When the strange lady in the blue dress asks me if I would like to explain why I’m currently sitting on her couch, I try to tell her that I don’t know how this happened.

I couldn’t explain it even if I wanted to, I say, eyebrows furrowed, fiddling with a loose thread on my dress. I don’t really know what to tell you.

She sits back in her chair silently, looking skeptical. Her attitude is making me even more uncomfortable than I was walking in, which I didn’t believe was actually possible. I look away and exhale noisily, feigning an all-consuming interest in the runty pigeon that’s pecking around on her windowsill. After a few painfully quiet seconds, I remind myself to inhale again — it’s become something of an active process, you see.

I have no idea where I’d even begin, I finally say, speaking to my feet.

Try, she insists. Just talk. You don’t need a beginning.

It might have something to do with the fact that she’s only wearing mascara on one eye, but I’m suddenly overcome with an urge to laugh out loud at the sheer absurdity of this strange lady’s unfounded faith in my ability to speak coherently. I stifle it quickly, though, mostly out of fear.

Instead, I very, very briefly consider opening up to this woman — Martha, she says I should call her —  about the break-up, or the insomnia, or my parents, or the unbelievably painful paper cut I had just gotten from my book on the train ride over. I even momentarily contemplate mentioning that I would sometimes leave classrooms mid-period to go hyperventilate in the bathroom, and that I liked to spend my downtime reading up on famous suicide notes, just in case, and that I was furious at myself for not keeping my shit together well enough to get through the week unnoticed.

None of the options feels like a particularly great conversation opener, though, so I stay quiet.

The scene is so unbearably awkward that it looks like something out of a bad sitcom — honestly, a part of me is waiting for a laugh track to go off. To be frank, I don’t know why I’m still sitting here; I think I belong less in this office than I do anywhere else. I don’t really want to talk, not just to this woman, but to anyone — I am so tired of constantly choking on words I’ve never been able to define.

Despite my lengthy period of speechlessness, the strange lady continues to stare at me expectantly. I’m too nervous to sit still, so I readjust my legs half a dozen times and start to pick away at the bright red nail polish on my right hand. She notices quickly, I suppose probably because of the odd chipping noise that’s filling the silence in her office instead of my voice. Rather than commenting on my fidgeting, though, she compliments the color, smiling wryly.

Somehow, I take this utterly irrelevant gesture as my cue to break down and start crying on this stranger’s couch.

You know that feeling when you don’t realize that the staircase has ended, and you end up taking one step too many, and your foot only finds air where there should be a floor? The instant that you realize that there’s something horribly wrong and that there’s nothing you can do about it, now, and then you come crashing down much harder than you expected to, and it hurts your sole, and you can feel a dull pain for a little while afterwards — my panic attacks are like that, sort of, except the moment in the air lasts for minutes, sometimes hours, and I never quite stop hurting afterwards, and it happens over and over until the incidents blur together into one inordinate disaster.

I wish I could say it gets easier each time, but the truth is that I’ve never been able to anticipate the triggers, or where they’ll lead. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to. This particular one has ended in me babbling hysterically about my mother hating the color red. There are cliche mascara tracks running down my cheeks and I’m biting my lip, hard, but a stream of syllables continues to spill out anyways; about one in every five is actually coherent.

I swear, I don’t know how this happened, I sob repeatedly.

The strange lady doesn’t respond — she just watches intently, lips pressed together.

Frustrated, I look back over at the window over the rim of my glasses. My vision is all blurry, but I can see that the pigeon has disappeared, and I begin to cry harder, and I have absolutely no idea why — I just know that things probably shouldn’t be this way, you know? The mascara gets smudgier and I try to stop it from running further but I don’t know how to do that, either, and now there are black streaks all across my hands, too, and all I can think about is how stereotypically crazy I must look, like the poster child for the unhinged.

I had always told myself that I was too strong for therapy. I thought that seeing a psychiatrist, or taking medication, or even just admitting that there was “something wrong” with me was weak. Succumbing to the way another person or a drug wanted me to behave had always been unacceptable to even think about. I thought that as long as I seemed whole on the outside, it was best to keep everything else to myself, that it’d all eventually sort itself out — that even if it didn’t, struggling was worth staying in control and not burdening the people that I cared about with my shit.

There are a lot of things in my life that I would do over if I were given the chance to, most of which involve running away from reality when it was only making things worse.

I wish I’d realized earlier that asking for help is okay. I wish I’d been able to understand that sometimes there is nothing irrational about irrationality. I wish someone had told me that there’s nothing brave or beautiful about self-destruction.

There’s all this static in my thoughts, you know? And my legs are covered in these little glittery scarlet flakes of nail polish, and there are suddenly all these parts of me that are hurting that I didn’t even know could feel anything, and in the midst of it all this strange lady in the blue dress is still just sitting back in her chair with mascara on one eye, staring at the tiny, shaking girl that’s balled up on her couch.

It’s okay, she finally says. Good, this is good. It’s going to be okay.

I think I’m getting there. I think this is the first step.

Ashmita Das is a rising freshman at Binghamton University. Photography by Sarah Neukrug. 


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