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There Is No War Without Battles
Trigger warning: this story does include instances of self harm and possible other triggers for people.
The minute I stepped through the main entryway to my middle school I immediately forgot the name of my teacher for my first class. I remembered the room number was somewhere in the 140’s, so, at least I had that. Anxiety cut through my skin restricting my airways. I refused to have a panic attack at school, so I held my breath, bowed my head, and walked randomly in the eighth-grade hallway. We had a hybrid school year this year, three classes each day with half the alphabet going Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half going Thursdays and Fridays. Everyone was online on Wednesdays with shortened class periods.
“Oh, Izzy! It’s so good to see you!” a voice in front of me called. I lifted my head to see one of my friends' mom, she was the French teacher at the two middle schools. I waved, not trusting my voice. “What’s your first class? I can tell you’re kind of lost.” she asked, I could see that she was smiling through the mask. Her eyes were scrunched up.
“Um, I think room 148.” I replied, my voice wavered and I cringed.
“Ok, do you know the teacher's name? I can help you find it.” She questioned, looking around the hallway waving to other students.
I shook my head slightly, “Room 148.” I could tell she didn’t know either, I wanted to cry.
“Ok, let’s walk and see if we can find it.” She answered. We began walking and I held my breath again. Only a few doors down we came to my classroom, it was closer than expected. “Ah, hello! Here’s one of your students!” she announced, her loud and cheerful voice rang through the room. I know she meant well, but all I saw was ten kids' eyes piercing my soul. I couldn’t see anyone’s full face due to the masks, and that made it even worse. I quickly walked to an open seat and sat down letting out the breath I had been holding, finally breathing again.
I don’t remember getting back on the bus at the end of the day, I was dissociating too much to know what was happening. The minute I got home I left for my room, wanting to bury myself into the covers and sleep, I was so tired.
“Izzy! Get up! We’re going to Laura and Valentina’s house!” my twin, Grace, claimed through our Jack and Jill bathroom.
No, I thought, I just wanna sleep.
Eventually, I adjusted to school, every time I went to math, my first hour, the anxiety was back until I left for my second hour. But that wasn’t a problem now that everyone was online. I didn’t have to see people, I didn’t have to hold my breath or walk with my head down. In October I made really good friends, I had hung out with Dan, Sophia and Josie during summer. But I didn’t have any classes with them now and Josie got quarantined until the end of December.
We added my sister Grace, Aidan and Harper in the group and we were all really close. Once or twice a week we would all go to one of our houses and do school together. Everything felt like a butterfly soaring with its new wings.
Sophia was struggling with her mental health a lot and I didn’t know how to help her. Eventually, she started getting better and it made everyone happy. A week later, December started and my sister and I’s birthday was coming up, along with Sophia’s the day after. Josie was still quarantined so she could see her grandmother for Christmas.
All throughout that time I was preoccupied with school, my anxiety, and trying to help Sophia that I didn’t realize how toxic Dan was becoming. For Christmas, my family went to Colorado for a skiing trip. Every night we texted on the group chat, on the third night we were arguing about what color math, science, and language arts were. I was dead set on math being blue and Sophia agreed, Dan didn’t.
That day I wasn’t in a good spot mentally but texting the group made me feel a lot better, like I had something to live for. Until I got a text from Dan that read, “Izzy go cry to your stupid anime characters you horrible disappointment.”
My heart stopped, my lungs stopped, like a car slamming on the breaks. I reread the whole conversation, rereading everything to make sure I didn’t do anything to make him say that. That’s when I realized how horrible of a friend he really was. I was desperate to have friends that when I finally got them I put them on a pedestal, hoping they would stay. Deep down, I feel bad for Dan because that was the day all his friends left him. Harper called us girls the next day and we all agreed to take a break from Dan, Aidan didn’t really agree so we sadly stopped talking to him too.
On New Year's Eve, we decided to give them another chance. It had only been a week but we thought it would be fun to hang out again. The plan was that everyone would get to my house by four in the afternoon, the girls would sleep over while Aidan and Dan would head back over to Aidan's house for the night. Even though we trusted them, we didn’t want them over past nine-thirty. Aidan lived only a few doors down too so it was no big deal to walk.
We told them that many times, I had hoped they would understand due to us being paranoid teenage girls. Although disappointed, Aidan understood and said his goodbyes.
Dan didn’t budge and claimed, “Well, I thought we could all sleep over. You should trust me, I’m your best friend.” I started getting fidgety because I wasn’t good at handling those situations, but I wanted him to leave.
“Hey Dan, we’ll see you guys in the morning, but it’s never been the plan to have you guys stay over.” Harper exclaimed, dismissing him. Harper and I walked them to the door, saying goodbye.
“Well, that was uncomfortable. Maybe we shouldn’t have given Dan another chance.” my sister mumbled her opinion. I nodded my head in agreement, wanting to cry and sleep. I felt bad for Dan, I was uncomfortable with the idea of him sleeping over but I felt bad about how he reacted.
We didn’t talk to him from that point onward, Sophia was still in full communication with him due to being in a small band with Dan, Aidan, and a few other members. March rolled around the corner and every Wednesday Harper, Sophia, and Josie would come to Grace and I’s house for school.
“Guys something weird happened at band practice yesterday.” Sophia declared walking through the door, she always came late so we were all already sitting in a circle working on second hour.
“Yeah? Like what?” I asked, knowing it had something to do with Dan. I closed my iPad to give her my full attention.
“He kept saying stuff along the lines of ‘Oh, Sophia’s a she/they and bisexual, so she’s going to give us so much clout’. I don’t know, it just made me feel objectified and I didn’t like it.” Sophia stated while plopping down onto the ground.
We were all mad at what Dan had said until Harper spoke up, “First of all, I’m going to throw an article in Dan's face of why that is inappropriate. Second of all, I didn’t know you were a she/they. I'm proud of you for feeling comfortable enough to tell us.”
“Thanks Harper.” They said, giving Harper a hug.
Two weeks later, Sophia quit the band stating they didn’t like the environment anymore. We all supported them, and things were going really well with friends in my life.
All throughout the next few weeks my mental health started deteriorating, I found out my grandpa only had two to five years left to live and my dad had something wrong with his lung. School decided to start up again but with everyone in classes, so everyone was coming in all days except Wednesdays still. The only solid thing I had going for me was my friends but I didn’t even have the strength to spend time with them. I stayed in my room, only leaving for school and swim practice.
One night urges got the best of me, it was the first time I started cutting. They were small and shallow, but noticeable. I was embarrassed that my mental state got the better of me that I didn’t wear shorts around the house, there was still snow outside, so no one in my family questioned it. My mom noticed though, she made me start going to a therapist after school every Wednesday to try and help me.
For me, there are two different kinds of ‘spacing out’. Sometimes, I’m just tired and my mind wanders off, it’s easy to snap out of it. When my bad thoughts get the better of me, it’s like I’m watching a movie, I can’t stop, I can’t change anything. It’s as if someone were playing with a puppet and I’m the one tangled in the strings. I explained that to my therapist, Bridget, and she helped me with grounding techniques if I ever started to notice myself going off like that.
School got difficult within that week, it was hard for me to walk up in the morning and get ready. That weekend I had a swim meet that was really important for next season. I went to the meet. Even with fresh cuts on my thigh, I pushed through and I was proud of myself for what I had accomplished. After that, I didn’t self-harm for two weeks and I was happy with the streak I was making.
It was close to the end of the school year but we started reading a memoir called Night by Elie Wiesel in my second hour, language arts. He was a survivor of the Holocaust and the book was about his story in the camps. Even though the book made my bad thoughts come more often I managed to get through more than half the book without fail. I had broken another razor just in case, but I was certain I wouldn’t use it.
Then my dad left for the hospital, he had to get surgery on his lung. The total time of the procedure took six hours, the Doctors managed to get the bad stuff out and later found it was cancer due to testing. I visited him in Saint Mary’s Hospital the day after which was a Saturday. He was in pain and couldn’t even walk properly. It scared me to see him that way, my mom, sister, and I stayed the night in a hotel. I couldn’t sleep that night, I sat awake hoping he wouldn’t die, hoping he would feel better in the morning.
The next day my dad was doing a lot better, he was loaded up on pain meds and had a nice smile on his face. We left that afternoon hoping he could come home soon like the doctors said he could.
We got home and I started to work on some work for the memoir Night. Our class called them book clubs and everyone had a different job each time we met together in groups. I never started because of the time I spent in the hospital.
The last chapter of that book was the hardest thing I’ve ever read, Elie was describing how much pain his dad was in while dying. I immediately thought of my dad dying alone in a hospital bed with his family two hours away.
I broke my two-month streak of not self-harming that night. I never finished the book club work and I never went to school the next day. My mom was worried I would self-harm again that day so I spent the day with her. I don’t know what I would do without my mom, I was glad to spend the day with her, just so I could get out of the house.
I went to school for the next two days and Thursday came around. In language arts we had a modified socratic seminar because we couldn’t be in a circle due to contact tracing. We had LA split up because of lunch and advisory, the first two questions were easy to answer and I could state my opinion. I went to lunch and then to advisory. In advisory we watched a video explaining the layout of the high school and how the first year will look. I couldn’t help but think, Will I make it through high school?
I looked down at my thigh moving the rips in my jeans just to look at them for a second. I once heard on social media someone talking about their experiences with self-harm and mental health.
She called her scars battle scars but went on to say how she felt when they disappeared, the girl explained, “When my cuts turned to scars I was happy, that meant I won the war. But, what happened when my scars disappeared? I felt like I never fought to begin with.”
I thought about what she had said for a while. When I first heard it I thought it explained everything for me. Then I learned that wars have battles, and sometimes you win some and you lose some. Work on getting stronger so the war ends for peace.
I went back to language arts after calming down with some breathing exercises my therapist taught me. Breathe in for six seconds then out for seven or eight seconds. It helps a lot, it allows me to breathe while going into math instead of holding my breath.
I sat down in my chair, I was sat in the closest spot to my teacher and in the corner. No one could really see me unless they looked past the teacher.
“Alright, I hope you guys had a good lunch. I will put the third and final question up on the board, remember to not write anything down for the first thirty seconds. Start thinking now.” She clicked to the next slide and the question rested in big, bold, white letters against a grey-blue background.
Do you think it was a good idea to read this book this year? the question read.
I stopped breathing then again and the same word echoed throughout my head, No.
I didn’t write anything down, I couldn’t. Before I knew it, time was up anyway.
“Ok, now share your ideas with your tablemates, then we’ll go around the class. The person closest to the clock share first, please.” my teacher exclaimed.
That was me, my voice shook so I pinched myself and welcomed the pain, “Um, I think it was both good and bad. I think it should have been an option with some people’s mental health and this year especially, it was probably harder for some people to read something like this.”
I didn’t hear what my two tablemates said, I think Daphne agreed with me but I don’t remember hearing Elsa’s response.
Soon after people were going around the room and one sentence caught my attention, “I strongly believe that it was a good idea to still read the memoir this year, it was really informative despite the hard topics. I think it’s selfish, immature, and ignorant if you don’t read this book along with the class.” I saw many people nod their heads to that. My heart was pounding fast and a tear fell down my face and into my mask. I couldn’t finish the book, did that make me selfish, immature, and ignorant?
When my teacher asked if anyone had a different opinion I raised my hand and barely got out, “I disagree with all of you because some people just can’t handle it right now.” I don’t think anyone understood, I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn about the Holocaust, I didn’t mean that it wasn’t an important topic. But nonetheless, my teacher nodded her head and moved on. Lots of tears started cascading down my face, yet I was silent. I didn’t make a noise, holding my breath so no one would notice.
We finally moved on to work time and I couldn’t keep the panic attack in any longer, I leaned over to my teacher not having to stand up, and shakily whispered, “Can I go on a walk, please?” She immediately said yes and I bolted up and grabbed the sleeve of my friend Naomi’s shirt pulling her with me. We walked around the school a total of three times, I just kept crying and crying. My breaths came out short and rushed, and I dug my nails into my palm.
“You’re ok, those people don’t know what’s going on, you’re not selfish or ignorant. It’s ok.” Naomi soothed. A second went by and she exclaimed, “Let’s try something, I want you to tell me three things you can see.”
I remembered doing this with my therapist one time, I’ve never been good at noticing details, however large or small. I can create an escape, a world with just as much chaos as my thoughts. I can see clearly, hear clearly, and breathe clearly in those worlds. Naomi urged on, “so, three things?”
I responded but my eyes were blurry, “lockers, door, people.” There were lines of dark blue lockers everywhere in the hallway. I could see classroom doors open with kids ones up three feet apart, learning. Naomi went on with three things I could hear, opening up my senses to help calm me. It worked a little, and I was so grateful she was with me. I wanted to go home though, my dad had come home on Wednesday and I wanted to see him.
I called my mom and was driven home, still crying. I ran to my room and grabbed my little gecko, Dino Nugget, from his cage. I sat on the floor and held him in my hand as he slithered up to my shoulder and jumped back down my arm, I smiled. He hadn’t been eating his formula and he was still so young and small that I had to feed him some bananas until I got the chance to get him powdered formula he would actually eat. My mom brought some mashed banana and we fed him together.
I calmed down and fell asleep after putting Dino back in his terrarium. I missed science but after my nap, I sat down with my dad in the family room. He was set up comfortably because he couldn’t move all that well yet. I pulled up a book on my phone and started reading, it always helped. It felt like I was being pulled off to another reality, one without chaos, just peace. I smiled softly and thought, I won another battle.