For the StoryADay May Challenge
My voice teacher always told me that I held my jaw too tight.
Every time I went for a lesson, we began with the same relaxation exercise:
“Breathe in, breathe out. Now, bend over, and slowly roll yourself upright. Very good. Roll your head to one side…now the other…now put your fingers at the hinges of your jaw and massage gently. Loosen your jaw. That’s it, Sharla, move your jaw around, relax…”
Until I met Ms. Kimberly, I had no idea I was holding so much tension in my jaw.
Sometimes when we were working on a piece, I would get a tight funny feeling in my mouth and throat. The notes would come out squeaky and coarse, as if forced through a sieve, and Ms. Kimberly would say:
“Your jaw, Sharla. Remember to relax your jaw. Imagine you are biting into a big, juicy fruit, or a fist…” then she would demonstrate by balling her fingers into a fist and holding it to her mouth as if she were going to eat it.
And then I would laugh and remember to relax my jaw, and the notes would come out again, free and clear like birds released from their cages.
When I graduated from high school, my lessons with Ms. Kimberly stopped. I’d moved to another state to attend college and start a new chapter of life, but I had no idea what was waiting for me there.
Believe me: If I had, I would have stayed home.
It started on a bright sunny blue day, out of nowhere.
I was sitting in the quad, in between classes, watching the workers start to put up the outdoor stage and lights for the outdoor concert scheduled that night. Suddenly, a busload of chatty tourists descended from behind a hill, quickly filling the small quad. Our school was well known in the area, and this was not the first time foreign tourists came to campus.
But I began to get a tight feeling in my head, which quickly descended through my body, a chill of fear, like icy electricity, numbing me, then setting my nerves on fire. Unknowingly, I began to clench my jaws and ball my hands into fists. My heart was going into hyperdrive. I took deep breaths, trying to calm myself, but finally grabbed my backpack and raced for the nearest bathroom.
What’s going on? I thought, staring at my reflection in the mirror. What’s wrong with you, Sharla?
I splashed water on my face and took a couple deep breaths. “You’re fine, you’re fine,” I repeated under my breath, wondering where the sudden inexplicable terror had come from.
As I turned shakily to leave the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. Something dark and gray and terrible. I could not see it clearly, but it seemed to have evil eyes and a leering grin. I let out a sound like a strangled mouse and ran out of the bathroom.
After that day, I started to notice extreme discomfort whenever I found myself in a large crowd, especially when I had no easy escape. Lectures were unbearable unless I could sit right next to the door, and even then, I had to grip the seats with both hands to keep myself from running for my life.
I hated classes. I hated socials. I hated concerts. I hated restaurants. I hated even the library. The only place that felt safe was my one-person dorm room. I stayed there as often as I could, only dragging myself outside for classes or meals. Occasionally.
Everywhere I turned, the monster from the bathroom seemed to be following me. He haunted the periphery of my vision, laughing silently, reaching out with horrible long arms to grab me. Every time he lunged for me, I would run, the echoes of his inaudible cackles ringing in my head.
“Agoraphobia,” the doctor said, after he’d “examined” me, a process that involved him asking me rapid-fire a string of questions, which I answered in a shaky voice as he scribbled furiously on a clipboard, never once looking up.
“A rather severe case of it. I’ll prescribe Prolazof*. It’s an SSRI and an antidepressant and should help take the edge off. It should take a few weeks to kick in. Why don’t you schedule another appointment with my receptionist and we’ll see how you’re doing in August?”
With that, I was shuffled out of the room with my worried mother by my side.
She was the one who insisted on flying over to take me to the doctor after the school contacted her and told her I’d missed a week of classes. When she called me, demanding to know what was going on, I had no choice but to tell her.
Mother was staying with a friend in the area, and she drove me back to my dorm before heading home. She’d offered to have me come live with her, but I wanted the comfortable familiarity of my own room. Changing things only made the dark monster aggravate me more.
I tried the Prolazof* for a few weeks, but instead of making things better, the drug made me drowsy and weak. The psychiatrist mother had taken me to, Dr. Butte, told me to give it some more time, but when it was apparent that the meds were doing more harm than good, he switched me to another.
By this time, Mother had had to go back home to take care of her duties, making doctors’ appointments rather difficult for me, as I did not have a car and riding a crowded city bus was out of the question. I ended up scheduling early, early appointments, as soon as the clinic opened, and walking there at dawn, before people started waking up. Then I’d attempt to hurry back to campus before the streets got too crowded, usually sprinting so fast, I thought my heart would stop.
None of the medications that Dr. Butte gave me did anything but give me hives, turn me into a temporary insomniac, or cause me to develop a severe case of diarrhea. After the fourth switch, I decided I’d had enough, and stopped going to see the good doctor completely.
Withdrawal was not fun, but I managed to make it. When my system had cleared of all the artificial compounds I’d been feeding it, my agoraphobia was not one bit better. If anything, it was worse.
Sometimes I managed to make it to class, but more often, the very thought of traipsing across a crowded campus to sit in an even more crowded classroom kept me from getting out of bed.
I considered taking a break from college and going home (in fact, it was what my Mother suggested every time she called), but the semester was almost over and as long as I studied at home and made it to class to take the tests, I figured I’d at least be able to get a passing grade in my classes. So I decided to stick it out.
Still, one fact remained: The monster was growing bigger and darker each day.
“Hello? Is this Sharla?”
“Ms. Kimberly!” I said, sitting upright in bed, the blankets I had thrown over my head to protect myself from the monster sliding into puddles by my hips.
“Hi Sharla!” Ms. Kimberly said. “Your mother gave me your phone number. How have you been, dear?”
I nearly cried at the sound of the familiar, comforting voice. “I’m…doing well,” I lied. “How are you?”
“I’m great!” Ms. Kimberly said. “Keeping busy, teaching students. The studio isn’t quite the same without you though. Have you been keeping up with your singing?”
“Yes,” I lied again, clutching the cell phone to my ear. Suddenly I felt desperately lonely. Most of my college friends had forgotten about me, not that I could blame them–I kept refusing their invitations to hang out, citing some excuse or another, until they simply stopped inviting me.
“That’s wonderful, dear. You have such a beautiful voice. If you are coming home for winter break, I’d love to see you at our Christmas recital. If you’d like to sing something, you are welcome to do so, as well.”
“Thank you, Ms. Kimberly, I’ll think about it,” I promised. We chatted a little more, and then Ms. Kimberly had to go, probably to teach another student.
After I hung up the phone, I looked across the room at the mirror on the wall. My hair was disheveled, my face pale, my eyes haunted. Then I thought of Ms. Kimberly’s words. You have such a beautiful voice.
It was probably the only thing about me that was beautiful, at this point. I stood up and found my book of Italian arias that I’d tossed onto the bookshelf, along with the accounting textbook I hadn’t yet cracked open. Why hadn’t I thought of singing? All those days, hiding in my bedroom, too afraid to step outside…instead of staring blankly at the wall, I could have been practicing.
Resolutely, I picked a familiar aria, lay the book open on my desk, and then began the warmup exercise Ms. Kimberly taught me, hearing her voice in my head as I breathed in and out:
“Breathe in, breathe out. Now, bend over, and slowly roll yourself upright. Very good. Roll your head to one side…now the other…now put your fingers at the hinges of your jaw and massage gently…”
I felt my body start to soften and warm up. This felt good. This felt familiar. Smiling, I opened my mouth and went through a few vocal warmups before singing through the old aria.
But halfway through the song, as the notes climbed up, higher and higher, I heard my voice thin and weaken, like a tiring mountain climber entering the stratosphere.
Again, Ms. Kimberly’s voice echoed in my head:
“Your jaw, Sharla. Remember to relax your jaw. Imagine you are biting into a large, juicy fruit, or a fist…”
I relaxed my jaw, and the mountain climber gained his second wind.
I don’t know how long I sang, but by the time I finished, I was tired, but happy. And more relaxed than I had been in ages.
Then I looked at the clock. Almost 2pm. Time for my accounting class lecture…if I could make it. I looked at the door, and at my backpack. Then I made up my mind.
Grabbing the backpack, I stepped resolutely out of my dorm room and closed the door before me.
By the time I’d made it down the stairs, I was already second-guessing my decision. When my hand landed on the door of the dorm, I considered racing back upstairs and burying myself in the blankets. As soon as I stepped foot on the grassy quad and saw the cadres of students walking in groups, talking and laughing, I knew for sure I had made a mistake.
The monster was there, hovering somewhere just past my field of vision, rushing straight at me. My mouth went dry, my heartbeat ratcheted up. I felt like puking.
Then Ms. Kimberly’s words came back to me, but they were slightly different than before:
“Your jaw, Sharla. Remember to relax your jaw. Imagine you are biting into a large, juicy monster…”
I reached up. Sure enough, my jaw was locked as tight as a maximum security prison. Using both of my index fingers, I massaged the hinges of my jaw as Ms. Kimberly had taught me, then opened my mouth once, twice…on the third time, I closed my eyes and imagined I was unhinging my jaw entirely, like an anaconda. The void created by my unhinged jaw sucked the monster forward, toward me.
Its leering look changed into one of pure terror as it scrabbled to get away from me. But I was too powerful. I took a deep breath, and chomped down on the monster. It screamed, a frightful sound that I alone could hear.
After a moment, I let go and spat.
“There,” I hissed under my breath, quietly so that those nearby would not think I’d gone totally crazy. “If you come near me again, I will do that again. You hear me?”
The monster did not reply. I looked around me. No hints of gray, no glittering eyes. Just green grass and blue sky. And a few students hurrying into various buildings for their next class.
I shifted my backpack on my shoulders and stepped forward with confidence.
*Made up medication name