3rd Prize (16-18 yrs) Story 2021 Competition

A Working Woman’s Woes; A Silent Soliloquy


Sophie Fernandes


This short story’s inspiration was a copy of the British Workman magazine where I encountered a relatively small column, titled “Mental Diseases.” It focused on the mental turmoil of “repining”, “idleness”, “passion” and “doubt, perplexity and fear” and, in essence, advised cures for these ailments. The supposed remedies for these “mental diseases” highlight the lack of understanding of mental health conditions over a century ago, but some of the descriptions reminded me of how the modern-day mental health support system has and will fail many who struggle. From this, I decided to write about my experience through the COVID-19 pandemic and my depleting mental stability and onslaught of an eating disorder, anxiety and depression, hand in hand with isolation and a lack of control. This is a very personal story to show that the intention of work can have a detrimental, perhaps fatal, impact on your life.

Though inspired by the British Workman, the style in no way attempts to imitate a Victorian original. It’s also not like the satirical story by Morgan Farnham and Natasha Head on this site which was also inspired by the same article on “mental Diseases.” My story has more in common with the artwork by women in the exhibition documented on this site: it wants to show what the Victorians didn’t want to see.

Stir. Awake. Up. 

Vision vague, I pick myself up. The remnants of a nebulous dream diminish, falling to fragments on the ground. The windows to my subconscious shatter like glass. To no avail, my avoidance of the day was decimated by my conscious state, and the waves of sleep recede; I want to stay in bed, blissfully unaware of being, but the call of the sun beckons me otherwise. Awake but not truly awake. A fizzy feeling swims in my head as I sit, my eyes obscured to darkness. My mind and body slip. In fresh endeavour, I exert myself laboriously to guide my legs over my bed. Frail, fragile, fatigued, I rise on legs that palpitate precariously below me. That’s the actuality of working yourself to a premature grave.    

Breathe: inhale, exhale.    

Staggering down the stairs, near stumbling, I smell the homely smell of the morning and hear the hubbub of its commuters, waking up. I freeze. Will they make me have something? A psychological wall obstructs any internal counterarguments invading and makes my mind and vision hazy. Spiralling tumultuously, my thoughts flee, and a surge of adrenaline courses through my veins, making my head pulsate and throb with consternation. The hindmost eventuality that I need- nor want- would be to provoke a row- a war of words. I’m always an inconvenience. But I can’t do this- I can’t have it. That’s the unrelenting standard to which I hold myself.  Breathe: inhale, exhale.    

A window. I can see out. I want to be out. It’s inharmoniously stifled: suppressed; no souls traverse to work nor meander at leisure, no dogs yap nor children yell. Sporadically, cars rumble by on a far-off road. A solitary squirrel skips across the fingers of a flowering tree, fluttering with each bounce and leap, dancing a duet of movement. Its viability and equanimity conspicuously contrast the comatose environment. That’s the duplicity of this pandemic.    

Throbbing unsteadily, my head howls, and my stomach beseeches something, anything. I wince. I ignore. Guilt ensues. I should suppress this feeling; I must work harder. Grotesque, misshapen, repulsive: that’s how I see myself. I scrutinize my arms, legs, hands and all and tears swim in my parched eyes. Why is nothing ever enough, but always too much? That’s the physicality of wasting away.    

Retreating to my room, my space, my sanctuary, I pause for a moment, recollecting my breath and mind before I begin, almost by ceremonious means. Jumping, tensing, straining unwavering, seconds pass like hours but the minutes grow and congregate. Exercise acts as a means of temporary release. It’s a habitual routine now. I don’t know how long it is, but I’m constrained to continue until I slump and sag. Sleep coaxes me in, prying my heavy eyelids shut until I float in a state of limbo: asleep but not truly asleep. That’s the only way I can get respite from the thoughts ever crowding my mind, planning and counting and monitoring every action…    

Stir. Awake. Up.     Breathe: inhale, exhale.     I wince. I ignore.     Jumping, tensing, straining.     Sleep.     

I float in a boat, in a raging black ocean, low in the water. Nowhere to go. The tiniest lifeboat, sailing all alone. Numb, nervous, and needy, the water smells hungry, will sink any minute. Nowhere to go. The tiniest lifeboat, only place that I know. I float in this boat, panic rises, unanchored as I drift further and further away, from the shore- from reality- from myself. I do not recognise myself anymore, I am merely a ghost of my former self. I have been infiltrated by constant work, aims, goals but also punishment, fear and anxiety. Waves overwhelm the tiniest lifeboat, the sublime power of the surges rocking me, rocking me, rocking me…   

Consciousness pairs with my restive state. I writhe and twitch and toss. Spinning relentlessly, my head feels detached, decapitated and my heart agitates irregularly. Teardrops roll wearily down my cheeks, one after the other in sequence, as I lay all alone. I can’t tell anyone of my pain. It is perpetual but untold and I am certain that I am destined to suffer in silence, in solidarity.  Each day is travail, I work to the bone, physically and psychologically. The voice in my head, merged now with myself, relentlessly torments me every waking hour, minute and second. I don’t know where I begin, and it ends. It is muted; it is my own silent soliloquy.    

This is the reality of work when it warps, mutates, contorts. An eating disorder is a form of work in its own right. Not only is it strenuous and tedious, but it fabricates unfeasible goals, and the happiness promised with it is always, without a doubt, unattainable. As the numbers drop, your quality of life drops too; the longer this continues, the longer you teeter on the edge of life and death: awake but never truly awake, asleep but never truly asleep. Eating disorders are poison, they contaminate your mind, pollute your perception of yourself. Each day you spend living in your eating disorder, it isn’t living. You waste your time, future, health, relationships, and happiness away. It is an equivocator, promising only lies and all it wants is never enough. This is the essence of working in arms with an eating disorder, a mere interval between life and death’s door.