Spring, 1989

Mrs. Deaver’s classroom is oriented with the windows at our backs. Today, she’s raised them and the room has turned damp. Rogue blossoms tumble in from the dogwood. A fly taps around the ceiling near the blackboard. She writes French words on the board. Bonjour. Au revoir. Merci Beaucoup. Simple. The beginning. A toe in the water. I have written French in black Sharpie on my notebook. In the margins, I am doodling swirls, pressing down with my pencil until they’re near black, until the impressions go through pages and pages. My heartbeat is wretched fast. I can feel it in my ears. My throat is closing. Spots form at the corner of my eyes. The fly is all I can hear. I scramble from my desk and out the door where I faint in the prickly shrubs. Voices from a tunnel. Strange hands propping me up, putting me in a wheelchair, pushing me to the office. When my mind rights itself, I think Oh, God. Now the whole student body is going to know something’s wrong with me. I am twelve.

January, 2018

My fifth (and favorite) therapist has recommended author/researcher Brené Brown’s Ted Talks on vulnerability and shame; Carolyn knows I believe vulnerability is the mother of creativity, of innovation, and change, but she also knows I need daily reinforcement. It takes days of watching these to get me to the page for this wee segmented essay. My chest hurts all the time lately. I’ve lost fourteen pounds since November. Until now, I haven’t written anything new in over a month. There is a direct correlation between the severity of my depression and anxiety and how often I’m writing.

August, 1991

Doctors have taken blood countless times. Nothing is physically wrong, they say. My mom wonders what that means. I know. Sometimes I faint and wake up shaking under furniture. I just hope it happens when I’m alone. If you pass out in front of people, someone inevitably calls an ambulance. Today, it happens in gym. I dress out in a stall instead of out in the open. I can’t stand my thigh skin to touch itself. Burgundy t-shirt. Gold shorts which need another six inches for me to feel comfortable. I’d refused breakfast. I’d split a pack of crackers with a friend for lunch. Sprints. I’m still one of the fastest runners in school though I’m starting to withdraw from athletics. But today, I push. I push until my legs wobble and I go down. Sirens. Breathe into the paper bag. Back home, Mom says I just need to eat. She fixes me spaghetti with meat sauce while she nukes her Nutri-system gray food. She dwindles, too.

January, 2018

My partner and I have gotten into another argument and I have retreated to my bedroom. I’ve hung white lights over my bed like a valance to make it seem less sad that we are sleeping apart. A print with a Dumbledore quote. Paper snowflake lanterns. Polka dot linens. But the space can’t save the moment. I curl myself as small as I can on the far side of the bed. Knees into chest. Hands in fists on the top of my head. My whole body tightens and coils. I cannot stop crying. I almost vomit. In my head, a thought on repeat. Don’t hurt yourself. I squeeze my hands as hard as I can, leaving deep crescent marks in my palms. My partner puts his hand on my shoulder. I tell him I don’t deserve comfort, but my words are so jumbled he doesn’t understand. I layer up and walk. Sometimes, it’s all I know to do: walk until my brain quiets. I walk in twenty-degree weather for an hour until he comes to find me. Makes me get in the car. I thank him for coming to get me. I take my Clonazepam and Celexa and try to sleep myself better. I stay in bed for two more days.

October, 1993

Mom is out of town and my brother has moved out for college. I light candles and burn opium incense in my room. The black balloon shade blocks out most of the afternoon sun. I’ve taken to writing and painting in sketchbooks. I copy Emily Dickinson poems into it in blue and purple watercolor. I haven’t learned how wet I can get the paper without ruining it. I haven’t learned about using the right paper for the medium. I lie on my stomach on the floor until my back aches, but it is the only distraction I’ve found from the maelstrom inside my head. Boys make me mixed tapes, but I’m too afraid to let anyone close. I’m too messed up. After midnight, the pain in my chest returns. When I feel my breath start to go, I go to my grandmother, who’s staying with me, and climb into bed with her. I tell her I don’t feel well. She asks me to describe what’s wrong. “You need one of my nerve pills,” she says, reaching for her purse. “Here.” She drops a green and black capsule into my hand, offers me her Styrofoam cup of tap water, and I drink it down without question. I fall asleep with her running her hands through my hair.  

September, 2017

Carolyn whiteboards my core beliefs. All the familiar negative brain monsters are there, but the act of writing the positive ones on the board have a jarring effect. I became who I am because of the early positive influence of teachers, my mother, brother, grandparents, and childhood friends. All of them recognized my creativity and intelligence at one point or another. Then, in green marker, she writes down a long list of things I’ve accomplished despite depression and anxiety. Three degrees. A long marriage. Countless animals cared for well. Lasting friendships. Compassion. A book. A chapbook. Several years of teaching. Cooking expertise. At the time, over forty publications in journals. She makes me say it out loud even though I feel embarrassed. She shows me how my brain filters out the positive. Achievement doesn’t fix me though, I tell her, but of course that’s not her point. At the end of the session, she says, “You know your anxiety and depression are not your identity, right?” I walk out of her office changed. My brain chemistry, my childhood trauma, my self-harming behavior are not my identity. Mind blown. It never occurred to me this could be true. On the way home, the light fades into that particular gauzy halo of late summer in the south. I roll my windows down and sing along to Patty Griffin, looking forward for once.

October, 2017

For months, my dog and I walked past a sapling growing in a brick wall at the end of my street. My pup was always busy with her nose to the ground, but I would turn my head to check on the infant tree every day. There were moments I thought about pulling it from its doomed spot, but I never did. What right did I have to pluck its life away, doomed though it may be? It grew a little over the summer, developed leaves. It stood about six inches tall. A maple. My favorite. My heart ached the day the tips just started to redden. But today, when I look, it is gone. In tears, I look around for the landscaper or child who could be responsible. I sit on the curb. My dog pulls the leash until I’m forced to wipe my nose on my sleeve, get up, and walk on. I wonder if anyone else would have noticed the beauty of such a tiny wisp of a thing and take comfort knowing at least one other living creature mourned its loss.

January, 2018

Carolyn says I’m stronger than I think I am. I’m still here—forever grasping my fragile heart—so she must be right.

Beth’s essay is published in support of Bell Let’s Talk Day.
Please consider sharing it using #BellLetsTalk to help raise money for mental health initiatives.

Read more essays in support:

Sarah Boudreau | Liz Harmer | Amanda Leduc (2017)

Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week, nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting (or flat out insane). @bettysueblue

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by beth gilstrap
when i feel my 
breath start to go
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