The Space Between the Words
I’VE DONE ALL THE SOPHOMORE THINGS THAT MARK CHANGE WITHIN, YET I STILL CAN’T FUNCTION PROPERLY WITHOUT TAKING MY LITTLE YELLOW PILL. SO HAVE I REALLY CHANGED?
by Dakota Baker ’22
Every morning, I take a little yellow pill. The prescription bottle is on a bookshelf, in a New York City souvenir coffee mug, and I pull it out, twist open the cap, and shake out a single 10 mg tablet into my hand. I swallow it dry and go about my day, not thinking about it again until the next morning. This goes on for 29 more days and then I refill the prescription at the CVS on Market Street for $3.21. It’s routine now, blended into the background of my everyday life.
I was prescribed the Paxil last spring during my freshman year when I was still a biology major and after a small black dot in my left eye migrated to my brain and developed into a stutter. The dot appeared at 1 a.m. on a Sunday night in March. I was staring at my ceiling, counting the week’s to-do list items like anxious sheep when it surfaced, a frayed tuft of yarn. Accompanying the tuft was a cold, painless sensation in the top-left side of my head. My roommates were snoring across from me, so I panicked quietly.
I racked my brain for an explanation, flipping through old mental notes I’d taken in class when one stuck: Broca’s area. Responsible for producing speech. I’d had some issues communicating lately. I pulled my phone off its charger on the side of my bed and typed in the search bar “Broca’s area.” Sure enough, “a region in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere, usually the left.”
It was 1:09 a.m. when I texted a group of my closest friends as the dark globule crawled across my eye: I think I have a brain tumor.
I put my phone back on the charger and stared around my room, trying to focus on anything besides this horror story I’d created. I knew it wasn’t what I thought it was, but I didn’t know what it was either, and until I did, I would keep breaking the news to myself: It’s a tumor, you have a tumor, a tumor in your Broca’s area and that’s why you’ve had problems talking and why you have a black spot in your eye and your breathing is getting shallower, it’s all from your tumor…
Sometime after 3, I fell asleep. I dreamt myself into a desert, alone. I was walking across the cracked earth, like something from a stock desktop photo, and it was quiet. As I moved forward, I heard a soft groaning in the distance and a figure walked toward me. It was an ambiguous thing at first, but as we got closer to each other, I saw that it had a crowd of heads on top of its body. They were people from my life: friends, family, professors, potential employers—a Medusa of people I knew. Their groans grew louder as they stretched their necks out and interrogated me:
“How come we haven’t talked in a while?”
“What makes you qualified for this position?”
I tried to answer them, but every time I opened my mouth, my tongue bloated and grew limp. I couldn’t lift it to talk. The desert sun melted the top of my head until my lame tongue fell to the ground in a puddle of pink fluid. The Medusa kept grilling me, but my mouth was empty and my tongue squirmed in front of my feet.
I woke up, still with that numbness in my head, but without the eyespot.
I pulled on my gym clothes and started my day.
I arrived at my 9 a.m. English class and struggled to join the discussion. As soon as ideas formed in my head, they’d die. I tried to pump life back into them, but they always flatlined. After stressing through a written exam in my next class, I went to Pre-Health Advisor Jill Rogers’ office on the second floor of Hays to calm down. Jill is the mother of my best friend. I knew she could handle whatever I was dealing with. I was short of breath. I struggled to talk through full sentences. So she called Nurse Lamb and sent me over.
“Good luck, Dakota. I’m sure everything will be okay,” she said.
“I think so t-too.”
I left her office feeling nervous, blaming this negligible stammer on the fluttering in my chest.
I usually enjoy walking across campus, but I was shaking this time on my way to Nurse Lamb. Friends and professors tried to make small talk as I passed.
“Dakota! What’s up?”
“Good morning, Dakota. How are you?”
I gave a cheery “Hmm hmm!” and picked up my pace. Loose bricks spat squirts of mud on my legs.
When I was halfway across the Mall I stopped to catch my breath. My chest shook under my shirt. My mouth was trembling. The pressure in my head imploded and metastasized throughout the rest of my body. My extremities went stiff and I couldn’t keep my head up.
“You good, man?” A stocky guy I didn’t recognize stopped and pulled out one of his earbuds.
“Y-y-y-y-yeah-yeah-y-y-yeah-yeah-yeah.” My tongue was bloated. Limp.
I hardly recognized my own voice. My face burned with embarrassment. I tried to jog away, but my legs were shaking too. Even my thinking stuttered as I passed a group of athletes walking into the Allen Center.
Nurse lamb looked up as I walked up to her office window.
“What seems to be the problem?”
I smiled. A big breath, and then: “W-w-well-well-well I w-w-was hav-hav-having-ing-ing trouble-le-le bre-breathing and then on my-my-my w-wa-way-way over he-he-he-here I-I-I-I…”
She stopped me.
“Well that’s alright hun, let’s get you checked in and we’ll see what’s wrong.”
I gave her a sheepish smile and she gave me some paperwork and a pen. The pen shook in my palm and my fingers couldn’t keep it in place. The stutter came out through the ink with a jagged “Dakota…”
I walked into the examination room and tried to prepare my soliloquy for Dr. Roberts, but every time a thought would begin to develop, my brain would short-circuit. After a few minutes I gave up and turned to my right to see Terrie, Age 52, on a large antismoking poster on the wall. The caption “You can quit” was printed beneath a tracheotomy in her neck. I felt an unexpected affinity.
You must have difficulty communicating just like me. Terrie, Age 52, glared back at me as if to say, “No, not like you.”
Dr. Roberts walked in and I knew I’d finally get the help I needed. He’d look in my ears, bang his hammer on my knee, and give me my diagnosis. It’d be that tumor—I just knew it—so much for that subscription to the Atlantic Monthly.
“I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you,” he said to me after the exam. “It sounds like you might have had a panic attack.”
D-d-dammit-it. Panic attacks have no gravitas.
“But, there is a slim chance it could be a tumor.”
“I’m going to recommend that you get an MRI this week. Could be nothing, but we need to be sure. I’m also going to write you a prescription for paroxetine. Paxil. It’s an antianxiety medication and you’ll take it once a day.”
I grabbed the prescription and fumbled it into my pocket.
That first day was a novelty. Eating lunch alone in the bathroom like a reject, professors with sympathetic eyebrows telling me to not worry about their classes, convincing my friends this wasn’t another one of my elaborate jokes. It was beginning to feel like a game: I was the noble victim in my own personal drama. I was practically smiling under my worried facade as people realized how fragile I was and expressed their concern. A curious blend of fear and elation. I could get used to this!
My mother was halfway across the country when I called her to tell her the news.
“M-M-M-Mom-om-m? S-s-s-something-thing-thing’s-s-s happ-p-p-pend.”
“As you c-c-can-can-can p-p-p-probably t-t-tell-tell-tell, I-I-I h-h-have d-d-developed a s-s-st-st-t-t-stutter-er.”
Nothing. Then, “Hmm.”
“S-s-so it-it-t’s not-t-t a b-b-big deal-eal-eal, b-but I th-th-thought you should know-know-know.”
She asked if I had seen a doctor and I told her I was going in for an MRI the next day. I heard her sigh on the other end. She told me she loved me and to “hang in there.” Her voice reminded me of being a boy home sick from school.
The next day I woke up in my best friend’s childhood bed. Knowing my mom was away, the Rogers family had taken me in for the night. They arranged for my friend Betsy to take care of me while they were at work.
“This better be a brain tumor.” Betsy smiled when she arrived. “I cleared my schedule for this.” Coaxing sympathy out of a friend who had known me for years was not going to be easy. Betsy could have learned a thing or two from Katie, the receptionist at the St. Vincent’s clinic where she drove me for my MRI. Katie recognized me before I could tell her my name.
“H-h-hi-hi, I’m here-here-here f-f-for-for an M-M-M-R-R…”
“Yes, hi there, sweetheart! You must be Dakota. We just need you to fill out these forms, but you let us know if you need any help with that, all right?”
She tilted her head in sympathy. I looked back at Betsy, who was on her phone.
The same unwarranted generosity came from the cashier at Maxine’s on Green when we went there for lunch and I stuttered through my order.
“Honey, I’m gonna have that out to you so fast—you just sit down and wait,” she said. Betsy was in the bathroom adjusting her hair.
But after a few days, even the kindness of strangers wore thin. The MRI came back negative. There were no answers, and I wasn’t getting any better.
I left school and stayed at home. I tried keeping up with my classwork, but words melted together on the pages. Writing seemed impossible—every sentence was a minute-long battle. Even watching TV was frustrating. I couldn’t concentrate on plots and the dialogue was a maddening barrage of words, words, words. Eating and sleeping took up my time as my friends at Wabash were marching toward the end of their semester.
We had a family reunion scheduled for that Friday, which didn’t seem fair. They didn’t happen often, and I always enjoyed seeing everybody. But not like this. Mom prepped everyone while I was out of the room. They cheered when I walked in—I kept quiet and smiled. I stayed quiet as we piled heavy food onto our paper plates. I took mine upstairs, unnoticed.
I spent the rest of the night in my 10-year-old sister’s bedroom with a plate of lasagna. There was a “Hang In There Baby” poster above her bed and I laid, surrounded by stuffed animals and chapter books, hanging in there. No one bothered me for the night, except the cat. I had forgotten how much I used to relish being silent, just listening. Familiar voices and laughter echoed up the stairs from the living room and I cried there into a floral pillow while the cat licked my fingers.
That weekend my mom and my sisters catered to my needs, but I spent most of my time alone. I rested. I didn’t talk. I hadn’t made any progress toward normal. I woke up that Saturday morning and couldn’t even form stuttered words. Incoherent sounds bubbled off my lips.
“Blard oppoot tuwaah gurdee,” I told my mom on Saturday.
This is it. I’m becoming permanently disabled.
Then on Sunday my mom woke me up and asked how I was feeling.
“I feel fine,” I said. Her eyebrows raised and mine followed. I wasn’t stuttering.
The next day, I went back to classes, slept in my bed at FIJI, took my Paxil, and carried on, business as usual.
Just a couple weeks ago, though, my Paxil ran out. I had swallowed 180 little yellow pills over the past six months and hadn’t thought about my stutter or the anxiety that supposedly caused it. I didn’t get my prescription rewritten: A part of me wanted to see if I could handle life unmedicated.
Six days after I took my last dose, as I edited this piece near the LP collection in the basement of Lilly Library, I began stuttering again. The symptoms had been building for a few days—lack of focus, shaky hands, shallow breathing. I just ignored them and carried on. But anxiety has little regard for carrying on, so it spilled out of my head and into my chest, my limbs, and down my throat.
This time I knew what to do. I needed rest. Friends told me not to worry about talking, and I realized I could sit with my roommates quietly, that I didn’t have to speak to contribute, and just being there could be enough sometimes. I refilled my prescription.
I’m back on the Paxil now. Dr. Roberts suggested I stay on the medication until I “leave this place.” It sounds like a sentence: anxiety for two more years. I don’t mind taking the medication, but I’m frustrated that all this seemed to have happened for nothing. I thought I’d grown so much. I switched out my biology major for English and the creative writing track. I removed some clubs from my schedule and added others that better align with my interests. I’ve chopped the heads off of my Medusa from the spring of my freshman year and stuffed them into pickling jars, controlling my priorities before they control me.
I’ve done all the sophomore things that mark change within, yet I still can’t function properly without taking my little yellow pill.
So have I really changed?
Last spring, on the first night of my stutter, a professor and close friend sat with me on the first floor of the library and asked, “So what is this? What’s going on up there?” I stammered through my response, telling him how unsure I had felt that year—about my studies, about Wabash, about my well-being. “Follow your heart,” he said. “Forget about your head.”
I realized an unfortunate truth about myself there in the Brew Lounge as I cried while he rubbed my back and waved at passing students.
“I d-don’t-don’t-t-t know-know-ow h-h-how.”
Seven months later, I’m learning a new vocabulary. I’m still anxious. But my stutter persuaded me to follow what feels right instead of what I had convinced myself was right. What inspires me, instead of what I think others want me to be.
I’m excited about this new language. Sometimes it speaks in words, sometimes in silence. I may someday outgrow my anxiety, but I hope this excitement never goes away. I am becoming fluent in the language of my heart, and nervous enthusiasm may be a lifelong symptom.