I get asked to prom on the same day that I have a panic attack on a staircase at school.

The asking happens in social studies, while we’re supposed to be discussing whether the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. He is sitting next to me, and we are talking, when suddenly he says, “Will you go to prom with me?” My hands freeze on the spot of my skirt that I had been absent-mindedly rubbing, and suddenly I am aware of everything I’m doing and every thought in my mind. Later on, a friend who was watching—I’d forgotten there were people around us—said that I answered without hesitating, but in my memory, a string of thoughts flew through my head. There is a twinge of excitement, but I am more or less the same Britney who overthinks everything and is stuck between calculated and completely spontaneous answers.

“Sure,” I say nonchalantly. I can’t tell if I’m intentionally trying to sound calm or if I’m so confused by what just happened that my brain is helping my mouth form words. His face lights up and he wraps his arms around me in a hug, attracting stares from the people around us. He turns to a friend of mine, who is sitting next to him. “She said yes!” he exclaims. She looks at me, her face stoic, before going back to the worksheet. He turns and begins talking to someone else, and I look up at one of my best friends, who is sitting diagonally from my desk. Her face is contorted into the oddest expression. I can’t help laughing as I ask, “What? What’s wrong?”

“You said yes!” she says, and I can’t tell if she is as confused as I am or happy. I nod, and she gives a small laugh, one that sounds like more of a cough.

“You’re a real trouper, Britney,” says the girl sitting across from me. She doesn’t like the boy who asked me to prom, and I stare uncomfortably at my hands, which are covered in small, red grooves from wringing them.

I have math class next period, and of course, one of the people who bullied me a few months ago happens to be there, grinning: “So, you’re going to the prom with Logan.*” I nod, and his smile widens, transforming him into a blonde Cheshire cat. “You must be really desperate,” he says. Some people think that my prom date is annoying and rude, but he’s not. He is one of the most comforting people that I know, and one of the only ones who genuinely likes me, even at my worst.

I want to tell him that I’m not desperate, that I actually do want to go with Logan, but there is no use, because (1) he wouldn’t believe me, and (2) he has already told his group of friends. The rest of the period is filled with endless comments, like “Why would you say yes?” or “I feel really bad for you, Britney.”

Around the 15th remark, the room seems to be closing in on me. It is odd, something I’ve never felt before: Everything in front of me begins to shrink, but the voices are still there. They follow me even as the darkness appears. “I have to go,” I blurt out, jumping up so that my chair falls to the floor. My math teacher looks up at me in surprise. “May I, uh, go to the bathroom?” I ask, pointing to the door. She nods, and I rush out of the room, ignoring her as she tells to me take a pass.

I stand in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by doors and classrooms, unsure of where to go. The bathroom is off-limits. There is the risk of having to sit in a stall listening to prolonged conversations, and I don’t want to listen to anyone right now. I don’t know how, but my brain is able to tell my legs to move, and I end up sitting on the staircase, shaking. I lean against one of the handrails and hold my head in my hands, heaving sobs erupting every second. It isn’t only because of what people are saying about me. No, it’s more than that. It feels like every bad thing that has ever happened to me is taking a serious toll. I am reminded of my friend’s death, and all the times that I felt depressed, and all the horrible names that I have ever been called. I want to be at home under my duvet, where I used to pretend that ghosts were after me and that I was safe just by being there. It is the only source of comfort for me right now.

I can barely breathe. Every time I try to inhale, it feels like something is blocking the air from entering my throat. I stare at the stairs, my brain rushing to make sense of everything. I want to throw myself down them. I want to wake up in a hospital room with people who care about me and escape all the whispers and taunting…

But I can’t. I decide not to, because I’m afraid of getting hurt, afraid of breaking my bones. I feel stupid as I walk back to my classroom, still shaking, but not as much as before. ♦

* Name has been changed