March 8, 2018
I woke up around nine a.m., sweaty and agitated. It was the last month of summer and the hot weather wasn’t of any help for me to get a decent amount of sleep. Of course, there was another little thing that kept me awake for most of the night: I would be a graduate by the end of the evening. My stomach hurt and I felt like I could throw up at any minute. I took a deep breath: everything was going to be fine. I tried to comfort myself thinking about how we would just be seated for most of the time during the graduation ceremony anyway, listening to inspirational speeches. It could not be that bad.
I had been back living with my parents in Matão, where I grew up, for more than a month at this point, after spending the previous four years in another town, Bauru, where I went to college. With the end of January, it was also the end of my classes, so I went back to my hometown just like I used to do every other weekend when I was a college student. But this time I returned with no reassurance of going back to my classrooms or professors the following Monday and no idea of what the future held. Every day since had been filled with job hunting and anxiety and the feeling that all of a sudden I had become a burden to my family. I couldn’t accept the fact that I had no idea where my life was headed and just thinking about graduation really stressed me out—because after that, what would happen?
I got out of bed and went downstairs to the kitchen, where my mother was having breakfast. It was a typical Thursday morning in my parents’ house. My father had left very early to work and my younger sister was at school. The wonderful smell of freshly brewed coffee was all over the place. My mother asked me if I was hungry, but I just couldn’t eat anything—I was way too nervous. I thanked her and went back to my room, so I could prepare for our trip to Bauru for the graduation. Or maybe I left so I could just be alone and freak out.
It would be only me, my parents and my grandmother who would be going to the ceremony. I have a relatively big family, but no one else could go because they were either working or at school. At first, I was sad about that. What about my uncles and aunts, my cousins, my godparents? But I realized that fewer people would be witnesses to anything that could potentially go wrong—and then I was relieved. We would leave Matão at four p.m. so we could be there by six, because the ceremony would start at seven. All those plans were made by my mother and I just agreed with everything, because I couldn’t handle even thinking about it. I just didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want to say goodbye.
In my room, I looked at the clothes I had picked up. Two dresses: a green and a blue. I decided to go with the green. Then I stared at my cell phone. No messages. All week my college friends had been talking nonstop in the group chat about meeting each other at the graduation ceremony. They also made plans for us all to go somewhere to celebrate after. Now just silence. I was following the conversations the days before, but wasn’t really engaging in them. Every once in a while I just sent an “OK.” I was trying to distance myself from everything that reminded me college was over.
I kept thinking: What about after graduation? What if I never find a job? What if I never see my friends again? What if I never get enough money to buy a house? My brain wouldn’t relax, my thoughts wouldn’t slow down. I got breathless. What if I have to live with my parents forever?
I started writing a message in the group chat because I just couldn’t be alone with those questions anymore. Then I didn’t send it. I deleted it and wrote other questions instead. What clothes are you wearing, guys? Will the girls wear heels? What if we trip and fall? Will we have to climb stairs to get to the stage? I put my heeled sandals back in my closet and picked flats instead, just to be safe. Then my dog, Beta, came to my room, happy and jumping all over the place. She sat in my lap and we stayed like that, while I tried not to think of goodbyes and future absences and endings and forevers. I calmed down a little bit.
Around noon I went downstairs again. I knew I looked like a zombie and I thought my mother was looking at me weirdly. She hugged me and tried to talk to me but I was just not there. My mind was in my future where I lived unhappily, had no money and could not take care of myself. My mother had cooked lunch, but I couldn’t eat anything yet again. I drank water because that’s what I felt my body could take. I didn’t want to go to Bauru. My anxiety because of a farewell to all things I’ve known for four years had creeped up on me and wouldn’t leave. It would be a goodbye to the place where I learned so much. The city where I learned how to be independent and take care of myself, the city where I met the most amazing people.
There were still no messages on the group chat. Nobody had answered my questions. I told myself they were minding their own business. Breathe. Soon they would look at their phones and see I was freaking out. I searched “outfits for graduation” on my phone, but I wasn’t paying attention so I just blocked it and threw it on my bed. Then I looked at the mirror. My skin had never been that pale before in my life. I also had a lot of red spots, so I started to worry about the way I was gonna look as well as everything else. I was going to see everybody again after a lot of days. What were they gonna think of me?
I took a shower, put my clothes on and did my makeup. I got ready just because I needed to do something, calm down, stop thinking. And then, ready to go, I sat on the couch in the living room and waited for everyone else to get ready as well, unable to stop moving my hands and swinging my legs nervously. It was like I was stuck inside myself. On the outside maybe I looked concerned, nervous or just introspective, but on the inside I was a mess.
My father got home, we got into the car, picked up my grandmother and hit the road. My phone screen lit up: it was the group chat. My friends offered me kind words. I love them so much. It was still sunny and the road was calm, with almost no other vehicles, and the car AC was not working very well. I didn’t speak for the whole trip. As I recalled everything I had gone through during those four years of college, I just could not wrap my head around the fact that I was coming back to that place for the last time.
When we finally got there, I felt sick and dizzy. My parents and my grandmother were so happy for me, which comforted me. But, from then on, I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t living in the moment. Everything became about my little nervous attacks, faking smiles for pictures, automatically hugging a lot of people that came close to me and anticipating the moment the ceremony would start. Then, when it did, sitting there looking forward for it to end. Before we went in for the ceremony, my father insisted I drink a bottle of Coca-Cola so I could get at least something in my body and wouldn’t pass out.
We went to a restaurant afterwards. I ordered some coxinhas (the best Brazilian snack ever, fried dough filled with chicken meat), but I couldn’t eat them. I drank more Coca-Cola. In what felt like a second, it was late at night and I was back at my room in Matão. I felt sad. I wished I had been there with everybody, not only present in body but also in spirit. I wished I could have gone through it like my friends, laughing, joking around and genuinely happy. My anxiety totally ruined my graduation day for me. I went to the bathroom, took my makeup off and washed my face. On the way back to my room I said goodnight to my parents.
I went to bed thinking about goodbyes. I couldn’t keep dealing with them like that. In life, we say goodbye all the time. We never stop saying it. A goodbye just means something else is going to start. We’ll always have the memories, but we cannot stop in time and we cannot fear the next goodbye to come. “Or else we will not be able to fully live, just like what happened today,” I thought. Will I ever be able to understand that? With that question in mind, I fell asleep.
Note from the author:
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating—but they are also treatable. If your anxiety is getting in the way of your daily life, seek professional help from a mental health specialist.
Heloísa Scognamiglio, Brazil, education, anxiety, mental health