I don't know the name for this feeling yet, only that it changes everything around me.
I am five and I’ve wandered into the kindergarten classroom during lunch to sit in the reading corner. In the quiet classroom, with stories, I am safe. But the room isn’t empty. Two first graders share the reading corner, giggling.
I tiptoe past and slip into the bathroom. In the dark space, I stand very still and try to make myself small. The light switch is on the outside, but I don’t dare open the door to turn the light on, afraid I’ll be discovered, so I sit on the toilet to pee in the dark. Laughter seeps under the door. I’m sitting on the toilet with my corduroy pants down to my ankles, but nothing comes out.
The laughter is closer now, along with footsteps and muffled voices. The girls are outside the bathroom. If they don’t know I’m in here, they might walk in on me. But they know—I can sense it. I am a mouse and they are cats, ready to pounce on my shyness.
I hear the door handle turning and my face flushes with heat. A lump the size of a tennis ball rises in my throat. The door opens and I catch sight of two grinning faces. Quickly, the door slams shut. A hummingbird is trapped inside my ribcage. My heart flutters like tiny wings, my face burns, and my throat closes around the tennis ball.
I jump up, pull my pants up without zipping, and grab the door handle. The girls leave a trail of laughter behind as they leave the classroom.
The door is stuck hard. I’m trapped in a bathroom in the dark. No one will hear me and I’ll be stuck in here for the whole afternoon. Miss Karen will think Mom picked me up early today.
There’s nothing worse than being caught with your pants down.
Tears sting my eyes and I swallow, but the tennis ball is lodged in my throat.
I grab the door handle again and turn it back and forth, but the door will not budge. My five- year- old body is not strong enough to escape. Diegueno Country School is an old building and Miss Karen told us on the first day of school to close the bathroom door lightly because it’s known to get stuck from the inside.
Voices and footsteps enter the room.
I consider banging loudly on the inside of the door, but a kid with a full bladder comes to the rescue. The handle turns and the door opens from the outside. I walk out as if I were only in there for five minutes.
A strange, tight feeling stays in my stomach and chest for the rest of the day.
Later, when I am afraid to close doors behind me, especially bathroom doors, I tell Mom that I was trapped in the bathroom. Mom hugs me and tells me that everything is okay, but I am still afraid of being trapped in rooms and elevators.
This bathroom incident is the earliest memory of a certain tension that will come and go in my life—sometimes more acute, other times lingering deep in my stomach as if it’s a meal that can’t be fully digested. I don’t know the name for this feeling yet, only that it changes everything around me.
Years later, in a therapist’s office when I am sixteen, I learn the word for this feeling: anxiety.