner of his mouth and leans down to kiss my forehead.
I leave after that, since I know he has almost as much work to do as Darcy. Sometimes I feel like the laziest, most selfish person alive. Or maybe I just manage my time better than the two of them. One can hope. Anyway, Adam and I love each other. We do. We just also get tired of each other’s issues sometimes. His manic-depressive episodes are enough to depress me for a week. My over-emotional, hypersensitive, and anxious personality drives him crazy, especially when there’s nothing he can do about it. Except when he causes it. Then he knows he just has to kiss me or tell me I’m beautiful or have sex with me. Or all of the above. I hate being away from him. I hate not being a part of his life always. I hate living on the other side of campus from him. I hate when I need him more than he needs me… which is all the time. I hate when he thinks my issues are his fault. I hate how he has absolutely no confidence in himself. But I love him. I love him for so much more than I could possibly hate him for.
“Everyone is drunk,” I mumble, feeling my stomach knot up and my head getting heavier.
“Well, yeah. It’s a party,” Adam elbows me in the side playfully, but I shrug him off with a frown.
Immediately I wish I hadn’t done that. Adam’s jovial expression turned dark and sad, and I wish I could say “just kidding!” and erase what just happened. But I can’t. I can’t bring myself to re-do that moment. Because of that gesture, he’ll have to think I’m going to be pissy for the rest of the night. It’s this thing that happens to me. I’m afraid to suddenly change moods, because it throws people off. It makes them skeptical of you as a person. I can’t do it. I’ve established my mood, and I have to stick with it.
“I’m sorry,” I say, leaning back into Adam, “I’m just surrounded by drunkenness.”
He nods in time with the pumping music, “I know, Snow-pea,” he says into my ear, leaning his head against mine. That’s when I notice the drink in his hand. I jerk my head up and look directly at him, hoping my glare sends the right message.
“What?” he asks, confused, “What did I do?”
“Nice drink,” I scoff and brush past him to get to my room.
“Snow-pea!” I hear him call, but I don’t turn around. He follows me quickly and catches up. I feel his fingers curl around my forearm, and I stop.
“I’m sorry, okay?” he says as I check his voice for slurs, “It’s a party. Everyone gets drunk. But I don’t have to. I can give this to someone else.” He smiles and flashes me his teeth. I love his smile. I want his lips on mine. I want to sink into him and let everything go. But I don’t. I do the opposite.
“That’s not the point, Adam!” I snap, keeping my eyes as cold as possible, “You’re drinking right now when all day you know I was anxious about being around drunk people!” I yank my arm free, and walk up the stairs of my on-campus apartment to retreat into my room.
“Jennifer, where are you going?” he screams over the music.
“Xanex,” I spit at him.
But I don’t go to get Xanex. I don’t go to get Darcy to calm me down. I don’t call my family to soothe me. I make a beeline for the bathroom. My toothbrush is a reliable green, long enough to reach the back corners of my mouth where food often gets caught. The handle is sturdy and the bristles are strong. I lock myself in, grab my toothbrush, and stick it as far down my throat as possible. I hate myself (gag), I hate the way I act (gag), I hate my anxiety (gag), I hate how I can’t just be a good person (gag), I hate what I do to Adam (gag), I hate that this is how I deal with my problems. Then I puke. Then I puke again. Again. Again. I ate a big dinner, and then a snack before the party. It’s all floating in a gray-red swirl in the toilet water. I let it sit, letting the tangy, acidic smell alleviate my anxiety. I know I’m safe. I’m safe when my stomach is on the outside.
“JENNIFER!” Everything is black, but I hear my name, “JENNIFER HART! OPEN THE DOOR!” I can’t fight the blackness seeping into my eyesight. It’s so safe and inviting. I just want the darkness to stay and caress my nerves. I love it. I love the darkness.
“Shit!” I can identify it as a female’s voice. A female who is apparently very worried about me. I want to tell her that it’s okay, and that my friend Darkness will take care of me.
“Someone get Adam. Someone get Adam NOW!” I hear her scream over the thumping base. I am floating.
“Jennifer. Jennifer, can you hear me?” A male voice. A lovely male voice. I want to see him.
“Her eyes are flickering, she’s okay. Jennifer? Jennifer, can you please look at me?” It’s cold now. F***ing freezing. I moan out and start to shiver. Darkness is departing and all I’m left with is a burning taste in my mouth. I finally open my eyes, and I see darkness again, but this time it is littered with stars.
“Oh my God, Jennifer!” The male voice calls out, and as he hugs me close, I can smell that it’s Adam. Darcy is kneeling on the other side of me, tears streaking her face.
“You b****,” she mumbles, “What the f*** were you thinking?” Somewhere far away I can hear sirens.
“I just…” I start, but I can’t finish. I can’t tell them why. Honestly, I’m not sure I know why. I’m not sure why I have to empty my stomach into the toilet. I’m not sure why I have to make everything harder on myself and the people I love. I don’t know why I do it.
“I’m crazy,” I croak, and then more Darkness.
I’m in the hospital. I hear the hustle and bustle of dying patients and expensive doctors. Adam and Darcy are sitting in chairs in the corner of my room, both asleep and leaning on each other. I smile. Maybe I do this to test their love. Maybe I’m desperate for them to always love me, and when they don’t show it enough, I go crazy. I doubt it, but it does feel good to see them both here. Adam was the first to blink away sleep. He stretched out his arms and legs and yawned. Then his eyes locked onto mine.
“You’re awake,” he says drowsily.
“I am,” I nod.
“Are you okay?”
I shrug, “I guess so.”
His eyes are sad and his breath smells of beer, “I don’t understand why you do this, Jennifer,” he sighs and grabs my hand tightly.
“Honestly, babe,” I say as he looks intently at our entwined fingers, “I wish I had an answer for you.” And then he starts to cry.
“Can you tell me why you’ve started vomiting?”
“Was there something that triggered this need? An event?”
“Jennifer, puking your feelings is serious. And life-threatening.”
“I really don’t think you do.”
I look at David and smile, “I told you. I’m crazy.”
“Why didn’t you take your Xanex?”
I think about it, “Puking is more effective.”
I can tell he’s starting to get frustrated with me.
“I need you to take your Xanex. Please.”
That was the first time David ever needed to beg me to do anything. I was one of his better patients. I know because he told me. I was one of the ones he rarely had to worry about. I was just Jennifer: cute, fun-loving, and a tad hyperactive. But I’m also crazy. I think this is when he started to realize it. The party is when Adam and Darcy realized it. My relationship with them will never be the same. They will never stop walking on eggshells around me. They will never stop treating me like a porcelain doll. And this realization makes me feel even crazier, and I know I will act even crazier. It’s the cycle. The cycle of anxiety. Next time, the darkness may take me for good. I hope not. I like living. I like the days when I’m normal Jennifer. When I’m happy and care-free, and when Adam and I don’t fight, and when Darcy and I go out to the mall. But I wonder if the dark days are worth it to them. I wonder if they can still bear to stick by me. Maybe not. But what can they do? Leaving me means I’m more their responsibility than ever. I need a bathroom.
“David, could I use the restroom?”
He eyes me warily, but nods, “Sure.”
I smile and get up from the leather couch and walk outside to the bathroom. I pull my toothbrush from its hiding place in my pocket and look at it through teary eyes. I will never stop. I am crazy. I open the bathroom door, walk in, and shut the door behind me. Too bad I’m the only one who can save me.