I’m afraid to move. There’s nothing out there for me, nothing to hold me in place, nothing to support me. I cannot give myself up to the nothingness.
“Here, I put the chair right behind you. Just sit down.”
How can I possibly sit down? I will fall, forever.
I ponder my feet again. Dare I move them? Am I even capable of—
She— She’s forcing me down! I am falling into oblivion!
A wave of terror engulfs me, my heart races, my pulse pounds in my ears in rhythm with my gasping breaths as I hyperventilate. I know I am falling into a vacuum, there is nothing to catch me, there is no end.
A lifetime later the canvas of my folding chair cradles me, yet my heart rate and my breathing do not slow. I sit, my shoulders heaving, my head down, the brim of my baseball cap hiding me from the world, hiding the world from me.
I’d been hanging on to the tent pole, gripping it hard with both hands, for how long? Ten, fifteen minutes? More? It was my lifeline, the only thing that made sense in the mindless chaos around me, the only thing that kept me from being swept into the bedlam. Patches of colors encircled me, ever moving, shifting, lurching, staggering. Words, laughter, shrieks, hums, howls darted by. The only object that maintained it solidity was the tent pole.
Joyce’s voice reached me from beyond the tent pole, emerging from the madness. “Let’s get you out of here.”
I heard her words but they did not register. They came from outside my precarious haven of me and my tent pole. I was completely overwhelmed by my fight for survival, my fight to keep the world at bay, my battle against gravity, my struggle to stem the flow of raw fear that swamped me.
“C’mon, let’s go for a walk.”
Her words grated on my consciousness.
My brain could not handle more than the bare basics. Any input, including Joyce’s voice, from the outside was more than I could fathom. I could not allow it to invade my mind, and it was, therefore, irrelevant.
A wisp of a memory, fainter than a thought, floated by: her voice meant safety. The next thought slammed directly into it: it was too late, no one could help me, no one could rescue me. The only safety zone I had access to was right there, me and the tent pole. There was nothing safe about “out there,” where Joyce existed.
I felt her touch on my arm and I teetered. I heard my breathing, quick, loud. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and I lurched away from it, then swayed back and forth, my biceps and triceps tightening and loosening as I fought to regain my unsteady equilibrium. No, it was not safe out there. I decided to stay right where I was.
“You can do it.”
Do what? Move away from my tent pole? But there was danger beyond it. Danger of falling, danger of …everything.
“I’ll help you.”
How? I knew she meant well, but it was far too late, it was impossible. I studied my feet. They were in constant motion, my toes wiggling up and down, my ankles wobbling from side to side, my weight continually shifting from the balls of my feet to my heels, to the sides and back, all my muscles tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing.
I couldn’t go anywhere. Where would I go? Everywhere was noise and colors and motion. There was nowhere to go.
She was insistent. “C’mon, just follow me. You can do this.”
But no, I couldn’t, not even with a guiding hand; I was too far gone. There was no way out of this one. I was really stuck this time, holding onto the tent pole for dear life, held captive by sheer, intense fear, fear of losing myself to the chaos multiplied by fear of an eternal fall.
“Take one step over here.”
She grasped me firmly by the arm. I rocked wildly on my feet. Gradually, the rocking dampened, and as the worst of the fear abated, my body settled back into the constant perturbations and adjustments that kept me upright.
A realization emerged through my defenses—Joyce’s hold on me had dampened my oscillations. Her support felt sturdier than the tent pole. It was safer. I realized that I could lean on her; it would be advisable to lean on her. I could let go of the tent pole, I should let go of it…if only I could move.
I contemplated my feet. I focused hard, willing my right foot to shift to my right, towards Joyce. I tried to shift the weight onto my heel, but my foot rebelled, causing my entire body to lurch forward and to the left, back towards the tent pole, away from Joyce. My grip on the pole tightened.
Joyce moved in closer, her body right up against mine, solid, safe, her left arm around me, the other supporting my right arm. She tugged slightly at it and again my body rocked sideways in response; I heard myself take short shallow breaths as fear continued to overwhelm me.
“Steady, steady, I’ve got you.”
I felt my eyes smart. It was hopeless. I was now able accept her help—in theory, I could acknowledge Joyce’s existence and let her into my world. But in practice my brain couldn’t function at that level—overwhelming input was obstructing my neural pathways.
I gulped and concentrated on my feet. If I turned towards her, I’d be fine. All I needed to do was turn both feet towards her. I tried to gather my wayward wits to focus on that one tiny action. I tried to do it in one motion, shift both feet at the same time. My wobbling feet weren’t complying. Perhaps one foot would suffice—
Before I finished the thought, something happened. Did Joyce pull me? Did I somehow manage to move?
I was suddenly in Joyce’s strong arms, fully supported, my head buried in her shoulder, my shoulders shaking as I sobbed.
Joyce held me quietly, sheltering me from the rest of the world. Some time later, I realized that the sobs had quieted down to the occasional whimper, though tears still streamed. Finally, the tears dried to a mere trickle, then stopped altogether.
Joyce kept her arms around me. I noticed that my feet and calf muscles were still in constant motion, trying to compensate for my lack of balance. Joyce must have noticed as well.
“Why don’t you sit down?”
I was sure it was a good idea; Joyce would not lead me astray. But it did not feel like a good idea. It felt like a terrible idea, a terrifying idea. I could not, would not sit down.
And then she forced me to let go, to fall backwards, into the nothingness, into the world I didn’t dare acknowledge, let alone trust. Even when the chair caught me, the fear continued to consume me. I could not allow my muscles to relax. I was not yet able to let the outside world in. I hunkered down, hunched over, hiding under the brim of my baseball cap, my chest heaving, my body shaking, afraid. No—terrified.