If there was ever a time before this took root inside of me, I don’t remember it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt this growing inside of me, wrapping itself around my ribs, knotting itself around my throat. We became so entwined we were one.
I was three years old when I first realised that this was pressing into my chest, leaving me unable to breathe. It felt like my lungs were too small for all the air that I needed, and I would find myself gasping for air, terrified that I was going to suffocate.
I learned to slow down my breathing by counting backwards from ten. It felt like the entire world would come to a standstill as my lungs expanded, as if time itself was controlled by the ins and outs of my breath. I felt powerful. It seemed that my mind could control not just my body, but the entire universe. These were magical powers.
Knowing that I could control the world if I concentrated hard enough, I was aware that I had an enormous responsibility. It was up to me to keep the whole world safe. I couldn’t live with myself if something terrible happened that I had the powers to prevent. And so, I developed an elaborate routine of various rituals that I would perform throughout the day, worrying constantly about making a mistake because of what might happen if I stopped paying attention.
I would stand by the window of our fifth-floor apartment each morning, my tiny hands spread out across the window ledge, peering down at the little people on the ground below. I would count them and tap my fingers as each person walked by. If the number was an even number, I would tap with my right hand; if it was an odd number, I’d tap with my left. If I committed the sin of making a mistake, I would scrunch my fingers together in a knot of knuckles and nails to try and erase the error. And then start over.
One, two, three.
I’d stand at the window for hours, unable to leave because if I did, I knew that I’d be responsible for a terrible accident happening. By standing there and watching and counting, I was preventing an unimaginable tragedy.
I’d stay frozen in my position until my mom would eventually pry me away. Then I’d find myself unable to stop counting because otherwise, I’d be left frantically gulping for oxygen, unable to breathe as my thoughts sped away from me; my mind filling up with all the horrific things that would now occur because I had failed in my duty to stop them. The knots wrapped around my throat would tighten and I’d be unable to swallow. My skin would go cold. My hearing would fade. Vision would blur. Room would spin and slide towards me at jutting angles.
I can’t breathe.
Ten, nine, eight…
I was only trying to save the world.
Ellen is an emerging writer of both poetry and non-fiction. A recent student of the New School Writers Colony in New York, she's currently working on an essay collection. Previously published in The Guardian and guest blogger for the Center for Youth and Community Justice. Read more of Ellen's work at medium.com/@eatsleeplaugh
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.