The brain is a wonderful thing.
In the light, it seems like nothing more than examinable, something fragile in the heart of our harsh, human hands. Three pounds of electricity and fluid, thin tissue holding together the most vital parts of something that, with a flex of muscle, could be nothing. Only, the brain is one of the most incredible forms of life to ever live on our planet; underneath the sickly-grey sludge and grotesque form, it’s a supercomputer, so incredibly intelligent that all its true potential is still hidden, to be discovered, in all its glory.
There’s something called plasticity. It helps to think of it like self-defence – the brain has something ingrained that lets it bounce back, no matter how strong the trauma. The pathways alter, or rearrange, and all of a sudden, the worst pieces of us, the scariest corners we’ve ever seen, can vanish.
The brain is a wonderful thing, because it helps to destroy the pieces that aren’t so wonderful.
“Let’s state the facts,” Dr Bloom said, spanning her hand out over her knee, the denim of her jeans sounding rough against her skin. “You’re afraid of him. You feel unsafe in his presence. You feel an uncharacteristically aggressive response to him.”
I swallowed, feeling myself bite down on my bottom lip. “Yeah.”
It felt as though it burned, the way I had to dig into my mind in these sessions. My eyes glazed over, my cheeks burned, and my palms sweated under my thighs, my heart beating fast with every question, every answer I poured out feeling like a lie.
Dr Bloom blinked, her eyes steady on me as she tapped her pen against the desk. “Can you think of any reason why? Anything he’s done?”
“He yells at me,” I answered, furrowing my eyebrows. He yells awful things. She knows this. “He gets – he gets in these moods, and everything he says is just. Terrifying.”
“A lot of people yell at you,” Dr Bloom said, not unkindly, her voice tinged with a push. “Teachers. Your mum. People experience yelling a lot more than they’d like in their daily life.”
“This is different,” I argued, my nails digging into my thighs. “He’s worse than the other people.”
I fumbled, my nails painfully pressing through my tights, my chest tight with panic. “What?”
“He yells, other people yell. Why is it worse when he does, than when, say, your teacher does?” Dr Bloom asked, her eyebrows raised.
His lips move into a smirk. His hands are dirty, always dirty, always curled around something too violent for the summer sun around you. He’s disturbing, in the very roots of the word; his hair curls away from his head, unwashed, his forehead stained with sweat, inky oil in the wrinkles of his face. He’s smug. He’s always laughing.
“You think you’re so much better than everyone around you,” he’s yelling, his voice ricocheting off the glass doors like bullets. “You look at me like I’m scum!”
He makes you angry. He makes you furious. Your blood boils, like he’s taken something from you that you can’t even begin to paint into a scene, and he’s laughing, still laughing, spit flying from his mouth, hands flying into walls.
“Stop shouting,” you say, nothing more than a murmur. He laughs, positively howls.
“Why, are you scared? Good!”
“I don’t know,” I said, my mind falling out of focus, something like numbness slipping over me. “I think I might be being irrational.”
I was seven, the first time I felt afraid of him.
People talked about monsters, in the playground and in the books that I buried myself in. Monsters with ugly faces, sharp teeth, dark intentions – they wanted to hurt you, or if you spun enough times in front of a mirror in the dark, take pieces of you and keep them.
I never found them scary. It always seemed distant, the fear that I would end up dead from something much bigger than myself; it was childish recklessness, disbelief, denial.
And then he showed me how to feel the horror that was lurking underneath everything.
“You’re fixated on his hands,” Dr Bloom said, in the same, amused way she always seemed to be saying things. I blinked, the room flitting from winter sun into spring light, my bones fading from covered to barely sheathed.
“His hands are disgusting,” I breathed, glancing towards the wall. The posters were still there, peeling off the yellowed, cracking walls, proclaiming, don’t stay quiet. The numbers emblazoned on the bottom of the page had been scratched out with marker pen.
“I got you something,” he said, voice low and fumbling in the shadows of the back garden. The rain-soaked ground was seeping through the fabric of your socks, the cold, morning air biting at your skin. You were rooted to the spot, the ice scorching through you.
Paralysis, you think. A night terror in the harsh light of day.
He holds out a pack of pens, his hands oil-stained and trembling, twitching, the product of a comedown. You want to ask who he’s stolen from now, who he’s torn apart and kept the pieces of like a gift, but you just hold your hand out, because that’s all you can do.
He smiles, and his teeth are sharper than any knife you’ve ever seen. When his hands brush against yours, the hairs on your neck stand up.
When you’re faced with an obstacle, the only way to move is through; life won’t go on if you push problems out of the way, refusing to acknowledge them. The only way is forwards. It’s all I’ve ever known.
I kept my feet moving, and the world kept turning; the tears were streaming down my face, my breath still hitching in my lungs. The blood still stained my hands, in the crevices of my fingertips, no matter how hard I’d scrubbed and scrubbed.
Dr. Bloom looked at my hands, and asked me about his.
It was better than the police, than the ambulance, the demons screaming in my head for hours through the night as they kept me medicated in a hospital bed. She smiled, at least, and I smiled, because I sometimes wondered if in the course of synaptic plasticity, my brain had rewired the muscles that were meant to do that.
I blinked. “His hands aren’t the worst part.”
“Weren’t,” I amended, the fabric beneath my legs soft and rough all at once, a static discomfort that made me want to move, run, burn the restlessness out of my veins. “They weren’t the worst part. His mouth was.”
“His words,” Dr Bloom said, almost vaguely, her eyes calculating. “He always said cruel things, didn’t he? Provoking, perhaps.”
“He did,” I burst, my voice flooding with defensiveness and anger and everything all at once. Her eyes were calculating, sweeping over me as I played my fingers with the hem of my dress, her eyebrows raising fractionally at the nervous tremble of my hands. “He was cruel. His words were cruel.”
“Sometimes,” Dr. Bloom started, flitting her eyes away, her chin tilting up as she struggled to formulate a response. The air filled with electricity, negative energy pressing down down down until it hurt my chest, my gaze stuck on the fraying, maroon wool of her jumper. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say, but I never did; never wanted to delve into the deepest corners of my mind and realise that, in actuality, I was some sort of rearranged monster, hiding under big clothes and soft words. She licked her lips, glancing back down at me, a small smile forming, as though to say, listen to me, I’ve finally cracked it. “Sometimes cruelty can be a trigger, yes. But is it ever an excuse?”
“What are you going to do?” he screamed, his body pushing forward, backing you into the cobbled wall of the garage, the keys digging into the skin of your palm painfully as the door swung shut. You had wanted eggs, had slipped your shoes on with your pyjamas and rushed out through the cold winter air into the garden, your mind running with ‘get the eggs, get inside, everything will be fine’. It’s just a garage. Schrodinger’s Garage, probably, because you knew, somewhere inside of you, that he could be anywhere. Even if he was always in the back corner of your mind.
You were right, and you were wrong, and all of it hurt all the same.
“Get off of me,” you snapped, because you give it as good as you get, you do. You scream and scream and push and push until he breaks you, because you deserve it, you do, and if he does it, it’s some sort of sick validation that you’re not the evil one. You reached out, shoving him back, your hands colliding with his skin at what felt like a dangerous rate, unstoppable and immovable and horrifically harsh.
“What are you going to do?” he repeated, his head pushing forwards, his wide eyes only inches from yours, spit flying across your skin. You would shower after, you thought. “You need to stop being such a controlling little bitch!”
“You were taking drugs in the garage,” you hissed, and he smirked, shaking his head, scoffing, picture of innocence. You were angry. You always were. “My sister is in that house, almost came out here herself, and you think being so disgusting is okay?”
“You think it’s alright to be such a fucking control freak all the time? Get away, grow up before you try to talk to me about being disgusting. You know what disgusting people do? They make their family visit them in the hospital, and don’t even make it worth their time.”
I bit my lip, the feeling of his hands on my shoulders making me shudder as I met Dr. Bloom’s eyes once again. “Not an excuse, no. It hurts, though.”
When the brain is under immense stress, it remoulds itself in order to cope.
It’s an evolutionary advantage; paired with the sentience, the ability to percieve ourselves and understand the world around us, it makes sense that the brain would have an escape route – a way out, if everything becomes too much.
Underneath the layers of skin and bone, there’s a supercomputer lurking, waiting to fix any and every mistake that everything between the sea and sky can form. Sometimes, to fix means to mask – to replace with something new, something that might never have happened, or might be a storybook version of something you’ve seen.
False memories, they’re called, but when they’re playing before your eyes, they feel more real than anything that’s ever happened to you.
“So, he wanted to hurt you, you said?” Dr Bloom said, her pen scratching against the notebook in her lap. The machines beeped around me, a cacophony of loudness and irritation all at once, making me glance down at the needle in my arm and contemplate ripping it out altogether, just to get the steady sounds to stop.
There’s a metaphor, in the mess of details, about how trying to fix a ripple can cause a tsunami; I never wondered before, if people could be natural disasters, but then, if this wasn’t one, then what was?
“He did,” I said slowly. “And he did.”
“He did?” Dr. Bloom raised her eyebrows in mild surprise. “Alright, what happened there, then?”
His hands feel like needles, and you’ve always felt deathly afraid of those.
They dig into your hips, your thighs, your shoulders, push and pull and take and take until your skin is marred and bruised and jarred and ruined.
His mouth curls up into something, but you think you’ve lost the meaning of what a smile can be. Surely, he can’t be smiling at you. Surely, the devil can’t show you anything but horror.
Your skin is cold, and burning, and you’ve never felt so occupied in your own body.
He takes, and takes, and takes.
“Just, like. When he pushed me,” I mumbled, flitting my eyes back to the dreaded poster. “Against the wall. It hurt.”
“Of course,” she nodded, looking like she didn’t believe me one bit. “So, he hurt you. Do you think that was a reason to hurt him?”
Blood, staining, warm and trickling, burning as you wipe it on your thighs and off your thighs, the steering wheel slippery between your fingers. You don’t know where it all came from, but you think it looks like a crime scene, horrific and violent in the light of the sun.
You wonder why it feels like a part of you just breathed, for the first time in a long time, when you know that the rest of you was just smashed beyond repair.
“No,” I argued, my mind swirling. “I pushed him back sometimes, but that was it. It was never the same.”
“Do you think he’ll ever hurt you again?”
The sun set as the hospital doors opened, your body exhausted, your mind even worse. Your arms were stained with blood, your legs trickling as it kept running. You didn’t know where to look, what to say, where to go, but all of a sudden you were lying down, and you knew, somewhere in your mind, that sometimes, when the sun sets, it doesn’t rise again. Not for everyone.
You didn’t think you’d feel so warm in the light.
“No,” I said, the nausea bubbling, my eyes squeezing shut. “I suppose he won’t.”
When the new pathway forms, the old one doesn’t just disappear.
It’s always there, lurking in the shadows; only, the brain found new ways to get to the light.
He ruined me. And the lights smash out. He pushed me. And they come back on.
You wonder if you’re losing yourself, in the way you keep framing and reframing the same picture, if it’s getting smaller every time, if you’re cutting yourself out so much that you’ll never be found again. But then, it’s always there, waiting.
Plasticity can pull both ways, but sometimes, some things are better left in the dark.