I can feel his weight pressed against me. The smell of the tuna he had for lunch still lingered on his breath, combining with the stench of cigarettes and sweat on his clothes and making me want to gag. My body is frozen in fear. I squeeze my eyes tightly shut and try and pretend this isn’t happening.
That doesn’t sound like his voice. Who’s calling me? Are they here to save me?
There’s definitely someone else here. Why aren’t they helping me?
I feel something gently touch my hand and I pull it closer to my body for protection.
“Are you ok, Jaqueline? It’s me, Jane.”
Jane definitely wasn’t there that night. What’s going on?
This time I feel something touching my knee.
“Please don’t hurt me.” I hear someone whimper. It takes me a second to realise it’s my own voice.
“I’m not going to hurt you. No one’s going to hurt you. You’re safe now, Jaqueline.”
That sounds like Jane’s voice. I can’t quite make out what she’s saying to me but her voice is soft, not aggressive like his.
“You’re safe in your office. It’s just you and me here. Everyone else has gone home. Jaqueline, can you understand what I’m saying?”
She’s asking me a question. She must be expecting a response. I need to try and focus on what she’s saying.
“No one’s going to hurt you. It’s only me here with you. You’re safe. It’s 2017. You’re in your office at Scarlet. Can you nod if you understand what I’m saying, Jaqueline?”
Yes, I understand. I gain enough control over my body to nod my head slightly.
“Good. That’s really good.” Jane says. “Ok, I need you to try and slow your breathing down now. I’m going to count to seven and, while I’m doing that, I want you to breathe in, ok?” I nod. “And then I want you to breathe out to my count of eleven. So that’s in for seven, out for eleven. I’ll keep reminding you as we do it.”
Breathing. I can do that. I’ve been doing it all my life. It can’t be that hard.
“Right, breathe in… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… and out 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… 10… 11… that’s really good, and again. In… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… and out 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… 10… 11… you’re doing really well, Jaqueline.”
I continue breathing slowly, in and out, while Jane’s calm voice counts for me. I don’t know how long we’ve been doing this before I begin to feel more in control. My hands reach out across my desk to find Jane’s and I squeeze them tightly with gratitude. Jane doesn’t let go until I do, as I gradually start to become more aware of my surroundings and realise how sweaty and clammy my hands have become. As soon as I do, I pull them away and rub them on my skirt to try and dry them off.
“I’m so sorry!” I say in embarrassment.
“You have nothing to apologise for. You looked really scared. I’m just glad I could be here to help.” The look on her face was one of genuine compassion and it was hard to doubt what she was saying.
“What was happening?”
“I was right back there when he was…” I can’t bring myself to say the word right now. “It was like it was happening all over again.”
“That must’ve been awful. Has this happened before?”
“It used to happen a lot at the beginning. Certain things would bring me right back there, like the smell of sweat or cigarettes. Not easy to avoid when you’re living in New York. I saw a therapist for a while and they helped me notice what was triggering me and I learnt how to keep myself from going back there. Since the Carry the Weight piece it’s started happening again.”
“Have you been back to see a therapist?” Jane asked.
I scoffed at the thought of that. “With what free time?”
Jane looked down at my desk for a second. It was so quick I easily could have missed it. Then, she met my eyes. She opened her mouth to speak a couple of times before closing it. I wondered for a minute if she was debating telling me something before, finally, she started to talk.
“When I started high school, I saw a therapist. I was having panic attacks. I was the only girl in the house and there was so much about growing up that I didn’t understand and my dad and brothers couldn’t help me with. My first period, going bra shopping, figuring out what body hair to remove and how. All the stuff my mom was supposed to help me with. It was overwhelming. My therapist taught me how to manage my panic attacks. The counting while breathing thing really helped me, that’s why I tried it for you.”
Both of us tried to hold back our tears. “I’m sorry you had to go through that, Jane. That sounds really tough. No girl should have to grow up without her mom.”
“Thank you. It’s always going to be hard, you know? Like on my first day as a journalist here all I wanted was to be able to share it with her and have her be excited for me. What I’m trying to say is that these things will be there with us for the rest of our lives, and sometimes they feel small and other times they feel like they’re big enough to swallow us whole. When that happens now I turn to my friends, but there may come a time when that isn’t enough. I’ve come to believe that putting my own mental health as a priority is the best thing I can do for myself. I hope it’s not out of line for me to say I think the same is true for you.”
I was floored. Maybe she had a point. But it’s been twenty years, I feel like I shouldn’t be struggling so much now. I’d learnt to manage the flashbacks. It was as if there was a deep pit of shame getting ready to swallow me whole if I admitted, even to myself, even for just a second, that I wasn’t ok anymore.
However, Jane sat in front of me willing to be so vulnerable might just have been the push I needed to admit that maybe I did need help. That maybe ‘I don’t have time’ was a feeble attempt at an excuse to avoid facing what was really happening.
“How’d you get to be so wise?” I asked the young woman, who at this moment appeared to be so much older than her years.
“I had a very good mentor.” She smiled back at me. I let out a small laugh at this, feeling ever so slightly lighter. “Now, is there anything I can get for you? A drink of water or something?”
“Water would be lovely, thank you.” I replied. Jane got up to leave my office when I added. “Oh, and tomorrow perhaps we can get together and come up with an angle on a story about therapy and mental health?”
“Sounds good.” Jane said as she turned away from me towards the kitchen.