Editor’s note: In a recent story, The noise inside my head, Raed Shakshak described his struggles with anxiety. Raed is not alone. Many young people in Palestine — like many young people around the world — contend with mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression. Here, Rana Abudahrouj uses allegory to describe what it feels like to be confronted by anxieties and the courage it takes to face them down.
It all started that night when she noticed there were others in the apartment with her. That first time, she slouched down in the corner of her room behind the couch, paralyzed by fear. She sat there listening to their arguing voices but too anxious to understand anything they were saying.
She just wanted to know the source of the sounds. She wanted to call out, but she couldn’t find her voice, and couldn’t use her mobile because the battery was dead. Her only option was to pray that they would leave without harming her. She fell asleep hiding in the corner and woke with the sun in her eyes. Her body was so stiff that it took her some minutes to stand up. She looked around her apartment, but everything was in its place.
The next night started calmly, but suddenly she heard them again. This time she plucked up the courage to look around and even to walk to the door and put her ear to it to hear if the voices were in the corridor, but it was all in vain; she was awake the whole night.
The next night, out of fear and exhaustion, she called her friend, asking her to come over. She told her friend the whole story. They both sat in the bed, silent, waiting for those voices to appear, but the night was as calm as a grave. At four o’clock in the morning, they fell asleep, and were late for work the next day.
Night after night, the voices kept getting louder. Instead of getting used to them, she became more fearful. The only way she knew how to deal with them was to ignore them, to act as if they were not there.
“They are not here, you’re the only one hearing them,” she would repeat to herself whenever things felt menacing. “Hold yourself together and stop this drama.” She knew, though, that she was not hallucinating; there were voices. Her fear increased as she realized they were talking about her. The more she ignored them, the louder they got and the more rattled she got.
One day, when they suddenly started talking to her, she decided to step out of her fear and listen to them. She discovered that they had been talking to her the whole time. Even when she heard them arguing with each other, they assumed she was listening to them. Yet before now, her fear had deafened her to anything they would say.
The louder voice was the one that accompanied her the most, especially when she was embarrassed in public, or sitting by herself reflecting on the mistakes she’d made that day. She was afraid of the voice in the same way she used to feel afraid of her mother when she was a child. She was not brave enough to speak up and confront it, so whenever it started judging or scolding her, she would stare at the ground, ashamed of herself.
If she were lucky enough during these times, the sassy voice, the one that sounded like the craziest version of herself, would appear, supporting her and reminding her of her favorite quote, “To err is human.”
The third voice was the one that was the easiest to neglect. It was not frightening like the first one or smart-mouthed like the second, but it was exhausting because of the vulnerability that it brought. Unlike the other ones, it was not there to tell her things, but rather to ask her for help or attention.
She was sitting in front of her mirror when they started talking and as usual, the mother-like voice was the first to speak. While she was listening, she raised her head and looked in the mirror, but she didn’t see herself in the mirror; she saw someone else she recognized. Her heart skipped a beat, and she couldn’t move for several seconds, but then she realized it actually was her reflection, but with some of her mother’s strong facial features. She looked the reflection in the eyes and screamed as loudly as she could.
When she stopped, the voice disappeared and the image in the mirror was a child, sitting in the corner of the room. She turned around in horror to look at the room, but the child was only in the mirror, crying weakly and murmuring, “I know that you don’t want to see me, but I’m trapped.”
She moved closer to the mirror, leaning in to hear and see the child more clearly, and asked her how she could help her if she couldn’t help herself.
“But I don't know how,” the girl replied.
“Easy. Just stop them as you did a few minutes ago. You are stronger. They will listen to you.”
The girl nodded her head, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. When she opened them, the child smiled, turned her back and walked away, giving the girl a chance to see that the child had the same birthmark that she had on the back of her neck.
The girl backed up against the wall and covered her face with her hands, but then she heard the second voice whispering in her ear, “You rock, girl! I don’t think you need me anymore, but if you do, you know how to find me.”
Her body felt so heavy that she could barely raise her head to look in the mirror, but when she did, she saw herself, and she burst into tears. They were not tears of sadness, fear or happiness. They were tears of release.