by Laurie Finkelstein
The bulk, padding, and steel plates weigh me down. The protection of a bulletproof vest is necessary. No matter the weather, I wear the cloak. The weight is a burden, but I trek on because wrapped is the only way to navigate my journey. The jacket protects my heart from being blown to crimson shards of death.
A direct hit is avoided for days and nights, lulling me into calm and complacency. “All will work out fine,” I tell myself. The truth tells a story I want to change. All my will and might does not make an impact to stop the bombardment.
Experience and time separates me from tragedy. At any moment, the bullets strike. Inside or out. My house cannot provide security, nor can a million people surrounding me. With nowhere to hide, I am a target. Shelter and safety are nonexistent.
Discharges are held back while luck and grace harbor me. The slugs will come, however, in a piercing barrage without warning, and will pummel me.
Knocked to the ground, I am immobilized and rendered helpless. My breathing is halted. My movements are stopped, and I understand what assaulted me.
The shockwave subsides, and in small increments, I am able to take in air. Incapacitated, I continue to lie until I am rescued by the rational thinking buried under an avalanche of pain, doubt, and fear. My thoughts check my vitals to make sure I am in the here and now. “Stay in the moment,” I tell myself. “I can manage this. I will persevere.”
“Rise,” I command. The mass of the garb constricts my movement, but I stand, analyze what must be done, and begin to act. The warrior in me comes out. Battles will be fought. My impervious attire gets me through another crisis, and its weight comforts me. Without the guise, I am unable to prevail against the onslaughts, which pop out of the dark corners of another day.
Yes, my vest is cumbersome, but without my swathe I will not withstand the painful projectiles. Clips are filled, ready to punch and knock me down, disabling me should I forget for a moment to cloak myself within my protective armor.
My bullets are not made of lead, surrounded by a dense metal. The projectiles do not come from terrorists intent on decimating me. The ammo does not come from a police state or a dictator’s command. A barrel is not involved.
My bullets are made of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Composed of irrational thoughts, insipid ideations, and ignorant rationalizations, they are crushing invisible forces. The capacity to shatter my resolve and render me dysfunctional invades me.
My unsociable enemy is treatable, but never disappears. My therapists validate my experiences of being trapped, resentful, guilty, shameful, ill-equipped, grief-stricken, lost, uncertain, and disabled. My growth in therapy helps me accept the challenge with compassion and empathy in my heart.
Throughout my lifetime three stages will haunt me.
Stage one is the onslaught of rounds. The crisis mode. The shock and pain.
Stage two is being slammed down, breath taken away. Sabotaged. Terms and feelings of the emergency are acknowledged.
Stage three is advocacy for myself. Stand. Breathe. Make decisions. Tools in hand to counteract the depression and anxiety and OCD. Utilize appropriate response and care.
Encouraged by others, I enroll in Toastmasters. Time for me to improve my public speaking and thinking on my feet. Professional and compelling ways of expressing my views is a talent I want to possess. Persuasive interactions are in reach. My computer with Google as my guide, I find the Toastmasters website. The rules and guidelines answer many of my questions. Ready to take on the challenge, I enter my credit card information and become a member. A direct thrust knocks me down.
At first, I don’t understand what attacks me. My heartbeat begins speeding up. My gasps for air speed up. My head spins with dizziness. The mighty effects of terror hammer me to the ground. Despair sinks me deeper into the attack.
Stage one. The thought of standing before people enunciating in a clear voice avoiding “ums” and “ahs” strikes with negative force. In a semi-frozen state of fear and regret, I struggle to make sense of my attacker. Groups of Toastmasters are warm, safe environments to learn public speaking and leadership skills. “Warm and safe,” I remind myself. Still my heart beats faster and my breath diminishes by the second. A ghost of recognition appears before me. Panic is familiar.
Stage two. My history tells me to take an extra Klonopin. Scared to death is not an option. Upon reaching my medicine cabinet with weak, wobble-producing legs, I discover my pill case empty. In my next move, I check the bottle. Empty. My heart beats faster and my limbs go numb. Sweat trickles down my forehead. My last attempt before I collapse in a heap of despair, I call my pharmacist. My trembling voice separated from my body explains my attack and lack of pills. “How fast can you fill the prescription?” my quivering voice speaks out. “Is ten minutes okay?” the pharmacy technician asks.
Stage three. My inner voice tells me to be brave. Think of a serene place. My happy place. Take deep soothing breaths. My toolbox is ransacked for more options until I come to grips with the present. The dispensary is too far to hike, so I must drive to pick up my pills. Cranked engine. Foot on pedal. Brake released. My self-talk takes me on a wild ride to the drug store. My trembling legs walk me to the back of the aisles. The friendly face of the tech reassures me. The credit card transaction is signed with a jellylike hand, completing the purchase.
Back in my car, I down the remedy with tepid water from an old bottle sitting in my trash. My panting is steadier, my heart pounding a little less. Within thirty minutes, I am relaxed, able to pursue my day. Ready to reassess my decision to become a Toastmaster. The choice is sound and important.
My bulletproof vest is worn as a badge of honor and survival. Without my garb, I would be a prisoner in my house, hiding in bed. Sick to my stomach. Useless.
The stigma of mental illness must be broken. My vest is worn with pride. I am a survivor. I am the voice of one in every five Americans experiencing the assailant. I am not alone.