Neuroplasticity: Changing My Brain

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To look at me, you’d think there’s nothing wrong. We could have a conversation and you’d never suspect that behind my friendly smile there’s a private war, raging. Beneath nightmares and unbidden thoughts are wounds that haven’t yet healed, scars that never will.

My father was a crack-cocaine addict. I’m sure he was a lot of other things, too, but that one overshadowed them all. I hardly ever saw him. When I did, our connection was impeded by the fact that he was high, and highly inappropriate. Unfortunately, those years of abandonment and casual carelessness left a mark upon my soul; the type of mark, like a perverted branding, that is visible only to a certain type of individual: a predator.

The first time I was approached in a sexual manner, I was three years old. It happened at six, then again at seven, and once more at nine, each violation committed by a different man. I developed eating disorders. I pulled my eyelashes out, one by one. I wanted to disappear. When I looked in the mirror, I saw only flaws, mistakes. My secret was destroying me.

At seventeen, I experienced the last—and worst—sexual assault, committed by an ex-boyfriend. It took years to accept what happened, to call it by its ugly name: Rape. For a long time, I didn’t call it anything. I took the blame. I took it that night, and for the next seventeen years, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The night I was raped, my boyfriend nearly choked me to death, believing I’d been unfaithful. I dropped out of high school a week later, and spent the next several years in one violent, abusive relationship after another. In between, there were phases: drug-experimentation, promiscuity, and devil-may-care. Maybe I thought I didn’t deserve better. Pain felt familiar, like an old friend. Maybe I wanted to punish myself a little, as well. I was a good Catholic girl. I knew I was guilty.

I left my first husband, covered in my own blood, melon-sized bruises all over my body. At the Barnsley Police Station in South Yorkshire, England, the officer taking photographs shook his head sadly at my swollen face. “I remember you, Luv”, he said. “You were ‘ere not three months ago. Ah, such a shame, innit? You deserve better for you an’ yer boy.” Adjusting the ruler, he added grimly, “Should think ‘bout leaving ‘fore there’s nowt left of ya.” Flash.

Fists of hair, steel-toed boots in the belly, were nothing compared to the words smashing against one another in my head, “You. Are. Nothing.” Carrying a black suitcase and an eighteen-month old boy in my arms, I swore it would never happen again. Two years later, pregnant with my second child, it did. Not in the same way, not with the same man. It’s never really the same, is it? But it happened again. I had no choice but to leave the city. We spent Christmas seeking sanctuary in a shelter for abused women and children.

I found an apartment in February. My second son was born in June. We lived a quiet life on less than $1000 per month in city-subsidized housing for a year, until a neighbor decided he wanted to be more than friends. He didn’t handle the rejection well. Criminal Harassment charges were laid. I sank into a deep depression.

I was a Victim.

We moved around a lot. It took two years to shake off the fear of being followed, watched. I became anxious, fearful of people, especially men. There were moments when I even feared my boys. Not who they were, but who they could become. I was diagnosed with PTSD, among other things, prescribed medication. Burning angry, I had little fits of rage over insignificant things, and developed severe hives. I barely ate, could hardly sleep. I lost time. Memory after memory assailed me, every waking moment. Every crime committed against me rose up inside, like hot, boiling lava, and gurgled out. Twisted in pain, alone in the darkness, my soul cried. “ENOUGH!”

I finally heard. I can say that now, because I know it is true.

The human brain is capable of the most amazing feats. Pathways are formed when neurons are fired, over and over, in the same manner. This is how we learn, remember, grow as human beings. When trauma occurs, the cells in our body become imprinted. Triggered by certain stimulus, old neural pathways are recycled. Trauma is relived, again and again.

Neuroplasticity involves the spontaneous rewiring of neurons, the reassignment of neural pathways. Neurons are able to strengthen well-worn connections while weakening or eliminating others. Imagine, the road less travelled, essentially disappears. A healing process, this gives us the power to literally change our minds.

So, I decided to change my mind. I knew that I had to do something drastic to reclaim my power. I was smart enough to know that I was hurting myself, and old enough to be tired of it. Learning, getting a formal education, seemed to offer the opportunity to form new thought processes, new patterns, new pathways.

I’m changing my mind, every day, a little more. You’d never know it, to look at me.

*

(This essay first appeared in the Globe and Mail, Sept 2013. Artwork by Tara Hardy)

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