The Beginning Of Everything
The breakdown came out of nowhere.
It happened at our grad party, after I’d unwrapped all of my gifts and said hello to everyone personally. I was just going around, thanking everyone for their support and trying hard not to blush when a thought occurred in the back of my mind. It was a whisper, one of those intrusive thoughts you get at any given moment in time.
But it erupted through my head, blazing through my skull, and I was screaming and crying, and I felt Eren’s steady hands on my shoulders, and the next thing I know I’m in the air and then on the bed and I hear sirens are wailing, wailing, but they’re faint underneath my own wails. I know I’m thrashing, and a tiny part of me tells me that I’m scaring them, I’m ruining everything, but it’s lost beneath that single thought that’s shattering me, destroying me, tearing down in seconds what I’ve built up over years:
What’s the point?
That’s it. Three little words, and suddenly I’m bawling because I have no answer, no quip for that little voice. Suddenly, the world is pointless and love is pointless and laughter is pointless and I am pointless and time is nonexistent and it doesn’t matter whether I’ll ever know what creatures live in the Mariana Trench because there is no meaning and life. is. a. moot. point.
They told me to calm down.
They asked my full name and I stopped screaming and said Armin Tyler Arlert because that was something I knew.
They asked my age and my breathing slowed and I said I was seventeen because that was something I knew.
I knew that I went to Maria High and that I’d gotten a full ride scholarship from my choice college, Sina University, and that in my bedroom, half of my bags were packed.
I knew that my best friends were Eren Jaeger and Mikasa Ackerman and that they loved me and that they were worried.
I also knew that none of that mattered, and that we were born to die, and that the fact that I knew things felt important when it really wasn’t.
They told me to calm down, but I don’t think I ever did.
My parents are very reasonable people, and that's something I'm grateful for. Dad studied and taught psychology, and in his exact words, what I'd had was called a "crippling moment of absolute anxiety and existential crisis and maybe some depression tossed in there for fun". Mom, who studied non-human organisms (namely, plants) simply called it "freaking out".
After a few days of rest, apologies to guests, and "Sorry, kids, Armin's not ready for company", we sat in the dining room and looked one another in the eyes, and Mom had an entire notebook page filled with things that most likely had to do with our conversation. Knowing her, she would probably skip over most things, but that fact didn't do much to help suppress my nerves. It was time for a Long Talk in the Arlert household. Those were rare.
"Armin, sweetheart," began Mom. "We're sorry we didn't see this coming. We really should have. But you always seemed so cheerful and eager, we just...we just didn't pay enough attention to you."
She paused and glanced at my father, who would usually add some kind of related analysis on me and my mental health at this point. But he shook his head, his expression soft, his listening eyes on. I guess he trusted Mom with this one.
Mom looked at me, her eyes asking for feedback. She couldn't work without it, no matter how many plans she made and charts she stared at.
"It's not your fault at all," I reassured her. "Neither of you are to blame. I honestly was just fine. I just..."- best not to tell them everything- "...panicked."
"Panicked?" Dad repeated, sincerely confused. But he didn't say any more. Maybe it was a new method he was trying out or something.
"Was it the crowd?" Mom asked. "The thought of leaving home for so long? Or maybe it was the idea of keeping the scholarship that set you off?"
"No," I said. "I...I just had a random second of anxiety, imagining my general future and how uncertain it is. I just freaked out. I'm sorry, guys."
"Oh no," Dad said, urgently reaching across the table to place his hand on mine. "Son, this is all perfectly natural, and none of it is your fault at all. You've always been scared of failure, and when the stakes rise, you falter. College is the ultimate set-up for failure, Armin. At least to you. An anxiety attack is not only understandable, but a little healthy, too."
If he'd had a method, it had just flown behind his head and out the closed window.
"Anyway," Mom said pointedly (she'd probably been enjoying the organization of the conversation), "you have two options. The first is that your father and I send you to a rehabilitation center to try and get this weed of negativity out by its roots."
"What's the second?" I asked.
"You choose your own method of relief," Dad answered for Mom.
"If you can't choose by this Thursday, you're going to rehab," Mom continued, trying to act unfazed by him and mostly failing. Chuckling, Dad kissed her on the cheek as an apology. She stroked the back of his neck in forgiveness, and in the moment I had to think, I thought.
I had two options.
I could go to rehab.
Or I could come up with some other way of escape. And I was pretty sure I could think of something by Thursday, an entire five days away.
When Mom's dark eyes and Dad's blue ones finally focused on me, I had come up with my answer, word-for-word and with substantial back-up material- just in case.
"I'll come up with my own method," I promised, and Dad smiled.
"Great choice, Double-A," he said, using my old nickname. "Can't wait to hear about your next genius plan."
"So they left it up to you?" Eren was shooting little foam basketballs into the plastic hoop mounted on his closet door. He was talented; if not for his getting kicked off the team, he might have gotten some attention from colleges.
"Yeah," I said. "Now I just have to think of something that'll actually work. I know myself, but it's hard to try and think about this objectively."
I sighed. Eren hardly ever followed. "A good emotional treatment would require input from both a personal analysis and an objective one. I know myself, but I don't know myself objectively, as a stranger or a friend or family member. Some people can think of themselves in that way, but it's rare when I can."
Eren was silent, probably trying to cut through words he deemed unnecessary to get to the core of my meaning. It had always been this way: Eren paraphrased, and I elaborated. He thought smartly and cut to the chase; I thought hard, and I carefully searched for anything else that needed to be known. We made a great team, he and I, although our ties to one another were much more than mere cooperation.
"So..." he began, his brow furrowed, "you're saying that you need someone else's opinion because you aren't someone else?"
"More or less," I said.
"Oh." He snorted loudly and humorously, though I couldn't see what was so funny. "Dude," he laughed, "literally everyone else is everyone else."
Now it was my turn to say "oh" and laugh. "I guess you're right."
"So you want my opinion?"
He stopped shooting and finally looked at me. His eyes had always been interesting to me, a blue-green that wasn't the ocean or a clover but its own color entirely, simply Eren. I used to be jealous of them, and in contrast, Eren couldn't have cared less if his eyes glowed in the dark. He casually rolled and narrowed them, and it was almost funny how such a delicate and glorious color could be paired up with such dark and rough features and expressions. Now they focused on me, on my skinny frame and my short ponytail, and in any other situation I might have been self-conscious, but I wasn't because my best friend was much too fascinating for any of my focus to ponder over how I looked to him.
"Well," he said, snapping me out of my thoughts, "I guess I can say that you've always been a little anxious, and sometimes out of nowhere you can get kind of unstable, but mostly you just look...happy. Interested. Somewhere between those two."
Happy and interested, I thought to myself. I guess that's how I felt most of the time. "Anything else?"
"Yeah," said Eren. "Two things, actually."
He hummed a yes and turned back to his little game, gathering the balls from his floor to shoot them again. "First item: I think I know what you should do."
"You do?" Eren wasn't usually the guy with the ideas. And when he did have ideas, they were usually terrible ones. Yet something told me I'd like what he had to say.
"Uh-huh," he answered, making yet another ball into the hoop. "You know that piece of junk van my dad has in the garage that he hasn't touched since the nineties?"
"You. Me. Mikasa. Diary. Roadtrip."
"Psychological healing is no walk in the park, my friend. If you actually want this to work, you need more than some scratchy blankets and a portable DVD player."
I rolled my eyes. "Since when are you an expert in psychology, Eren?"
He gave a short laugh. "Since I was little and my dad would punish me by making me read his college textbooks, Armin. I learned those books cover to cover. Now I finally have a chance to put all of this useless knowledge to use. Don't ruin it for me.
"Anyway, so yeah. Diaries are very good for you, and they can help you discover yourself and all of that. That's what you plan to do, right?"
He had a point. "Yes, it is."
"So you see my argument."
"And you agree with me?"
"Eren, I will only not agree with you when you're being stupid. Right now, you're about as far from stupid as I've seen you."
"So I'm, like, average."
We laughed, and then we started talking again, this time about the trip and the plans. When I had to go, I stopped before leaving and asked, "What was the second thing?"
Eren had moved on from basketballs. He was playing video games now, focused on his TV. Yet he found a way to look at me again and grin.
"Don't stare at me like you did earlier," he said."It creeps me out."
Dr. Jaeger was just fine with our using his van and paying for the road trip, so long as it really was a method of helping me out and not another one of Eren's poorly planned scams against him. We assured him it was, and he trusts me more than Eren, so he didn't even bother calling my parents to check.
When Mikasa was finally able to come over, she had her arms loaded with a care basket. Her father must have thought of it, but even through her neutral expression I could see that she was ready to claim the idea as her own.
"Armin," she said, hurriedly coming through my door without knocking. Before I knew it, the basket was on the floor and her arms were around me.
She pulled back, searching my face for what was wrong before I could even tell her. She was a beautiful girl, irrefutably so. Her hair was rather short and completely black, and her eyes were gunmetal blue and stormy. She constantly wore her hair in her face, obstructing her lovely features, and, like Eren, you could see she didn't think much of them. A lot of guys had crushed on her the year before. Some had even thought we were dating, but the truth is that she treats both Eren and me this way. The only difference is that Eren is stubborn and hates it when she coddles him. I accept it, partly for her sake and partly because I know I probably need it. I was lucky to have her always fussing over me, and I won't deny that I take pride in her beauty, the way you take pride in your mother's looks. She was, in many ways, like an older sister to me, or a second mom.
She continued to brush my bangs away from my forehead, searching there for some clues. When she found nothing, she finally gave up.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Two things," I said. "The first thing is that at any given moment, I'll probably freak out again. The second is that Eren's taking us on a road trip so I don't have to go to rehab."
"Road trip?" she repeated, ignoring the first thing. "Where are we going?"
"Don't know, don't care," I answered, glad she was ignoring it and wondering why I'd said anything in the first place.
She considered this. "Which car?"
"Dr. Jaeger's old van."
"Both his parents and mine agreed to split the pay."
"Probably this upcoming Saturday."
"How does he think this will help?"
I reached over to my desk and showed her my composition book.
"I have a diary."
She looked away, thinking again.
"I can go," she finally said after a few minutes. She looked up at me, her eyes always direct and full of purpose. "As long as it's to help you."
That last part was a little unsettling. I wanted Mikasa to do it because it sounded fun, or because she needed a change of scenery. Not for me. But I knew if I brought this up, she'd only be confused and annoyed with the thought.
"Thanks," I said. She nodded to say I was welcome, and we then proceeded to discuss other things, the whole time a tiny voice in the back of my mind repeating that there was no reason for this, for any of it. Like anyone else would, I ignored it.
Hi. I'm Armin, and six days ago I broke down crying because I made a very important realization: nothing matters.
Now I feel okay, but I know it's going to come again. Fear doesn't just appear once. It follows you and waits for its moment, when you're alone and quiet, when your thoughts are all that's real.
Mikasa, Eren, and I are going somewhere in Dr. Jaeger's old van. We don't know where, but we're going.
I can't wait until I'm scared again. Pointlessness is terrifying, but I'd rather be scared and aware than happy and ignorant. I also hate this waiting. It's like the fear of fear itself.
I guess I don't feel so okay, after all.
It was dark when we left, and cool for a summer morning. It smelled like the ocean outside, and my hair was frizzing up. It felt like a huge storm was coming along, and I liked that feeling.
Eren had dressed in his usual clothes: old jeans just a little too big for him and a T-shirt with some band on it. Mikasa wasn't much different, clad in the comfortable hoodie and leggings she liked to study in.
I'd dressed a little more casually than usual, and I was probably the most packed. A nervous sort of energy buzzed inside of me, even though it was just a road trip. My parents had taken me many places as a kid- Europe, Africa, Australia, etc. I shouldn't have been as excited as I was.
Then again, they'd only ever taken me across the country once, for some conference with their study buddies. They found the US unremarkable, even if it was home. I, on the other hand, had made a list of things I wanted to see and do, all of them so close but so far from home. I admittedly hadn't thought much of recovery, if only because I feared another breakdown. Hopefully, neither Eren nor Mikasa would pester me about it.
I'd said good-bye to my mother, who always woke early, that morning. Dr. Jaeger was there to see us off, as Eren's mom was working early at the hospital. He was paying special attention to me, much to Eren's embarrassment, giving me tips on meditation and journal-keeping. Most of all, he said, he wanted me to treat this like a vacation. Eren finally shooed him away, and we all hopped in. Eren was driving first, much to our terror, but it was his family van, so we figured he had a right to the wheel.
"First stop?" Mikasa asked, looking at me. I took out my notebook, grinning widely. I didn't even know where to start.
"McDonald's," Eren answered for me. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm freaking starving."
I wrinkled my nose at the thought of getting breakfast there- though their coffee wasn't bad- but said nothing in protest. Mikasa simply rolled her eyes and asked Eren to drive by the nearest convenience store on the way.
As we rolled down the road, the Jaegers' house became smaller and smaller. Finally, we turned a corner, and there was nothing left of home to see.
Eren shoved in a CD, and one of his alternative-ish bands came on. While he and Mikasa bickered in the front, I stared out at the gray sky, silently enjoying the music with that same thrill stretching from my chest to my face and down into my fingertips.
I knew I should have been worrying, thinking about my mental state, but something told me that that wasn't what I was here for.
Something told me that this was going to be the journey of my life.