I am lying in a ball, swaddled in a blanket on the couch. I am not cold, but I sweat and shake and pull the blanket tighter. I am not ill. I have no fever. I am having an episode.
I can help no one in this state. Not even myself. I feel the tingles race up my vagus nerve, alight with fear. With pure terror.
I am back again in the cell. I wear my shoes curled up on the cot under a blanket that barely covers me, shivering and weeping and singing softly to myself as I fight the anxiety hovering in every thought. I am trapped here. My future is over. I can never leave.
I lay on a soft couch in reality, but my nerves are raw and my thoughts are stuck in the past.
I am nothing in this cell but a waste of flesh and a heartbeat. I feel my heart beating. Racing. I feel it patter and thump in my chest as if wanting to crash out through my ears. They can probably hear me weeping and singing in the next cell. Room, I suppose. But when did concrete erase the fact of a cage?
I name the feeling: fear. I name the feeling: fear. I name the feeling: pointless fear. I cannot escape it, but I can ride it out.
I am back in the hospital. I feel the slicing of fingers digging into raw dermis. My every nerve exposed and rubbed with sandpaper. I open my lips to emit a scream, and they split. Another surge of pain jolts through my body. It’s too much to take in. Too much to register. Too much to hold. I am stuck in a body that cannot move but to feel this excruciating pain. On fire with invisible flames that begin in my eyes and rip through this waning flesh, holding my very soul to my stinging bones.
Back in the cell, I pour water straight into my eyes to keep the burning at bay. This place is far from sterile. I know an infection is imminent, another corneal ulcer awaits should I ever see a doctor again. Will it blind me? Will the mistake that brought me here be what finally blinds me? Am I just a walking mistake taking up too much space and offering the world too little in return?
I breathe in through my nose on the couch: one… two… three… four. Hold: one… two… How would I end it now? I haven’t kept any escape hatches open. No extra sleeping pills. No trees nearby that could hold my weight. …six… seven. Breathe out through pursed lips: one… two… I couldn’t take the pain again. …six… seven… eight.
I practice the four-seven-eight breath four times as I lie on the couch. I am not in the hospital. I am not going to the hospital anytime soon.
Five times. I am not going to the protests, so I won’t be arrested anytime soon.
Six. My head begins to clear, and the edges of my fear soften.
I am home. I am safe. I pull the blanket tighter and weep.
There are so many who are not safe. So many risking their lives for a just cause. To protest should not be to risk one’s life, but that is the world we live in. If they are willing to sacrifice, shouldn’t I?
I feel the tingling begin up my spine again.
No, I reason. If I go and get sick or end up arrested and get sick, I am worth nothing to any cause. And in this state, wracked with fear and memories that shake me to my core, I am useless even to move.
But I can donate. My brain grasps at this thought like a small piece of ripped paper being tossed by a fickle wind. Fifty dollars today. I latch on to the thought, feel it come into focus and become tangible. I have not the energy to calculate a final sum, nor the emotional capacity to do more than this small act right now. But it’s something. It’s a start.
When I find myself like this, encased in fear, my brain reminds me of how bad it’s been before. The physical pain of the hospital, burning from the inside out. The emotional pain of loss after loss, love ripped from me before I could speak or understand. And I know I fear that I will return to that place. I will be trapped forever in torture and worthlessness with no means of escape. I have to remind myself.
I did escape. I am here. I am safe. I am loved. I am grateful. I have a body that functions well enough. I have mind that can pull me from nightmares. I have a home and a family and place in this world.
I sit up. One small step. I pull up a post from a trusted friend to find a link. Two steps. I click and donate. Three steps.
Three small steps. That’s what I have in me today. It feels small. It is small. It’s nowhere near enough. But it’s a beginning.
I know that one drop of water cannot change a mountain. But when the drops form a stream, and the stream becomes a river, that river can bring mountains to their knees.
The problems we face as a society are immense. They can feel too big and too difficult to tackle. I feel this a lot. I know I have been sheltering myself while sheltering in place, and I know that is a privilege so many others don’t have. I also know I’m not the only who feels this way, feels useless and crippled in the face of systemic racism. But doing nothing at all is no longer an option.
I know from experience that trying to alter one’s entire concept of self and society overnight is impossible and often counterintuitive. Thinking of changing the world can feel too heavy and keep us stuck. So, I want to invite others who feel this inertia of fear to take small steps. It isn’t enough, but small steps can become big steps. And it’s often the first step that feels the hardest. We owe it to black Americans, to our children, and to ourselves to take that first step.
Black Lives Matter