Breathe In, Breathe Out

Stories of anxiety

by Maryka Gillis; illustrations by KK Braza

Sophomore Biology major, third floor Barnes. 10:15 a.m., third Thursday, Block 4.

I’m sitting at my usual table next to two people I’ve known since freshman year and one that I met this block. My professor is lecturing, just like every other day. I’ve been here since 9 a.m., with a quick five-minute break at 10, a little early for a break, but nothing crazy. It occurs to me, though, that I’ll be sitting here for the next hour and 45 minutes straight. In this room. In this seat. Without moving.

The thought makes me dizzy, which is always a bad sign. Now that it’s started, I get dizzier and dizzier with each moment and I can feel my body lose balance, like a boat lurching on rough waters. It doesn’t make sense, because I’m sitting, but there’s not much that’s logical about these physical symptoms. Since I am so aware of my increased vertigo, I get dizzier; it’s a self-perpetuating condition. I breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Each intake of air is sharper and each re- lease of air shorter than the last. But “release” isn’t the right word – it’s more forceful, and becomes increasingly so. My ears and my knees and my lungs notice my breathing, but not in that order. My lungs notice first.

Now my head notices, becoming dizzier. My ears can hear my breathing; can my neighbors hear it too? I’m hyper and I’m ventilating – I’m hyperventilating. Is that a medical term? It’s inaccurate and doesn’t get at the nature of the breath that I’m hoping beyond doubt my professor can’t hear. Is it possible he doesn’t notice this thing squeezing my lungs and my heart, shaking my hands and my knees? Is it subtle enough that I can sit through the next couple hours without being noticed? Breathing in, out, in, out, in, out. I can’t stand it. But I can’t stand up and walk to the door and try to close it quietly so I can walk down the hall to the bathroom to a stall and stand for 30 seconds or 30 minutes or 30 years, because this is class time and I can’t risk them noticing. But I also can’t sit here anymore. Breathe in out in out in out-in-out.


Junior Geology major, en route to Palmer. 8:46 a.m., second Tuesday, Block 2.

My friend and I just left his apartment to walk to class. We’re a couple minutes early for our 9 a.m. class. We step out of the doorway onto the concrete. Step- step, step-step, step-step, step-step. He’s been practicing freestyle rapping, he says. Step-step, step-step, step- step, step. I hesitate. I’m suspicious. “Oh yeah?” I ask. He says yeah and asks for a topic. I exhale and settle back into my rhythm, regaining comfort in our walk. “Tomatoes,” I say. He starts, rapping badly: “Tomatoes are my favorite fruit, I think they’re really cute, I want to eat some today, because the sky’s not grey, I’ll meet the farmers in their plots, smoking their pots, out in the sun—okay I’m done. Now it’s your turn.”

My heart physically jumps, as if it had feet. I let out a reflexive giggle and give a negative response.

“Come on.” No.
“Why not?” Because, pause. I don’t want to. “Please, just a few lines.” No.
How do I explain that this kind of pressure is what

gets to me the most? It’s a pretty innocuous thing, really – well, it should be. Theoretically, I can rationalize that if someone asks me to freestyle rap, I could spit out a line or two and be done with it, no harm done. But in practice I can’t deal with it. Maybe it would be fine if I could just say no and move on, but that’s never how it goes. There’s always discourse.

“It’s just for fun.” No.
“Come on.” No.
“Please, for me?” No.
“It’ll be fun.” No!
Step-step, step-step, step-step, step-step. He doesn’t ask again for a minute, then: What if I swipe you into Rastall? I try a new tactic and say nothing.

Senior English Major, Armstrong second floor. 12:03 p.m., first Wednesday, Block 5.

Class has just ended for the day and I shuffle to get my things together while the other 16 students leave the room. I am acutely aware of my movement. I start counting as I put away my mug, book, pen, pencil, water bottle, notebook, sweater: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24. My mug won’t fit in my bag and I feel a pressing compulsion to leave. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. I am the only remaining student in the classroom and don’t want to engage with my professor today. I feel urgency rising in the back of my throat like bile. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. I zip my bag and fling it over my shoulder in one motion. 21, 22, 23, 24. I walk across the room. It takes me three cycles of 24 counts to get out the door, down the hall to the staircase. My breathing is strained, sharp, accelerated. I open the door and descend. After a few steps, I tuck my hair behind my right ear to give one of my hands something to do – they are hypercharged, along with my feet and my knees and my heart. Too much of the wrong kind of energy – nervous, sensitive, uncomfortable conductivity. Like every day at noon, my heart beats faster as I get closer to exiting the building. Today is exceptional, though, because my destination is the chaos of Worner after class: 43% of the student body in a small space, all fully engaged and energetic after three hours of class.

I get to the bottom of the stairs and open a door next to someone entering. I try to hold it for her, but she steps through the opposite of the two doors. We share uncomfortable eye contact and rushed, breathless apologies, then continue. I make it through the next set of doors in solitude.

I step outside and circumnavigate an after-class smoke break. I walk quickly, giving myself a sense of purpose that takes the edge off. My hands, seeking occupation, each grab and hold a strap hanging from my backpack. I angle my head down and look at the divi- sions in the sidewalk, which initiates another round of counting.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. I look up and start over from 12. I pass other students, one at a time, three at a time, one at a time, two at a time. I take a couple deep breaths, through the nose and out the mouth. I cross once and wave to the stopped drivers, grateful for an opportunity to use one of my hands. I cross again, this time more quickly. I look up at the north entrance to Worner, then take a sharp left turn to avoid the area of highest population density. I go through the east doors instead, a tactic I regularly em- ploy. I pass through two sets of double doors, glance up at the lunch line to Rastall, then look away immediately. Sharp right turn and down the side stairs.