Social Anxiety of Fairy Tale Proportions

If you think monsters are imaginary, dragons don’t exist, and fairies can’t be real because there isn’t any magic, then you must live an anxious-free life. How nice for you.

* * *

But for people like myself and Sara, these mythical creatures live beyond fairy tales and Hollywood cinema. They are very real and so is the war we wage against them.

Just like every morning, Sara woke up to the pulsing bleat of her alarm clock. She refused to open her eyes and instead focused on the orbiting sounds that seemed to expand and contract in her head.

Right now, the voices were conspicuously silent and she knew it was vital to use this brief time of respite to double-check her arsenal of weapons and prepare to defend herself.

Every quest has a purpose. Frodo’s quest was to destroy the One ring by throwing it into the fires of Mount Morder. Harry’s quest was to destroy all seven horocruxes and defeat Voldemort. Dorothy’s quest is to kill the Wicked Witch of the West and steal her broomstick.

Sara’s quest is to destroy the evil Overlord who reigns in her head and feeds on Sara’s social terror, self-doubt, and insecurities. Her name is Aras Sara’s captor and torturer. Every day, Aras sends a legion of parasites to torment Sara wherever she goes.

With goblins and ogres lurking about, Sara couldn’t risk leaving herself vulnerable and unprepared, so she took stock of her collection of weapons that she’d accumulated from her garden-gnome mentor. When she was ready, she finally opened her eyes and sat up. That’s when the first attack came hissing past her ear.

“You’re going to work today? Really?” laughed a pudgy mouse that had climbed up onto her dresser. He strung another arrow and it whizzed just over her head as she quickly ducked. “And what will you accomplish there? They basically pay you to screw up. That’s money well spent.”

Three more mice hopped up onto the dresser after having climbed up the back behind the wall. They each pulled an arrow from their quivers and, with their bows, pointed them directly at her.  The urge to retreat built in her chest and her feet lifted and hovered a couple of inches off the carpet as she hesitated between retreating back beneath the warmth and safety of her covers and standing up and fighting.

But she was trained for this. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath while sliding her hand beneath the pillow. Her fingers slid across the metal of her shield. She clutched it tight and whirled around, slamming it onto the mice. Bright blue smoke curled out from underneath the shield where the mice used to be.

Sara smirked. Their kind were getting easier to kill. The trick was to kill them before they multiplied into hundreds.

If you were in the room with her, you might insist that there hadn’t been any arrow-shooting rodents. You only heard silence when they spoke. But they were there and she did defeat them. Don’t be fooled into thinking their mute invisibility meant they were harmless. Their kind have brought down many of us, even Sara for a time, until she learned how to silence them.

I won’t bore you with all the details from the battles she faced as she got ready for the day. They were mostly small and she defeated them all. And when she grabbed her purse and keys to leave, there was a smile of satisfaction on her face.

It’s worth noting, however, that while she appeared to the untrained eye as put together, competent, and calm, reality was much different. Just from this morning, she was bleeding from a wound in her side, sticky and clotting from the sword of an evil knight who assured her that the reason her friend hadn’t returned her text message the night before was because they weren’t as close as Sara liked to think they were.

Her hair was singed a bit on the right side and she had a new burn on her elbow. Closing the door, she limped slightly from a fresh wound to her calf as she walked to her car. Then, when she went to check her reflection in the rear-view mirror, a hatchet hurled through the air slashing her check. It was propelled forward with the words, “Your stomach is pudgy and your pores are enormous. Ew!”

Sitting in the front seat was a princess with flawless skin and bright eyes. She spoke with a soothing, melodic voice and smelled of flowers and fresh air. Sara was temporarily paralyzed by the fear that she, in contrast, emitted a mildew-y stench that came from living in a damp basement suite.

Sensing she’d found a weak spot, the princess launched into another attack. “No one could love a face like that. And look at those clothes!” She wrinkled her nose into a pinched expression.

But Sara recovered just in time, and as the hatchet lowered for a second time, she grabbed a fist full of fairy dust from her pocket and blew it into the princess’s face. The princess immediately turned to stone, the perfect statue, before crumbling into dust.

Battles won still leave scars. Most days are a constant war waged against the deprecating voices in her head. Voices that refuse to be silenced or ignored. Like a four-year-old with something to say, they repeat their messages, over and over, getting louder and more insistent if she tries to ignore them.

Usually she can keep their taunts on the borders of her periphery, but these minions enjoy testing her resolve like raptors test their cage for weaknesses. Where was she the most vulnerable? They leer forward, scratching at old scars as they watch to see when she winces, searching for clues of any injuries she might be hiding.

* * *

After she got to work, the day began to roll smoothly along. All was quiet. Too quiet. She sat at her desk going through her inbox. Normally this was a source of anxiety; communicating with people she didn’t know and no being able to see their faces to know how they would react, made it feel as though she was conversing blind and deaf. To compensate, she’d punctuate her emails with emoticons and exclamation marks to make sure they came across as friendly, only to freak out after she sent them because they looked like they’d been written by a nine-year old.

But today, the words flowed from her fingertips without the need to cringe. She hit send without clenching her eyes shut and holding her breathe. The creatures who normally flooded her office were absent. It was weird, great, and alarming. When she’d sent the last email on her list, she decided to reward her new-found confidence with a second cup of coffee, or was it a fifth? No worries. No one, but the judgemental voices in her head were counting and they didn’t seem to be here today.

As she approached the kitchen in the back room, she could hear laughing. She hesitated for moment knowing that there was the definite possibility that she would say something stupid in front of whomever was in there, but she was feeling confident and the creatures were strangely muted today.

“Sara!” Katherine smiled, looking up from a box of timbits she was picking through. She was about sixty and was always smiling. Warmth radiated from her and you couldn’t help but feel like you’d been hugged by your favourite Grandma every time she said hi.

“We were just talking about you.” Erin and Mitchell, who were sitting at a table with Katherine, grinned at her. Well, Erin more glanced over quickly before returning her gaze back to the box of timbits in Katherine’s hands. Mitchell, on the other hand, stared a bit longer than was appropriate. Not because he was interested in Sara, in fact, he was happily married with grandchildren. He was just a bit awkward and often unknowingly danced across the line between friendly and creepy. Sara barely noticed anymore.

Suddenly, a strange looking woman materialized behind Katherine. She was hunched so far over that the curve of her back was higher than her head. She gripped Katherine’s shoulders as she peered at Sara with her watery, red eyes.

“They were just talking about you, and laughing,” the woman crooned. “What do you suppose that means?”

Sara pretended she hadn’t heard the woman and smiled at Katherine. “Really?” Sara asked.

“He’s perfect for you. He’s tall, like you,” Katherine said, finally deciding on a chocolate timbit, and passed the box to Erin who eagerly grabbed three without really looking and shoved them, one by one, into her mouth.

A second witch appeared in the empty chair beside Mitchell. She grinned at Sara with a mouth full of crooked yellowing black teeth. “Tall like you? Freaks really should stay together. Don’t you agree?” she asked, turning to Mitchell who seemed completely unfazed and oblivious to the witch’s presence beside him.

“It never occurred to me to set you up with him until we were chatting yesterday. He was saying how hard it was to meet anyone and I thought, I know someone who isn’t seeing anyone!” Katherine said, snatching the box away from Erin and began to carefully peruse her options again.

“Someone lonely and she thought of you!” Another voice floated from behind Sara’s right ear. The woman was standing so close to Sara that she could smell the witch’s breath, a stench of rotting fish and sour milk. “Lonely loser!’ she cackled, her breath emitting in waves.

In her mind, Sara grabbed her sword and plunged it backwards, deep into the stomach of the witch behind her. The witches all cackled.

“Stupid girl. Swords don’t work on us!” the woman with the crooked teeth said, grinning.

“What do you think?” Katherine asked, “He’s really nice and funny. Seriously! I laughed so much last night.” She finally grabbed another timbit, popped it in her mouth before dusting the sugar off her hands. Mitchell swiped the box out just as Erin went to grab it. Her glare was fierce, but he just grinned back.

Panic clenched Sara’s stomach and it felt like a vacuum was opening up in her chest, threatening to suck her insides into non-existence. “I don’t know. I’m not that great on dates,” she said, turning away to pour coffee into her cup giving her the excuse to turn away and her terror.

“It’ll be fun! Just coffee,” Mitchell said, pulling out 2 more timbits. Erin scowled at him.

“Just coffee?” all three witches cackled. “How many things can go wrong with a coffee date?”

“She could spill it on herself,” one witch said, ticking the option off on her long, bony fingers.

“She could get so nervous it gives her diarrhea!” another cackled.

“In a public bathroom.”

“Again!” they all cackled.

Sara cringed.

Turning around, she grabbed her bow and quickly shot three successive arrows into the chest of each witch. For a moment, they appeared stunned, but then they doubled over laughing. Even the hunched-over witch managed to fold over even further. Then, they each plucked the arrow out of their chests.

“Arrows don’t work either, sweet pea,” said the foul-breathed witch.

“Go for it Sara. You don’t want to be alone forever,” Mitchell encouraged.

Another witch materialized in front of Sara. Her robes were ratty and there was a phlegmy rattle in each breath as she stood staring at Sara. “He’ll look at you like all the others. You’ll open your mouth and say something stupid.” The witches all quietly giggled.

“He’ll look at you with revulsion and then you’ll be stuck in uncomfortable silence that will last for hours,” the hunched witch said.

“Sara? What do you think?” Katherine asked. They were staring at her, waiting for her to say something. Erin even looked at her concerned.

“I, um,” Sara stalled, trying to think of a polite way to refuse.

“Um?’ cackled the hunched over witch. “That was articulate. Practicing for your date?”

“He’ll try desperately to figure out a way to get away from you!” The ratty-robed witch said, pacing slowly back and forth in front of her as the ends of her tattered robe dragged across the floor.

“I mean, if you don’t want to that’s okay,” Katherine said, looking a bit disappointed.

“Now look what you’ve done,” tisked the witch with the crowded teeth. “Your friends think you don’t want to go out with him. Bet you think you’re too good,” she said, examining her cracked and chipped nails.

“Oh? Is that it? You’re too good for him?” The first witch stepped closer and examined her up and down. “Really?”

“Yes. Sure. Sounds like fun,” Sara said, quickly. She tried to smile, but her face felt frozen. A mask.

The witches cackled. “Big mistake, my dear!” crooned the foul-breathed witch, bringing her face right up to Sara. She felt her stomach churn.

“Great! How does tomorrow night work?” Katherine asked, smiling again. Sara’s mind raced as she tired to think of a way out of this. On the outside she continued to smile. On the outside the mask only faltered. But inside her brain began to spin

“You worthless pile of dung. What made you say yes?” another witch popped up.

“What have you done?” a whisper buzzed in her ear “They’ll hate you now. It’ll all go wrong.”

“But that was inevitable,” a new voice echoed back.

“True, true.”

“You always manage to say just the wrong thing”

“Well, say something.”

“They’re waiting.”

“Um, I’m not sure tomorrow works. I’ll have to check,” she said lamely.

Soon there are so many witches dancing around her, staring at her that she couldn’t see the reality happening in front of her, her vision clouded with anxiety and fear. She tried to focus on her friends, hear what they were saying, but the echoes of the witches’ voices were too loud and their blurred faces were pressed too close to hers. Panic clenched her stomach and jaw as her brain continued to spin the ricocheting thoughts around inside her skull.

The voices began to repeat and overlap each other, like a juggler’s partner hurling more and more balls into her scull, bouncing back and forth, gaining momentum.

“They’re staring at you!”

“They think you’re an idiot.”

“Fix it.”

“You can’t”

“Run away!

“You could fix it if you had some social skills.”

“Say something!”

“Run! Run Away!”

“Speak, you inarticulate idiot!”

“They’re waiting.”

“Run! Run and hide! Run!”

“Are you stupid?”

“Run away!”

“Fix it.”

“RUN!”

The voices cut through her, simultaneously looping, repeating until she was ensnared, tangled in the sharp threads of their condemnation. Finally, all she could hear was “Run! Run! Run!” twisting and echoing through the spinning in her brain.

Her face appeared calm, but her brain continued to scream as a shrill static stabbed her ears and a white fog bled through her vision.

“Run! Run! Run!” echoed through her mind like the alarm clock she’d heard this morning.

“I have to use the washroom. I’ll get back to you,” she mumbled as she walked down the hall to the bathroom door. She could feel hot heat flash up her back and ears.

She sank onto the toilet behind the closed stall and squeezed her eyes shut trying to shut out the panic. She breathed in slowly, then exhaled even slower focusing on the darkness behind her closed eyes willing the manic spinning in her brain to slow.

* * *

The rest of the day was spent focusing on blocking the memory of their conversation and fighting the terror at the thought of going on a date. What if he took one look at her and left? Or worse, what if he stayed?

All day, the arrows, bullets, and darts zinged past her. Enemies that she had learned to kill suddenly felt impossible to conquer. Wounded and hunched to the side, she limped back to her car. Today she did not feel like a warrior. The clenching in her stomach sucked like a vacuum threatening to turn her inside out. All she wanted to do was go home and crawl so completely inside herself that she could escape the world forever.

At home, the witches’ coven returned in full force as she shut the door. She slowly withdrew her sword, knowing it would do nothing. It felt heavier than usual, or her fingers felt weaker. The witches cackled and spewed their vicious hate, but she already felt numb, bound by their spell.

Sobbing, she fell to her knees onto the floor, unable to fight anymore.

“Victory!” the witches cackled.

Her sword clanged beside her and she dropped her head into her hands and sobbed.

“Giving up so soon?” a gravelly voice asked.

She lifted her tear-streaked face to see her garden-gnome mentor enter the kitchen. He was shorter than her even when she was hunched over on her knees. He wore the classic red, pointed hat.

“I can’t defeat them,” Sara said in a soft voice.

“Of course you can’t,” he nodded. Even beneath his full, gray beard, she could see that he was smiling as his cheeks lifted and his eyes crinkled. “At least, not with a sword.” He handed her a vile of purple liquid. “Drink this.”

“Now wait just a minute!” one of the witches croaked. She had finally stopped laughing when she noticed he was there.

“She’s ours now!” another witch bellowed.

“We’ve won fair and square.”

“You’re not going to trust him, now are you sweet pea?”

“Poison. It’ll kill you,” a witch said, pointing her crooked, bony finger at her.

The gnome winked at her.

He hadn’t failed her yet so she uncorked the vile, and drank it in one gulp. It bubbled and fizzed it’s way down. Then nothing happened.

She looked at the gnome. He just stood there with his hands clasped behind his back. He continued to smile at her as if he expected this complete nothing to be happening. Or not happening.

The witches, who had been eyeing her with frightened looks, started to relax and then began cackling again.

“You can’t defeat us!”

“You’re going to die miserable and alone with only us for company!”

“You can’t fight us!”

“She’s right,” the gnome said calmly. “that last bit, anyway. You can’t fight them. But you can stop believing. Stop accepting what they say.”

“Haha! Poppycock! Your little gnome has betrayed you. Even he doesn’t like you! No one does.”

“Deny it, even if you think they’re right,” the gnome whispered in her ear.

“Not true,” she whispered. Suddenly, she felt a fizzing in her throat, like bad heartburn.

“No one likes you. They just pretend to.”

The gnome winked again.

“Yes, they do. You’re lying?” Her heartburn started to get worse.

“And now you have a date tomorrow and he’ll think you’re weird too!”

“No he won’t?” she said, uncertainly, before belching purple mist. Whatever that potion was it was not agreeing with her and was fizzing back up.

“It will be painful. You won’t be able to say anything.”

“Absolutely no social skills.”

“You’re wrong. I’m not always awkward.” Sara belched again and more mist poured from her mouth.

“What’s going on?” one of the witches narrowed her eyes at Sara.

“Now she’s burping. Classy! He’ll love that on a date!”

The witches continued to hurl her insecurities and inner most thoughts and fears at her, but she kept denying them, even when she wasn’t sure if they were untrue. Even when she believed them. Each time she did, the potion fizzed and bubbled until finally, with one great burp a huge purple cloud hurled out her mouth and filled the kitchen.

One by one the witches began to suffocate and collapse into a heap on top of each other where their bodies then melted and vapourized, mixing with the purple cloud, erasing it.

Confused, she looked down at the vile and saw that it had refilled itself and the gnome was gone. She lay her head back against the cupboard, exhausted.

She knew the war was far from over. Today was just one day. But tomorrow, she would not start again. Instead, she would continue the journey she’d already started. She knew they would be back, but she would defeat them again. And again if necessary.

She refused to see this as an endless cycle. It was an epic quest to kill the overlord in her head. Aras could send as many henchmen as she liked, but Sara would eventually defeat them all. And, when she’d built up enough armour, cultivated enough skill, she would defeat Aras as well.

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