This story is by Laura Beiler and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The breathy whisper jolted me awake. I rolled to one side, propping myself up on one arm, looking around. It had not been one of the kid’s voices but someone spoke to me. Surely it was an audible voice that sent my body into motion and had pulled me out of my restless sleep.
I told you, if you fall asleep, you will die. You can’t sleep with headaches.
That again. Realizing it was not audible, I lay flat on my back, hand on my heart. “Be calm,” I told my heart.
It didn’t hear me.
I kept my eyes closed, searching in my head for the dream I was having moments before.
Are you ready to die if you fall asleep?
Opening my eyes, I sat straight up in bed. Heart still racing, I placed my head in my hands. Five deep breaths. My husband lay beside me, snoring and unaware of the collision that was about to take place between two worlds. I focused on the one, breathing and willing myself to stay calm. The other world was creeping up my back, slowly tightening its grip around my neck, flushing my skin and sending heat through my body. It was coming.
Five more deep breaths. “You’re okay, this is not real.” It’s what I told myself but my heart kept beating steadily faster, my breath increasingly quicker. I flung the covers back, placed my shaking legs over the edge of the bed, willed myself to stand. The bathroom was just a few feet away, with cool water and a mirror with which to talk to. Knowing my husband needed to get up early I didn’t want to wake him. I could handle this. It was not the first time this collision had happened.
You think you can handle it, but you can’t. This is where you die, for you are weak.
I closed the door before turning on the light. Bright light flooding the darkness. I had no idea what time is was, but guessed around three in the morning. It was Fear’s favorite time of night, perfect for interrupting the heart of sleep, far enough from dawn to keep the hope of morning at bay yet not too early that hope of sleep could be had either. My heart continued to gallop, rounding the corner for the full attack that I must face head on. I braced myself as the two processes of Fear and Logic crashed together, crescendoing the adrenaline and emotion that would be used as weapons against me.
The barrage of negative thoughts pummeled my mind, invading my senses and bringing on the fight or flight response. Every nerve stood on edge, my blood pressure rose, and my gut wrenched. My temples began to pound with the beat of Fear’s war drum: Nothing. Death. Worthless. Fear. Squeezing my head to counter pressure the pain, I looked in the mirror and assembled the counterattack.
“You are here. You are safe,” I said to the mirror image. The look in the eyes staring back suggested the enemy was gaining ground. “You are not going to die from this. You do not need to fight for your life, you are not in danger. It is just a headache.”
Death is coming for you. You cannot breathe.
I forced myself to breathe deep, to stop the shallow shaking of my chest. I prayed. Hot tears streamed down my face. Logic retreated to a far corner in my mind. Looking into the mirror, I focused on the shower behind me, the light reflecting off the freshly painted walls, the image of me bracing the sink, whole and not broken. Not dying.
Logic stepped precariously forward, surveying the battle scene. Diverting my mind from the feeling of lack of oxygen, I focused more intensely on my prayers. Logic and Fear stood on the precipice of faith and only one could make it out in the end.
At this point the adrenaline built up with such intensity that I had to sit, legs still shaking and now my hands begun to as well. I sat folded up, arms wrapped around my legs, tucking my head between my knees and chest. My hair fell like a curtain over my arms and tears continued to pour forth, sliding in couplets down my cheeks and falling from my nose.
Five deep breaths. The enemy’s assault continued, irrational and alien to my body that longed for nothing more than the peace and calm of sleep. This intruder had ransacked the depths of my mind, taken all my secret fears and brought them to light in this panicked moment. Attack was an aptly fitted name for this situation, as one’s body and soul would never willingly subject itself to such torture.
You have a tumor. You will leave your children motherless. You will fail as a mother and a wife because you cannot even have a minor pain without being worried. You will die. You deserve it.
“It’s not true. It’s not true.” My own war drums beating, trying to drown out the insidious whispering. I had to regain control of my mind. The only way to do that was to ride through the assault.
I continued to pray aloud, speaking truths to myself against the lies that Fear told me. But I let the attack move through me, shaking me and causing my heart to beat all the more erratically. “It cannot last forever,” I said meekly, not sure if I believed myself. My imagination was wrought with thoughts of what may happen if Fear was right and this life was not as it seemed. Logic remained quiet at the tip of my tongue, whispering truth between shaking breaths, trying to fight its way back.
Thirty minutes later and Fear was done with me. In opposition to how quickly it appeared, it slowly began to unfurl its grasp, ebbing away the thoughts. My heart began to steady and my limbs stopped trembling. The tears stopped but the headache remained, worsened by the attack.
My work here is done.
Fear had gone but I lingered in the bathroom, exhausted and overcome with relief. I crawled back to the sink and braced myself as I stood. Cold water splashed on my face stung as it hit the red and swollen tracks where my tears had been. I shut out the light, opened the door, and stumbled through the dark back to my bed. Sleep came easy, although echoes of the taunting and berating haunted me until I dreamed.
When I awoke the next morning I felt numb, emotionally spent. The night had seemed so long that at first I thought it was a dream but my congested headache reminded me of the crying and my tired and achy limbs of the shaking. The world of Fear had come face-to-face with my logical, rational being, and this time I had managed- barely- to hold onto the world I knew. I had made it out alive. It was just a headache, after all. The battle for my mind was momentarily over, and fear was defeated.
But I will come back .