Jamila is a Melbourne-based Gender Studies graduate with an unashamedly feminist focus on everything in her life. She writes fiction and non-fiction, especially around the idea of women occupying the space they deserve. She also writes about mental health and how it affects young women. She was diagnosed with generalised anxiety a few years ago - something that has become part of her everyday life. She attributes much of her social anxiety to a fear of public spaces and male confrontation. This piece attempts to explore these issues.
There were days when she felt the fabric of the world was pulled taut, and something had to give. Maybe it would be that elderly lady crossing the road, or the little girl running from her mother. Maybe it would be the woman who could be seen every day, kneeling in the prayer position by the train station, a dirty polystyrene cup in front of her clasped hands.
It could be the girls walking arm in arm down the road, giddy with their own loveliness, their blonde hair and legs crossing clumsily over each other.
It could be the woman looking at her watch, then the paper, then her watch, as if she had just landed in this day and was trying to orient herself. Trying to look busy.
It could be any of them that falls through the crack, the tear that opens in the world. Or it could be me.
When she had these thoughts, they remained with her throughout the day. Everyone she looked at was a potential victim of her thoughts, so she had to try really hard to contain them. Otherwise, maybe they would come true. By the end of the day, when she was finally walking home, her mind was slowly put at ease. The woman was still there, kneeling on the pavement, her cup pitifully empty. There were people everywhere. All she had to do was remember that she was one of them.
She too, had made it through the day without falling.
And so, tomorrow, it would begin again.
She wakes up in the morning and it’s there. It has allowed her to sleep last night, for which she is grateful. She is determined today that it will not overcome, overrun her. The pain becomes more insistent, it demands itself space. She ignores it – her first mistake. She tells herself, in a weaker and weaker voice, that everything is fine, just fine. The nest in her chest laughs quietly; it knows what will happen. So does she, but she tries anyway.
It was a fissure inside her, a fishing line snaking along her chest, tied neatly around her windpipe. That’s how she saw it. It was nestled in between her ribs most of the time, just at the point where the bones kiss. Sometimes silent, but always there.
When a man spoke to her, when he sat too close, spreading his legs on the tram seat as wide as possible, taking up every inch of space his ego appeared to need, she shrank. The line tugged gently on her throat, lovingly almost. When a man at work explained to her all the ways in which she was wrong, the tugging became less of a caress and more of a jerk on the lead.
Don’t forget about me, it said.
When her father shouted, the line threatened to snap, to unleash itself on her body. When a man walked by her then turned, stopped in front of her, blocking her path (her escape) and asked her who she was, where she came from, the fishing line was there. When men in their fifties looked at her knees on the train, knees pressed tightly together, the line was there. When she paid for her coffee and the man asked for her name, her number and anything else she wanted to give, the line was there.
Every now and then, if it felt neglected, the nest between her ribs would become impatient.
When you need to get dressed, when you’re running late. It stirs in the mind and it tells you, you can’t. Make a scene, make yourself choke on the air you can’t find. Then you’ll be safe. You’ll stay inside, and the flight response will be worth it.
Try to stand, try to move away from it and carry on – it won’t let you. It gets angrier, more insistent and it overtakes. The airways are closed, the chest contracts. The mind becomes cloudy and the only thing that matters is the terror. Look into someone else’s face and they are empty - or maybe it’s you that is emptying. And for just a moment, when you’re lost beyond belief in the panic of your own breath, of your own disgusting fog of terror, the mind goes blank. Like the moment just before you come, before you fall asleep, before you touch someone’s mouth with yours, there is a similar second of relief in the panic. Because you’ve gone too far. You’ve messed everything up enough that now, you don’t have to do anything. And maybe it’s for that single moment – when the mind is finally, finally quiet – that this happens.
And you keep allowing it to happen.
This is the feeling. That is ridiculous, that is self-pity. That is anxiety.
I am so angry. First I was angry with myself, with my weak mind, my tired body.
But I think the anger should be directed elsewhere. At the men that have put me here.
The stories that make me nervous to walk alone.
The lectures that make me feel inadequate.
The stares, the questions.
The sense that this is their world, and I am just a guest in it.
I am not unusual, believe me. I am not alone in this experience, in telling this story.