I’m not like most people. I accepted that a long time ago. To be honest, I hate that label, anyway. What does it even mean? Everyone has their burdens to bear, right? We all have those little things that come so easily to other people but drive us insane. For some people, that’s dating and the hot flush that scrambles their brains every time they even think about talking to someone they like. For others, it’s reading or writing and how the words swim across the page, turning what should be a simple task into a nightmare. For me, it’s the outdoors.
Don’t get me wrong; I like being outside. I like the way the wind feels as it whips through my hair, and I love letting the warm glow of the sun extend its tender rays across my flesh. It’s the creature inside me that doesn’t like being outside, and I don’t like upsetting the creature. I don’t like the way it covers me in sweat every time I step across the threshold of my house. I don’t like the steady rhythm it pounds in my chest. The one that mocks me with its simple beat. Go. Home. Go. Home. Go. Home.
I always ignore it for as long as possible, telling myself everything will be okay if I can just make it for another minute. I’ll prove to myself that I can manage. One minute rolls into another, but the pounding in my chest doesn’t stop. If anything, it gets worse. My chest tightens. My stomach roils. Once dark spots appear in my vision, I turn around and break for home, hoping to make it before my heart explodes or my mind blacks out. That’s just the way it goes. Every single time.
Things weren’t always this way. That’s the real heart-breaker. The creature was always there, I think, lurking in the back of my mind, just beyond my perception. But I always kept it down, kept it imprisoned. Then the pandemic came. You know all about that, of course. How we got locked inside for months. How we were told over and over again to stay at home. Well, I did. That was fine. The problem came when it was time to stop staying at home. Sometime in that hellish period, the creature escaped. I didn’t have it imprisoned anymore. No. Now it had imprisoned me.
I needed to get out. But it wouldn’t let me. It had its claws hooked deep within my soul, and it didn’t intend to let me go without a fight. Every time I bid for freedom, it ran me down and dragged me back. That’s where you come in.
You sent me a text.
Hey. Do you want to grab some coffee on Saturday?
As soon as my eyes landed on those words, a war erupted inside me. The creature didn’t like that text. It didn’t want me to go. But I did. My conscious desire strained and fought against the creature, taking control long enough to send off a few words in reply.
Sure, I’d love to. Saturday at 10?
It was done. I’d won. For now, at least. The creature became quiet for several days after that. I wasn’t fooled, though. I knew it wasn’t gone, only dormant. Saving its strength.
Sure enough, when Saturday morning came, the creature reared its ugly head once more. ‘You aren’t going anywhere,’ it said. ‘You’re going to stay here with me.’
I tried to ignore it, going about my daily routine. But the creature wouldn’t leave me alone. It made my hands shake as I showered and made my breath catch in my chest while I dressed. As I ate breakfast, it crept into my stomach, twisting and turning, and turning and twisting. Still, I stayed strong. I ignored the churning in my guts and forced spoon after spoon of porridge down my throat.
A few minutes later, I stood before my front door, ignoring the flames in my cheeks, and reached for the handle.
‘STOP,’ the creature cried. ‘Don’t do it.’ It crawled into my skull, dripping its poison straight into my brain. ‘Think of what might happen. The dangers. The embarrassment.’
A series of images flashed before my eyes. I could get struck by a car when crossing the road. Or what if I got lost on my way to the coffee shop? Or mugged, even? The outside is a dangerous place, I thought. Maybe it would be better to stay home…
No. I shook my head. Those weren’t my fears, not really. They were the creature’s deceptions, designed to keep me alone and miserable. I shouldn’t listen. I couldn’t listen.
Before I changed my mind again, I whipped open the door and stepped through. The cool breeze felt wonderful on my skin. It felt like freedom. I strode forwards, focusing on the movement of my legs and ignoring, as best I could, the war still raging inside my brain.
The creature hadn’t given up. Of course it hadn’t. ‘It’s not too late,’ it said. ‘You can turn back now. You must turn back now. Think how much more embarrassing it will be if you meet your friend only to turn around and leave again.’
Once I get to the coffee shop, I’ll be fine. I’ll be safe.
‘Oh, will you? Are you sure?’
Yes. Nothing bad ever happened in a coffee shop.
‘But it could. Especially with you there. What if you have a panic attack? What if you pass out? What would everybody think? Imagine the shame.’
The creature had me. It had ensnared my mind so profoundly that I was panicking about the danger of panicking.
My legs slowed. I turned. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself running for home. People on the street stared and muttered, but I was beyond caring. A little embarrassment now is better than more embarrassment later.
When I reached the house, I shot inside, slamming the door shut behind me and slumping up against it. My heart thumped against my rib cage. My lungs felt ready to explode. My entire body blazed with an icy fire. But none of that was the worst of it. No, the worst was the shame that spread from my brain like a cancer.
I’d let you down. I’d let myself down. I’d let the creature win.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. Another text from you.
Hey, I’m here whenever you’re ready. Better hurry, or it’ll get cold.
You sent a picture after that. It showed a steaming cappuccino and a slice of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. My favourite order. You’d remembered. My heart soared. The fire was extinguished. You’d come through for me. Now it was my turn to come through for you.
I threw open the door once again.
‘What are you doing?’ the creature said, an odd tension in its voice. Something I’d never heard before.
Is that fear?
‘We’ve been through this already. You’re better off at home, where it’s safe. You’re better off with me.’
But I didn’t let the creature stop me. Not this time. I sang a song in my head. I hummed a little tune. I did anything and everything I could to silence the creature’s voice. It worked. A couple of minutes later, I stepped into the warm coffee shop, and my eyes found you sitting in the corner, smiling and waving.
I never looked back.
After that, whenever the creature tried to drag me into a pit of fear and despair, I just thought of that day. The day that showed me everything would be alright. That coffee shop became my Excalibur. My Holy Lance. It became the only weapon that could slay my personal demon.
I don’t know if you remember that day. I don’t know if it meant anything to you. But it meant the world to me.