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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

10 atmospheres

I don’t remember the first time I learned that at all times the atmosphere is weighing down on you, pressure from above, a firm presence keeping you in place. 

One atmosphere: the pressure exerted by all that is above you, up until the vacuum of space. About 15 pounds per square inch. 

For something so light, the air accumulates into something heavy. I wondered if it was the single atmosphere that pulled my head down when I walked, avoiding eye contact — if it was the weight of the sky that made me feel like a wrestler had pinned me at all times. It couldn’t have been, because I came to realize that the single atmosphere was the great equalizer, felt by all to the point where it was unnoticeable. Every man an Atlas, condemned to holding up the celestial sphere.

Atmospheric pressure varies widely and can be influenced by altitude and weather systems. Higher altitudes have less air above them and therefore less atmospheric pressure. This is why the cabin in an airplane has to be air-controlled. Storms can bring down pressure levels.

The hurricane swirling in my mind brought me to low land, lower than sea level, where there is more air to push down on your shoulders and glue your feet to the pavement. Every magnifying thought, swirling into a Category 5, amassed more pressure. Meteorologists cowered as my anxious mind made landfall, hoping no one else would be affected. I could always feel a storm coming, like some proverbial crackle in the air. Right before I was taken away by the rainfall was when I felt the lightest. I then found myself at earth’s lowest point, with the submarines, in the dark.

In those moments, 10 atmospheres held me to the ground. I struggled against invisible weight and dragged myself into a sitting position on the floor. It took all my strength to make it to class, but raising my hand was far too much to ask.

I came to realize that the extra pounds were not unique to me. Noticing slow and careful movement in those I loved, seeing that they, too, took on a little more than their fair share in holding up the heavens. People in the hallways would match my bent posture, scrolling on their phones as a disguise for their downward faces. 

Coping with the heaviness of 10 skies is exhausting. Laying on the ground at night watching the stars, I wished I could push the mass above me out of the way and get a better view. I took the long way home to look for holes in the air I could climb up through, making footholds in the very thing that used to press me flat. 

In our current season of dread, unlike one I’ve ever had to sustain, the pressure rarely abates. In online classes, I hold down the spacebar to speak, and feel the immense trouble my hands go through to mute myself again.

I dream of a day when I no longer feel on my body that which I cannot see. In which I only hold up the air and the clouds and feel so free so light unburdened by the weight I can raise my arms and float so gently so calm.

Nothing holds me down anymore.

Alix Basden is a junior and can be contacted at

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The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.