Published in “What Is Important To Me” by Creative Communications.
It starts with a question, asked so casually by the girl beside me as we walk. It is a perfect day. The cotton candy clouds roll in with ease, the birds perform their well-rehearsed repertoire, and the radiant sun melts over the town, hill by hill, building by building. One question, three words, and nine letters: “How are you?” So simple. Such a frequent visitor in conversation. It asks nothing of me but an answer. It should be easy. But in this moment, with my family miles and miles away, my home just a dot on a map, my heart stubbornly stationed in the comfort of my room rather than with me here in this foreign land, this one task is the only one in the whole world I can not complete. Me. A straight-A student, a perfectionist, and a doer of any task I’ve ever been given. But now, I cannot even answer this simple three-syllable prompt. Because I’m also my harshest critic, my biggest fear, my worst enemy.
In a matter of milliseconds, the beautiful day emerging before me disappears, replaced by storm clouds of worry, an emotional darkness that fills my mental landscape, and fear-provoking lightning striking my rationality at every change it gets. I feel hopeless, panicked, and defeated. I am no longer myself, but rather a wounded soldier in battle, a tight-rope walker on the thinnest rope there ever was, a helpless child getting sucked in by the ocean’s overbearing waves. Soon, this feeling breaks out of the jail that is my mind, beginning to poison every part of my body even as it tries so tirelessly to resist. My hands begin to shake. My heart starts to race, sure to win the marathon at its increasingly speedy pace. A tear wells up in my eye; so small, yet it feels like it could flood the entire planet if I were to let it fall. My stomach churns, throat closes, sirens blast in my ears. An earthquake has been set in motion. The epicenter: my heart. I have done it yet again: pushed all of the right buttons to get to this black hole, this bottomless pit, this point of no return that I know far too well. I am a time bomb, ready to self-destruct at the slightest trigger.
A gentle clear of the throat brings me back to the real world, but a world that is far from real to me at this moment. I glance at my friend, so close in distance, yet light-years away in understanding. She looks at me with wide, innocent, hazel eyes, beginning for a response. Why can’t I just tell her the truth, free myself from the inescapable pit I’ve dug myself into, and take a load off of my heavy heart as it sinks deeper and deeper into emotional quicksand? The devil on my shoulder makes the choice before the tempting prospect of truth wins me over. Just like that, the choice has been made. The troops are given their new orders: strengthen the barricade around my heart, and protect me from emotion’s evil wrath.
With the orders given, my body adjusts accordingly. The fire still burns inside me but you would no longer know just from looking at me. I blink away the tear, erasing the evidence of my humanity and burying the truth behind a suffocating mask of content. Gasping for air, I reorient myself with the world around me and after what feels like an eternity but really was only a few seconds, I let out a response, one that has been tattooed on my tongue and embedded in my behavioral code: “I’m good.”