Red, blazing fear is rushing through my veins. I am crouched into the corner with my back against the heavy, wooden cupboard, where they keep their dinnerware. My face is pressed into my mom’s woolen scarf. I try to breathe calmly, one, two three, inhale, one, two, three, exhale, like my mother once showed me when my chest was so tight that I thought I was going to suffocate. My breathing is unsteady and interrupted by the heavy sobs that I cannot suppress. I let my fingers flow through the tissue of the scarf, run my eyes over the pattern, red and blue dots on green ground. The scent of my mother’s perfume rises from the scarf and once again I begin to sob and forget to count while breathing in and out.
The door to the hallway swings open and Carmen walks into the room. I lift my face from the scarf and see the look that she casts through the room right at the corner where I sit. She looks at me with a mix of desperation and despise. And there is something else: Helplessness. “Oh, still there, baby?”, she says and I can sense how she is trying to give her voice that soft touch that eventually is disrupted by a high pitch and reveals how much she is not feeling the compassion she wants to make me believe she feels. I shrug my shoulders and bury my face in the scarf once again. She walks over and kneels down next to me. Her hand strikes over my hair and for a second I am tempted to give in to that touch, lay my head on her soft stomach and cry until I fall asleep. But I must not do that, I may not take up so much space and she has more than enough work to do for me to behave like this.
“The same thing as always?”, she whispers softly and now I can feel genuine concern in her voice. I nod. “She will be back”, she says and puts her arm around my tiny body. I look up and stare at the clock that hangs over the dining room table. I can already read it, even though I am only three years old. It is five minutes to 12. If nothing goes wrong, if she doesn’t die or forget about me or decide she has had enough of me, my mom will come to pick me up at three. Three hours to go. I lean back into my corner and wrap the scarf around my neck. “I know”, I say and can hear myself lying. “I have to prepare lunch now”, Carmen says, “do you want to come to the kitchen with me?” I shake my head because I don’t know if my legs will carry me the whole way. It has become impossible to move. The fear has petrified me. “I’m all right here”, I say. “You call me when lunch is ready.” She nods and gets up and as she walks out of the room I can see how relieved she is to leave me back here.
That is the way I imagine my mom walking out of here each morning when she leaves for work. As I think about this the tears well back into my eyes. The fear seems to tighten in my stomach, forming a huge, sickening ball that is about to explode. I curl up on the carpet, bury my head in the scarf and let the tears roll. It is okay to cry, I think. I am only three years old.
It is Monday. When I finally turn off my alarm and crawl out of my bed my head and limbs feel heavy as lead. I stumble into the bathroom and take off my pajamas. My clothes scatter on the floor and just when I want to step into the shower I can feel my strength leaving me. I don’t know how to get through the day. The way the desperation hits me is so sudden and complete that it feels like being struck by a bullet. My knees give in and I let myself slide onto the bathroom floor. I prop myself up against the bath tub and – sitting there, with my whole body shaking – bury my head in my hands. Cold sweat runs down my forehead and forms in my armpits. I was expecting this moment, but I wasn’t prepared for it.
The fear has come creeping in for days, lingering in the corners of my perception, whispering unrecognizably in the moments before falling asleep, building up and growing without anything I could have done to prevent this from happening or shield myself. Now that it is here, I let it roll over me like an avalanche, trying to hold my senses together until it passes. Don’t forget to breathe. I can feel the tears coming. Uncontrollably they run down my cheeks, and there is a pain in my intestines like someone were stabbing a knife right into my stomach and turning it around until all of my insides lie on the floor, scattered like my pajamas.
The fear comes in waves. I am convulsing as it flushes my mind and in the seconds I have between the attacks, I try to figure out which shape it chose to take this time.
I feel I am losing everything. Your friends are going to leave you, the fear screams. Your partner is seeing somebody else. He doesn’t love you. You’re going to lose your job. You’re going to lose your flat. And when you’ve lost all of these things the world will see you for what you are: Nothing.
I shiver. No, I am whispering over and over again. This is not going to happen. You’re just fear. You’re not real. You’re mean and false. Leave me alone. But I know I need to listen to it, embrace it, accept it, let it go.
I’m breathing. Crying. Breathing.
I remember this feeling. I remember it from a time when I had no words to name the fear, when I had no way to express what I was feeling, no name for the things I needed. I remember that time and I know I am not in danger. I was in danger back then. The danger passed and what stayed was the fear. I take a deep, shivering breath, lift my head up from my knees and open my eyes. I can see a blurred version of my bathroom, look up at the ceiling, and draw the outlines of the room with my gaze. Sink, toilet, bath mat, laundry basket. Everything is still there. I wipe some of the tears from my cheeks. Slowly I push myself up from the floor.
My legs are still shivering, but I remember now. I remember the little girl I was, I remember sitting with my back against the huge, wooden cupboard, I remember my mom walking out of the room, thinking she would leave me there to never come back. I remember my dad leaving and never coming back. I remember how eventually things got better, but the fear stayed. I remember being alone when nobody should be on their own.
I remember and I realize it is over.
That is not today.
I step into the shower and turn on the water. It runs over my skin, warm and soft. The shaking slowly stops. I take a deep breath and this time I can feel the air filling my lungs. I exhale. And when I step out of the shower, get dressed and grab my bag from the bedroom floor, I stop in front of the mirror. I look at myself and see that I have grown up. I show myself a faint smile and then I throw what is left of the fear into a huge garbage bag and leave it in one of the containers in the backyard. That was it, for today. For today, I’m better.