Six variations on a crowded, lonely room

Nov. 1, 2022, 8:47 p.m.

Author’s Note: Probably a lot of this sounds pathetic or pitiful or both. I think that’s okay. This is my attempt to be vulnerable. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unsuccessfully convince myself that I’m happy. But something I’ve learned is that one of the first steps toward getting better is to be truthful with yourself. To destigmatize your own lived experience. For better or for worse, this has been mine. 

And if any of this resonates with anyone: please know that you don’t have to do this alone. That’s been my mistake.

1.

It starts with a greeting. I’m engaged in conversation with my RA. We’ve run into each other in the hallway and that means we’re obligated to make small talk. My RA spoke first and now I’m trying to respond. 

Good morning, I’m supposed to say. But I don’t know who’s saying it. I’m standing there in the hallway with my hands at my sides because I don’t know what to do with them. I’m wearing a white t-shirt and black shorts and I’m looking at myself from the top down, like the third-person view in a video game. 

It’s exactly like a video game — I open my mouth and my “avatar” does the same. It’s a disconcerting feeling. I’m standing right there and I’m standing ten feet away, looking at myself standing right there. 

I tell myself to say good morning and my body says it. It’s like recursion, or something. I don’t know. I’m not a CS major. But that’s what it is. 

“Good morning, I said,” I said. The first “said”: the person that’s speaking to my RA right now. And the second “said”: that’s me. A ghost inhabiting the shell of a person with my name. 

My RA nods. We part ways. The conversation couldn’t have lasted longer than five seconds.

2.

It is supremely ironic that I am a journalist. Because later that week I’m in a Zoom meeting, interviewing someone for The Daily, and somehow that’s even worse. I can see the person I’m interviewing. He’s sitting in his chair, talking about something or another. He’s taking up the left half of the screen. But the right half — there’s me, sitting in my own chair, stiff-backed and bespectacled. My avatar is brought to life.

Suddenly, the interviewee stops speaking, I think, and I am startled. The person on the right side of the screen does the same. I start to talk and my Zoom-self starts to talk too. I stammer. I stumble over my list of questions.

The problem: I can see myself. Every time I start to talk, I stare at the screen and the screen stares back. It’s like what happens when you place two mirrors on opposite sides of the room so that they face each other. One mirror reflects the other, which reflects the other, which reflects the other, and it’s mirrors all the way down.

After I finish speaking, I smile. It’s an awkward smile, and I can see it. It’s really vivid. My smile opens wide and stretches out and fills space until it reaches across. I look into the gaping maw and put my head in. The jaws snap shut.

Somehow the Zoom meeting goes on.

3.

I used to have a therapist, I think. It’s a long-buried memory, somewhere in the ancient past. I’m four years old, and the doctor has diagnosed me with selective mutism.

My parents don’t know how it happened. Maybe they sent me to school too early. Or maybe they coddled me too much when I was a kid. Nevertheless they find a therapist. We do fun speech exercises together.  Like pretending that my mouth is the inside of a house right before a fancy dinner party. You don’t want to have a dinner party inside a messy house, she tells me. Same with speaking. So every time before I say anything, I practice my little ritual: swirl my tongue around the roof of my mouth for five seconds, then on the inside of my left cheek and then the inside of my right.

Eventually I work up enough courage to try to say something. Well, not really. By this point I’m confident enough to whisper. It must have been a strange sight to an outsider. A teacher calls on me to answer a question. I lean forward, trying to whisper as loud as I can. She asks me if I speak up.

I look down. I don’t dare.

4.

A decade and a half later and I still remember my therapist. It’s Thursday. I’m at the Daily House. I’m doing my work and I’m sitting down at the big table with all the other managing editors. It’s hard to believe I’m here. I’d only joined The Daily just last year. Truth be told I still hardly know anybody. I only come here whenever we have meetings.

That’s because everyone still scares me. That’s why I’m sitting straight-backed and silent, looking at my homework and thinking about how last year I told myself I would be more social. That I would be confident and smiling and laughing and I wouldn’t be so awkward or quiet or shy anymore. But I guess that was the first mistake. Because I’m not shy. I’m not awkward. If I were then at least I would feel human. But the thing is that sometimes I don’t even feel like myself, much less a human being. Sometimes I see myself in the third person, sitting at a table full of Daily staffers who are smiling and laughing and talking all while I’m wondering how they can do it but I can’t.

I know how I must look. I must look like the least qualified reporter in the world. Reporters are supposed to be good at communicating. They’re supposed to be charismatic. And me — sometimes I try to open my mouth and say something and it feels like that old gag where Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner off a cliff before looking down and realizing that there’s nothing below his feet but air. I wonder if everyone else knows this. I’m thinking these thoughts so clearly that they have to have noticed. But I look around and nobody sees a thing. I might as well not even exist. So I look at the clock and see that it’s seven o’clock and that’s a pretty good time to leave. I pack my bags. Stand up. Wave a half-hearted goodbye. I head down the stairs. I don’t know if anyone waved back.

5.

It would be nice, certainly, to see a therapist again. I guess it must have worked before. Because one day, I did stop whispering and finally learned to speak normally. Of course, I was still very shy. I was still very quiet. But I could say something, at least, and so that was the end of that.

I don’t remember if I ever said goodbye to my therapist. I remember that I really liked her. But there are too many reasons why I can’t go back. Too busy with school. Too busy with classes and essays and internships. Too busy with The Daily. I’m barely managing to survive. Once I catch up on my work, I tell myself, I’ll start thinking about my mental health.

But that’s a lie. Because there are other reasons why I can’t ask for help. My parents are worried about me and call me every week asking if I’m doing okay. Each time, I can’t say anything other than yes. And as for me: I need to tell myself that there’s nothing wrong with me. Because I am too deep in the trenches to climb out. I need to tell myself that I am normal and that I am doing fine and that I am happy.

That works maybe twenty five percent of the time. Because the other seventy five percent — there are days when I look at myself in the mirror and recoil. Not because I’m disgusted by what I see. It’s because I don’t even know who I am. A ghost. A shell of a person. A non-human. Someone who can’t even say properly hello to my RA in the hallway.

Sometimes I feel like I am still five years old, terrified to speak in anything louder than a whisper. And sometimes I feel like I will always stay that way.

6.

But later that day, I meet with my friends and somehow that’s alright. I’m speaking well and I’m laughing just fine. In fact, I’m not even paying attention to myself. I’m looking straight ahead and, for once in my life, I can’t see my own reflection.

It feels like a miracle. We’re sitting in my friends’ apartment. We’re joking around and laughing and playing Mario Kart. I’m in last place because I haven’t played since I was about eight years old. But that’s fine — I’m having fun. I pass a computer-generated player and whoop.

There’s a moment in between games, though, when I stand up and I’m aware of my own shadow. Everyone else is doing just fine. But in an instant I wonder what would happen if they didn’t exist. If there weren’t someone to bounce off of. If I could only perceive myself.

I imagine sitting alone in a darkened room while people laugh and shout and cheer outside. I try to leave, but I bounce off of the walls. I am like a particle of gas stuck in one of those chemistry problems. The piston is pumped and volume decreases. I am in a box, and I’m not really sure if there’s anything outside.

I blink. We’re starting the next race. I sit back down and focus on the screen.

Brandon Kim '25 is a Managing Editor for The Grind and a staff writer for News. He is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Creative Writing. Ask him about philosophy, hiking very tall mountains and old-school Korean pop.

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