I’m standing in a rock gym, on a brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon, with the warmth of the humid gym air leaving a thin layer of sweat covering my skin, but I feel a familiar chill run through my body. I’m here in hopes that the pangs of my illness I had felt throughout the past week would dissipate in the company of the friends I am most myself with. I tried to bury the signs that anything was wrong by keeping my head down and focusing on work, but this is my last Hail Mary attempt to maintain stability.
I look around at the smiling faces of the other climbers and sense their joy from their excited conversations buzzing around me, sense their zest for life as they leap up walls with unbridled enthusiasm, but I can’t quite access that joy and zest myself, at least not today. A familiar numbness has settled into my chest the way a plume of cigarette smoke settles into your lungs: silently with the intent to do harm.
I can hear snippets of conversation around me as my friends chatter away. “Mal Pal, your turn.” “YAS queen, you’re almost at the top!” “Let’s try this wall over here.” However, the voices sound distant and distorted, like I’m not actually standing in this reality on the same planet.
My friends, these wonderful people I’ve loved fiercely since we forged a bond in college, people who have fiercely loved me back, begin to feel foreign and unsafe.
Everything around me starts to slow down like in my nightmares where I’m desperately trying to run away from some evil force to save myself, but my legs just won’t move fast enough.
Oxygen, the life force of essentially all living things, stops feeling plentiful and easy to access as my breathing shallows. “How did my therapist tell me to breathe when I was panicking? Didn’t it have something to do with blowing out of a straw? Ah fuck it, I just need air”, I say to myself as I gasp faster for something to fill my lungs.
My eyes dart around searching out all possible exits as I begin to realize what is happening. I stand alone and visualize myself reaching the nearest exit. I imagine running into the bright Saturday afternoon and not looking back as if I could outrun its return. If only my legs didn’t feel so wobbly and my brain was getting enough oxygen to think clearly.
I nervously wander to a bathroom, wringing my hands aggressively, and stare hard at myself in the mirror. I hope and pray I can look deep into my own eyes and pull Mallory back to the surface. With a pleading look I search for her for what feels like an eternity, but to no avail.
I move away from the mirror, unable to look at this shell of myself any longer. I shake my body a few times in hopes that “shaking it off” also works for invisible demons, but I know it’s futile.
I move back into the gym and just stare at the scene around me. Here I am, in what now feels like a suffocatingly crowded, disgustingly sticky, and overwhelmingly loud rock gym with some of the people who would likely drop everything and love me if I let them, and it has found me here. It has arrived. Time is up.
As I sit down on the ground in a daze of pure fear and pull off my climbing shoes, my fate seals itself. Eleven years from our first meeting and I still feel as powerless to it as I did when we first met. I close my eyes as I let depression wrap its thick arms around my soul and squeeze every ounce of hope from my soul. I feel hot tears sting in the corners of my eyes as it whispers with a sweetness that makes me want to scream, “Oh how I’ve missed you”.