Inside There is a Bleached Skull
“Everyone knew that whoever let the sadness overtake him would sink into the swamp.” Those are the words of Atreyu as he leads his horse, Artax, through the Swamp of Sadness. A dismal, gray bog where no sunlight is visible. The only vegetation is dead, blackened trees, branches bent down toward the water in an expression of continual defeat. The white of Artax’s coat and mane stand out against the dark water, but not against the gradually building fog encroaching upon the scene. Atreyu leads his horse by the reins, the water around the pair’s feet making the only noise in the deadened air.
Exactly twenty-eight seconds after Atreyu reminds himself of the swamp’s danger, Artax begins to succumb. He stops, stands still in the muck, which reaches up to rest at the bottom of the horse’s ivory chest. “Come on, Artax,” Atreyu encourages him, tugging at the reins. Artax does not move, ears merely flicking back and forth. “What’s the matter? …I understand,” Atreyu smiles. “It’s too difficult for you.” He maneuvers himself from the front of his steed to its side, showing camaraderie, wanting to put himself equal so they can trudge together. But Artax begins sinking. Atreyu calls out to his horse in despair, screaming for him to just try, to even turn around if he has to! That’s okay! Just don’t keep sinking! He leans in close, begging, “You have to care. For me. You’re my friend. I love you.”
Artax keeps sinking. The swamp has swallowed him up to his head. The reins skim the surface of the water as Atreyu tugs desperately. The love of Atreyu doesn’t move Artax. Did he even hear? Did he even care? “You stupid horse!” The boy cries out in anguish. “You have to move or you’ll die!”
But Artax doesn’t. Atreyu screams Artax’s name and the screen goes black. When the scene fades back into view, Atreyu stands alone in the Swamp of Sadness. Everything is the same, unmoved, save for the spot in the water where Artax once stood. It is empty, still. Bog lichen creates a border around the spot, giving it shape, as if to mock Atreyu, to lure him in to sink, too.
I only watched The NeverEnding Story once. Never more. Probably because the scene I just wrote out for you is still imprinted onto my psyche all these years later. I have no idea how old I was, where I was, or even who had allowed me to watch it back then. I just know I was young, and small, and incapable at the time of doing anything with the terror but remembering. To be afraid, as a child, is to remember. And I, at the tender age of twenty-two now, remember the way Artax sank beneath the black bile of the Swamp of Sadness. I think I’ve been carrying the bleached skull of that horse with me ever since.
Once, when I was nineteen or twenty, my mother called me into her bedroom. “Gabbi, take a look at this interesting article I found,” she said, handing me her phone. It was a piece from a psychology website. It said children with anxiety don’t have the vocabulary to articulate their feelings, and therefore a child dealing with chronic anxiety will often describe it as a stomach ache. I looked up and Mom’s eyes were full of tears. “You had a stomach ache every day before school. I never did anything.” I rushed to reassure her; there was no way she could have known. I hadn’t even known. She stopped crying but I know she hasn’t forgiven herself. Sometimes I think she can see Artax’s skull in my eyes.
I don’t remember having a stomach ache every day before elementary school. I remember a lot of things, but I don’t remember that. I remember crying when I forgot my homework at home, my teacher telling me I was a good student, to just bring it tomorrow, it was okay this one time, it happens to everyone. I remember crying when I left my lunchbox at home, my teacher telling me the school food wouldn’t kill me, that she’d give me the money for lunch, that she wasn’t mad, it was okay this one time, it happens to everyone. I remember crying when I talked too much in class, my teacher making me flip my pristine green card to yellow, telling me she was disappointed in me, holding that disappointment within me, carrying it home, throwing it at my mother’s feet and begging for her forgiveness where she told me it’s okay, it happens to everyone. Those days I remember. The only weapon you have as a child is your ability to remember. Maybe I don’t remember the stomach aches every morning because it was so normal for me; school meant a stomach ache and school was required so my stomach aches were, too. Sometimes when my mother looks at me I can tell she worries an unexplainable ache is all I remember of my childhood.
But there are other things. I remember the glee my siblings and I always felt whenever Dad called for us in the middle of mowing the lawn; it meant we had a new friend for the day. I remember he’d always say “He’s lucky I saw him before it was too late.” I remember he would gently hand the toad (it was a frog only once) off to my brother. I remember Ben would tell Isabelle and I to grab a bucket from the garage. I remember I was taller (still am; at one point I was sure she’d outgrow me) so I was always the one to reach up and grab it from the shelf above the freezer. I remember it was a square, white bucket with art for Fresh Step cat litter on the side. I remember Ben was in charge of cradling the toad while Isabelle and I scrambled around the yard gathering the proper amount of dirt for a soil layer, the proper amount of rocks for furnishing, and the proper amount of leaves for decoration. I remember he would always inspect our work before gently placing the toad into his new home (for that afternoon at least). I remember Dad would come check on us and our new friend when he finished the rest of the lawn. I remember he’d repeat “He’s lucky I saw him before it was too late” and joke about how comfortable he looked inside his bucket hotel.
I remember later, my cousin told me that once, when my dad was driving her home from my house, he confided in her his biggest regret in life. I remember it was apparently his abandonment of me in favor of my sister when she was fighting her eating disorder. I remember he apparently said “I was too caught up with my youngest daughter to see that my oldest was going through the worst period of her life, and I didn’t see it until it was too late.”
When I talk about my time living with depression, there is no remembering. Instead the preface is always “I think.” Because I do not remember much at all. To be afraid, as a child, is to remember. And I was not afraid. I was not afraid of forgetting my homework at home, I was not afraid of leaving my lunchbox at home, I was not afraid of failing tests, I was not afraid of failing classes, I was not afraid of detentions, suspensions, trips to the principal’s office. I was not afraid of the crushing wheels of the schoolbus cracking every bone in my body. I was not afraid of shattering the window of my second-floor classroom with my bloody fist. I was not afraid of jumping out of the dripping glass and crashing against the cement sidewalk.
To be afraid, as a child, is to remember. And I was not afraid, then, so I had no reason to remember.
Once, in therapy, I think my therapist told me something. I think she said, “Gabbi, you have a very black and white worldview. You see every happening as either good or bad, and see yourself as pulled from one side to the other with no control over it. And I want you to know there is a gray area to everything. There is no wholly black or white occurrence; there is always a silver, or gray if you prefer, lining.” I think I tried to visualize what she said, but all I ended up seeing was a stark white horse in a broiling black swamp and I think I said “I don’t believe you.”
Once, after I went off to college in 2018 and stopped going to therapy far before I was ready, I think I wrote a poem. I think it was about my recognition of the fact that I should’ve still been in therapy. I think it was about my recognition that while I should still have been in therapy, it hadn’t been doing me any good toward the end sessions. I think I wrote a stanza about being a horse led to water but refusing to drink. I think it went
I stopped seeing my therapist because
I thought that maybe, just maybe,
if I led myself to water I would drink.
But I couldn’t force myself to
when I wasn’t thirsty.