I have no idea what her name is or if she’s a she, but I know she’s there. Some days she feels as big as a mountain. Powerful. Ancient. Overwhelming. Towering over all of the other pieces of me, casting shadows and light in ways that make me see myself differently. And sometimes she’s asleep in a corner somewhere, not really bothering anyone but quietly breathing in a low, rhythmic hum.
I think she moved in a long time ago. I remember the first time I really felt her — I was in our backyard on a warm & breezy summer day playing with the new tetherball set my parents had just got us. I would hit the ball as hard as I could, watch it coil tightly around the pole over and over again until it had nowhere else to go, so the ball would just reverse and unwind itself. I did this for hours. Coil, release, coil, release. I was mesmerized. This was the first time I was able to make any sense of a feeling I had always felt, but could never name. That tetherball wrapping and unwrapping around the pole is what it felt like inside my body. I wouldn’t know to call it things like anxiety or depression or grief until many years later, so she became my chest monster.
My monster caused frequent and painful stomach aches, bad dreams, and many missed school days for me when I was a kid. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t realize that she was loudest when my mom tried to dress me in “girl clothes” or when kids bullied me in elementary and middle school. Everyone thought that I was just a kid with a sensitive stomach. And when I was hospitalized in high school for severe migraines, people figured that I was stressed about being a student-athlete. No one taught me how to listen to what was happening inside of my body; to listen to her screaming in my chest. To ask her what she needed or why she was getting louder and angrier.
I look back now on those early years with her and realize that she came because I needed her. I needed a warning signal and a protector. Her existence is a direct result of the stories I’ve learned to internalize as truth:
No one is listening to you; you’re not worth being listened to
Big emotions are scary and bad; swallow them whole and hope they stay there
You are both too much and not enough at the same time
I’m 32 now and only just beginning to piece together the experiences I’ve had and messages I’ve received that taught me to believe these things. I’m learning how to listen to my chest monster — to recognize her as anxiety and grief — so that I can learn how to care for her. It’s been the most difficult and painful journey yet and honestly, some days I still hate her. But I don’t want to. I want to love her; to know that loving her is loving me.
What does any of this have to do with anything? With this moment in time? With you? I don’t know. Maybe nothing at all or maybe everything.