I have always been acutely aware of exactly how much space I take up. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but I do my best to explain it to Heather. “You know when you cook something, pasta maybe, and it starts boiling over onto the stove? My body is the pan.” I grew up fat, but, sitting on her couch now at 15 years old, I am regular-size for the first time in my life. I still feel like I am boiling over.
“That must be an awful way to feel.” The first time she said this to me, I laughed at her. The sick version of me was an asshole in a way that I am not anymore. During session, I often elaborate inside my head but leave most of what comes to mind at the tip of my tongue. It’s something I still have to work on, almost three years later.
The feeling I’m trying to describe is so familiar to me that I assume everyone else knows exactly what I’m talking about. There are different versions of it, mental and physical, but somehow, they all feel the same. I can’t keep myself inside of me.
The best example that I have, one that’s not metaphorical but anecdotal, is from middle school. Middle school was painful; this is not unique. I used to play the saxophone in the school band and dreaded rehearsal. The stage was too small, the lights too bright. The boiling-over-feeling came to me first then. Or, probably more accurately, this is the first memory I have of it. I’m sure it is much older than six years old.
Five rows of preteens is too many for the stage at AF Palmer Elementary, as evidenced by the fact that I could feel the breath of the trumpet players behind me on my neck as they snickered. My pants, purchased from the mall a week before, were too small in hindsight. My sweatshirt was also too short, lending itself as much to the boiling-over-feeling as how I submitted to their bullying. I could feel the fat on my lower back poking out from the triangular void in the back of the yellow chair, the rough plastic sticking to the hair there. I would shave my entire body that night, arms and all. I raised my hand, asked to go to the bathroom, and stood up when given permission. The boiling-over-feeling was there, in the back of my throat, as I made my way between the rows of chairs and my peers, who I now recognize as children in their own pain instead of villains. I didn’t return to class that day. I couldn’t.
As I grew older, I boiled over in new ways. I remember the first time I had a panic attack, which for me are less panic and more rage and breathlessness and pushing the people who love me out of my life. I read somewhere that anger is a secondary emotion, something we feel when our initial ones are too painful. This is probably true. If I pay enough attention, I can feel the sadness creeping up. When I had my first panic attack, my mother was there, as she often is. I was screaming and crying about the way the contents of the refrigerator were arranged, which sounds crazy now but made perfect sense back then. I threw a Tupperware container full of peas at her. When the peas settled, we made eye contact and there were tears in her eyes. We laugh about it now; how irrational I was and continue to be when the sick parts of my brain take over. It’s both amusing and horrible; you could either laugh or cry. We choose to laugh every time.
My father is an extra in all of this. He helped in his own way, sure; he provided transportation to therapy before I could drive myself, a shoulder to cry on for my mom. He loves me, I know that. But when I boiled over, he would walk away from the stove and leave my mom to clean up the mess. Sometimes she would leave too, and my boiling-over would drip onto the floor. I waited to evaporate but never did.
“Mackenzie, you’re causing a scene.” I’m lying in the parking lot of the hospital where I was born, 18 and a half years later. I’m boiling over now, too; the mess has started to drain out of the house and into the streets. “Someone is going to call the police. Please, Mackenzie. Get in the car. We can go home.” I slam the back of my head on the pavement again, and I remember that someone once told me to connect more with the earth, that it would make me feel grounded. I don’t think this is what they meant. “Please. You can’t do this right now. We’re all tired. Let’s go home, I’ve been here all day with your father. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.” I feel like a burden, and this is probably true. I hear a scream, like an animal in pain, and realize it’s coming from my own lungs. My face is wet; I gasp for air and can’t find any. I slam my head into the pavement again and see stars. “Alright, I’m leaving you here.”
I got in the car eventually. Later that week, I would try to kill myself for a second time.
“I’m sorry to know that you were having such difficulties… I’m certain that it was hard on your parents as well.”
I worry about my boiling-over hurting someone, burning someone else. It’s inevitable, but I do my best to prevent the scars.
“This is hard for us, too.”
Mental illness is ugly from my perspective. I wonder what it looks like from the outside.
“I’m trying to understand, but you make it so hard. I wish you didn’t feel this way.”
My mom comes back every time. I wonder what it’s like for her, watching the bubbles subside, thinking it’s over. I’m still trying to figure out how to turn off the stove.