There is no thought quite as unsettling as the one Rosalie entertained as she entered young adulthood. A time of strife and uncertainty, indeed. College, work, relationships, but her mind came again and again right back to the same thought. Perception is reality.
How could a person be certain that the outside world exists when all we experience is filtered in through our senses? What we see is only our brain's interpretation of varying patterns of light. What we hear, only vibrations through the air. How, then, can we be so sure of our surroundings and in turn, our lives? It would be foolish to assume our bodies never make mistakes.
But maybe this is the wrong place to begin her tale. Let us go back to the beginning, and hear what she has to say about how her life changed forever.
The day I came home was the most humiliating day of my life. Sedated by Ativan and soured by defeat, that two hour car ride did nothing but prove to me that I was unfit to live a normal life. 'There's something wrong with me, I'm sick, I'm broken.' Negative self-talk took over my mind. Before I knew it, 'I'm not good enough' turned into 'I'll never be good enough'. Mental illness became terminal, something I could never overcome. Anxiety is one of the most common mental issues in America, but suddenly I was more alone than I had ever been before in my life.
How could I even begin to explain to my friends? They knew there was shit I was dealing with, but they had no idea the extent. Why would I want to admit my weakness to anyone, admit that I was incapable to deal? I sent out a single mass text to the few people I thought would care. The responses were exactly what I expected—forced sympathy covering a total lack of understanding. But how could they understand? I never let them in.
College is supposed to be this amazing experience. You move away from home, you make new friends, you learn to live by yourself. Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety. It's hard for anyone to be away from what they're used to. Naturally, I couldn't be like everyone else. I had to have a full-blown meltdown.
It's pathetic how short I lasted, actually. I moved in on Saturday morning, out on Sunday afternoon. The hours in between were filled with me crying, shaking, and popping the aforementioned Ativan, praying for it to kick in. The other girls tried to comfort me, hugging me and saying it only gets easier. Logically, I knew it would only get easier. Of course I'm nervous about leaving home; I've never done it before! But my gut couldn't accept the logic and calm itself down. It was too busy ruining my life. All I wanted was for breathing to get easier before I hyperventilated myself to unconsciousness.
Alma was my dream school. Small, focused on the arts, it was perfect. The campus felt like I could truly be at home there. I made the color guard and visited campus multiple times over the summer for practices, and I loved it. Spinning flags at a college level challenged me in the most exciting way possible. I learned so much, and the other guard girls were some of the nicest, coolest girls I've ever met. Kim, one of the seniors, and Christina, a junior, adopted me and took me under their wings. I know if I would have stayed, these girls would have become some of the best friends I would ever have in my life. These would be the college friends I invite to my wedding and meet up with every year in a big reunion lovefest. But I gave it all up.
Looking back, I know it wasn't really my choice. If I couldn't survive the first two days without drugging myself, how could I survive the first week? Month? Would I need to rely on my Ativan indefinitely just to stay at Alma? Surely my small prescription, to be used in emergency, would have dissipated after the first few days. It wouldn't have been good for me at all. Coming home was the only option.
The day I came home changed my life forever. After that day, I could never go back to the future I had always imagined. There would be no sororities for me, no college color guard, no bad cafeteria food. No pulling all-nighters in the library, no French classes, no making best friends with my roommate. No switching majors six times, no graduation ceremony, no alumni gatherings. No Homecoming games, no class reunions, no license plate proudly proclaiming my alliances. No close ties with professors, no recommendations to graduate programs. No pride in myself.
It's not like I wouldn't go to A college, I just wouldn't go to THE college. Plus, my anxiety was tied to being far from home. All the colleges nearby my home kind-of suck. I have my choice between a career school with a bad reputation or a community college referred to as "Thirteenth Grade" because of the mass of kids from my high school that went there. Going from graduating high school in the top ten percent of my class to going to colleges that are.. well, are a bit of a joke. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
I needed to make a decision as quickly as I possibly could. I could attend the community college for a year and then transfer. Or I could go to the career school, where my mother worked, and get my Bachelors for cheap. I decided on the career school, partly because it gave me a month to recover before trying again.
That month was one of the most challenging I had ever faced. How do you cope after learning you can't cope with the next logical step in your life? Most of it, I holed myself up in my room and tried to ignore my hurt, to do anything I could to distract myself. Some of the time, this worked. I could watch movies or read stories that allowed me to escape the hell my mind was putting me through. But this was only sometimes.
Other times, I found myself utterly consumed. My bed was my prison. I'd lay, muscles paralyzed, as I'd bawl and bawl into my pillow, blankets clutched to my chest. I couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't think anything besides "Where do I go from here?". I'd stare at the pale expanse of my wrist and wonder how deep I'd need to cut until I couldn't be brought back from the precipice. I'd take my bottle of Ativan in one hand and my bottle of Cymbalta in the other and imagine how many I'd need to swallow to just shut off all the hatred I had for myself.
Nothing could reliably bring me out of these funks. They would go just as randomly as they came, shaking me in and out of the darkest depression imaginable. When I was in the throes, all I could do was hold and wait for nature to spit me back out again on the other side.
One of my mother's stipulations to me coming home was that I had to attend therapy again. I had tried it before, but it just didn't seem to help, so I stopped. The morning after coming home again, I called my old counselor to set up an appointment. The call left the bitterest taste in my mouth. The only name I could give it is shame with a dash of defeat.
I didn't want to tell someone I barely knew all about my life. In a way, I still don't. How can you describe such guttural, convoluted pain? There aren't words. You can't explain how dark you're feeling until light starts to sink in.
Sure, sometimes I feel alright. Some days I am totally in control. I can smile at strangers, hum under my breath, breathe easily. I feel on top of the world, like maybe I can live a normal life. No fears grip me, no thoughts of suicide cross my mind. Security, liberty, love, these things are all within my grasp and nothing can take them from me.
It's days like that where I can begin to assign words to my darker days. It's a slow beginning, but I can't deny it. A few close friends know more than just the surface level of how I feel about the Alma debacle, which is saying something. I can hardly explain to myself what I experience during an attack whilst in its midst. I guess that's not much of a shock though.
Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing people post online about their colleges. I read about my friends making new friends, growing up, and have a normal life… a life that I can never have. I lost my chance. It's too late. I can never go back to having that possibility, and it destroys me.
It's almost worst when people try to be considerate about it. I have friends who tip-toe around telling me about their new college experiences. Yes, I appreciate the concern and consideration, but you avoiding my gaze just makes things worse. It's like a public declaration that you know I wasn't strong enough to do what you do. Why can't we just pretend I'm no different, that I'm no less than what you are? That way I can avoid thinking about my failures.
All that brings us to today. The light is slowly but surely sinking in, leaving me coated in twilight. I still can't quite fathom what grips my mind when things become dark again. Maybe I never will. But that doesn't mean I won't try. The day I stop trying is the day I give in to the demons. That is a day I never want to see.
This novel is my attempt to understand what happened to me, what is happening now, and maybe to learn how to cope with what will happen. I know this can't possibly be the end of my journey with anxiety. Oh, if only it were! I hope and pray that, one day, I'll find the end of the road, but I know I'm far from it. There's no way it could be that easy.
This introduction is getting a bit redundant, huh? I suppose I should get to the actual story. I don't know though, it's definitely interesting for me to write all this down. It makes it all seem much clearer, if you know what I mean. Rarely have I admitted how deeply hurt I really am by all the last few weeks has given. It takes a weight off my chest to know that now it's out in the open.
I've been told I should explain how this story comes to you. I won't be the author for much longer. The true author will be transcribing what I have been through, giving it a more literary turn. I'm really not much for storytelling, if you haven't figured that out for yourself yet. Plus, listening to the whole story in my rambling first person would get really really irritating.
I hope my story can make you think. That's the only reason why I'm sharing it. I hope you learn something about how big this wide, wide world really is.
Now that that's out in the open, I think we can start now. Wish me luck, and here we go.
The hallways between classes were packed. The mix of students surprised her. There were girls her age, middle-aged women carrying leftover baby weight, men with big white beards. Most of them seemed to be either black or white, but coming from the homogenous town she did, the blend was new. She wasn't sure how to feel. This was nothing like the expected. Another shock? The amount of people who pulled wheeled backpacks behind them. She had always carried a certain amount of contempt for wheeled backpacks, for reasons unbeknownst to even her. They were just unnatural. Backpacks are meant for the back, or else it wouldn't be in its title.
Her classes passed quicker than she had thought they would. They seemed easy enough. Half of them were Human Service classes, which was her major, so at least they weren't entirely boring and pointless.
But Rosalie dreaded going home after class. She had decided to attempt to live on campus, only twenty minutes away from home, but her roommates weren't exactly what she was hoping for. To be exact, the three girls were immature, lazy, cigarette-smoking slackers. Simply being in the same house as them gave her an intense stomach ache. She just couldn't cope with the smell of burnt tobacco, or the stench emitted by the stacks of dirty dishes piled up in both sides of the sink. Instead, she went to the library and sat down with her books.
Six hours later, she felt her stomach growl. Piles upon piles of notes lay stacked in front of her, weeks of classwork done in just one afternoon. She rubbed her forehead and chuckled, amused by her own antics as she gathered her things and caught the bus for home.
That night as she lay in bed, she felt her muscles seize once more. Her throat began to spasm shut as tears soaked her pillowcase. 'Why me, why here, why this? Just why?' Luckily her roommate was out of their shared bedroom at the time, so she just rode the panic attack out as best she could. Night turned into day turned into night again. Her mind just wouldn't quit.
So she started to walk. All hours of the night, she would wander 'round and 'round the neighborhood, her shadow her only friend. The harsh streetlights protected her from harm. Shouts from other, more outgoing teenagers filled the streets at night and could occasionally distract her from the cruel cycle of self-doubt she found herself stuck in.
And she heard the whispers. When she'd walk past a group, they'd say to each other, "Do you see her? There she goes! The ghost, it's the ghost." No one ever believed she was real. Some days, she didn't even believe it.
During the day, she would go to class, go to the library and then come home. Often some poster about a book club or a blood drive would catch her eye, but she just couldn't bring herself to attend. It was too much too soon to her, and so she poured herself into her studies.
Weeks passed to the tune of pages flipping and steps across the concrete. Nothing seemed to make her feel alive, coping seemed beyond her reach as she plunged deeper and deeper into midnight black. Her grades were impeccable. Her heart was broken.
Okay, okay, okay. I understand that this part of the story is depressing and stuff. But really, author? "Her grades were impeccable, her heart was broken?" How melodramatic! If the girl who lived through it thinks it sounds like crap, it definitely does.
Here's how I remember it, author.
…okay, now that I think about it, you had it just about right. I read, I slept, I walked. But can we please, please, PLEASE get on to the fun parts now? I'm begging you! I don't think the readers care to imagine any more of my moping.
After those weeks of "moping", something strange began to happen to her. As darkness began to fall earlier and earlier and her walks grew ever longer, her eyes began to play tricks on her. First, it was simply a shadow that appeared behind where no person stood. It seemed to follow her on her strolls, keeping the solitary girl company on the crisp fall nights. She marked it off as a side effect of her self-imposed sleep deprivation and chose to ignore it.
From there, things only grew stranger. The shadow grew more and more well-defined, taking a distinctly human shape. She could never quite see it straight on, but just outside her periphery, there it was. It was a he, if she ventured to guess. He appeared to have the more rectangular shape of a man, broad shoulders and all. He kept his stride short, so that he was always just behind her. Countless times, she whipped her head around in hopes of seeing him, but he wouldn't allow it. He would just follow, follow her wherever she might wander.
Then came the voice. At first, she thought it was just the wind shaking the trees, causing the dry autumn leaves to crackle against each other. Or maybe some of the other kids were playing a trick on her? Her usual ability to trivialize and ignore the unexplainable couldn't alleviate her apprehension. Everywhere she went, the voice could find her. It whispered her name, letting its tone caress each syllable. "Ros… a... lie…"
Finally, a mile and a half from home one night, she snapped. She could no longer pretend that there wasn't some entity following her. "Who are you?" she shouted.
Its only response was a whisper, softer than any she had heard thus far. "Follow..." it said, as the wind changed directions completely.
"Follow what? Why should I follow you?"
The wind blew a trail of leaves past her and down a forgotten dirt road. "Follow…"
Should she follow? What would happen if she did? More importantly, would she ever get to the bottom of her recent strange experiences if she didn't? Something about this voice reached down deep into her bones. Before she could regret her decision, she made up her mind and turned down that forgotten dirt road.