One Breath at a Time

"An over-indulgence of anything, even something as pure as water, can intoxicate." - Criss Jami, Venus in Arms

rating: +23+x

_

Bai trembled and clenched, writhing with senseless fury, twisting in the plastic chair like a trapped animal.

The other group members shuffled and twiddled and looked from the ceiling to the floor. Yaling looked over sweetly, her exotically styled hair matching her colorful tattoos in a way that made her look like a tropical bird. "You're the last check-in, Bai."

"I don't know. About any of it. I mean, I know I'm an addict, I get that. I've accepted it. I don't know about… the rest of this. Like, you have to want to be sober, right?"

"It doesn't hurt," Yaling laughed, piercings tinkling cheerfully as she nodded. The rest of the group fidgeted and sighed.

"So, right now, I have to want to want to be sober. And it just seems like a lot to have in me. I don't want a lot of— I don't want pretty much anything. I wanted to drink, but you know what? I've been okay here. Like, it's rough, I don't feel great, but it's okay. I just thought I'd want something else instead and I don't. I don't want anything. I think I can keep not wanting to drink, after this. I just— I don't want anything else."

Yaling gracefully finished a note in huge, looping characters and put her binder down in her lap. "Look, I'll tell you what I see," she twittered. "I see that you're here. Things took a long time to get this way, and they'll take a long time to get better, but today you're here. You're putting in effort to make a better life and find things you care about. So let's just focus on that, on what's happening right now, and… hey, this is perfect!"

Bai gripped the table, white-knuckled. Bai's skin felt like it was about to crawl off, limbs thrumming with tension, chest crushing the air from its own lungs. The familiarity of these sensations did nothing to make them more comfortable.

"Totally natural transition to our mindfulness exercise for today. Loving how that came together, so thanks, Bai. You've really been doing great with these, so I think today's is going to be a good one for you."

Bai's spirit could have collapsed around the gaping absence.

"I call this one the 'leaf in the river,' but it can be clouds in the sky, or a parade of monkeys going past. It's just another way of focusing on the moment. You can manage by narrowing things down to just what you're feeling right now."

Right then, Bai felt tension, like sinew trying to pull itself free from bone. Starting at the wrists, trailing up through elbows and shoulders, pulling at the ribs until it felt like they would split.

"So get comfortable. Close your eyes if you want, or leave them open if that's easier. See what you're seeing, hear what you're hearing. Start with your breath, like always. Pull it all the way in, feel the feeling of it."

Bai felt torque. Bai felt cold electricity. Feel what you're feeling. Bai dove into the buzzing emptiness, hoping this time to hold it for longer than a few seconds.

"Notice your thoughts, and let them pass quietly. Cling to nothing, but push nothing away."

Bai stopped pushing back against the strain, let it become just a part of everything else, let it all fall away together. This place, some kind of center, had been out of reach before. The only thing left was a dense knot of white fire.

"Just put them on a leaf in the river, and let them float on by."

The tension itself went first; Bai allowed it to gravitate itself over the event horizon, and it drifted on into oblivion.

"Just like a cloud in the sky," Yaling said. "Greet it as a friend, and let it on its way."

The loneliness went next, and the self-directed anger. All it took was a moment of awareness to let go, and they were devoured by the void.

"Your thoughts are just like your breaths," Yaling said. "You can feel them come and go. Just things that happen, and then move on."

All the neglected relationships. The arrogance, the bad decisions, the wasted time. Bai let it drift away and watched as the immense pressure sheared everything into dust. There was a deep loosening, as the roots of something gave way. A massive tangle of judgments and preconceptions — my self — Bai wished it a friendly goodbye as it floated into oblivion.

And then the immense force left too, gently but certainly. There was only a peaceful emptiness, as beautiful and perfect as new fallen snow.

Bai immediately wanted more.

"…and, there we go," Yaling chirped. "It's been two minutes already. You made it through mindfulness practice for today."

Bai blinked, reorienting. Continued to focus on breathing. That one sensory experience, magnified until it crowded out everything else.

"Moving on, moving on. We're in section four of the emotion regulation handout, it's page… uh… forty six."

The breathing was everything. There was no room for the pressure when it came rushing back.

Bai reached for the paper with fingers that were suddenly gone.

_

Bai sat on a bed in room fourteen of the Lu Zhiwei rehabilitation center, breathing in and out. Something had clicked during the exercise in group, the final piece of a massive puzzle that Bai had been assembling blind. The mindfulness was escape; it quickly became an obsession, an aching need.

More and more of Bai had faded as simple awareness, breath after breath, expanded to replace it. Thumbs, palms, toes, then ankles; all smooth stumps now, as if they'd never been anything more than an illusion.

Lei came in and flopped onto the opposite bed, scattering brochures and printouts. "The food here. Ugh. I can deal with not drinking, and everything, but I just can't with these sandwiches they give us."

"One could just stop eating," Bai said. Processing the conversation felt like being covered in ants.

"Yeah, I never thought of that," laughed Lei. "You really… Oh my God, Bai! What— your legs, what happened?"

"One doesn't need them," Bai answered. It was true; empty pant legs trailed off the side of the bed, dangling over slippers that used to have feet in them. Bai hadn't noticed. Every instant spent considering it was a lead anchor.

"Bai, I don't even— oh God, oh God— what do we do?"

These words, this person, yanking on Bai, so determined to attach. Bai realized suddenly what to do next; between Lei's company, or more and more distance from the world, the choice was obvious.

"Lei? Fuck off."

_

Bai drifted, breathing in and out, everything almost gone. Almost free.

People were starting to crowd around; there were gasps and exclamations, and more than one scream, but it all flowed peacefully on past. What was left of Bai's body tingled, lighter than air, senses blossoming outward. No longer one, but a fraction, a segment of continuous everything.

Doctor Sung, a tall, lean rodent of a man, was suddenly in Bai's face. Between Bai and the moment.

"Bai, please listen to me," the doctor was saying. "Something is very wrong. We need to get you to a hospital right away."

Breathe in, all the way. "No." Breathe all the way out.

"Bai, I have no idea what we're dealing with here. You seem to be— you're floating off the ground. Your arms and legs are missing. We need medical attention."

All the way in, feel the air coil around the tongue and rasp its way down the throat. "One only needs to be mindful." All the way out, the diaphragm seeing off each breath like an honored guest.

"You're upsetting people, Bai. I've already called an ambulance, but I'd like to keep you talking until they get here."

All the way in. "There's no 'you' to talk with. This form is ready to be thrown away. It's become an obstacle."

"Bai, your eyes are missing. It's extremely disconcerting. I'm— frankly, I'm not sure how you're even alive."

All the way out. "It is what it is."

The doctor pushed his glasses up to rub his temples in exasperation. He sighed. "I suppose you're right. All the same, I must insist— please come with me, so we can have you examined medically."

Examined. Tethered to scales and numbers and diagnoses. Bai felt that familiar rippling agony start to penetrate, to catch up even here. Being gone was too good to give up — not for Lei, not for Doctor Sung, not even to save Bai's own life if that was truly at stake. There was only one thing to do, and Sung could only blame himself for making it happen.

Bai's headbutt was perfectly centered, and neatly broke the doctor's nose.

_

It was a full, blissful hour in isolation by the time the police arrived and figured out where to start. They stepped in cautiously, paramedics following nervously, all of them wearing paper masks and rubber gloves. They carefully wrapped a canvas straightjacket around the torso. The skinless throat stuck out of the jacket's collar like a periscope.

It floated along as they pushed it, glancing at each other in disbelief. It was almost clean of attachment; just the breathing was left, rolling in and out, as slow and sure as the tide.

At the center's front door, two authoritative figures stopped the officers and medics, flashing badges that stunned them into silence. Bits of the conversation that followed washed up on the torso's awareness.

It heard "Doctor Pao of the Social Contamination Prevention department." It heard "custody," "detained for examination," "witnesses to be interviewed." It heard "records."

Being witnessed felt like the ground rushing back up. Being recorded felt like withdrawal.

The lungs trembled and clenched, writhing with senseless fury, twisting in the canvas jacket like a trapped animal.

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