Illustration by Mae McDermott, in collaboration with Nicki Diacik
For five years of elementary, middle, and high school, I took mandated health classes. In theory, this was years of repetition, infographics, and warped films meant to instill within me information about how to live well, fear of ill health, and a drive to cultivate a textbook balanced lifestyle.
But here I am, weighing in at 93 pounds, suffering from four to ten migraines a month, and wrenching from every night somewhere between five to six hours of fitful sleep. Here I am, also, shouldering the confusing and debilitating weight of relentless anxiety and self-criticism, coupled with deep exhaustion and a lack of motivation. I have been absolutely shocked by my capacity for a despair that comes from nowhere and everywhere, or rather the way any capacity I thought I had as a human is broken open, the way I find myself twisted by stunned grief into impossible, unimaginable shapes.
I surveyed a life that felt, in many ways, broken. And in the face of the breakage did the only thing I could think to do, the thing I have trained all my life to do: I signed up for another health class.
It sounds nonsensical. Though I got A’s, taking classes never had any impact on me. But by engaging with the coursework, now on my own terms, I hope to truly find answers. I hope to inform myself, arm myself with the knowledge to straighten out a dilapidated life I never really expected to find myself living. I want to force myself to be stronger, smarter, better. I want to make myself care about what never frightened me into action the way it should have. I want to force myself to be well.
So here I sit from 4 to 6:40 every Wednesday night on a quest for wellness. I am tucked away within a building designed for athletes, with giant windows that ferociously tear open the structure and scream at me to go outside and seize my life by its skinny neck. The dark gray walls are covered with giant stickers of physically rippling, aggressively happy. The desks in the classroom are so tiny as to be useless, and they are situated on steps so we slope toward the professor. Above me is a sort of plastic sheet hanging from the ceiling that hides not only a fluorescent light but many discarded pencils, pens, and water bottles chucked to the ceiling for sport, never to be recovered. This place of learning feels at best disjointed and at worst chaotic and troubling as my professor talks over the deep hum of bass-lines and the jarring sounds of men slamming each other into neighboring gym floors.
A blue notebook lies open before me as I take notes on sleep debt, nodding to outwardly communicate my engagement even through a haze of fatigue that makes my eyes burn. I am trying to keep my head above water in a sea of sound, in the way her cadence mingles with the driving, buzzing electronic percussion and the impact that blooms from the floor, and my nodding is a way to throw a line in a space that pushes me under.
I need to pay attention. I know in my bones I deeply need this information. But the class is so long… and in a process of deterioration both dreadfully quick and painfully drawn out, I start to feel oppressed by this room and by the clock that spins away so many minutes I need. Through all the sound I feel like there is a hole burning through my chest, and I will die in this chair if I don’t do something with my waning time. So when my professor makes the mistake of fallibility — taking a breath, turning away from us, or traveling from her station at the base of the steps to the whiteboard —I automatically and frantically shove my health notes aside and pull out something else to work on. I embark upon notes for Creative Nonfiction class, or try not to make noise as I fish for the right colored pencil with which to annotate underlying themes in Shakespeare’s works. It is futile, of course… in a state of panic I accomplish nothing except to further burn myself up. But, in a state of panic, I am also impervious to reason. I fall victim to the exact behaviors I have come here to correct.
The vague worry that she will see the way my attention is split like the organs of roadkill sparkling grimly across a charcoal-colored road dimly crosses my mind, but is not enough to overtake the fierce, burning anxiety that fuels my crazed multitasking. The only thought that grazes me like a tire over the edges of dried blood is the desperately sad irony of the notes I take on sleep debt as I deteriorate from lack of sleep.
Even immersed in my anxious haze of note-taking and annotating, even locked into this broken, primitive version of myself who desperately acts upon anxiety, I am distantly aware that I am wasting an opportunity to inform myself and be well because I can’t sit still for three hours… that this opportunity to improve and learn and be healthy is truly wasted on me.
I get out at 6:40 and walk through the athletic building, watched by the oppressive windows and wall-sized stickers of healthy people, and want to lay my sad life down on the cold, salt-covered asphalt.
I am a bottle rocket. I have spent 19 years pumping my every opening with hissing air, only superficially cognisant of the fact that I am finite and will surely sail across the sky when the pressure gets too high.
Trying to take care of myself feels not only exhausting but almost impossible. I do not know why my inclination is to treat myself like an abandoned house; I do not know why I have to collect responsibilities and hand out apologies like if I don’t I will burst. I am a person who eagerly gathers up too much before she gives anything away. I am unaware of options; when I become stressed, I lose all perspective and rationale and function animalistically to fight off the stupid, mundane thing I find threatening, and the things that I feel threaten my life are tributaries of the suffocating, innate sense of responsibility that comes from nowhere except me. Strange how in this moment I can look on my station with clarity, but in the heat of that cyclical fear all I can do is bite my nails until I bleed, or multitask so inefficiently as to stretch myself almost in two.
I think the hardest part was realizing, with every nosedive into a pillow that has truly seen the worst of my face, that I was killing myself. And the reason this is hard is because this life belongs to not only me, but the incorrigible kid who came before, the kid who for some reason was determined to wear suffering like a badge of honor. The first time I stayed up until 1 a.m. to finish homework, I was nine. That same year, I began to stay in Ms. Spano’s room at recess, working on my spelling work. I would sit far away from her window, which overlooked the playground and the friends I was ignoring in favor of my already psychotic homework rituals, crack open that composition book, and relish in the painful repetition I assumed would at some point become rewarding. Or perhaps I thought the struggle somehow presented its own reward. With every additional hour I stayed up as a child I think I felt closer to actualization of some ideal, infallible self… I thought suffering brought me closer to tenacity and success. I already believed somehow that my options were either to be bruised or to be soft, and I chose hurt for fear of weakness; I held on proudly, tightly, wrongfully, to that which bruised me, and nursed the tender shade of purple, allowing it to impress itself upon me as an indelible mark of my life, allowing it to sift and fall to the bottom of my being, to become part of the silt of my person. Suffering became my only conceivable reality.
So it is hard to realize that the life one has internalized and externalized hurts, and that it must change from the bottom up. It is hard to finally look inside oneself like a fish tank and see that now unreachable silt, scattered and crowded into the impossible, narrow spaces between stones, for the poison it is.
And it is hard to realize, truly understand, that one is unhappy. Because in spite of all that incorrigible, bushy-eyebrowed, opinionated kid unknowingly did to get in her own way--and she certainly colossally blocked her own way--I know she never expected to be sad. When we were small and looking up and forward at everything, none of us aimed to be. I remember being the girl who played Barbies with Kira. I remember hovering and kneeling over that tan carpet like it was sacred earth, spending so much time shuffling rapidly from narrative to narrative that I made my knees raw--that girl didn’t expect to wear out her body and her mind the same way she vigorously, thoughtlessly wore out her pants.
I feel I have mishandled her life and shocked her beyond measure. It feels sadder than I can say.
So here we are, aware we must create change. But the necessary revisions are foundational. If I am an abandoned house, I have somehow tried to build myself from the top down… I have thrust a ladder into the sky and tried to stack a sparkling, red tin roof upon a foundation of nothing. This is my metaphorical way of saying that as I try to perform academic and writerly backflips toward self-actualization, I eat scattered and inadequate meals, I never rise from my station hunched over my computer, I do not grant myself any cognitive rest, and I have not consistently slept eight hours in eight years.
Furthermore, I am deeply indifferent to the critical health shortage, and just as deeply aware of the staggering disconnect. The dissonance of acknowledging one’s gauge to be in red and not feeling moved to push oneself to green is quite strange, especially considering the non-threatening things that do spur me into chaotic, desperate action. It is not that I don’t want to care. I know I should, cognitively. But while I recognize the importance of these actions, I do not feel moved by the existence of a body that needs tending or a mind that needs rest; they are not real to me. I cannot sift through this life in my fingertips, and it does not impress itself upon me with the same searing urgency as do the things I bear in my soul as obligations. It does not have the consistency of the papers I rifle through folders to find, or even the elastic, weighty presence of time, which I can feel always, like a hand on my shoulder.
And so changing is a matter not of simply changing habits but of translating lifeless and abstract into living and concrete. Changing is a matter of internalizing care as a worthy competitor to the essays, readings, meetings, and applications that perceive as somehow realer, more present, more threatening than the lack of upkeep that will actually kill me. Wellness is not a ghostly, abstract entity.
I am not an abstract entity. I overlook myself. I escape my own notice… and that is how I so easily dismiss my own life. But just as I must internalize the realness of practices that feel impersonal and far away, I must recognize my own humanity as my own, as something I can either build or break with my own hands. Because, though the understanding is not strong enough to touch my core, cognitively I understand that this body has been the vessel through which I, couched within, have interacted with the world. It has been my messenger, the deliverer of my essence, leaving traces of me behind in fingerprints on glossy pages, and straightened hairs that want to be curly and small, and light imprints on packed snow. This is the same body that hurled itself recklessly and joyously into piles of leaves that appeared to me three stories high, and the same nose that greedily sucked in the amber smells of autumn; these fingers slowly, circularly grazed the amazing softness of my mom’s skin. These bare, cold toes pricked themselves on Christmas tree needles and healed over like a stinging song… this body has broken and healed itself trying to keep me alive, and for its efforts I have learned to occupy it passively, forgotten it and filled it with trash and starved it and stretched it as far as it can go. I forget the realness of my life. And so this becomes not just a matter of simply changing habits, or even of translating abstract into concrete, but of remembrance of and respect for the ravaged, fragile, persistent place in which I live.
I have been woven into the tightness of this particular life for so long I cannot imagine what could lie on the other side of change. Or, if there will even be another side to explore. I remember what it is to scamper across tan carpets in pink leggings, but I remember it as though it is part of another life.
Cheerfully, resignedly, I prepare myself for disappointment. Maybe there is only suffering, and I am bending myself toward something I will not find. I look at the massive shadow my reality casts, the reality that must be parsed into manageable, changeable, concrete pieces I can take in my hands and mold as best I can. I have never wanted things to be this way; I have never wanted to feel so disappointed by everything that has come to be. But then I think with a rush of fear and anxiety of the fickleness of happiness and comfort, and I think of what it might be like to wear a new skin. And I think of whether this skin will fit, or whether it will stretch uncomfortably over my bones, reject me entirely. I am unhappy, but at least I am familiar with the dully painful circularity of it; I have carved my place in it, or rather it has carved its place in me. It is comfortably uncomfortable. To reach timidly for happiness only to be pushed back into myself is a rejection I don’t know that I could take. And so I quickly reason, maybe the departure from what I know will kill me. Maybe there is no other way for me but to feel tired.
When I think this thought I nearly burst. And I know, however frightening and unfamiliar it might be, I must throw myself toward happiness and wellness. Because this is no longer a question of self-actualization, but of self-preservation. There is risk to everything, terrible frightening risk. But the risk, this time, must be taken. It is the only possible step toward life. There is no other way to life.
I have to peel myself from my entrenchment on the cold asphalt, the place where I lay myself to die. Restlessly now, I feel I must dig my knees recklessly into the carpet and watch the light come slanting through my blinds, not yet cowed by the way the afternoon changes the light. I must throw myself toward fullness like I threw this body through air so crisp it rippled and burned up my nostrils; I must be incorrigible and curly-haired and blazing and brazen; I must I must send my small form sailing marvelously into the embrace of dusky leaves.