Third Desk From The Left


[Image description: photograph of old, wooden school desks. There is a bookshelf behind the desks, and a single bright window at the right side of the image.]   David Reber  / Creative Commons

[Image description: photograph of old, wooden school desks. There is a bookshelf behind the desks, and a single bright window at the right side of the image.]

David Reber / Creative Commons

On the day of my eighteenth birthday, my father asked me why I was still alive. The worst part was that this was the first time he had spoken to me in weeks, even though we lived under the same roof and he gave me a ride to class every morning. The second worst part was that even I didn’t know why I was still alive.

Where I live, students usually have to sit exams in order to enter college. There are no applications or personal essays, but you have to take a test in every subject you’ve studied over the past few years. As a result, a lot of colleges get very competitive - mine, for instance, offered only a 40 to 1 chance of being accepted - and prep courses have essentially become a requirement. So, that’s where I was when I turned eighteen: fresh out of high school, not yet in college, and without any idea of what to do with my life.

My anxiety had always been a source of enormous discomfort. As a kid, it led to what I didn’t know were panic attacks every time I was unpleasantly surprised by something. When I was in first grade, a school counsellor yelled at me because I was too scared to speak to adults or read aloud in class. I probably had elementary school classmates who never even knew what my voice sounded like.

As a teen at that very same school, I hardly made any friends for fear of being rejected. After two different very toxic “best friends”, I mostly just stood there and was the silent part of a casual group of nerds - our very own breakfast club, if you will, but instead of being troublemakers, our act of teenage rebellion and bonding was to choose not to participate in school traditions for seniors. Of course, I was lying to myself; I loved the idea of dressing up and singing goodbye songs, but felt too overwhelmed by my own fears to do it.

Through the years, my anxiety had already manifested in various ways: the most obvious was the inability to form bonds and develop relationships, but another constant was my terror of academic inadequacy. A self-identified Hermione Granger kind of girl, I always aimed for scholarly excellence. I set myself up for failure as a regular teenager, and every exam week was a small torture: I’d study all night, fear bad grades, and my young body would skip burnout and go directly to panic attacks over the thought of not being one of the best in my class. I had only one thing going for me in school, and that was being a nerd. If I couldn’t even fulfill that, I thought, then what was I good for?

Despite all this, the hardest thing to deal with in my emotional state was my family situation. The school counsellor who had shouted at me as a child told my parents that they should have me checked out, since I was clearly abnormal. After ruling out autism and ADHD, my psychiatrist said that I was socially anxious. My eight-year-old brain could see that, given that I couldn’t even talk to her. What I didn’t understand was why I was so scared of every situation. My family has a complicated relationship with mental illness - they are the picture-perfect traditional family and, apart from keeping me in therapy throughout my time in elementary school, have always taken the attitude that “you need to toughen up, life is hard”.

Because I had always been afraid of their rejection, I barely talked about my fears. I once locked myself in my room and cried because I had to go to a birthday party, and was terrified of making a fool of myself on the dancefloor, but I took a shower and fixed my face before they could notice. I didn’t eat properly for weeks due to schoolwork induced nausea, but I had excellent grades, so I kept up appearances.

Worst of all was my relationship with my father. He was, and still is, the kind of person who speaks loudly, slams doors when upset, and won’t hear any opinion that differs from his own. So my being an inadequate daughter in his eyes, along with my desire to express my own individuality, was a reason to be furious. And he didn’t keep quiet about it. At age seven, I cried over a broken toy, and he screamed at me. At age nine, I forgot a piece of homework while he drove me to school, and he made a scene in the parking lot.

I had learned from a very young age that my father was an angry man, that I couldn’t act like myself around him at all, and that any signs of vulnerability would allow him into my life and let him at least find a way to taunt me about my insecurities. At worst, he proceeded to tell me how much I ruined his life. Imagine the wonders this relationship did for my mental health.

During the year of my eighteenth birthday, he would drive me to school. My mother arranged it so that our family could save on gas, since my stop was on his way. For the first two months, he dropped me off without too many issues - maybe he was driving too aggressively or listening to conservative radio hosts, but I was old enough to control my urge to be petty. Again, showing any signs of personality was a vulnerability I could not afford. Every day I just made my way to the lecture hall, sat down at the third desk from the left, and focused on class.

After that, he started complaining about me. I would go to class for six hours, then come home and do mock tests for six more, but he said that I was wasting money. I was studying hard to get into a media-focused university, but he would imply that I was a failure for not choosing to go into a more prestigious career like law or medicine.

Shortly thereafter, he decided that I was the reason his life was ruined, and was sure to let me know exactly how he felt. My academic anxiety was joined by the return of my family anxiety. I was terrified of not getting a grade good enough to get into college and letting my family down, but at the same time, I knew I was letting them down regardless. This led me to a depressive episode. I was suicidal for a long time, and self-harmed even longer. I cracked jokes about it so that people around me wouldn’t suspect it, but the truth was that I was pretty broken.

With all of this, I was already unhappy by the time my birthday rolled around. My father was driving me to class, and he told me that he hated me as we crossed a bridge. He told me I ruined our family, and that I was the reason everyone was unhappy with their lives. He asked why I hadn’t killed myself yet.

That was the day I couldn’t hold back my tears. I got to the lecture hall, turned around, and headed to the bathroom to cry at six thirty in the morning. I then sat down my usual desk, feeling as if my life had been divided by the events of that day, with everything that had led up to it on one side and everything that would now follow on the other. What a way to wake up to adulthood.

But I didn’t kill myself. I didn’t kill myself, because I knew a person from my own family hated me enough for that. In some twisted way, his comments made me realize that it was worth staying alive so I could create a narrative for myself.

The bridge we were crossing that day collapsed a couple of years later, and I graduated from college as a journalist. I’m still an anxious person, and I still have trouble forming relationships; the difference, I guess, is that now I know which ones are worth forming at all. I’m turning 24 this year and I’m still alive. That, actually, is what matters to me the most.

Lorena P. is a writer and editor who lives in Brazil but inhabits the internet. Most of the time she can be found on Twitter, or sitting on public transport with her eyes stuck to a book.