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An essay on heartbreak and complusions.
I've always described anxiety as a chill that passes through me. One moment I’m perfectly content, I smile and engage in pleasant conversation, but once the chill slips into my chest cavity, it pollutes my airways, and I become unresponsive. When my hands begin to shake, I ball them up into tight fists to hold them still, squeezing my beige flesh into rouge spirals. Some days my body is too scared to move, and when that happens, I spend them in bed wasting away into nothingness. On other days I'm actively anxious, so I prevent bad things from happening by creating safety nets for when I inevitably fail at something. By the time I was 15, I had already planned out what A levels I would do, what universities I'd be able to attend and what career paths I could take depending on my failing of maths GCSE (which did happen). I had also planned out what I'd do when I'd inevitably fail at something like romance; I just wouldn't engage in it. I was petrified of rejection, and for good reason.
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I've attended 8-9 different schools and often moved due to my father's job as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. Not only did this make it hard for me to create friendships that lasted long or meant anything, but it also meant I was constantly trying to fit into a new place when I had just finally gotten comfortable somewhere else. One of the more overwhelming experiences was when I moved back to the UK for two years and attended secondary school. I felt like an outsider. Popular culture escaped me, and I was the only Black Muslim hijabi at my school. After years of attending a predominantly Arab, Asian and Black girls-only elementary and middle school, I didn't feel comfortable being in a primarily white co-ed school.
Boys and the subsequent feelings regarding romance felt like a foreign concept, so I watched on the sidelines as my classmates engaged in puppy love. Always for them and never for me. That was the phrase I'd tell myself not to foolishly fall for someone. But unfortunately, I couldn't control puberty or which boy it set its sights on. This left me with a truly embarrassing experience of having my secret crush being yelled aloud in a packed hallway of my classmates—I trusted a friend with that information, and it came back to bite. For months I was ridiculed for the idea that the popular and charming boy I liked could ever see me as anything but a joke. After that, crushes escaped me as my fears of rejection and humiliation compounded.
When I moved back to Saudi Arabia at 14, I became more aware of the societal hierarchy laid out for me in a country I had once called home for so many years. I wasn't a child anymore. Instead, I was now a teenager who realised that desire did not exist for me beyond sexual harassment. I avoided flirting with the idea of romance even when my peers spent their days talking about their secret trysts in a fairly religious housing complex where everyone's parents worked with one another.
The house I lived in at 14 was on the outskirts of the compound owned by my father's employer, a haven for mostly non-Western immigrants who came to Saudi. Behind my house lay a barren wasteland of yet-to-be-developed housing, and under the night sky, it protected me from gazing eyes. On weekends I sat in my bedroom, and I could hear the loud noises emerging from the empty land now filled with teenagers who, for the first time in their lives, had a place to figure out what they wanted. I would look outside my window and wonder what it would be like to feel that free, even for a night. But, I never allowed myself to fall into the fantasy. Instead, every weekend I would crawl back from the window and fall into bed, hoping one day that would change. I listened to my friend's relay stories of the moments of romance they'd encountered by getting a guy's Kik username or his Snap. Instead of yearning for someone for myself, I savoured the minuscule amount of information they gave me. I could protect myself by feeding the growing hunger in my heart with stories that did not belong to me.
When 2017 rolls around, I have a choice: either I can stay in Saudi for the remainder of the year or move home to Buckinghamshire with my mother and siblings. I chose the former.
Call it a sense of obligation. I believed that because I had spent 14-18 in miserable bondage with this land, 19 would be the final time I could finally make something of my experiences. Maybe I'd actually enjoy it for once. So, after spending a summer in England, my father and I headed to the airport to fly back to Dharan. However, something felt different. Maybe it was because I had made a choice that now seems monumentally drastic for my steadfast rulemaking anxiety—I had confessed my feelings to a boy.
Since that crush in Year 8, I went years without having a crush on anyone. It became so foreign that I began to think that perhaps love and all its frivolities only exist in books or films. Yes, whenever I saw someone I was attracted to, that tiny inkling of warmth buzzed around my chest. Nevertheless, as quickly as it came, it left. I had to remind myself that there was no point in putting myself out there only to be rejected based on my physicality. But somehow, I believed that T_____ was different. He hadn't met me in person even though my hometown of Aylesbury was merely a 40-minute bus ride from his hometown of Oxford. He was two years older than I, and his 20 seemed much more alluring than my boring 18.
The exact details of the beginning of our Twitter mutualship are still hard to recall, but I knew that I had been feeling different from the moment I braved myself to direct message him. I felt seen, which is a cliche, but still, it fills your body with a new sense of purpose. The girl who was ignored and shrunk herself down no longer needed to do so because someone—a hot boy specifically—thought she was cool. He wanted to talk to me daily and ask my opinions on TV shows and movies. He told me about his pets and familial drama as if I was one of the most influential people in his life. He told me about his anxiety; I tried to therapise him and became the go-to 'how do I get mental health help' search tool in his life. I felt needed, and I fell for him. I fell hard. This new emotional landscape I was broaching scared me, perhaps due to the lack of experience but also because beyond this screen, would our relationship have any merit? At the end of summer, I decided I was in love with him. I'm still unsure if that was love or merely deep infatuation, but it's clear that either was enough for me.
On my flight to Saudi, I wrote him a confession. I typed it up in my notes app and waited until the very second I was in the air to press send. I turned my phone on flight mode and ignored every message I was sent until the day after my journey. When I turned my phone back on, I saw that he had responded.
He appreciated my message and wished he had felt the same way but was seeing someone at the moment. He had never mentioned her to me, which seemed confusing considering how close we had become. Was he hiding her? Or did I merely miss the signs? After seeing his reply, my whole world came crashing down. I began looking back at our conversations and seeing them in a new light.
Now the moments I felt he was coming to me with issues because he felt safe with me looked like he was using me as a sounding board. I began to realise that when he would flirt with me, he'd never truly compliment me whilst I made sure to pad his ego as much as I could. I can't say if this was done purposefully; I haven't spoken to him since that day. My automatic response was to softblock him and never talk to him again, banishing him from my thoughts. Still, he kept following me back in a weird attempt to rekindle the platonic friendship he imagined we had. After a day or two, he eventually gave up, but I wonder if he felt any sadness over how it ended. Does he think about that summer, or is it just a blip on his radar?
"Devastated" would be an understatement for how hurt I was. I had no guide for how to deal with those feelings and nobody to vent to or cry with.
My closest friends were online, and the friends I had in Saudi were off to college. Confiding in my parents seemed too daunting. My mother was in England, but even if she weren't, I remembered her ruling on dating, and I felt too guilty to talk to her. Even though this was the most halal experience I could've had for the first time, it still felt like I was breaking a promise and being punished for that.
Whilst my father lived with me, we've never had a relationship where I could talk to him about my personal life. Even so, he was working so much overtime I barely saw him. I spent two and a half months alone in an apartment, trying to make sense of what had happened. Sleep became optional, and my body moved around like a zombie without sustenance. Slow and decayed.
I think that's when the itching started.
The base-level anxiety I experienced daily began to mutate into something I had never witnessed before. This heartbreak had switched something inside me. I felt out of control. Not only was I paranoid about everything around me, but my body started constantly itching for some reason. It wasn't a slight itch when you have a dry patch of skin but instead the deep, visceral itchiness of bug bites and eczema.
Only I had neither.
To unknowing eyes, my body and mental state seemed fine. I get why, I mean, it wasn't as if I spoke up about how I was suffering, but when left alone with myself, the itch wouldn't go away. Shortly after began the crawling, crawling in my cheeks, in my eyes and my ears. The feeling that something was infesting my body and eating me from the inside out. It became so debilitating that I'd pick at my eyes, almost blinding myself. I'd use q-tips to dig at ears I had already cleaned ten times to ensure I didn't have a bug hiding deep inside them. My body felt like it was slipping away from me. Bit by bit, the damaged chunks of my flesh slid off of my decaying carcass. I wondered when the vultures would begin to circle, but the wafting scent of despair might've been too pungent for them.
At a certain point, I stopped leaving my house. I already hated going outside for fear of the sexual harassment that had haunted my past 3-4 years in Dhahran. Yet, this time it felt like life or death as if leaving the house would cause some life-threatening disaster I could never recover from. My sleep-deprived brain started imagining the sounds and shapes of people who would scratch at my locked bedroom door, wanting to barge their way into my room. My father was only sleeping at our house every couple of days due to work. Nights alone would end up with me awake at 4 AM, covered in bedsheets, praying nobody broke in. By the end of September, I was in a full-blown psychotic breakdown.
I wasn't sure how I ended up like this. What happened to crying over rom-coms and eating from a tub of ice cream? Instead, I spent nights debating asking my father if he could send me back to England 7 months earlier than planned because I feared I'd hurt myself. When I finally psyched myself up enough to ask him, I never mentioned T_____ or that I had been distant due to heartbreak-turned-psychosis. I said I was homesick. I'm not sure how much he believed me, but it seemed that he could tell I was off-kilter. In the next week or so, I packed my things and flew home. I felt ashamed. How could I have failed myself like this? Over a boy, of all things?
Once I got back home, I felt more settled. Perhaps my brief stint with insanity was just a symptom of not having anyone around me. So I did what I did best, and I distracted myself. I threw everything into school, and even though I didn't do the best at my A Levels, I still got into university. I tried to move on and create a new life for myself in my twenties, but I still find that the itching lurks behind me.
Now, it's no longer just an itch or a fear of bugs. I can't go into the fridge without chucking away anything near expiry because I'm scared of contamination. I'm afraid to walk down a flight of stairs in case I break my ankle. This image replays so often that I can vividly describe the feeling of torn muscles and chipped bones. When I walk around, I think about how often cars will hit me on the road, so during red lights, I try never to cross empty roads even when there aren't any cars nearby. All of this circulates in my mind constantly, and I can't turn it off. There's no remote to pause the horror reel.
There are moments when I don't itch. My ears feel fine, and I don't perform rituals or think about myself or my loved ones dying in a loop. I cherish those days because I finally feel human again. Yet, it pops back up like a cyst never truly scraped out of its sac. It gets worse when I'm sad or anxious, which at the moment is more often than I'd like. I've only disclosed this experience to a few friends because one of my biggest fears is being called crazy. Maybe it seems comical, knowing how honest I am with depression and suicidal ideation. Maybe not. Opening up about the fetishised idea of being a sad girl is far from opening up about hallucinations and psychosis. Being public about the idea that I'm sometimes not always there petrifies me.
Writing down an admission that my brain cannot function at a level of normalcy is a risk I'm taking. I don't imagine ever having a proper 9-5 job again for fear of being unable to hold it down. Masking the reality of my mental state has left me feeling like a fraud. I hate that I've tricked my loved ones, friends, educators and even employers. I'm not dependable or solid. I fall through the cracks, and every time I pick myself back up again, I look more misshapen than before.
But perhaps it's in that misshapenness that I can find peace of mind—accepting that I exist in a place where everything isn't as smooth and linear as it's meant to be. Because it was never really about T_____ or the crush I had on him. The rejection hurt me, but looking back, I believe the guilt of allowing myself to feel something for someone else sent me down a spiral. I ignored my failsafe plan, and for that, my brain was punishing me. But I've realised that I can't live like that any longer. I can't devoid myself of love and a future that makes me happy just because romance and rejection petrify me. I'm not entirely sure how I move on from the itch, maybe it's by seeking an OCD diagnosis or medication, or perhaps I need to meditate. Who the fuck knows?
However, maybe being open about this will stop me from stigmatising myself. I'm not the only person who experiences the itch, and I won't be the last.
in a panoramic? is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.