on forgetting how to breathe

The night air is cool. I am slightly tipsy. I can hear the sounds of the ocean not far from where we’ve pitched our tent. My best friend is nestled beside me in her sleeping bag. I lie awake and upright, anxiety and panic eating away at me after checking my messages and seeing an abusive message from a girl I don’t recognise.

‘Why did you say those things, you could have killed him!’

I call my brother frantically, who reassures me that it’s nothing but gives me the number of the detention centre in Darwin all the same. Shaking, I call and ask for Amir. They ask for the extension number. I give it to them. They put me through. Amir’s smiling voice breaks through the speaker.

‘Sheree. My hero’.

‘Oh god. Are you okay?’

‘Yes I am fine, everything is fine, don’t worry’.

‘Your girlfriend sent me a message! I didn’t even know you HAD a girlfriend man’.

He laughs and tells me not to worry. She is just beside herself is all. She thought her boyfriend was dead. She must not have heard about this new Government of ours. They disappear people now. We talked for a while and my heart has clenched involuntarily.  It’s all too much. He tells me he is grateful that we are fighting for him but he is embarrassed that he is in this situation. He feels ashamed that people know what has happened to him. I try to reassure him that it’s fine, that people need to know so we can get their support. It feels so futile that the shame of being taken back to detention centre is the overwhelming feeling, trumping the reality of being taken back to detention.

We are both so close to the water now, both in small spaces, but I am free, and he is not. Despite the cheer in his voice, he details how they sent him from Villawood to Darwin.

‘One of the guys with me, he tried to run away. They get him, take us both back to detention and hide us in solitary room for the whole day, then next day they take us to airport with 12 security guards’ (your taxes pay their salary). Amir has done nothing wrong but he is punished all the same. And so it goes, his never ending saga continues on and on in this, our fair country.

***

I was sitting in my therapist’s office when I got the news. The session had just ended and she was booking in my next appointment. ‘Thursday next week?’ I nod absently, staring at the words on my phone. ‘Bad news guys. Amir was taken away to detention just now. His friend has his phone and I’m getting all the info they gave. I spoke to the lawyer, he’s pretty shocked. He didn’t think they would do it’. I look back and see my response.

‘I can’t breathe’. I don’t know how I got through that day. It was all a daze. Since that day my chest has constricted. I feel a weight there, a heaviness. I cannot focus on things. Every little thing I have to do in my life is a burden. Every criticism, every stress, every deadline, every person who I cross paths with, every person who tries to be in my life, anyone who needs things from me – all of it becomes a thing that weighs on my chest. I’ve forgotten how to breathe. I cannot sit still, I cannot be calm – there is a storm inside of me.

My father is sick and I cannot think about that either. He’s strong, I tell myself in a bid to feel better, less guilty. Everything has a way of unraveling. I can’t read the news, unless it is so predictable that is almost has an anaesthetising effect. I cannot relax, I cannot find peace from within. There is an unbridled turbulence. Pressure I used to handle so deftly becomes an overwhelming tidal wave. I feel afraid. I can’t sleep. I worry about everything.

These are things I’ve battled with all my life, only in small, barely noticeable doses. Common quirks, occasional stress, fear, worry, uncertainty. But now they are exploding across my universe. Prior to this, the worst was before I moved overseas. I was plagued with panic attacks from all the things people had said could happen to a girl living on her own in a foreign country. But this is different. I can’t explain what’s happening now, only that I am struggling to get past it. I am speaking to someone. She’s literally teaching me how to breathe again. She gave me the link to a website.

‘No drugs?’ I asked hopefully.

‘This is more effective’

‘But what will fix it right now?’

***

I think back to 2001. I am 13 and sitting in my English class. Everyone is talking about asylum seekers. Someone asks the teacher his opinion on the issue.

‘I don’t know what the answer is, but I know we should always try to take the most humanitarian path on this issue.’

Those words are burned into my soul, my mantra.

I didn’t intend to become friends with a young man who came here by boat. I didn’t pick someone who came here at the wrong time, who became victim to draconian laws, the criminalisation of innocents and fervent desire to break every humanitarian law in existence. I didn’t ask for it but the universe provided it for me. Maybe they thought I could handle it. Maybe they were wrong. Since the news of Amir’s capture by the Australian government three weeks ago (I had originally written two years ago, might as well), I have not been able to sleep or walk freely through the world without the heavy burden that someone’s life is in limbo, that someone good, kind and strong has been taken from us. I am constantly on the verge of a panic attack. I worry that I am not functioning properly at work, although my colleagues and managers go above and beyond to reassure me that they understand and want to help. But I am the most helpless I have ever been. I am a ghost of my former self. I am putting on a brave face of someone I used to be. The lawyer is currently working on a compassionate appeal to Scott Morrison. People are writing letters of support. I can’t bring myself to read the letters. I can’t bring myself to do anything.

I call Darwin again one night.

There’s no answer.

The phone rings and rings and rings.

Maybe he is sleeping.

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