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Breathe by Eliza Petersen

artwork by AI


I race down the short flight of stairs to the basement with my hair matted to my temples from where my headgear sat a few moments before. My tears, once suppressed, now take the gentle buzz of the florescent lights as an invitation to run loose, no longer smothered by the body heat and rough faces of those upstairs. The yellow tinge of the aged walls and cheap lighting causes an aching in my eyes, but anything beats the blinding noise of the gym above.

Typically, I have good control over my emotions; now should be no different. I’ll cry it out, get it together, and have a good last match I tell myself. Getting pinned twice in a row after going undefeated the day before definitely hurt my pride, but I recognize that is not why tears flood my eyes. In fact, I don’t know why my teary eyes have given way to snuffles and uncontrolled, choppy breaths. Panic and self-doubt begin to rack my body in waves.

Deep breaths fill my lungs and my breathing slows. I think the worst has passed. I slide down a chilled cement brick wall. My thoughts begin to scramble again, quickly followed by sputtering attempts to get air in between the long, thick sobs. I realize what is happening. This has not happened in over a year. Usually, I can gain control and shove it down to the pit of my stomach to be dealt with another time. I have fallen too far into the pit for that now as my mind flashes to the moment on the trail, hands over my face as if trying to hide from the concerned look painted on my coach’s face.

Unlike anxiety which builds over time, panic hits suddenly, out of nowhere, stemming from a singular trigger. I know what mine is, yet I play with fire anyway; now I must pay the price. I blame my body, still weakened from my surgery several months before. I blame the stupid girl who did not heed her body’s warning as it sent her into this same panic as she tore herself apart several months ago. If I still had my healthy body, I could surpass the doubts in my mind. At this moment, the blinding panic and the buzz tingling through me prevails as proof that my body has not yet fully restored itself back to normal.

I shake my head. Grasping it in my hands I push against my skull as if to get the thoughts out. I rise from the seated ball I have found myself in and pace. My hands fall to my waist, squeezing until my hands meet. I feel naked in my singlet.

“Dammit,” I curse, nearly throwing my phone. My sister didn’t pick up. She understands this feeling. She never seems to fail when trying to soothe my manic mind.

I stand tall, suck in a breath, and make the decision. “You have to find someone to calm you down. You still have another match,” I say attempting to collect myself for the trek up the stairs.

The second the blowing whistles and stench of sweaty bodies hits me I realize the mistake I have made. My chest rises as if to take in a breath, but instead of taking in air, it just sits there for a second. I take this breathless moment and choose to recognize it as a moment of peace God has granted me before going back to my broken movements, no smoother than a cheap windup toy. With each step, the pressure against my skull builds. I don’t even know if my eyes are open or closed. Thinking back as I write this, I question how I even found my coach with my sight failing me and my head so focused on its loop of self-loathing.

As I approach him, I surrender to the feelings inside me, too tired to fight. My conscious mind gives way to the untamable tangle of emotions twisted around me. He grabs my arms and I shield my reddened face. Pure humiliation the floods in.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” he says. “What can I do?”

“Panic attack,” comes out in broken pieces between the fits of gasps. I feel like a little girl, wanting so desperately to hold his hand but I resist, afraid to make myself seem any weaker than I already appear.

He leads me over to a wall and sits with me as I slide down. I cling to his voice— the only thing anchoring me from falling right back into the pit. He talks about anything and everything except the matter at hand. I recognize his attempt to distract me and appreciate it. My breathing settles and the electrifying buzz flowing through my veins fades to a gentle hum. We make steady conversation, pausing only when my monster tries to pull me back into the pit I have escaped.

“Hey, calm down. Deep breaths. You’re fine. I’m not going to make you wrestle anymore today.” He says during the most recent flare.

We sit in a bubble, the energy of the gym flowing around us on an entirely different timeline. Eventually, he must leave to tend to my teammates in need of coaching and support. Words of encouragement grace my ears, followed by the sound of his retreating footsteps. A peaceful breath flows from my lungs.

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