1 - The flaming pits of hell.

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Now

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Now.

She's still waiting for an answer, but I don't have one. At least not one that makes any sense. Even if I did, it wouldn't make any difference anyway. I genuinely couldn't say anything even if I tried. All words have been washed from my vocabulary by an unexpected, vicious wave of anxiety, leaving me sitting in this awfully uncomfortable, burgundy chair with fraying armrests, in this overheated, stuffy counselling room with its hideous, canary yellow walls — nice try, Karen; but a cheap paint job isn't ever going to make anyone feel chirpier about sharing their worst experiences with a stranger — unable to imagine finding enough oxygen to fill my starving lungs, let alone verbalise a reply.

Had I really never thought of my life at all in the way she just described? It seems so glaringly obvious now I think about it, but it never occurred to me to even consider it until she just pointed it out so simply. I feel ashamed for being so stupid and not realising it for myself.

Yet another oversight to add to my long list of failures and regrets.

Yet another one I honestly have no fucking clue how to deal with.

Anyone would think she had planned her observation with the family of kookaburras outside because I can hear them out there now, cackling away, laughing at me and rubbing my stupidity in my face with their iconic song. I used to love the sound of kookaburras. Now it's just a reminder of how fucked up my life is.

She was still waiting. Her patience was infuriating as hell, and I was already boiling, so my current anxiety really wasn't helping my overheating body temperature any.

Can you not, just this once, cursed and useless body, actually work with me instead of against me? Is that really so much to ask for?

Panic was well and truly choking the life out of my self-control. Underneath my white knuckles, seemingly clenched tighter than ever before, warm, salty droplets were assembling in my palms creating a pool of grossness that I already wanted to reach for the hand soap to wash away. My breathing was short and shallow, but my heart was pounding frantically, forcing me to stay alive and face this — whatever the hell this is. No matter how much I tried to breathe slower and deeper, none of it seemed able to get past my throat; like my oesophagus was suffering from some kind of allergic reaction to peanuts or something, closing over and blocking all movement in and out of my lungs. As if all that wasn't awful enough, now I had the added bonus of some invisible asshole stabbing me with an non-existent knife down into my chest at the same time, rotating the blade for good measure just to make sure I remained aware of how not in control I was in this moment.

My body just didn't feel mine anymore.

I want her to say something. I need her to say something to break me out of this flaming pit of hell she had just roundhouse kicked me into. This is all her fault.

I can't stand the sight of her any longer. I can't stand being in this room with more paintings than is necessary in such a small space for another second. The very minute I walked into this office I felt more uncomfortable here than anywhere else that I can remember, and it's been growing worse every minute I've stayed. All fifteen of them according to the minute hand on the clock to my left, next to a painting of a calm ocean on a sunny day — gosh, how unoriginal. How the hell have I only been here for fifteen minutes? How has my world disintegrated into this much of a mess in fifteen measly minutes?

My eyes settle on the window across the room and the gentle sway of the Bottlebrush trees I can see outside. That's where I need to be — outside, where there is real oxygen that licks my skin and cools me down naturally, not like this recycled garbage spewing forth from the overworked split-system above my head.

"Are you okay, Sadie?"

Are you fucking serious? You're a trained professional watching me — your client — in full melt-down mode and all you have to say is 'are you okay?'

She was out of her chair and walking to the window I must have be staring longingly at. She slid open the window and the gust of air that burst into the room was the most perfect wind ever known to humankind. It smelled like warm rain and moulding earth; tall, Mountain Ash trees wrapped tightly in ivy and surrounded by ferns, where the air is lighter, fresher and filtered by nature. The scent of home — of a long overdue autumnal Melbourne storm high on the mountains in the Dandenong Ranges after weeks of drought — cleared away the blockage in my throat and I felt like I was breathing again for the first time ever. The weight that had been crushing my chest lifted, and the stabbing pains that were penetrating my heart before seemed but a vague echo of what they once were. The vice-grip my hands formed around the arms of the chair relaxed, and they instead moved to hold my forehead up as my long, auburn hair created a convenient curtain of unruly curls around the rest of my head, giving me what I wanted — the space to not have to look at her anymore.

It's terrifying how quickly you can become lost to yourself. How with a few simple words you no longer know who you are or your place in the world. Everything you had thought, everything you believed, simply undone, floating without an anchor on the whims of an ocean of uncertainty, while you swim behind, desperately trying to catch up and re-establish some kind of control.

And to think, at one point I actually thought I was an accomplished swimmer.

Despite the breeze and my now somewhat-relaxing anxiety, there is still something about this counselling room that makes me feel uneasy. Like that feeling you get when you're walking back to your car in the dark and you feel like someone is following you so you need to grip your keys a little tighter in your hand and be on constant alert. Being in this room makes me feel like I'm being watched, but there's no one here except Karen, and she doesn't count because I know for a fact that she's watching me very closely.

I sat back in the chair after a few minutes, brushing my hair away from face and leaning back into the backrest, defeated.

"No, Karen. I had never, until this very moment, ever considered any of that to be remotely traumatic."

I mean, who would? Who had the time to actually slow down and think about all the things that went wrong in their life?

Parents separating, abusive stepfather, depressed mother, sister vanishing, baby abandoned, best friends lost.

One perfect relationship.

One very un-perfect boyfriend . . .

Who was I kidding? Thinking about how and when and why everything went wrong is how I ended up being the anxious, twenty-six year old trainwreck I am, now desperately sitting in a counselling office asking a stranger to wave their magic wand and fix my traumatic life.

I never wanted to come here, but he asked me to and I could never deny him anything. And I'd just be a colossal hypocrite if I backed down now.

Surely it couldn't hurt to stay a while? At the very least, it can't get any worse.

. . . Right?

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