blurred vision heart colliding with my chest each breath is an effort but it's coming so fast and i can't control this it's too much too much too much it needs to stop i have to make it go away i need to get out get out get out she's calling my name but a whisper sounds like a shout the air around me seems to evaporate into nothingness and I am falling falling falling so fast tumbling down and maybe i'm not afraid of falling and maybe i'm not even worried about having someone there to catch me because i don't want to be caught at all
the beating of my pulse under my fingertips pulls me back down and i get that feeling again: that strange sense of gratitude for gravity and for everything that is simultaneously coming together and breaking apart in the universe at this one moment. it's a comfort to realise that even when my head is pounding and my heart's beating too fast and my breath sounds like thunder in my ears the world will keep on turning and everything in the universe will continue to exist and everything will keep happening and not happening and every life will correspond to another to form this invisible web of which which we can only glimpse. i like to think of it that way. i like to connect each thing to another until the pattern can't continue and i'm left with the familiar sense of not-knowing which accompanies everything: every movement and decision, every estimate and assumption and thought made by every single human being is simply based on the fact that the ratio of things we do know at that moment is greater than the things we don't. we will always not know, and once we have accepted the inevitability of the not-knowing, we can enjoy everything a little bit more. even the things we do know are weighted ever so slightly by something we don't. why does 2 + 2 equal 4? i don't know. it just does.
and so i have come to accept the fact that i don't know if i have a panic attack, or when i have a panic attack, or how or why i have panic attacks. i don't know why, sometimes, my mind will begin to amplify every thought until it becomes so impossibly big i cannot distinguish between one word and another, until everything is an indescribable mass of thoughts and feelings and sounds and voices and emotions and that mass is breaking apart and coming together so quickly in my head that it feels as if i might pass out. my head is a radio, and every so often the dial is turned the wrong way, and all that comes out is white noise.
the words panic attack make me think of flailing arms and screeching and violence. it's none of that. it's just that sometimes i get worked up when i imagine what people think of me each time i begin to get anxious. i wonder what they see, and if what they see is in any way linked to what really happened. it's all so complex, and i just can't figure it out. we will never truly know what happened, or what is happening, or what will happen. we see it through our eyes, and we judge it based on our thoughts and experiences. we change it ever so slightly, as if our objectivity is a lens through which we perceive the world; that lens is something we just can't get rid of. and what good is it asking anyone else what happened? they see it a different way. the only thing is to be skeptical. because with skepticism, you're accepting the fact that you don't know. everyone else is just trying to pretend that they do.
and so I'm sitting here in a crowded classroom in period 5 history with a racing heart and a pounding head and fists clenched so tightly that my knuckles are white. i pretend not to notice my classmates pretending not to notice my anxiousness. i glance at my teacher who is pretending not to glance at me. but things are back to normal now, and i can at least try to get to work again. it was the stress of it all that set off the white noise inside my head; or maybe this time it was a broken record spitting out phrases like pressure and exams over and over and over again until i was sent into overdrive. now i'm breathing fine and the pain in my head is subsiding and if i concentrate hard enough i can almost make myself forget. but it's always there, each attack fresh in my mind, gnawing away at me. i never quite know exactly what happened, but i can't ever forget it: you can't forget something you don't know.
the bell rings to signal the end of the school today and i can feel relief flooding slowly over me, mixed with the heavy weight of exhaustion that never really disappears. i hear my history teacher call my name before i walk out the classroom but i don't look back, just hoist one strap of my backpack onto my shoulder and head to my locker. people surge through the corridors and out of the school gates, drunk on the promise of a free afternoon before school the next day. my headphones are over my ears before anyone can start to make a conversation with me, and everything becomes as infinitesimal as it always does when music is played: all that matters is the bass and the chords and the lyrics that fit effortlessly across a steady rhythm. the music fills me almost like the terror seems to fill me sometimes but i know that this time it's intentional, and it's okay, and i can get lost in something so personal and private while the world around me continues like it always does and i am so insignificant that my flaws will disappear amongst everyone else's. for once i can lose myself in the anonymity of it all.
but there's one person who knows who i am. Mo, leaning against the wall of the same brick alley we always meet at. she's smiling, her hair golden-brown in the sunlight and tangled up in her headphones. she dip-dyed her hair a while ago, and the blonde has faded into something so perfect that it makes each strand shimmer softly every time the light hits it. but it's too perfect for Mo, so she likes to keep it interesting by dyeing the tips a different colour every few weeks. right now it's purple. a battered old paperback is clutched between her fingers and she's grinning as she turns the pages. she greets me with a smile and a brush of her lips against my cheek, teasing me. i kiss her back, softly, and then suddenly it's over, and she's pulling her headphones off and entwining her fingers with mine, and i'm wondering how i was lucky enough to encounter someone so incredible. it's like all my flaws and problems and worries fit together perfectly with hers each time i hold her hand; as if i am giving a part of me to her and she's giving a part of her to me and somehow the parts of us will balance out into the people we want to be, and when we're together the people we are don't matter. i don't act differently with Mo, or lie, or say things i wouldn't say. i'm just different. i'm better. because of her.
so, charlie brown, she says. she likes to change my name every so often. i like it too. she can reinvent me whenever she chooses.
Mo, i say back, because even her name on my lips is something so special that i have to remind myself of its importance every so often. i have to remind myself of the importance of this moment, and all the moments before and all the moments afterwards that i have spent with her, because that's what keeps me going.
what are you reading? i ask. she's still got the ancient paperback in her hand. she's not looking at it anymore, though. she's looking at me.
this? she says. i'm not really reading it. just reminding myself of my favourite bits. i've read it six times already, see.
i don't think anyone can turn the pages that fast and read every word, i admit. i wasn't reading, she says. i was seeing how much i remember.
and how much do you remember? i reply, swinging my hand back and forth in hers like we did when we were kids.
late in the winter of my seventeenth year... she starts, and it takes her what i guess to be a few pages before she forgets. that's it, she says. i'm working on it, though. and how was your day?
she does this a lot. it's a game we play. changing the subject so quickly so that we have time to fit everything in before we say goodbye. no one ever wins. it's just a matter of how you play.
i don't know, i say. she turns to me, then, clasping my hand tighter. because i don't know is our codeword for i panicked again. actually, i don't know is our codeword for everything, because, as i mentioned before, there's a lot of things we don't know. but Mo can guess. and she's very good at guessing.
she doesn't say anything at first. she doesn't tut at me or go oh, charlie or when you gonna snap out of it, huh? she listens to the silence, the same silence that i'm listening to, and i'm thinking about how amazing it is that we can share that. and then she breaks the silence, but slowly, and gently, so that it doesn't hurt.
i hang suspended, she says, until a septic truth bleeds towards clarity.
Mo loves quotes. she has hundreds of them written across the cover of her huge leather-bound philosophy book. she's almost the same age as me - only a few months younger - and she's taking philosophy a-level alongside her gcses. Mo was the one who taught me about the not-knowing. i didn't know before, of course, but with her, not-knowing seemed so much more wonderful.
Mo loves to talk to me about the world. about how we got here and why we exist and where we're going and what our purpose is. she says everything has a purpose, and that is to exist, but there's always something deeper than that. that comes from skepticism, she says. and the not-knowing. she says philosophy is all about not-knowing, but looking and observing and thinking and guessing; and understanding that not having answers is what keeps us going. if we ever find an answer to why we exist, everyone at that moment won't really be able to live anymore, because the one thing they live for, the recklessness, the risks, the not-knowing, would have been taken away.
i start to wonder what this particular quote means but she begins to explain before i can say anything. she likes to talk, and i like to listen. it's as simple as that.
i hang suspended, she says again, until a septic truth bleeds towards clarity. she glances at me again. is that what it's like? she says quietly. like - like you're not there, and you're just waiting until something pulls you back down to reality. like you heart is beating and your mind is racing and you're breathing and moving and panicking but you're not really there? like you're so immersed in the heartbeats smd the moving and the panicking that it's all there is, and you just - you just kind of lose yourself for a moment? she looks down, shaking her head, never once letting go of my hand. because that sucks, she says. it does. it sucks. but it's a part of you, and you can't just get rid of parts of yourself, otherwise you wouldn't be you. you've just got to find a way to - to make it a little better.
i shift slightly to gaze at her, at every part of her that i can see, and again i find myself marvelling at how impossibly right this is. it fits. we fit. i need to find a way to tell her that what she just said is right, too. it's like when you read a page of a book or you see a quote or a lyric and you suddenly have this sort of revelation. it's like, you kind of knew that before, but now it's been put into words; into something crafted and perfected you're reading it or seeing it or hearing it and you actually realise that what it's saying is true. that's what happened.
but time has passed us by and all of a sudden we're standing in the lobby of her tiny London apartment building and we're dreading the inevitability of goodbye. i find myself nodding and saying thank you so many times that Mo has to shut me up with a kiss, and for once i am grateful for my lack of knowledge in the conversations with other human beings department. Mo's lips meet mine and everything falls away for good this time and my fingers are exploring her hair and her hands are gripping my shoulders and this moment is so wonderful that i just can't let it go. but it slips away as it always does and i'm left with a promise of see you tomorrow, charlie brown, and i'm gazing at Mo as she takes the stairs two at a time to reach her apartment.