The Right Words

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The Right Words by Abigael Good - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

You don’t know when the anxiety started. You can remember a dream, a corridor of locked doors, a key that won’t work, a metal block in your stomach, waking up and pacing your bedroom floor—eight years old? Nine? Older? But you’re not even sure there can be a solid starting point for something like this, one event you can mark as the first time.

You’re older now. You keep track in your journal. Nebulous notes, without labels—you’ve tried labels before, sure. One book you read in seventh grade made you call this terrible feeling anxiety, but you rejected that eventually, as you did every other label. No word ever fit. This feeling was surely too trivial to merit any hard, sharp-edged word that belonged to psychiatrists and mental-health lectures. And yet, you knew all this time that it hurt too much to be nothing. You knew you should say something. You just couldn’t get out the right words. My stomach hurts, you’d say. I just don’t feel good.

That changed one winter. It was a snow day. You slept over at a friend’s house, woke up shaky. You felt sick. It was that feeling, awakened once again a few weeks before by a gruesome murder scene in some show. This morning it was back hard. It chased you outside to the freezing cold air, pacing and trying to breathe. You went home as soon as you could.

For years you had kept how bad this feeling got under your skin, without words, as if denying it a name made it powerless. That morning, breathing was so hard and your stomach was so sick you couldn’t sit still. You told your mom you wanted to see a doctor. You wanted to see a therapist. For years you had wanted nothing less. It was so bad that morning that every other fear fled. All you were scared of anymore was this feeling.

But it was a snow day. All offices were closed. The one time you could bring yourself to ask for help, help was not taking appointments.

You stood in the icy air and looked out at a storm worse than any you had weathered before.

That day you threw up a few times. Drifted in and out of “mostly okay” to “shaking with anxiety.” You barely slept. The night was endless pilgrimages between the bed you couldn’t bear to lie down in and the bathroom where you shook and waited to throw up again, sucked on an ice cube in your dry mouth, stared at yourself in the mirror. The next day didn’t get better. Power outages kept offices closed. You ate only a few bites throughout the day—you never could eat while anxious. You stopped activities you’d barely started because nothing took your mind away. You just wanted to stop feeling.

The episode faded slowly. You missed a day of school after panicking in the hallway. Doctor’s offices opened. You remembered how to breathe.

The records in your journal have hard, sharp-edged words now. Anxiety. Therapist. Medication. But they are so much lighter than that metal box in your stomach. The hallway of doors doesn’t look so long. It makes you think, sometimes, that giving it a name made you more powerful instead.

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