The interstate takes us through a Navajo reservation. It’s time to switch drivers, but there are no exits. Daniel slows from eighty and stops us on the wide shoulder next to dark grassland and a wire fence. I pull down the ceiling flap and open the mirror. My eyes are red. Sand from the dunes scratched them up, and the burn of the open windows left me squinting. When I rub them, little tears form at the corners and slide down my cheeks.
I slide out of the passenger seat and step out into the ankle high grass. Cars come rushing from the bend a half-mile back, and race into the distance. Just as I angle to the driver’s side, an eighteen-wheeler barrels past us. The rush of air pushes me against the car, and I feel its frame rock back and forth. I hop into the driver’s seat and restart the engine.
The car accelerates, and I slide the car back into a lane just as the shoulder disappears. Another eighteen-wheeler careens by on our left. Exhaustion makes my scratchy eyes feel heavy, and the arcs and bends of the road blur into one single path forward. I reach for a water bottle in the back, but there isn’t a drop. The sandwiches are long gone, and the empty cups from Sonic sit at Daniel’s feet. An orange engine light glows in the dashboard, and the red line on the gas keeps arcing lower—we’re half empty.
First was the blisters, the sores, the acne. It ravaged my skin in bleeding pockets—down my shoulders and my back, across my chest and face. During the school day, my wrecked back would scream at the touch of a chair. A light pat on the back would leave my eyes watering. I’d come home from school and remove my white tee shirt, bloodstains streaked across it.
Far worse was the humiliation of a red and blistery face. From the forehead to the chin, my face was a bumpy mass of dying, scarred skin. Looking at the mirror gave me panic attacks, and I learned to brush my teeth and shower in the dark. At school, I looked down so others wouldn’t look at me. The bright lights of classrooms were just as bad as mirrors, and I counted down the hours until I could escape the building and flee back into the dark.
Second was the stomach cramps. No longer correlated with my meals, they struck at any time of day or night. They were also much more intense. Any single cramp was more excruciating than anything I had ever experienced—nails through my stomach, steel claws scraping my intestines, bullet holes through my abdomen.
In all aspects of my life, this pain took precedence. I could not walk from one end of my high school to the other without having to stop, put my hand over my stomach, and discreetly sit down. I’d sit on one of the small blue benches and count the seconds I could rest while still arriving to class on time. I did not participate in group discussions, I did not listen to the teacher. I focused, and breathed, and waited for the bell to ring so I could walk to the next class.
At night, the pain became even worse. I would lie in fetal position on my bed for hours, unmoving, while the clock moved from ten to two, three, or sometimes later. Even if I fell asleep by midnight, I would awaken to the knives in my stomach. During these months, there was no sleep—there was only staring at the clock, debating whether or not to have your parents take you to the hospital, and then biting your pillow even harder.
If there was any joy in this time, it was the moments between school, homework, and sleep that I could spend huddled on a couch with my family. I’d hold my mom’s hand and talk with my dad, while my sister told jokes and did her best to make me smile.
But I kept my struggle a secret to all others, and this only magnified the hell. I retreated inward. I stopped messaging friends, and they stopped messaging me. A crushing loneliness took its place next to cramps and blisters. On one evening, my dad came up to my room and sat next to me—he asked what kept me going. I sat for a long time on the edge of my bed. And when, after minutes of trying desperately to think of a response, I just started crying.
That December night I sat in my bed, still trying to think of one reason to believe there was light on the horizon. When my 6:00am alarm rang the next morning I had caught less than an hour of sleep, and I still had no reasons. I fought out the pain and stood up, dressing for another day of a life that was feeling more and more like death.
I still had no reasons three days later, and that’s when saving grace walked right through my door.