“Julie, we’re leaving,” her mom’s voice echoed down the long hallway of their one-floor home. “Julie-Anna! Can you hear me?” Her mother sprinted down the hall, fumbling along the way with her purse, cell phone and lunch bag. “Julie, why aren’t you answering…” she began as she pushed the bedroom door open with her elbow.
There sat Julie, like any other day, cross-legged atop a pillow by her windowsill, earbuds burrowed deep in her hearing canals, just watching the world pass her by.
Her mother paused for a moment and let out a sigh. Her little girl, once so full of life; now so sullen and withdrawn. “Julie,” she began, gently tugging on the cord stringing its way through her daughter’s knotted hair.
Feeling the tug, Julie’s eyes raised from their gaze to see her mom standing over her. She didn’t move quickly, she didn’t even seem startled. Pulling the buds from her ears she looked at her mother as she waited for her to say what she had come to say.
“Dad and I have to run into work really quick. The alarm’s going off. I’m not quite sure why but it’s probably nothing. The computer system has been acting up lately anyways, so it’s all probably related. Anyways, I’ll call you and let you know if we’re going to be longer than an hour, but I don’t think it should take too long to get it sorted out. Dinner is almost finished. I just threw in some chicken fingers. Your brother knows what to do, just listen for the timer in case he doesn’t hear it, okay?”
“Alright,” her mother said, walking toward the door. “We won’t be long. And try to get outside for a bit. At least open up the window if you’re gonna’ sit there. Let some fresh air in.”
Julie heard the faint sound of her mother’s cell phone ringing as she walked down the hallway toward the front door. She heard her answer. She heard her confirm the alarm passcode again and reassure the man on the other end of the line that she was on her way. She heard the front door close with a bit of a hurried thud and watched out the window as her mom hopped into the car next to her dad and the two of them sped away down the street.
She sat by her window a little while longer, waiting for the sense of urgency to dissipate. She could feel it all around her like an electrical current running through the air. She could feel it between the hairs which stood on end on her forearms, racing between them like a mouse looking for the exit to a maze. She could feel it in the slight sense of nausea floating around in her stomach. She could feel it in the back of her throat as she tried to swallow.
She drew a deep breath in through her nose. One, two, three. Then exhaled through her mouth. One, two, three, four. A skill she’d learned in therapy. Just breathe through it, she told herself. It will all be alright.
Before she knew it the feeling had passed and everything went back to normal. The birds outside continued to fly around, flirting in the warmth of the summer air. The cars on the street continued to pass. The neighbor continued to cut his lawn. Suddenly it was all just normal again.
“Hey Jules,” he brother called from the kitchen just as the oven timer began to beep. “Dinner’s ready.”
She collected herself up from her spot on the floor and moved toward her door, dropping her earbuds and cell phone on her bed as she passed it.
“Thanks for turning your music down earlier,” she said, walking through the kitchen door.
Fox smiled a kind of half-smile, blatantly displaying that he hadn’t really wanted to turn it down. “Don’t worry,” he said, putting some chicken fingers and fries on the two floral plates their mom had left on the counter.
Julie grabbed some plum sauce from the fridge, picked up her plate and began to wander back to her room.
“Hey Jules,” he brother called. She peered at him over her shoulder as she continued to walk. “I don’t have much going on tonight. You wanna’ play some video games?”
“Not really,” she said, somewhat sheepishly.
“Come on, Jules. I don’t know what’s been going on with you and from what I understand of what Mom and Dad say, it really isn’t my business. But you can’t spend the entire summer sitting in your bedroom by yourself.”
“What’s it to you?” she snapped. “You think you’ve got it all figured out. Mr. Hot Shot High School Junior with all his friends and his perfect life.”
Fox took a step back. She’d never spoken to him like that before.
“Hey,” he said. “That isn’t fair. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on with you. One thing I do know, though, is that it’s not my fault.”
She suddenly felt like crying. He was right. He had always been there to hang out with her; to protect her. He’d always been a great friend to her, not only a brother. Her eyes darted down to her feet.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He smiled nervously. “Hey, it’s nothin’ kid. Look, you gotta’ come outta’ that room sometime. It’s not a good place to be, you know, all trapped in your mind and stuff.”
She stood awkwardly under the hallway light, as if on trial for her wrongdoings. She wouldn’t look at him. She only nodded, turned her back and retreated to her room.
She must have dozed off after eating dinner because the next thing she remembered was the sound of her mom knocking on her door.
“Sweetie,” her mom said, announcing herself as she opened the door. “You alright?”
Still half asleep, Julie rubbed her eyes and looked over to her mom. “Yeah. Everything okay at the shop?”
Her mom shrugged. “You’d think they’d have figured out what the hell is wrong with that computer system by now. Seems like it’s been going haywire for far too long.” She sighed. “Oh well, I suppose it’s better than a break and enter, right?”
“Hey, you wanna’ play a board game? You used to love playing Scrabble,” her mom said. She looked hopeful. She always looked hopeful when she tried to get her to do something. It actually amazed Julie that, somehow, through it all, her mother had never given up on her. As she thought these things her eyes began to well with tears. She reflected on the person she once was and the person she was becoming and felt shame shudder through her body in the way no thirteen-year-old should ever experience. The tiny tears welled up in her eyes burst forth over the crest of her eyelids and suddenly she was crying for the first time in months.
Her mother rushed to her side, relieved to see the softer side of her daughter and to be able to help. These moments had become rarer and rarer – moments when she was allowed a momentary glimpse behind the curtains of her daughter’s soul.
At first, Julie said nothing. She just buried her head in her mother’s arms and let the sobs shake their way through her tiny frame. Eventually, she began repeating the words, “What’s wrong with me,” over and over again. She started quiet, growing louder and louder until the sadness turned to anger and the sobbing turned to growling.
Her mother just held her tighter and closer. “Nothing is wrong with you, sweetie,” she said over and over. The two were caught in a loop – repeating their statements again and again – neither able to fully articulate the depth of her words.
It was mid-July. Julie had begun leaving her room more and more often, her mood lifting a little each time. The relative calmness of the family home and the escape from school had helped her come out of her shell bit by bit. She continued her weekly therapy appointments, as requested by her parents. She also continued telling her therapist nothing about what she was experiencing, convinced he’d label her crazy and lock her away somewhere.
Her therapist had been trying to convince her that returning to school in the fall would be a good way to “get back in the groove.” He really liked to sit there on his padded leather chair, hippie hair flowing down his back, and drone on and on about how important it was for her to feel as though she was part of something larger than herself. He also loved to tell her all about how he found himself and how she should read his book. She found self-indulgent arrogance off-putting and spent large portions of the sessions making fun of him in the back of her mind. But, the more talking he did the less he noticed that she wasn’t talking at all. So she kept returning each week, accepting the annoyance and boredom as a fair tradeoff for keeping her secret secured deep inside herself.
“Julie, are you listening?”
She looked up from her ragged fingernails to see the therapist sitting anxiously on the edge of his chair. For someone who claimed to be adept at yoga and meditation, this guy seemed nervous about 90% of the time.
“Oh, yeah. Uh huh,” she said. She’d made the mistake of looking down as he spoke. As long as she managed to focus her eyes on something near his face he seemed to believe she was listening. It usually offered her an escape. But today she was a little off-center and took refuge in picking the dried paint from her nails.
“You’re not listening, are you?” he asked.
“Yeah. Uh huh.” She shook her head vigorously up and down. God, please don’t let him start all over again.
“No, you’re not. And I should have seen it coming. Something was off about you when you first came in. Your vibe was all wrong. It’s usually rather flat. This time you were all over the place. Your aura was just huge and spiky and I should have asked you why,” he said.
Oh great. Here we go. She thought. It’s hilarious that they think I’m the crazy one in this room.
“Look, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s going on. So why are you all out of sorts today?” he asked, leaning back in his seat and putting his bare feet up on the wooden table between them.
She had to admit that she’d been thrown off-kilter on her way in the room. All her regular preparations hadn’t worked to keep her calm and she could feel it happening again. Her heart was racing. The colors in the room seemed brighter. Noises were louder to the point of hurting her ears. She could hear everything in the room, from the buzz of the electricity running through the lamp beside her to the sound of the blood rushing through her body. She could hear the sound of tiny cars being pulled around by a toddler on the waiting room carpet, even from behind the closed oak door. That sense of electricity in the air, on her skin, in her mind coursed through her and she was feeling as though she would choke on the ball in the back of her throat.
As she explained this all to Dr. Gallagher she watched as his expression turned from concern to triumph.
“Ah,” he said. “Anxiety.”
She slumped in her chair, feeling deflated. Why had she thought he’d actually listen and understand this time? She had tried once before to explain the strange things she was experiencing and he was quick to jump in half way through explaining that its “perfectly normal to feel odd and out of place at your age but the trick is to remember that you aren’t different from anyone else,” before going off on some irrelevant tangent about his latest meditation retreat.
She resigned inside herself as he droned on and on some more about how he’d never in his life felt anxious but was convinced he had the key to helping her never feel the same. She blocked out his words and mentally encased herself with pillows to deaden the sensations jolting through her body.
At the close of the session she politely thanked Dr. Gallagher and excused herself to the restroom. She hurried passed the busy scene in the waiting room – families, individuals and couples all seated in a cloud of despair and desperation awaiting their turns to talk to the various therapists who shared the space.
Closing herself into a bathroom stall, she could feel the remnants of the waiting room on her skin, in her hair, in her throat. She took a deep breath in through her nose. Releasing the air through her mouth, she assured herself that she was safe and pulled her cell phone from her bag. She pushed the button on its top to activate its screen but it wouldn’t turn on.
Great, she thought. She’d just charged the phone before she left the house which meant something was wrong with it which meant it needed to be fixed which meant it had to go back to the store in the mall which meant her mom would make her go to the mall which meant no amount of mental pillows could protect her from the “anxiety” she would experience in there.
She rushed out of the bathroom, back down the short hallway to the waiting room, marched straight up to the receptionist and, pushing through the noise in her own head, blurted out, “I need to use your phone.”
She was aware that her tone wasn’t quite as friendly as it should have been, but she wasn’t expecting the receptionist to turn around sharply and snap, “No you can’t.”
She took half a step backward and looked at the receptionist in disbelief.
The receptionist’s face softened. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she said. “It’s just been a little crazy around here today. Normally I’d say, ‘Go for it,’ but you can’t use the phones because the phones aren’t working.” The woman shrugged as if to say, I don’t know what else to tell you, and turned back to her computer where she was typing out emails to all the patients whose email addresses she could find.
Julie sighed. It’s all comin’ up Jules, she thought to herself.