Every day is the first day. Some days are literally the first twenty-four hours when her heart remembers the rhythms it should beat. Other hours follow after those first twenty-four. They drift into an accumulation of days and nights. The first day is the hardest, but every day is the first day. Every day she watches herself for the signs she knows may come. Nothing less than constant observation every hour of the day means a potential collapse. Somehow this is normal to her now.
She has a trick. She looks at her two hands when it starts. Hands are never detailed or in focus in bad dreams. Sometimes her hands are pale and bloodless under the shower’s cold water. They become rosy and golden in the light of day. Under florescent lights she can see her veins and arteries. These are the systems that keep her alive. She notes their position. Two hands stare back at her, tell her she is awake. You are awake, she tells herself. This is not a dream and your body is whole. Every inch of it is working to keep you alive. Just let it. Just let it.
She watches as her body stops its trembling. It is easier to watch this way, from outside herself. As if she was a friendly doctor, a trusted neighbor. She measures her breath, inhaling and exhaling. It is easier to use the third person to write: she, not I.
How old she was when it started. How many years it continued. The number of people she’s told about it.
She missed a week of school her last month before graduation. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Every morning she would try to get up and end up nauseous from the vertigo of the effort. She can’t keep her eyes open. Her parents watched at first with concern and then with suspicion. Was she pregnant? Was this some kind of drug thing? There were blood tests and doctor’s visits. No one knew the words for what was happening. The doctor calls it exhaustion and prescribes bed rest. Her family watched her with eagle-eyes, sniffed her things out of a love that tries to prevent any kind of self-destruction. “Can’t you tell us why this is happening?” they beg her. First her father, stern and worried. Then her mother, the softest tones she’s ever heard her speak. Last her sister who probes and frets. The girl is speechless. Her words come up as dust and decay in her throat. She doesn’t know the words for why this is happening. She can’t stop it from happening.
She forgets about it until the words come to her like lightning years later.
She has counted syllables of words on her fingers since she was four. She insists on five or ten syllables, one or two hands full of sounds. She devours Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter is her friend. When things don’t end evenly on the pinky (right hand) or thumb (left hand), she repeats them over and over in her head and on her fingers until they do. No one notices how her hands are always twitching. She doesn’t speak often but the words seem to flow out of her when she does – not even her English teachers catch the iambs that give her language such movement. If her habit was a person it would be in college. It is hard to quit. When she tries, and her words come out of her rough and her hands are completely still it is exhilarating freedom. When she says the words, I am a survivor, for the first time she experiments again with syllables in the phrase and ends up on her right thumb and doesn’t chant it in her head or on her fingers. Six is a victory.
It is an Important Issue on college campuses. Every Leader at the university must be trained in the Proper Response. She is in a conference room with fellow Leaders. The speaker uses the phrase “baker’s half dozen” which seems an unnecessarily disorganized method of counting the Leaders and Supervisors and Experts in the room, swaying side-by-side on the university’s most comfortable office chairs. She has sat through something like a baker’s half dozen of these types of trainings, could recite them with her eyes closed – one her first year, one last year, three over the summer, one two months ago, and today’s. This time though, she cries. Oh my god, she is crying in public at a training full of people over something no one there should know about. Oh my god, she can’t stop. She stands up, knocks over a swivel chair and bolts. She can’t look anyone in the eye for the rest of the day.
Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. At least two steps forward is still some kind of progress. At her worst it becomes one step forward, nine steps back. Not steps. Being dragged backwards by a force she can’t fight. Fuming in the mud, grinding her teeth to get back that one step’s potency. Laughing hysterically, but at least it’s laughter. It feels like nothing has survived at all. Certainly not her.
Across the country she meets someone who has had the exact same thing happen to them. His experience mirrors hers uncannily. They are pleased and horrified at how pleased they are to have found each other. In this case is it better to have been alone and have only this awful thing happen to one person? They are even denied the goodness of communion. They compare crucial numbers. He holds up two hands minus a thumb.
Inhale for ten counts. Exhale for ten counts. I cannot demand healing from my body. It keeps me alive and does its duty in innocence. The least I can give it is ten seconds of breath.
Sanaa Khan is a 22 year old Indian-Muslim-American from Southern California.
Illustration by Van Hong (website).