This story is by Mackenzie McMillen and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A deluge of rain slams against the waiting room windows and mirrors my own pounding headache. The constant downpour doesn’t allow for single droplets to form and slither down the glass, so I can’t create a fictional race between streams in my mind. Instead, I’m forced to shift my focus between ripples in parking lot puddles and my own, sad reflection. It looks incomplete, like there should be jail-bars within the irises. I have contemplated going through with therapy ever since I booked the appointment. For the first time in my life, I have the opportunity to speak with a trained psychologist about my anxiety. I know I need professional help. At least, I hope I do. If I don’t, then there’s nothing wrong with me and living in a state of constant dread is normal. Feeling like this shouldn’t be normal. The storm has trapped me in the building for now, but I have been bound inside my mind for a decade. All I want is to be free from myself. Well, not myself, but my butterflies.
I’ve had butterflies in my stomach for as long as I remember. They’re at a constant flutter, varying their flight patterns so I’m never desensitized. If I answer a question in class, they swerve up my esophagus in an escape attempt. When I try to talk to strangers, they shove against the side of my stomach to shoo me away. Every time I leave the house, they mold themselves into lead and weigh me down. Sometimes, when I’m forced into an extrovert’s world, they turn into wasps and sting me until I’m numb. My butterflies are wardens to my bodily prison. So far, they are indestructible. Therapy is my last hope for their extermination.
A lightning strike in the distance followed by a crash of thunder serves as my breaking point. Therapy was a bad idea. I should run – let the rain drown me and my butterflies consume my decaying flesh. In an instant, I’m on my feet and heading towards the exit.
I stop in my tracks and glance behind me. A woman holds the inner door open and peers out into the waiting room to search for recognition in someone’s face. It’s my face she’s looking for, she just doesn’t know it. Half of my butterflies edge me on towards physical freedom, the others drift towards the promise of mental relief. I’m always forced to choose between two options that are equally intimidating. It’s exhausting. My hands shake as I shove them into my jacket pockets and slowly turn to face the woman.
“That’s me.” Phlegm deepens my voice, and I try to clear it away as quietly as possible as to not disturb the others waiting for their own mental reprieve. She motions for me to come forward and through the door. One step feels like a thousand as the waiting room turns into a hallway, then a small office. Now, the exit is three doors away. I’m that much farther from escaping. Once we are seated, the woman doesn’t wait for me to settle into the new space. She introduces herself as Jennifer, acknowledges my Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and jumps right in.
“What would a cure mean for you?”
I don’t hesitate.
“A life without butterflies.”
My answer sends my butterflies into a frenzy. I can feel them squirm their way into my bloodstream, cluster around my heart and block its beating. Their message is loud and clear: if they go down, they’re taking me down with them. I don’t doubt they have countless ways to make that happen. They don’t like the idea of leaving me to fend for myself. To them, they are a necessary security measure to keep the bad away. To me, they are the newbie guard who panics when a mouse scurries across the opposite side of a room. I’m over it. I would fire them, but I’m not the boss of them. They’re the boss of me.
If they would set me free, I could finally compliment and accept admiration from others. I could make new friends. People walking around me wouldn’t morph into aliens or laugh at me from the shadows. They would just be people. No one would be looming around the corner grasping a knife and waiting to cut a piece of my heart out as a souvenir. I could sleep through the night, change my style, even find a boyfriend. Nineteen years is a long time to be single, it’s incredibly embarrassing. My butterflies whisper sweet nothings in my ear, all about how I belong to them. They won’t let me believe in anyone else’s love. Without them, I wouldn’t be alone. The options without my butterflies are limitless.
But, so are the consequences. I’ve never been hurt by others so long as I had my butterflies. Last time they gave me freedom, my best friends made me feel less than worthless and left me to claw my way out of my own grave. I’m sure my butterflies would have told me the girls had never liked me throughout the four years we’d known each other. That way it wouldn’t have been such a shock when they said it themselves right after graduation. My heart has never been stolen and crushed by a man. I have complete trust in them to stop me from anything the world throws at me. Yes, their overreactions are annoying, but it means they will never be impassive when it matters. Maybe the reason I’ve been nervous about the appointment, is because I’m not ready for the kaleidoscope inside me to unlock my chains.
The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what being restricted has meant for me. Prisons have wardens for a reason. My body is my jail because I was foolish in the past. I committed the offense of handing out my trust like it was infinite. In reality, there aren’t many people I can put my confidence in. The penalty for my crimes was life of only trusting myself, and my butterflies were put in place to make sure I served my sentence. Since I haven’t yet, it feels wrong to try to force them out. We are not ready for a cure. They’re not ready to let me go, and I’m not ready to be boundless.
The realization chases my butterflies through my veins and back down to my stomach. I can breathe again, no longer frozen in place by an inert heart. Before Jennifer can question what insects have to do with curing a mental disorder, I strap my purse over my shoulder and flutter to my feet. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this yet. I need more time.”
Jennifer’s forehead creases as she sits up in her chair. “But what about the cure?”
“Save it for a rainy day?”
I pass through the office, hallway, and exit doors within a blink. Moisture fills the air and greets my face as the wind propels the droplets sideways. Strands of red whip my cheeks before they become matted down by the wetness. My jacket does little to defend me from the weather, and the chill of the storm soaks down to my bones. I keep my face up to the sky to welcome my newfound freedom from therapy. I did it, I successfully left the building.
My butterflies are eerily static as I look back towards the entrance. That was my only way to rid myself of my disorder, to free myself from my mental prison. I talked myself out of a cure. No, my butterflies did. Their honeyed words over the years have brainwashed me into thinking I need them. They have a vast arsenal of means to keep me contained.
I curse under my breath and kick a nearby puddle in defeat. The force of my foot is almost enough to punt the puddle from existence. As I stare down, the ripples begin to fade until there’s just a sudden pin drop bubble every now and then. It’s not pouring anymore. Buckets of water that were released from the sky turned into a light sprinkle, and I hadn’t even noticed. An angry reflection stares back at me, the jail bars in the irises are bent. Something flitters through my stomach, but it isn’t a butterfly.
Today, I put up a fight. The contorted bars are proof of that. Proof that my prison isn’t as indestructible as I thought. And, neither are my wardens. A ghost of a smirk passes across my lips as I turn from my reflection and head to the car. I’ll make another appointment, maybe I won’t walk out on that one. It all depends on how my butterflies are feeling.
So, sure, my butterflies’ tactics to keep me captive are truly unending. But the joke’s on them – so are my reasons to break free.