They come for me at night.
I doubt they will stop and I can’t imagine I will either. They seem to enjoy the darkness, thrive in it even. They sneak from my ear and whisper hateful things. I catch the words in my hands and stuff them deep inside my pockets where no one can see them.
Once ‘worthless’ came floating out of my ear like an apparition. But unlike in the darkness where it was a numbing throb, in the light of the day it felt like a lead weight settled painfully on my shoulders. Like I was holding up a sign in big letters for the world to see who I really was.
What I really was.
Luckily, I shoved it in my mouth before anyone could notice. After it was gone I could smile again. I had control back. But man, if it didn’t hurt. The words burned down my throat. They seemed thousands bigger on the inside than the outside and it felt as if I was swallowing a toad with each big gulp. Then a heat began to press behind my eyes.
I could feel the letters trying to push their way out of me. They weren’t going to give up anytime soon. In fact, they gathered more words on their way to pester me. Their good old pals ‘hopeless’ and ‘disgusting’ came to join the party. I knew I was no match against the three of them combined. They would come breaking through my defenses and showing my true self to everyone.
I had to get out. My fight or flight instincts kicked in. And since I could no longer fight, I had to fly.
“Where are you going?” A voice, my mother’s voice, stopped my tracks. I winced and turned quickly, knowing I only had a few moments before the words would come crashing through. I had to be quick.
“Um, the bathroom.” I tucked a strand of loose hair behind my ear and wrapped my arms around my waist. No one was looking at me, but I was standing in front of their view and I felt the exposure as insistent as the words behind my eyes.
I watched the watery-looking word ‘confidence’ float out of my lips. My arms tightened around my waist.
‘Traitor’I thought, sadly.
My mom nodded and waved me away. No sooner had I been dismissed that I practically sprinted out the back door of the restaurant, and crumpled uselessly on the ground. The dam broke seconds after.
The letters came streaming down my face. ‘Worthless’ came first in huge, heaving sobs. It felt like my face would explode from how much pressure it absorbed. The hot tears slid like acid down my cheeks. I was sure the skin was charred and burning there from each one, like one more would cause me to melt entirely.
‘Hopeless’ was next and possibly worse than the first. The ugly crying continued, but was followed by its best friends ‘self-doubt!’ and ‘depression!’. Suddenly, each tear, along with the burns it produced, tore deep gashes in my heart. I felt carved to the point where the crying slowed and my shallow breaths were filled with the worst kind of torment: mental. I was thinking. And thinking was never good. Thinking allowed ‘disgusting’ to finally show its face.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the last of the tears slipped quietly down my face. Suddenly words were pouring out of me. ‘Ugly’ ‘helpless’ ‘nobody’ ‘pointless’ ‘stupid’ ‘annoying’ ‘terrible’ and ‘nothing’ to name a few. They crowded me, cushioning me in a wall of unfeeling. Neutral. I sat, unwanted for a moment, taking a second to make myself presentable.
Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.
My chest contracted with each breath and I could barely find a reason to go inside. Why not stay out here crying? Why go back? Why keep going? Why not give up now while you still can?
The weight of responsibility seemed too heavy a burden to bear. I didn’t reply to the questions. I didn’t have answers.
But, with much effort I got up, I dusted myself off, I rejoined my mother in the booth, and I went home. Back to another pitch-black night in my room, where I cried the rest of the words out until I fell into unconsciousness.
The next few days were full of a similar vocabulary.
I tried to convince myself that this was normal, and the words became nothing more than background noise. A reminder to the truth. A painful truth, of course, but it was certainly the truth.
Or so I thought.
It was a chilly night, there was a light drizzle and I was pondering over my mortality. It had been a particularly hard day. The words seemed crueler, the negatives far louder than the positives, and the world even darker than my room. But now, the storm had cleared and it appeared that the noise had quieted, if only for a moment.
There were no spinning letters or depriving words. No tears streaming or heart aching. Only me, on the balcony, alone.
My fingers brushed the dewey rail mindlessly, and I realized, only vaguely that it was 2 in the morning.
I breathed out slowly. I couldn’t sleep even if I tried.
I started at the low voice from across me. There was another balcony I had never noticed before, and on it, a brown-haired teenage guy I had never noticed before either.
“Hi.” I replied, more than a little confused at the hoodie-wearing stranger.
He blew out a strangled breath, and it was then that I recognized it. How could I not? It was the same sound I made after I had bawled until my eyes felt swollen. The same difficult breath I pulled in after every breakdown. I recognized the red tinge around his eyes and I could almost see the effort he was making to hold in his own strew of vicious lettering.
I hung my head, almost bearing the weight of our combined suffering on my neck. It seemed the whole world was in a funk tonight. “So...how’s it going?” I asked, for lack of a better question.
I jerked my head upward at the strangeness of the laugh he let out. It was merry and boisterous. Not one I would associate with sadness. Wasn’t he suffering?
He met my gaze from across the way and I was surprised to see the kindness in his eyes “Uh...not too good actually.”
I cocked my head sideways, sure my face was all kinds of confusion. Was he putting on a facade? For me? Why? He doesn’t even know me? Maybe he is so used to pretending that he can’t stop? It didn’t make any sense. Why smile when your whole world is falling apart?
“But...” He interrupted my thoughts, still smiling kindly “I’m sure it will run its course and we’ll all be better for it. Right?” He laughed again, quieter. “I mean, it’s kinda terrible right now, but I’m sure we’ll be laughing about it in no time.”
I stared at him. At this anomaly. Everyone I’d ever known had never been so open about their feelings and so positive at the same time. It was stranger than anything I could have imagined, definitely not the way I thought my gloomy evening would end.
“Why?” I asked. This was now a conversation between two souls.
He tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
I sagged against the railing “I dunno. I just can’t find anything to smile about right now I guess...” I wiped at slow tears. This almost made me want to laugh. Just when I had thought I’d run out of them too. “My life just seems...I dunno...pointless?” My breath caught briefly “Is that too melodramatic?” My eyes, though damp and swollen, continued to flood and spill over. And with their return, so also did the horrible words return.
“No.” He replied, kindly and patiently “I don’t think you’re being melodramatic.” He smiled again. “I do think you are wrong though.” I laughed for maybe the first time in weeks. “Very wrong. Your life is far from pointless.”
His eyes caught mine again. Brown, like his hair, and safe.
“Your life, I think, has more value than you can imagine.”
I pondered that for a moment, letting the words sink in and allowing my eyes to shine for a different reason.
“Yeah?” I breathed, hoping against hope.
For some reason. Some crazy, strange reason I actually believed him. Some sore spot in my heart was hit, and I shuddered from the sheer wonderfulness of it. My soul sang in elation. Of course I wasn’t fixed of all my problems, but there was a new hope in my chest that wasn’t there before. A rising peace that someone, even a stranger, saw I had a purpose here.
I smiled at him, and it wasn’t forced or masked in any way. It was a real, honest to goodness smile.
And it was then that the over-powering sorrow that had driven me, faded to a lull and I realized how exhausting crying was. I was exhausted in every sense, and was so ready to collapse, it consumed me.
“Thank you.” I said in finality, sincerity pulsing through me.
He nodded. “And with that I will bid you adieu, Miss balcony neighbor.”
I smiled as I watched him leave and turned to do the same myself.
That night as I waited for the words to pour like smoke from my ears, they surprised me.
That night, they didn’t come for me.