In third grade, I finally got a teacher with a brain who recognized that I wasn’t just acting out. That I was different. Ms. Leitch, my savior. I’d burst into tears one morning on the playground. There were workmen all over the place, adding a new wing onto the school. The other kids were running around the field, shouting and laughing, at me I assumed. So much yelling and hammering and chaos. It all kept getting louder and louder until all the sounds melded into one, clashing into my head like a thousand cymbals. I knelt in the wet grass, sobbing, putting my head against the earth, digging into the dirt, rocking back and forth on my heels. My nails tore and bled. It wasn’t until she put her hand on my shoulder that I realized I was screaming.
“Nicolette,” Ms. Leitch whispered in a tone so tender and soft I thought I would melt as she wrapped me in her arms. She smelled like oranges. “Just breathe, honey.” She breathed in deeply, slowly releasing the air from her mouth like a low whistle. I imitated her as best I could, until the shaking stopped and my body almost relaxed. I looked up at her as she let me go, swiveling my body on the grass so I could face her. She was one of the younger teachers at the school. Tiny, freckle-faced with short blond hair cut in a pixie style and small brown eyes, wearing an baggy oatmeal-colored cardigan over a blue t-shirt and jeans, she almost looked like a child herself.
“How often does that happen?” Her eyes squinted as she looked at me. I shrugged, not sure if I could trust her. She put her hand on my shoulder.
“Every day,” I said softly.
She had me meet with the school counselor, who sent me to a psychiatrist, who sent me to another psychiatrist, my mother grumbling about lost wages the entire way, where I was finally diagnosed with anxiety and bipolar disorder. Mom was furious with the doctor when he told her.
“That doesn’t run in our family!” She stood nose to nose with the frightened psychiatrist, the crease in her forehead deeper than ever. She swung her enormous purse as she gestured, narrowly missing crashing it into his leg. “She just needs discipline. A firm hand, that’s what she needs. She likes attention, not this…this…whatever it is…she’s not crazy. No one in my family is crazy!”
“Nicolette isn’t crazy,” the nervous doctor backed away, wiping the round bald spot on top of his head. He rounded his desk and took a seat behind it, pushing his glasses back up his nose.
“Nic, go sit outside!” My mother commanded. I slowly rose from the hard leather chair in the corner of the office. I thought she’d forgotten I was there.
I didn’t know what those words meant, bipolar, anxiety. I wanted to understand. But I dutifully left the room as my mother watched, I heard her sharp voice as I shut the door behind me and I involuntarily jumped. That tone is usually accompanied by the sharp crack of a belt.
The jumpiness in my stomach began to subside as I entered the luxe waiting room. There were plush white couches, the aroma of lavender in the air, classical music playing through the speakers. I sank into one of the sofas and put my head in my hands. She’s not crazy. Maybe I was. It was what the kids at school already called me, in addition to weirdo, psycho, possessed, freak, disgusting…I felt the heat rising to my head and started to breathe in and out slowly, like Ms. Leitch taught me. My face cooled, and I leaned back into the couch continuing to breathe. My heart rate slowed. It was this room. Everything, from the soft blue hue on the walls, to the music, to the luxurious seating, was calming. I closed my eyes and drifted away.
When my mother burst through the door, her face like stone, I’m not sure how long I’d been asleep,. I felt the energy of the entire room shift. She grabbed me from the couch and pulled me into the hallway where she knelt in front of me, gripping both of my arms so hard it hurt.
“You listen to me,” she said in a rough whisper, her face so close to mine I could feel the heat of her anger. “You aren’t crazy. Do you hear me?” She gave my body a gentle shake. I nodded, because what else could I do? “The women in our family are strong. Powerful. My mother, my grandmother, my sister. We had the world on our shoulders, raised children, held down two and three jobs, all on our own. We don’t need anyone or anything but ourselves.”
I dug my long nails into my palms. My head cooled again. I nodded once more.
“So this nonsense,” she held up the two prescriptions the doctor gave her. “Is going in the trash. You don’t need it.” She tore them in half and violently threw them in a nearby wastebasket, before dragging me by the arm to the car. She muttered to herself on the way home about white people and pills and doctors. I laid down on the backseat and looked down at my arms. There were bright red fingertips up and down the milky brown skin of my arms where my mother had grabbed me. I opened my hands and stared at the bloody scratches from my nails. I tried to remember the melody that was playing in the lobby when I first fell asleep, but it was lost.