On two separate occasions I have written essays during the lowest points of my life. For both essays I started them not knowing how they were going to finish; I began writing and hoped like hell that it would form into something by the end. Anything at all. It’s a somewhat unwieldy way of processing your emotions, though it is quite a lot cheaper than therapy (this is a joke, please go to therapy). Now, when I once again find myself contending with a confusing mess of emotions and circumstances, I find myself needing to write these thoughts down, to form a narrative. Boil my troubles down to an artsy title and a punchy closing line. This is the essay that will fix me.
We’re packing her things into my car. She has distressingly few possessions—her parents sold the furniture with the house, and her mother’s minimalist interior design is entirely at odds with knick-knacks, so there isn’t much to move. This is the fourth personal crisis she has experienced in the six months I’ve been dating her, each one arriving as soon as she picked herself up from the last. Each one is impossibly distinct; separate, unrelated events all serving to unseat almost every fragment of stability that existed in her life. I knew her for almost four years before we started dating; in that time, we’ve both dated other people and experienced enough rom-com-esque shenaniganry to fill several seasons of TV.
Now, here I am, six months into the happiest relationship of my life, packing her things into my car. I love her with a certainty that I have rarely felt before, but that seems to be all I can offer. I want to swallow her sadness whole, I want to push my will against the problem and make things okay, I want to fix the housing market, which somehow seems the most impossible of all the things listed. I’ve seen enough movies and watched enough relationship TikToks to know that she doesn’t want logical solutions, and yet I am consumed with a want to fix things. But I can’t. So, I listen, I nod, I smile, and tell her we just need to get past this bit and then it will all be okay
When I was seven, I accidentally locked myself in a bathroom in an Italian museum, which was a joyous way to discover that I am incredibly claustrophobic. I wailed. I beat against the door and yelled, and after an amount of time that I find myself unable to quantify, my dad used the edge of his credit card to open the door from the other side.
There’s a song called Passing Through a Screen Doorby a band called The Wonder Years that describes the feeling of looking for holes in a screen door, so that, if necessary, you could tear through the door to escape. Now, at twenty years old, I have never once dramatically burst through a screen door following a sign of danger, but that hasn’t stopped me from looking for the holes. Looking for the way out. Since discovering my claustrophobia, I have learned that I do not necessarily fear small spaces – I fear being trapped. When I was twelve, I had an existential crisis about being stuck on a single enclosed planet; it isn’t about the size of the space, it’s about feeling powerless. I’m at the end of the third year of my degree, I’ve worked at the same job for the entire time that I’ve studied, and I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in one place for so damn long. I’m looking for holes in the screen door.
We’re building piles of broken twigs at our feet. As we talk, we pick up the small sticks that litter the park, break them into smaller pieces, then drop them back onto the floor. I’m watching the relationship that I third-wheeled throughout the entirety of high school fall apart. I don’t really have many old friends. Friends where I know their parents well enough to hold a conversation beyond obligatory small talk. Where I know their pets and their siblings. One of my oldest and dearest friends looks at me and asks if she is being crazy. She snaps a twig into several small pieces and lets them fall to the ground. I tell her that she is not, that she should follow her gut. She asks me questions about the expectations and boundaries I have set with my girlfriend—a relationship younger than hers by over a year—and I watch her realise that what she is experiencing now is not healthy. I am awed by the trust she places in me. I realise that I trust her in the same way. I watch another of the people closest to me, grapple with the reality that their life is irreparably changed. I push our piles of twigs together, to form a singular even mound. We keep snapping sticks through the silence.
The problem with my compulsive essay writing is that it doesn’t work as well when the problems are not my own. When things are out of my hands. I’m watching people I care about struggle, and I can’t do anything.
The resolution to the song Passing Through a Screen Door came nine years later. In that time, the band’s lead singer had two children, and in the song You’re the Reason I Don’t Want the World to End, he sings “I don’t want to die / I want to light you through the darker months / And I want to swallow the sun / Before it can swallow us”. The change is simple. Things are no more in control; I am no less trapped. But fighting for the impossible is a good deal more fun than railing against powerlessness. I want so badly to swallow the sun, but I know that I can’t. That won’t stop me from trying.
Duncan Butcher is writer, musician, and Dungeon Master (not the sexy kind). He typically works in short stories or essays, moving between sci-fi, fantasy, and reckless oversharing. Whether working in music or prose he aims for a kind of personal sincerity, often contrasted with absurd settings or ideas. You can find his work in QUT’s ScratchThat magazine. He is currently studying creative writing, and enduring economics at QUT.