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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2019 - Vol. 16, Issue 3

"Twenty-Six Is Just Around the Corner"

written by

SJ Bernstein

26 is just around the corner. It was Jill's first thought when she woke up in the morning. Her last thought when she went to sleep at night. The thought that haunted her through her mornings, followed her through her afternoons, and whispered itself into the quietness of the evening. Jill was 24, employed at an accounting firm since college. It was a boring job, or so her college roommate had told her the day she went in for her interview, but Jill didn’t mind. She liked the way she could lose herself in the numbers, the repetitive complexities of the math helping her to drowned out other, less welcome, thoughts. Jill shared a small rental house with three friends in a nice neighborhood of Pittsburgh, not far from the college she had once attended. On Fridays she went to shul, and on Saturdays she liked to take her dog for long walks around the campus of her old school. She would walk from one green to the next with the absentminded tread of one who knew her surroundings well, pausing every now and again to glance up at the familiar shape of the Cathedral of Learning, its pale stone and ornate windows a landmark reaching heights far above the roofs of the campus’s other buildings. It calmed her just as it always had during her student days. Things were good for Jill. She had the structure of the numbers at work and the coffee shop she went to afterwards, movie nights with the friends she lived with, and all of the beautiful books in the public library. But 26 was just around the corner.


One Sunday afternoon Jill sat on her bed shaking and gasping. She tried to breathe normally but the air wouldn't come. Tears welled up in her eyes and she clawed at her throat, trying in vain to release the invisible hands that seem to have clamped themselves around her airway. She felt as though she was drowning, the water filling her chest and lungs, her thoughts becoming increasingly blurred and desperate. She barely registered the footsteps on the stairs or the door slamming open. It was Madeleine, one of her housemates. Jill tried to say something to her but it came out all garbled, the words catching and twisting in the rasping breath that at some point became sobs. Madeleine sat beside her on the bed and tentatively placed her hand on Jill's shoulder. When Jill didn't shrug it away Madeleine leaned forward, using one hand to gently pry Jill's hands away from her throat, while with the other she stroked Jill's back.


“There, there.” She murmured. “There, there. Easy. Take deep breaths. I know it's hard, you need to breathe. You can do this. Try to get control of your breathing.”


Jill tried. Of course, she tried, but it wasn't that simple. It never was. Still her breathing did ease a little, more in response to Madeleine's soothing voice and gentle hands then to the content of her words.


“Do you need your med?” Madeleine asked gently.


Shakily Jill nodded.


Madeleine released Jill. She got up from the bed, grabbed the water bottle off of Jill's desk, came back, and opened the drawer of her bedside table. She pulled out a bottle with half a dozen tablets in it, popped the lid and dropped a single tablet into Jill's shaking, outstretched hand.


Jill took it and the water, and slowly raised both to her mouth. She felt like she was going to choke on it, like she was too nauseous to be able to swallow the tablet, small as it was.  But her doctor had told her not to let that feeling stop her from taking the med when she needed it and so, hesitantly, she dropped it into her mouth along with some water. Jill gagged, clutching at her throat again. The pill caught on her tongue and began to dissolve at the back of her mouth, prompting her to choke and retch some more. Hastily, Madeleine handed Jill back the water bottle and Jill gulped down half its contents, washing the pill from her mouth and down her throat.


She coughed a few more times but the pill did not reemerge. Madeleine sat beside Jill again, wrapping her arm around her friend’s shoulder, holding her gently as she continued to gasp and sob. Slowly the sobbing faded and Jill was left, red eyed and puffy cheeked, leaning against her friend’s shoulder.


“Do you want to tell me about it?” Madeleine asked softly.


Jill rubbed at her eyes with the palm of her hand. “I'm 24. I'll be 25 in four months exactly, which means that 26 is just around the corner.”


Madeleine nodded in silent understanding. She didn’t need to ask for clarification. This was a conversation that they had had many times before.


“I don't know what to do.” Jill whispered. One of her hands went automatically to her stomach. “How am I supposed to live?” 


Madeline was quiet for a moment. She didn't have a good answer. In truth, there was no good answer to be had. At last she admitted it.


“I don't know.” She paused for breath, then continued. "Have you talked to your therapist about it? Maybe she'd have some ideas."


Jill nodded. “I did.”




“She doesn't have any answers for me either. She just gave me some exercises to do to try to keep the thoughts away and suggested that I talked to my gastroenterologist about increasing my meds so that I can work more hours since that might qualify me for a better plan.”


“Do you think that would work?”


Jill shook her head. “If I raise the dose too much the side effects will become bad enough that I'll end up missing more work, not less.”


“Ah. I see.”


“Yeah, it's pretty hopeless.”


“I wouldn't call it that.” Madeleine said quickly. She was lying, she couldn't think of any other options either, but even if she didn't have a tangible way to help, she could at least sound encouraging.


“Oh yeah?” Jill asked, looking at her in a way that suggested to Madeleine that Jill knew exactly how little conviction Madeleine had in her words. “Got any better ideas? Because right now, the way it looks, I’ll be dead before 27.”


Madeleine shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “There's an election next year. Depending how things go, laws could change. You never know.”


Jill snorted softly. “Maybe.”


Madeleine sighed, shifting her weight on the bed again. 


“Should I get Hex for you?"


Jill glanced down at her watch. "I only let her out half an hour ago, I was going to leave her in the yard for at least an hour to give her time to run…"


“She can run later. She's your comfort animal, she should be here.”


Jill hesitated for a moment then nodded slowly. “Okay, yeah, could you call her in for me? I can log this episode in my notebook while you do."


“Good idea."


Madeleine gave her friend’s shoulders a final light squeeze then released her, stood, and padded across the room. Halfway through the door Madeleine turned to glance back at Jill, still sitting on the bed. 


"Hang in there, okay?”


Jill gave her a small nod and Madeleine closed the door.


For a moment Jill just sat, listening to Madeleine’s steps as she descended the creaky wooden staircase, before reaching slowly for the netbook and pen lying on her nightstand. She opened it to its first page, an index, and held the pen poised over the first blank line, the one two from the bottom. She entered that day’s date in the first column, then she paused again for a moment before filling in the second column with the words "26 is just around the corner." As she wrote she glanced at the rows that she had filled in previously. The most recent date was from just two days earlier and of the five most recent rows all said the same thing: "26 is just around the corner."


Slowly Jill flipped through her notebook until she found the first blank page, one that corresponded with the line of the index that she just filled in. There she hesitated again. She had written it all before, several times, but her therapist had told her to keep a diary of her panic attacks, when they happened, and what triggered them, and any other information that she had about what might have brought them on. Sometimes writing an entry meant doing a lot of thinking about the possible triggers for an attack that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Sometimes they caused her to face some part of her day that she had been pretending hadn't affected her. But often the entries became a tedious and repetitive exercise as she wrote again and again entries that were all titled the same way; all titled with the words "26 is just around the corner." Still, perhaps it was just the monotony talking but she supposed that she often felt a little calmer after writing, so, after another moment of hesitation, Jill began to put pen to paper.


“26 is just around the corner," she wrote. “I am 24. In exactly 1 year and four months I will be 26. When I turn 26 I will no longer be able to stay on my parents health insurance. I can't work enough hours.” She paused, frowning down at the phrase. “Why can't?” she murmured to herself, crossing it out. “I'm too weak to work enough hours.” She paused again, shaking her head in irritation, and crossed that line out too.


“I'm not healthy enough to work full-time.” Jill nodded to herself and continued, “so I do not work enough hours a week to be able to qualify for health insurance from my job. I need insurance to pay for my therapy appointments and my anxiety rescue med and for my injections of Biologics. Biologics are very expensive. Even if I can find a way to pay for therapy and my anxiety meds out-of-pocket, I won't be able to pay for my Biologics that way. I need insurance to be able to afford them. The reason I need them, and the reason that I can only work part time, and the reason that no insurance company will have me if they can help it, is that I'm a walking pre-existing condition. I have Crohn's. It means that my immune system thinks that part of my digestive tract shouldn't be there, so my body attacks itself.”


Jill hesitated again. She always hesitated when she got to that point. She was never quite sure what to say from there. After all, it all felt so obvious, the reasons that the fear and the pain and the ever looming deadline would cause her panic attacks. She always felt silly writing it all out, but Jill’s therapist was always telling her not to worry about feeling silly, just to write it, like she would write a diary, letting the paper absorb her emotions along with the ink. So, Jill began to write again. She wrote about how afraid she was that she wouldn't be able to afford her injections of Biologics once she was no longer allowed to stay on her parent’s health insurance, how Crohn’s could sometimes prove fatal, and how that thought haunted her at night as she tried to sleep. About how she had yet to be able to come up with a plan to handle it all, and how that uncertainty terrified her.


Jill was just finishing up her final sentence when she heard the creak on the landing that announced Madeleine's return. Jill knew that just going downstairs to call in Hex normally would not have even taken half that long. Her friend must have waited for a while in the kitchen before calling the dog in, giving Jill a chance to write, to fill her notebook with all the words that had been choking her throat. Jill smiled a little. She supposed it had helped, at least a little bit, to get them out of her system. She was grateful to her friend who knew her well enough to be pushing Jill's bedroom door open just as Jill was capping her pen and closing the notebook.


Madeleine leaned forward. She pushed her way through the door, depositing a squirming ball of white fluff onto the carpet. The ball of fluff yapped twice, presumably objecting to the indignity of being carried up the stairs, paused, yapped a third time, just to prove she could, then padded over to the bed, jumped up onto it and, with a fourth bark, burrowed headfirst into Jill's lap.


Jill couldn't help it, she burst out laughing. There was just something about Hex, about the way that she objected to everything before diving headfirst into the nearest lap, that never failed to get a laugh out of Jill. Leaning against the doorway Madeleine was also laughing, and Jill smiled up at her friend. She scratched at her dog's ears, and she felt her whole body relax and her breathing ease.


But 26 was still just around the corner.

Sarah-Judith (SJ) Bernstein graduated cum laude from Mount Holyoke College, class of 2019. She majored in English, focusing on both creative writing in medieval literature, and minored in both art and religion. While at MHC SJ also worked for Mount Holyoke's Accessibility Services Department, supporting her fellow disabled peers through the school’s Accessibility Fellows Program. Since the age of six SJ has struggled with debilitating chronic illness, as well as learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Growing up with these conditions has left her with a lifelong passion for disability advocacy and wish to combine that passion with her love of literature and writing.

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