To Take up Space

I never knew how to comfort my hurt friends as I was growing up. I’d stand beside them, afraid to touch them and afraid to do nothing at all. I wanted more than anything for them to know they weren’t alone but convincing myself to extend my hand the six inches to their shoulder felt like a herculean task. I felt my own tears threatening to fall, my heart and body aching with helplessness and shared hurt.
I was not averse to touch; I rather languished in it. It was so often my only connection to the world around me. To not be touched was to not be seen, and my own hurt begged for a witness.
The desperation with which I yearn to be touched is wildly incompatible with my equally strong fear of occupying space in the world. To touch someone is to take up space. It is to assert my existence not only in the physical world but also in the life of another person. The fear of rejection twines itself between my fingers, pinning them against my own body. I have to remain small. I have to remain hidden. I have to remain unseen. And yet I cannot stand feeling this alone.
“Are you feeling deprived of affection?” Her words are laced with amusement as I lean up against her. She is not being malicious as she puts her arm around my shoulders, but I feel my body tense and instinctively pull away. She brought attention to my presence, and I am frantic for a retreat.
My childhood was rife with distress and worry. All around me were people whose pain they wore like a second skin. Some wounds were physical, others invisible but all the more agonizing for it. Muffled cries would carry to me even through the walls of my bedroom, and I could do nothing more than curl in upon myself and pray that they could feel my heart reaching for them. My hands felt too small to hold them together, so I was too afraid to try. In my own moments of hurt, I sequestered myself away in the smallest space I could find, wanting the sensation of being held and protected from the world that seemed so hell-bent on overwhelming me.
AsI’ve gotten older, I have acquired some better ways of coping. I have hesitantly reached beyond myself in moments of contentment, though I have yet to learn to reach out in moments of hurt or fear. These still send me into isolation, some part of me refusing to allow myself the comfort I am so eager to give others.
Sometimes I know when a panic attack is imminent. This one came over me like a tsunami, its intensity blinding. I hardly remember its beginning; I recall shoving hands and bodies out of my path in a desperate bid for escape. I only registered I had fled when I found myself curled upon the bathroom floor, fingers scratching at my skin as I tried in vain to convince myself that I was not dying. My breaths were razor blades in my lungs. The panic was dragging me down, down, down, but it was laced with the terrifying knowledge that I was not alone; They were too close, too nearby, too able to witness my undoing.
My attempt to convince them that I was okay was pitiful at best, I know. I had taken no time to collect myself, focused wholly on mending the social dynamic broken by my abrupt and chaotic retreat.
They didn’t let me gracelessly maintain the lie. They didn’t move on like nothing had happened, ignoring the awkwardness in the room. Instead, my shaking body was held tightly without question, and I for once allowed someone else to be present as I reassembled my scattered pieces.
“I should be comforting you,” one friend said where he sat, his own body shaking in the aftermath of my own panic. I couldn’t disagree more, because my body is too small to contain all that I’m asking it to hold. My anxiety has always been lessened in the face of other people’s fear and concern. The more other people panic, the calmer I feel, because now I have a purpose. I can help them in the ways I can’t help myself. I can channel my feelings into action, because the only thing worse than feeling the panic myself is to watch someone for whom I care to go through it.
As I sat with my arm around him and my head on his shoulder, I couldn’t help but think back to the years of helpless observation of my loved one’s hurt. I am not helpless, here. I have finally broken through my fear of occupying space enough to reach out in the way I’ve come to realize I want to be reached out to. My quiet reassurances are partly for him, but they are also partly for me. They are the words and gestures for which I have always longed, and I am comforted and soothed by my ability to share them.
The storm settled, and though my body was still tightly wound and exhausted, I relaxed into the realization that I was not alone. I didn’t have to hide away, returning only when there was no evidence of my weakness remaining. There was not only space for me to fill, but I was welcomed into it with such readiness that the overwhelm, strangely, threatened to return.
Is this what I have been missing for so many years? The feel of two hands in mine with no words exchanged, no attention brought to my ceaseless trembling, only simple presence and acceptance. Is this what other people experience? Is this what it feels like to not be alone? I hold on tightly, afraid to let go lest it not return. “Please don’t leave me,” I want to tell them. “Thank you for staying,” I wish I could say, because they can’t possibly know what they have done for me in these moments. I instead remain silent, reveling in this unfamiliar sensation of belonging.
I am a girl of fractured, jagged edges. Little fits together properly anymore—not after so many years of shoving the pieces away, uncaring of what broke in my bid to suppress them. I spend so much time running my fingers along the remnants that my skin is left battered and bruised, my hands a mess of cuts and crimson. Sometimes I worry that I deliberately sabotage myself, seeking the familiarity of the emptiness rather than the uncertainty of trying something new. I want to save everyone around me. I want to hold them together, seal their wounds with my fingers and breathe life back into their hearts. I know that I can’t do that unless I allow them to do the same for me.
So I try. With each awkward, embarrassed, uncomfortable gesture, I fight to assert my right to take up space in the world. It’s only been me whose decided I don’t deserve it, so it is myself who I have to fight the most. That is so often the case: I am my own worst enemy in countless ways. It is my heart and mind and body I have to fight each and every day, waging war against my own existence. I will keep fighting, though, and I will do so with the knowledge that, for once, I am not fighting alone.

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