This story is by Lillian Piel and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I didn’t think it would go this far. I knew that Jessie was dealing with mental health issues and she’d had a rough few years, but I can’t believe she’s really gone. We grew up together, and I don’t know how to feel knowing she’s not here anymore. Her car won’t be parked next to mine in our high school’s parking lot every morning, no more goofing off in class together, no more coffee dates, and no more late-night talks about everything and nothing. She’s really gone.
I had known Jessie since elementary school. We were in the same class for a few years in a row and grew pretty close as we grew up. We made fun of the teachers we disliked, bonded over struggling in our AP Calculus class, ran on the cross-country team together and had a friendly rivalry, and we hung out together every weekend. She was one of my best friends. More than that. I never got the chance to really tell her how much she meant to me, and now that she’s gone I…I never will.
Jessie was here just a few days ago, talking and laughing with me. Everything was as it should be. Now she’s gone. It’s finally setting in, I think.
When I first found out Jessie was gone, I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel anything. The only thing I felt was guilt, because I didn’t feel sad, or angry, or hopeless, or…whatever. I had lost one of my best friends and it didn’t seem to be registering.
But now here I am, sitting in homeroom. I have a test in calculus next period and work after school. I look around the room and I see the people in my class laughing, talking, focusing on their homework. I know my classmates, some are my friends, but right now they feel like strangers to me. I’m alone. Trapped inside my head. I can’t let this happen, not now.
Their voices start to jumble into a cacophony that invades my brain. My heart beats faster, and faster, panic rising in my chest. I look down at my hands, and they’re shaking ever so slightly. Worst of all, my breath grows short, heavier, harder to push air through my lungs even though logically I know I’m breathing.
I get up from my desk, grab the hall pass from its perch on the whiteboard, and duck out into the hall, determined to go somewhere, anywhere, get away from the noise. I run to the bathroom and hide in a stall, and the tears start to flow. They won’t stop. I’m doing all I can to just breathe. Inhale, exhale.
I stay there until I can breathe again. Luckily I’m not late to Calculus, but I can’t focus on my test. I try to focus on my schoolwork the rest of the day, but it feels like nothing is real, like I’m floating along, watching my body move from behind my eyes but someone else is controlling it. When I get home, I call in sick to work. I head straight upstairs to my room, lock the door. I collapse onto my bed, but my thoughts have already begun to spiral. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But I don’t ever want to leave my room. I just need to be alone.
I awake and find that my body is a teenage girl’s. I was just born, but I know she lost a friend recently. No, no, that’s not right she…she was more than that. Jessie. She loved Jessie. Jessie was like family, and now she’s gone.
This girl has never felt so alone before. She’s huddled under her bed sheets, she’s crying. She blames herself. For not being there for…Jessie. She couldn’t save her. I see her thoughts – How am I supposed to help people? How am I supposed to be there for someone, to believe I’m a good person, when I couldn’t save Jessie? I feed her more thoughts. She needs to protect herself. I tell her – “You couldn’t save her. You need to be alone. Be alone, don’t let anyone else get hurt.”
I’m not trying to be mean. I’m trying, trying to help, make sure she doesn’t mess up again in the future. I do my best, but many times when I’m born in a new body, the person thinks they need to get rid of me. I don’t know why. Inside their heads is my home, my home, and often times I’m here to stay. But every time the person I’ve made my home goes to talk to someone about the way I’m making them feel, I always hear the same name. My name, I guess. “Anxiety.”
I don’t know how I get inside their heads. I don’t know. I usually wake up inside someone’s head knowing something bad has happened. Sometimes I manifest when they’re a teenager, not for any particular reason, but for a bunch of reasons, too many reasons. Sometimes I’m even there from a young age, and I stay inside their head for a long time.
I try, try to calm her down. Breathing helps, right? Right? I make her lungs inflate and deflate quickly, inflate and deflate, so the air must be getting through. I have to help her calm her thoughts. Will sleeping help? I make her body fatigued, make her feel like she can’t get up, I flood her thoughts. She’ll have to do something about it eventually, to take care of herself. I make her head hurt, hurt with the weight of what happened. Her thoughts appear again – I should have known. I should have been able to save her. I should have been a better friend. Something is wrong with me. I tell her – “You’re right, something is wrong. You should have been better.”
The people I inhabit might come close to…getting rid of me. They try, but I stick around as long as I can. I’m only trying to protect them. The easiest way to do that is by making them feel alone. Alone, isolated, hopeless, deserted, forsaken, stranded, ALONE. If they’re alone, even if they aren’t physically isolated, but isolated in their own minds, I can stop them, stop them from doing things to hurt others or themselves. And the girl whose head I’m inside now is no exception.
I don’t know how long I stay in my room. Eventually it’s morning, and I have to get up for school, though that’s the last thing I want to do. I look in the mirror, and I still feel like I’m watching myself move, not really feeling like I’m inside my body.
The feeling lasts for a few days. My friends start to worry. They keep telling me I’m spacing out; they say I’m on edge. I guess I am. Sometimes I feel fine, but in the back of my mind is always the thought that I should have been able to save Jessie.
A month after Jessie’s death, my friend Michael tells me he thinks I should go talk to someone about my anxiety. I didn’t realize anxiety was something I had, but I can’t keep going on like this. Feeling alone, like I’m just going to mess up any friendships I have now. He recommends me to a therapist he saw for his own anxiety and tells me to give her a call. I might as well. If a therapist can help me ease the feeling that something is wrong with me, then I’ll take it.
After school Michael texts me to remind me to call about therapy. And I do. I’m alone in my room once again, and the feelings of hopelessness start to set in. Before I go down the thought spiral, I take a deep breath, pick up my phone, and dial the number he gave me. In ten minutes, I have an appointment made for next week.
A week later, I’m sitting on the couch in an office across from a friendly-looking woman asking me questions about when I first started feeling anxious. I don’t know if it’s the warmth in her eyes, the calm atmosphere, or the fact that I just needed someone to talk to about the way that I’ve been feeling since Jessie died, but it all comes out. My voice starts to shake as I speak, the tears roll down my cheeks in waves, but when I’ve finally let it all out, I notice a tiny difference. Though small, I feel like there’s less of a weight on my chest. Whatever anxiety I have, whatever I’ve been feeling like is wrong with me, my therapist assures me that it’s going to be okay. That even though it takes time, it is possible to work through things and manage anxiety. She tells me I’m not alone. And maybe, just maybe, some tiny part of me starts to believe that she’s right.