by Holly Bourne

“I know.” I rolled my eyes. “But stranger things have happened.”

Mum laughed. My constant disregard for every potential suitor was something she teased me about. She ribbed me that no one would ever be good enough, but I swore I wasn’t picky. It was just that all seventeen-year-old boys were disgusting. And the few that weren’t had over-inflated egos from the constant attention. My theory was that boys stopped being gross aged nineteen, and as I wasn’t pretty enough to attract an older guy, I was quite happy to wait for two years until every boy my age didn’t nauseate me.

Mum, however, didn’t agree with my thinking and worried about me. In fact, worrying about me was her favourite pastime.

As if on cue, her face turned serious over the steam of her tea.

“So, how did your appointment with Dr. Ashley go the other day?” she asked quietly.

Oh God, so it was going to be one of those mornings.

“It was fine,” I replied non-committally and carried on eating.

“Just fine?” What was it with parents and that phrase? “What did you talk about?”

“You know, the usual.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

I focused on chewing muesli, waiting for her to start up again.

It took less than thirty seconds.

“So what is the usual?”

I swallowed.

“Jesus, Mum, I don’t know. I whinged about my coursework, he made me practise that stupid breathing thing again, we talked about how to cope when…you know…it happens.”

She looked concerned and I held my breath, waiting for her to say it.

“So he still doesn’t know what causes it?” Her eyes filled with tears. Bloody hell. How many times can you have the same conversation?

“Mum.” I spoke slowly and carefully. “This isn’t your fault. You didn’t screw up my child-raising or drop me on my head as a baby. You brought up Louise exactly the same and this didn’t happen to her. It’s bad luck. That’s all. You’ve got to believe me.”

She looked up at me like a child. “Really?” she whispered. “Dr. Ashley didn’t say it was anyone’s fault?”

“Of course he didn’t. Because it’s not. It’s just my biology, my hormones. Whatever. No doubt it’s something I’ll outgrow and we’ll look back and laugh at it. Okay?”

She looked relieved. For now. No doubt I would have this conversation again at some point the next week. And the next. And the next.

“Okay.” She grabbed both of our empty cups and took them to the sink.

“You can borrow my handbag for tonight if you want,” she said, smiling.

“Can I? Brilliant. Thanks, Mum.”

Then she walked out of the kitchen.

Here’s the thing. Much as I try to fight it, I’m the biggest cliché around. I’ve got “mental health” problems. I know. Original, right? I detest myself for my lack of creativity, but unfortunately it’s out of my control. It’s like, because I’m middle class, my mind isn’t preoccupied with worrying about money and stuff, so it’s busying itself with this instead.

About two years ago, I was in school, just listening to my Geography teacher banging away about fair trade coffee, when it became quite obvious I was about to die. The walls closed in on me. Everything went black, and I couldn’t breathe.

Blind panic rushed through my body like an adrenalin shot as I realized that these were my last moments. I remember thinking, as my body frantically fought for air, how dreadfully awful it was that I was going to die in Geography. And I had never swum with dolphins, or seen the Grand Canyon, or ridden a motorbike, or done any of the things you’re supposed to do before dying. I wouldn’t see my parents again. Or Louise. It would wreck their lives if I died.

And then I realized I was going to die without ever having a boyfriend. Though the world was hazy, all I could think about was love. And how I’d never had it. How I would never understand what it felt like to fall asleep knowing another person was thinking of you. I would never have someone touch the small of my back as they steered me through a crowd. I would never know every contour of someone’s face off-by-heart, and yet not be bored with it. And, as I sank to the grey, chewing-gum stained carpet, all I could think was how sad that was.

Of course, I woke up. Surrounded by concerned faces, my palms bleeding from digging my fingernails into them. I got to go home for the day. And all my romantic revelations were forgotten. I put them down to concussion or whatever, and I got a lot of attention for about a week until everyone forgot about it.

My life continued without consequence until it happened again.

I was shopping for tampons with my mum – probably the most embarrassing items you could be carrying in a public near-death experience. Like the first time, the walls squashed me in and I felt I was being suffocated by nothing. That was all I could remember. I came round screaming on the cold marble floor, while dozens of terrified shoppers stared at me. My mum was clutching my hand desperately, her eyes wide with fear.

There were doctor’s appointments after doctor’s appointments. My mum argued with our GP so, of course, we “went private”. After hundreds of blood tests, two more “incidents”, and dozens of referrals, I was taken to a large white house and forced to talk to some smiling man with perfectly straight but yellowing teeth. He eventually gave me a term for the incidents. Panic attacks. Very common, apparently. Stresses of modern life and all that.

And so began my weekly appointments with Dr. Ashley. Or the Shrink, or Head Doctor, or whatever you’d like to call him. And for two years I’ve been forced to endure the guilt in my mum’s face every morning. Searching for an answer, a reason, and only finding her innocent self to blame.

I ran my cereal bowl under the tap, washing off all the leftover muesli so it wouldn’t stick like cement to the sides. Then I waited for the evening, where hopefully, something original would happen in this stupid, stupid town.

I spent the day busying myself with being a girl. I ran a huge bubble bath with some of Mum’s posh stuff and shaved my legs. I then tried on about six million different outfits. After much speculation, I decided on my dark denim miniskirt and the faded Smiths T-shirt I’d begged Dad to buy me from a vintage store. After applying lashings of mascara, eyeliner and lip gloss, I checked my phone and realized I was meeting everyone in five minutes. I took one last look in the mirror – not bad. Not brilliant either. My brown eyes stared back at me, covered slightly by some of my mousey hair, which I had tried and failed to backcomb into a rock-y look. I slipped my feet into my battered ballerina pumps, grabbed my jacket and ran out the door.