“You’re quite the puzzle,” my doctor said as I sat quietly on the exam table in her office. She scanned my extensive lab results, which I’d stapled together according to date. I swallowed hard, my throat burning, knowing I would leave yet another specialist with no answers. “Everything looks normal to me. Nothing is wrong.”
Nothing is wrong.
Later that evening, I stared at my computer screen at my desk, drafting an article for work. But my mind couldn’t process the different types of business structures and funding options for small startups. Not with the persistent itching of my skin and aching of my bones.
I slammed my laptop shut, knowing my writing would make no sense in this state of mind. Retreating the few feet from my desk to my bed, I lay still on my back, staring at the ceiling. I grabbed my thermometer from my night table and stuck it under my tongue, waiting. Within seconds, it beeped quickly, indicating a fever: 100.7.
I threw it at the wall, then fell back onto my pillows, letting my tears paint my cheeks in streaks of black. There were still dishes to clean. Laundry to fold. Deadlines to meet. I felt like I had the flu, like every other night that week, and the weeks before. But, nothing was wrong.
I grew up in a beautiful, caring family. My mom cooked dinner for us and tucked me into bed every night. My dad coached my soccer teams and set up movie nights in the living room on Fridays. My older brothers put their arms around me when I cried during thunderstorms and told me jokes until I cracked a smile. I always had a soft place to land, a house filled with love.
But even the most wonderful people can’t protect you from pain and suffering. The roof over your head doesn’t always block out the rain.
This was a lesson I learned at the age of 4 — locked in my own bedroom, confined to a closet. My brothers were napping just one room over, my parents chatting downstairs. Close, yet so far away.
Sunlight had streamed in through the cracks of the metal door, highlighting a face I knew well. A friend, a family friend, another child; only, he’d seemed much wiser. He arched his dark eyebrows and shrugged. “I heard it tastes like fruit,” he told me.
He was only 7, just three years older than I was. But three years was more than half my life. I’d trusted him. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
So, I did what he said; and he did what he wanted.
Shame tightened its grip around my gut, and I felt like vomiting, but I hated throwing up. Maybe I had a fever. Was I sick? I should tell my mother.
My cheeks burned as he pulled up his pants. “What did I taste like?” he asked me.
When you’re a child, your worst fear is getting lost in the grocery store, or skidding your knee on the sidewalk. My ability to defuse such an intense encounter did not yet exist. I’d starred in a nightmare, but I hadn’t produced it. Still, I couldn’t wake up.
I hesitated, then muttered the only response I could think up: “Strawberries.”
I couldn’t tell a soul. He would know, and he would hurt me — hurt my family. At least, that’s what he’d told me.
I became hollow, shame silently eating me from the inside out. It’s hard to feel secure in a body that’s been places you don’t want to revisit, hard to feel safe in a mind that remembers moments you just want to erase.
In second grade, I was diagnosed with OCD. I formed compulsions like scrubbing my hands raw and making my dad, a police officer, promise every morning he wouldn’t die at work. Other students asked why I cried so much. My friends’ parents spread rumors that I was a “danger” to their kids. My teachers scolded me for not paying attention.
And I learned to hate myself.
I hated that I couldn’t laugh the way my classmates did, because there was always something to fear. I hated that I couldn’t stay at a friend’s house without calling my mom to pick me up. I hated that I couldn’t sleep soundly in my own bed.
“I’m gonna throw up!” I’d cry down to my parents at the edge of the staircase almost every night. Each time, my mom would run up the steps, feel my forehead, walk me back into my room, and pull the covers over my shaking body.
She’d sit up with me until I fell asleep, despite needing to be awake in a few short hours. Leaning against the side of my bed, she’d stroke my hair as my eyes slowly closed, reassuring me. “You’re fine, sweetie,” she’d whisper. “Nothing is wrong.”
My friends used to call me “boy crazy.” I was the first to have a crush, the one who’d fantasize about bumping into the cute kid down the street and somehow making him fall in love with me.
Bur really, all I could think was: I need someone to like me. I need someone to think I’m enough. Even if we can’t be together, even if we break up or don’t get together in the first place…I need to know someone can at least feel that way about me.
When I started dating in high school, something was always missing. Once a relationship would progress, get more physical, more serious, I’d get this familiar feeling of shame. I felt disgusted — not with the guy, but with myself. Like I was breaking a rule.
I was a good girl. I didn’t like causing trouble, even if it was only in my head.
So, I ended healthy relationships. Sought out guys I could somehow keep at a distance — guys I knew I would never end up with, who lived far away or were emotionally unavailable — so I didn’t have to feel trapped, confined yet again to darkness.
I’d define the quality of my relationships by how little I’d spend crying alone in my car. The best ones still warranted weekly breakdowns parked outside my house, or on a side street, or in my high school’s parking lot. I’d drive around town and blast music so loud, I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. I didn’t want to think.
But I couldn’t stop feeling. And what I felt was empty. But emptiness is not synonymous with nothing; it is an absence of something. I just didn’t know what. No matter who loved me, no matter how much they loved me, it wasn’t enough.
I lacked an identity, defining myself through the eyes and opinions of others. And I obsessed over gaining that validation. It became an addiction, something I thought I couldn’t live without. I’d shake and scream and throw tantrums if a person who typically showered me with affection somehow dissipated from my life.
I’d ask myself, “What is wrong with you?”
And I wished I could say, “Nothing is wrong.” But I knew better.
To this day, I often hold the idea of intimacy at a distance. It seems nicer, safer, there. More like a fantasy, less like an experience that will leave me sobbing under the covers for the rest of the night. Uncomfortable and guilt-ridden. Lonely, but not alone. Deep into the black hole that is my mind, trapped in the darkness, unable to feel the warmth of love, see the light all around me.
A persistent little voice in the back of my head has always whispered, “Something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong.”
For 20 years, I’ve stifled that voice. But it grew so loud, it echoed throughout my body like screams, set off alarms to finally get my attention.
This year, my poor health stopped me in my tracks, forcing me to slow down. To quit my job in the city and pursue freelance writing. To turn down plans I had no energy for. To finally give a shit about myself. I saw it as a sign that I needed to change — to stop running. I needed to take a look at my life, at my past, at all the mental anguish and negative energy festering within me, and find a way to not only move on from it, but also move through it.
Acceptance is a difficult process. Because of my continued resistance, I endured therapy that only retraumatized me my entire life. My OCD diagnosis was merely a bandaid over my deeper-rooted issues. A label I wore like armor, shielding me from the external world, while fueling an internal war.
My ignorance has cost me friends and lovers and years of my life. And following this realization, I should preach of hope and love, of turning pain into art, anger into passion. I should mention the friends I’ve met, who feel more like soulmates, and the progress I’ve made on my own.
But recovery is slow and not always steady. I am still suffering. I am still confused, seeking validation and reassurance — falling to my knees and begging for it, even. There are still dark, terrifying thoughts and emotions within me, evil prodigies haunting my mind and body.
So, I won’t tell you to always think pretty, to dress your demons in pink and dance with them in the sand. Because if you stare at the sun for too long, you’ll only go blind. You’ll lose your perspective, your ability to see each color for what it is. But the reds and yellows wouldn’t feel so warm without the blues and violets.
Instead, I encourage you to start listening — not to the noise around you, but to the suffering within. There’s a story behind, a reason for, everything you feel. Stop shaming yourself for the trauma you’ve endured. Stop letting other people tell you what’s right and wrong, normal and not, or how to live your life. Only you know yourself and all you’ve been through.
So keep going. Trust yourself, even when it seems the world is against you. And never lose your faith in fate.