What are you afraid of? Is it snakes or spiders? Or maybe you’re like me. Maybe you aren’t afraid of an object. Maybe… just maybe it’s a feeling, an emotion – something that consumes your every thought. Maybe your fear is what other people might see.
Today this fear looms in my mind. It is the first day I face my 82 classmates since I left halfway through class 42 days ago for an “allergy appointment” and never came back. Today is the day I will walk up to all of them. I will have put a smile on my face and will pretend like nothing happened. So here I stand looking at the body I don’t love anymore in the mirror. This body in the mirror looks nothing like me. It can’t do anything MY body can do. Where my body runs four miles each day, this body can’t even go up stairs without breathing hard. This body has somehow stolen my mind and placed it inside this prison.
When I look back at this broken reflection, I cry. I cry for everything I was, everything I could do. I cry for everything I am now and all I now have to do, but most importantly, for the first time, I truly let myself cry. Once every ounce of water in my body is gone, I take a deep breath. With determination I pick up the outfit I laid out earlier in the morning. They’re the only clothes I have that still fit me. I wiggle my thin arms into the cozy auburn sweater. It then glides over my smooth glossy head and my high-waisted black leggings covering all my now-sharp curves. I feel better not being able to see this body that is clearly not mine. I unclasp my three inch gold hoop earrings and slide them into my ears. With each item I put on, this body looks more and more like mine. I take one more look in the mirror and turn quickly away.
I walk to the stairs and grip the smooth railing and start the slow descent down. With each step my lungs get a little smaller. The air is coming in less and less. I reach the bottom of the stairs bending over to breathe. Click, click, click. Right away I am met with a blur of brown and white. They always say dogs can sense when people are ill, and I don’t doubt it for a minute. Because this dog has never left my side. Luckily today, he won’t have to. I walk over to the front door and grab my St. Bernard’s leash. He knows the drill, and we quickly leave the house. We take our places in the car. Me in the front, him in the seat behind me. His head next to mine. He knows that he needs to be brave for me today. It takes us all of two minutes to arrive at our destination.
When I step out of the car, he jumps onto the sidewalk too. With a deep breath I look at the building. It’s large and simple, made of red brick. Just like every other school in the world. We walk up the path to the main office. I press the silver buzzer, and a high-pitched click sounds. The door has been unlocked, and we slip inside. Luckily, there is only one person inside the office. I walk up, trying to be invisible. With a 168-pound dog, I find this impossible. As I sign myself in with the cold metal pen lying patiently on the table, Claire, the office lady, looks up, and it’s like I’ve come back from the dead. She is annoyingly ecstatic to see me. As politely as I can, I escape to the eighth grade hallway. All week I have been craving this visit. Craving the chance to see a face that doesn’t live within my own house. Craving the voice of someone new. Just craving anything new. I was even excited to see people who I would usually never go out of my way to talk to, but the closer and closer I get to seeing these people, the more my fear builds.
So now we’re back to this question, aren’t we? What are you afraid of? Think about it. Really think about it, because the answer that first comes to your mind most likely isn’t your real fear. I know it’s not mine.
I can hear my footsteps echo in the empty hallway. Pound, pound, pound. There is a softer, more comforting click, click, click next to me. This calms my overwhelming anxiety. As we walk towards the end of the hall, a great fog of voices is waiting. Fear slams into me instantly. I am just out of view of the 167 pairs of eyes in the lunchroom. All I have to do is walk down three steps and make it to the second table on the right where each of my friends sit every day. I remind myself to breathe, but the smell of ketchup and burnt food makes me want to throw up. Then I hear a familiar giggle. This little sound of joy gives me all the confidence I need to take the most terrifying six steps in my life. I put my smile back on my face and make it four steps before the roaring cafeteria turns quiet. It takes the seventh grade a minute to recognize me, but my classmates only need one moment. And everything I was afraid of, everything I told myself wouldn’t happen, flames to life.
The whispers become the new background noise, and stupid questions are fired at me at rapid speed. Everyone wants to hug me and tell me about times they have also struggled in their life, as if having the flu could somehow make them relate to what I am going through. People are swarming my dog, and he just keeps leaning into me to hide. I start to freak out when I hear someone yelling at kids to go back to their seats, to leave me alone, but they don’t understand the worst part of it all will never stop. For it is the eyes that say everything the mouth doesn’t have the courage to say. When you look at someone’s eyes, you see exactly what they are thinking. Remember when you were younger and your teachers would tell you to be careful what you say because you can’t take it back? Well a person’s eyes tell you all those thoughts. The ones they know better than to say out loud. It’s those thoughts that hurt the most. Eyes can show millions of different emotions, but as I look out at all these faces I only see one: pity. I want to scream at them. “Stop! Don’t pity me!” I don’t want this sympathy that they have thrown at me. It makes me feel small and weak. And right now I can’t afford to be weak.
So there it is. That’s my fear. It’s all those eyes that can’t look away but say everything. And it’s those rare people who say the things shown in their eyes that really make a person want to cry. But I have my thanks to give to all these people. As soon as I stop letting those unsaid words hurt me, I see how strong I really am. It takes me a long time to be able to see the new beauty in this body, and some days I still can’t, but I can use my strength to help other children who are also going through this journey. So now I stand tall and put on my smile because I know I am stronger than anything their eyes could say, and I make sure my eyes always shine with kindness.