CONTENT NOTE

This piece makes mention of sexual violence, war, genocide, and symptoms of PTSD, and explores the experience of anaphylaxis.

i. I am afraid of very big bees

I almost died last year. I was in Bosnia with my partner, visiting my newly un-estranged biological father, when I was stung by a wasp. At first, I thought everything was fine. Painful, but fine. I had been stung once before, so I didn’t think anything of it when my left hand swelled to double and then triple its normal size, the skin red and taut. Very soon, I started to itch. First, under my bra strap and at the seams of my undies, then anywhere my skin was in contact with clothing or with itself. My arse crack, especially. It burned. I wanted my boyfriend out of the room so I could have at it but instead I took two antihistamines and went downstairs for a shower. I have my first aid certificate, but somehow, I wasn’t able to connect the dots until I saw myself naked in the mirror, my whole body covered in small milky bumps, my face flushed and starting to grow puffy. I sent a photo to my mum, a nurse, and she rang immediately. Get to a hospital, right now.

             I didn’t know the Bosnian word for ‘wasp’ so when I stumbled into the lounge room, I told Bio-Dad that I’d been stung by a very big bee. He turned the light on, took one look at me and picked up the car keys. It was getting hard to breathe and climbing the stairs to tell my partner what was happening made me dizzy.

             We drove to the next village where there was a small medical centre, but it was closed. Then we drove to my uncle’s house because he was the doctor that worked at the medical centre, but he wasn’t home. My hand was on fire and somehow still swelling. I thought the skin would start splitting open—there was no way it could stretch enough to accommodate my baguette fingers. I started to panic. I could feel my chest and throat tightening, and the next town with a hospital was 20 kilometres away, partly over a narrow, winding and potholed single-lane road.

             We were silent as we drove, Bio-Dad grimly taking the corners too fast, my partner sitting in the back occasionally touching my neck. Bio-Dad can’t speak English and my boyfriend can’t speak Bosnian and for most of the drive all I could think about was how awkward it would be for both of them if I died. Mum called and told me how to breathe. I was wheezing and nauseated. It was hard to concentrate on her voice. I needed to throw up and I needed, badly, to shit. At some point I did, demanding that Biodad pull over and practically falling out of the car, shouting ne gledaj/don’t look as I pulled my pants down and had intense diarrhoea next to the road.

             I wasn’t afraid of wasps before this. My first sting came out of an ill-fated attempt to fumigate the nest in our kitchen wall by myself. And of course, I did it myself, our landlords—like most landlords—were useless. I, however, was capable. I had survived a genocidal war, extreme violence, being kicked out of home, sexual assault, and rape. A few wasps couldn’t hurt me. I was resourceful, a survivor. When I was stung the first time (inexplicably, on my right boob) I was in pain for a few days and then the pain went away, leaving just a small scar. I was only a little warier of wasps after that.

             The experience in Bosnia changed things. I started flinching at any flying insect in my vicinity, involuntarily squealing when a bee or wasp or large fly landed on me. My skin would prickle into goosebumps, like a lazy simulation of the hives from last year. I told myself that I wouldn’t be stung unless I did something stupid, but the fear couldn’t be reasoned with. As soon as I could, I made an appointment with my doctor in Glasgow and asked for an EpiPen. She wouldn’t give me one without an appointment at the allergy clinic and I was on the waiting list for eight months before she finally gave in to my pleading.

             I now carry two EpiPens with me everywhere, compulsively reaching into my tote at least twice an hour to check that I haven’t forgotten them. I know, on a conscious level, that even if I do get stung, I’ll be okay. I’m in a city now and there are hospitals everywhere, easily accessible via smooth roads and with the help of a siren to speed things up if necessary. The adrenaline from the pens would keep me breathing until I got to one. I know this and I feel better, even if I can’t help ducking behind the nearest friend whenever a wasp gets too close.

ii. I am afraid of many things

The first time I hear a car backfire, I fall to the ground and cover my head. I know I am in Australia, know that there is no war here and that this is not a gunshot. Still, I am shaking when I stand.

             I flinch at raised voices, duck away from hands that rise too quickly.

             As a child, I am afraid to be left alone with men. I am nervous even of Dad, who would never, and has never, hurt me. My sister sees bad men in the night outside her window and sleeps with a knife under her pillow, but I pray that I am dead first.

             I am at Riverfire with my best friend and when the fireworks start, I am small and huddled, picking at a spot on my palm that will become a callus by the end of high school. My friend hugs me from behind and covers my ears as I watch the explosions in silence.

             There is a house in Collingwood that I sometimes pass on the tram. For years, every time I pass, I sweat, my heart pounding in my ears, nausea rising as I flash back to my body on the floor, naked and sticky, in a pool of vomit.

             At a concert, unable to move and pressed tightly against people on every side, my hands are balled into fists, my nails digging into my palms, etching semi-crescents that do not bleed but will take hours to fade.

             I see a man at a festival who looks like a man I had seen grunting over my body, and I spin out of control, need to escape and fight my way back to breathing.

             The borders slam shut, and it becomes impossible to leave Glasgow. I know I am safe, but I am trapped too. I have a panic attack over Skype, crying uncontrollably and gulping for air, my boyfriend—in Germany—watching helplessly through the screen.

             The footsteps behind me grow louder and I turn my music up to not hear them. I am afraid of what can happen, but more afraid of the fear that comes first.

             & etc

             & etc

iii. Anaphylaxis is a metaphor

When I tell people about the wasp sting, most are surprised that I didn’t realise what was happening sooner. Almost everyone tells me that it’s at the second exposure that the allergy actually kicks in. I know this. I knew this at the time, too. The body is funny that way. It learns from trauma, changes to protect itself from more. Often, it does this in ways that are useless or dangerous. You’re exposed to an allergen and you survive. But the allergen has changed your cells, left them sensitised and primed for another fight. The next time you’re exposed, your immune system goes into overdrive. Your cells spill a cocktail of proteins which mediate inflammation all at once and you go into anaphylaxis. Smooth muscle contraction causes the bronchioles in your lungs to close, your arterioles dilate and your blood pressure drops, your capillaries become permeable and you lose fluid into swelling tissue.

             A similar thing happens when you experience trauma. The traumatic event happens, and you survive but are changed. The next time you feel at risk, your body reacts. Your heart races, your mouth goes dry, you feel sick, you hyperventilate, freeze, have a panic attack. Often, you’re reacting in excess of the risk. Often, your reaction is more harmful than the risk. Your brain has changed, the trauma recorded as images and sensations, memories split into fragments and stored like shrapnel. Long-term trauma can cause changes in your prefrontal cortex, corpus callosum, and hippocampus. It’s difficult to regulate your emotions, especially fear and anger. It’s difficult to think clearly. It’s difficult to control your memories, or to differentiate from the past and present. Your nervous system is on high alert and you perceive threats even when there are none, cannot un-perceive them no matter how you reason with yourself. The constant stress causes your body to change on a cellular level, making you more susceptible to cancer, heart attack, stroke, diabetes.

iv. This could have been another essay but the results are the same

When I was first asked to write this essay, I wasn’t sure what to write about. I don’t own a handbag and all I ever carry in my backpack or tote are a book, water bottle, phone, wallet, keys, headphones, planner, and my EpiPens. This didn’t strike me as very interesting.

             I thought maybe I could write something about my headphones, and in particular about podcasts, which I listen to compulsively. I gravitated around the idea of ‘baggage’ and trauma—because of course I did—and wanted to write about podcasts as a mechanism to cope with anxiety, a means to prevent or drown out the invasive thoughts and circular thinking that can send me spiralling into sleepless nights, depression and panic attacks.

             Like a lot of millennials, I’m a podcast fiend. I listen to them when walking and on public transport, cooking or cleaning, lying in bed, waking up or waiting to fall asleep, in the shower, on the toilet. Pretty much whenever I have a free moment that might turn into me thinking too long. I’ve been listening to them like this for five years now and it’s helped—a lot.

             It feels awkward to admit that. Pushing away the problem does not seem like a good coping mechanism. Yoga, meditation, journaling, psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioural therapy, and appropriate prescription drugs, they seem like good coping mechanisms. But none of that stuff worked for me. What I mean to say is: I’ve never had the time or money to make this stuff work for me.

v. There are material realities to consider

I cannot afford a therapist now, nor will I be able to for a long time. I’m a full-time PhD student studying in the UK. I have a $30,000 per year scholarship that will last two more years and is just enough to cover my £16,000-plus per year tuition. In the UK, I’m allowed to work 20 hours a week on a student visa, which covers rent, bills, and food. I make a little bit of extra money writing and sometimes editing, but not much. For the last three years, I’ve made less than $13,000 a year. I’m immensely fortunate to be able to live off this, to have lived in Bosnia rent-free for nine months, and to have friends that gift me their old clothes and shout my dinner when I’m skint. I have a comfortable life, but there’s not much leftover for luxuries.

             In so-called-Australia, I saw a number of psychiatrists and psychologists over the years, mostly when I was younger and my parents could foot the bill, but also occasionally in adulthood when I got ten free sessions a year by virtue of a questionnaire my doctor gave me to work out just how close I was to offing myself (close, apparently). For the most part, I didn’t find these people especially helpful. Therapy takes time and the economic realities of Australia’s mental health system mean that there’s a strong imperative to opt for quick fixes. I’ve been prescribed a lot of quick fixes.

             In the UK, healthcare, including mental healthcare, is free with a referral from your GP but waiting lists are months long for ‘non-urgent’ cases and you have a limited number of visits. I’m still, technically, on the waiting list for the allergy clinic and I’ve been waiting for an appointment with an ADHD specialist for a year and a half. The mental health care system is equally overloaded and non-government and university services struggle to keep up with demand.

             To bypass the public health system, you need money and lots of it. The Australian Psychological Society recommends that the standard 45 to 60-minute appointment be charged at $260 per session. For people with complex mental health needs, who are very often marginalised by virtue of race, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, and class, and whose economic circumstances reflect this, this kind of money is next to impossible.

vi. We make do with what we have

EpiPens work by injecting adrenaline into your body, ideally into your thigh. This reverses the symptoms of anaphylaxis, causing your blood vessels to constrict, and relaxing the muscles in your airways. The effect of the adrenaline is rapid but not long-lasting. Generally, it wears off after 10 to 20 minutes. Rarely, an EpiPen will not discharge properly and this is why you’re supposed to carry two. The adrenaline isn’t a cure, but it’ll keep you alive long enough to get one.

             Similarly, putting on headphones and pressing play is by no means a solution to PTSD or anxiety. But it is an intervention into my bodily response, a way to delay and reverse my body’s nervous reaction, to keep me calm in the moment and ease the constant stress that, cumulatively, puts me at risk of health complications later in life. It is something that will help me survive until one day I can, maybe, hopefully, afford proper therapy.

             For many of us, this is all we have right now: cheap and portable interventions, mundane objections we retool as survival mechanisms. Cigarettes to give us an excuse to step out if we need to; planners to give us a sense of control; books to escape this reality into another; headphones to drown out our voices or redirect our attention; phones to feel safe and to feel connected; makeup for confidence; wallets full of keepsake ticket stubs to remind us of better times; photos of loved ones; souvenir keyrings; notebooks and pens; gum; pads and tampons; fragments and keepsakes to clasp in sweaty, shaky palms.

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