I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood. Not all of it even, maybe parts of primary school? I don’t know, everything feels vast? Oceanic? I don’t know. I can’t find the word I’m looking for. But these two remind me of boundlessly expansive things and I guess that’s the image I’m trying to conjure. But not expansive in an endless possibility sort of way—it’s more like a terrifying endlessness. Like the ocean, or space, everything could just keep stretching and I would never be able to grasp, let alone hold it. Isn’t that how you feel when you’re a child? I’m trying to go back to when I used to feel like that hoping there’ll be insights.
I keep going back to this morning when I was twelve. I got to school at around 5.40 in the morning and there was this huge dude at the back of the class. He looked like a literal giant to me. I mean, obviously I know now that he couldn’t have been that big, but that’s kind of my point. Everything that’s unfamiliar looks so huge when you’re a child. Anyway, he was transferring to our school, he was going to be a classmate, etc. The reason I keep going back to that moment is I’m trying to work out one of the first moments I experienced emotional and mental exhaustion as a physical heaviness simply too huge for my tiny hands. Because I think I become aware of my anxiety around that time. It was mostly internal terror—an endless screech in my brain. Obviously, I was worried about my schoolwork but also it was about my place in the world, in my home, in myself. I was growing up and I was panicking and I didn’t know what to do. And I guess I just transferred all of those feelings into this giant that I apparently had to compete with for first place. He felt like a physical displacement. I was becoming aware that life is formless and haphazard and terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to hold my ground.
I don’t know how I got over it. Maybe an exam or two affirmed my “intelligence” and I didn’t have to worry about him so much. Or maybe I just got used everything being so uncertain. But it’s the year I discovered crying as catharsis. Up until that moment, I thought of crying as something you do when you’re in physical pain. But I do remember being on my lunch break, catching up on my assignments and maybe needing to sharpen a pencil and going behind the door and maybe the pencil fell down and just getting weirdly emotional about that. You know when you’ve had a shit day and you get home and you drop your keys when you’re trying to open the door and it just sets you off? That. I just remember feeling like I couldn’t physically handle picking up the pencil from the floor and so I slid into the corner between the door and the wall and I just wept. And it became something I did to steel myself for the rest of the day. If I felt myself wavering, I hid my face in my lap and just got it out of my system.
My first burn out was at thirteen. My primary school was rough in ways I can’t even get into right now. About two months to the national exams, I got to the end of an exam day, slumped on the grass and run out of ways to tell my friend I had nothing left to give. So I just lay there and quietly cried until I had to walk home. I didn’t go to school for a few days because some medical personnel diagnosed my chest pains and fatigue and shivering as pneumonia. And so began the weekly bouts of “pneumonia” until I couldn’t handle my homework, or show up to school on time, or participate in class, or have a conversation with my friend without getting choked up. My parents freaked out. The deputy headmaster showed up at my house “needing to talk things through” with my father and I just sat there watching their lips moving and not knowing how to tell them I was in a kind of pain I couldn’t understand. My father is really tall and the deputy principal was quite big. At one point, I thought that maybe if I can handle these big people, if I could just sit straight and not disintegrate then I could unlock whatever reserves of strength I had left. I suppose in the end, I got just enough rest to scrap through the national exams.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like that again. A few months ago I was talking to my friend and I was telling her I was feeling burnt out and it felt wrong? Like what reason do I have to be burnt out? I have basically been on bed rest for like two years. And also I thought I was okay. Like things were looking up and I was coming out of survival mode. And they are, and I am, but also I had moments where I would worry—am I incredibly well adjusted or am I just not in touch with myself? Turns out it’s the latter. To be fair, I am fairly well-adjusted, given everything I’ve survived but also, I’m a little traumatised I guess.
I’ve been trying so hard not to think of serving cancer as a traumatic affair because it feels ungrateful? Like, you survived, what’s this melodrama for?
But also, the body keeps score and I’m losing.
A couple moths ago, I showed up to my prosthodontist’s office looking hella pitiful. I didn’t realise I looked it but also, I’d been crying before(birthday blues), I was frustrated about a procedure I needed to get done, my wrist was fucking me up(I was wearing a wrist brace), my jaw was fucking me up(I could barely open my mouth at the doctor’s office) and all I wanted was to be lying still in a dark, silent room. Anyway, he ended up subtly suggesting that I should see a therapist just to “work through some feelings.” Maybe it’s because he’s a prosthodontist—like just look in my mouth, you know? What are you recommending therapists for? But mostly, it was the realisation that people can see me—that it can be obvious to people when you’re not okay; that he could tell that I wasn’t okay when even I didn’t know. I thought I was well adjusted(calmer, not overthinking, content, maybe even a little excited about the future.) I thought surviving cancer had sort of cured my predilection for anxiety, that I’d acquired a different perspective, etc. I thought I was just having a bad day as everyone does. I thought my main problem was that I was hyper-focussing on my physical pain. Turns out I was just dissociating. That those many moments I turned to my cousin and said, “I don’t feel like I think anymore…my brain feels so blank.” I was actually onto something.
I want to say something meaningful here, but I’m in the thick of it and I’m having a hard time identifying feelings; separating my internal world and fantasies from reality. So I’m going to focus on what I know for sure.
I know I’ll be okay. I know I am safe. That I am loved. That as much as I hate to be, I am resilient.
The worst is over. It doesn’t feel that way yet, hence this wahalla, but that is a fact. I was having a conversation about this with my cousins and they did this brilliant thing of getting me to catch and rewrite my internal monologue. So I went from, “I don’t feel alive” to “I don’t feel like I have what is takes to be alive” to “I think parts of me died” to “yes, of course I’m grieving and that’s fine.” I’m still sad as fuck in the end, but I am aware of myself.
So of course there is mostly a nothingness. An endless bottoming out. An absence I can reach out and touch and sometimes I catch myself staring at my hands because maybe if I can imprint the sense of touch into my mind, I will remember what’s it’s like to hold onto myself. I miss myself, or rather, the girl I used to be before everything went to shit. I don’t know that I want her back, because I think I’ve done a decent job of stuffing my soul into the bag of skin she left but sometimes I just want her to show me what to do. And I’m trying to be gentle and not get angry at myself for floundering but sometimes I get really angry that she just went and died on me. Like, she has things that I need to get through life and I don’t know how to get them back. And I don’t think it’s fair that she gets to keep those parts. Because those things belong to me too. And I feel like I’m haunting myself but I guess I’m just guilty and really sorry that my survival sucked the life out of her.
So there’s that—harrowing grief that stretches and swallows me whole. I feel really small in the face of it and I’m running out of emotional real estate to house it. But there’s also progress. Sometimes I think of a pun and it makes me laugh so hard, my teeth hurt. Sometimes I catch myself talking to myself, and it feels like I’m high-fiving myself, you know? Everyday I catch glimpses of myself and it reminds me that I’m here; that I am present; that I am getting back to myself.
I am a goddamn genius. I have lost track of so much time(like days on days) but the stories I have written?! The upside of getting so caught up in my internal world is that the kind of fiction that I’m writing?! The worlds I am building? Chef’s kiss. I can’t wait for you guys to experience my brilliance.
Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash
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