“Well done – six seconds!” my physio, Cristie, smiles of my running descent down a flight of lemon-yellow and black rubber emergency stairs. “Less than half the time it took you the in October, d’you remember?” I do, all too well, and an immediate visage of myself, ungainly and uncoordinated, limping down the stairs at the end of October and trying not to vomit as my whole word magically became an emergency stairs-sized rocking horse intent on getting me off its back.
“So, that’s…” she trails off as she writes my score on her sheet, ticking boxes down the line as she goes. “…it! That’s it, then, you’ve done all the tests!” she smiles happily at me, tucking the sheet away. “Aaaaand so, that’s it.”
I pause, confused. “It?”
“It,” she confirms, nodding her head and ponytail around. “You’re discharged. You don’t need to come to Physio anymore; but I’ll check up on you in a couple of months but I reckon you should be fine.”
“I’m discharged.” I flat-line, disbelieving.
“You’re discharged,” she repeats back to me. “It’s been an absolute pleasure.”
My heart bursts with waves of simultaneous terror and excitement, my mind unsure of how to feel. Slowly but surely – or, in this case, less slowly and more incredibly abruptly – one of my major supports has been ripped out from under me. I look out of the door to the physio-gym and see Cristie, smile and high ponytail whirling around with the force of her movement as she greets another patient and moves on her way.
“I’m discharged,” I repeat idly to myself. Well, then.
“What d’you want to achieve?”
It is the end of October and I’m sitting on a large, Sapphire-blue Swiss ball, digging my feet into the faux-wooden ground to try and combat the waves of nausea and terror that seem to overcome me each time the bloated ball turns on its side. I’m sitting opposite my new physio, a young woman named Cristie with taut black hair pulled into a side ponytail and a kind face, but one that looks as if it could turn mean in an instant.
“Go to gym again.” My reply is instant and strangely confident, belying the manner in which my guts are twisted into unfamiliar knots at my first time in a hospital since Berlin and the countless unfortunates propped up in wheelchairs as they pass me in the hall; neck braces giving off alien vibes of attempted wellness as they do.
“Sure,” Cristie replies, quickly scribbling something on her pad. I’m internally strangely jealous at her ability to write so quickly and somehow still so neatly. I remember when I could still do that.
“And just run,” I add, quietly amused that I’d ever get to the point where I’d miss running. “Each time I do at the moment it’s like the ground’s rising up to attack me.”
“Right,” Cristie intones, continuing her scribble. “That’s not good.”
“No,” I smile in agreeance. “And I haven’t even told you about the time I tried to do push-ups, yet.”
I am sitting, now, in my neuro-psychologist’s office, digging my feet into the thin and hateful carpet below me in what has become a worrying pattern of self-regulation – attacking my feet in an attempt to try and quell the pre-emptive anger that consistently undulates from the centre of my being whenever Jane speaks to me.
“Now, I’m not going to discharge you just yet,” she giggles to herself and wags her finger at me, smile growing ever wider. My own smile splits my face in two as my feet push down and teeth begin to grind in to each other.
My brain cracks. Quell the anger, I think desperately. Quell the anger, quell the anger. Quell, quell, quell. I’m fighting a losing battle.
“We need to get you together,” she continues, the finger still wagging incessantly in my direction. “When you go for a job interview,” she says. “To be a director, you’ll need a notebook to keep organized in – maybe Kikki K, or something like that? It’s a bit girly, I know, but they work well, keeping everything together.” I’ve told her, fortnightly now, that although I have directed in the past, given my time at NIDA and connections therewithal, my intention since about six months ago was (always to) focus solely on the playwriting thing.
“Jobsdon’tworklikethat,” I spit out uncontrollably, the words zooming out of me like the bodily functions of an uncontrolled meth addict, before I can swallow them back and choke on them. The room is tense, the mood dark and thick like molasses and covering the both of us, my chest thumping away in dull protest. I inhale, then exhale. Quell, quell, quell. My mouth is drier than my Grandmother’s roast. “Um…” I pause. “…in… in the theatre world,” I continue unconvincingly, my brain racing. “You know, haha. It’s… it’s a hard world, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she murmurs, seemingly satisfied with my answer, or else choosing to ignore it.
“Mm,” I reply, confused as to why I’m suddenly fucking desperate to be let go when yesterday the concept filled me with sheer and blinding terror. “Okay.” I inhale, then exhale, as the two of us stare each other off from our black stuffed leather office chairs, both doing a passable imitation of gangsters in a Clint Eastwood film. “What do I need to do to get discharged, then?”
Her reply is slow to come, punctuated by the sound of her leather shoes skimming across the carpet. She smiles at me, large and in charge. Dangerous, I inhale, then exhale.
I am twelve years of age and it is the year 2000, some time in that month-long period where school has already begun for the year but the weather has refused to take notice, beating down in stinking hot rays of light throughout the country and occasionally (and blessedly) causing my school to cancel that whole learning thing for the day – weather over 40 degrees obviously being too hot for poor, darling, sweaty little children.
In this instance, however, school’s done for the day. It is 4.00 PM and I am standing in a nearby car park with Rob, a friend of my brother’s who has been paid by my near-desperate parents to teach me how to ride a bike (a skill I haven’t, at this stage, acquired, it being hard to balance when you’re as fat as a young hippopotamus and with as much grace as one, too).
Within fifteen minutes I’m pedalling away, Rob running behind me, hands and comforting grip on the bike, a sense of security washing over me as he follows.
“You’re doing it!” he bellows after me as I continue to pedal, my human safety blanket now standing behind and watching me pedal. “You’re riding a bike!”
White hot fear and sheer uncoordination course through my brain, worming in in every way they can, and I freak, hands jolting uncontrollably on the brakes and stopping the car in veritable midair, sending me arse over freaked-out, helmeted, head. I hit the pavement, soft flesh colliding with hot Summer asphalt and tearing, picking up smears of hot ashen black as it does so. This, apparently, is what happens when I realize I’m all alone. Now, of course, it just seems ridiculous – hadn’t Rob ever seen a family midday movie before? You never tell the kid they’re doing it by themselves!
2015 again. I’m sitting, now, in my speech-therapist Amanda’s office. She is holding my mother’s iPad in front of me and smiling. “Talk for a minute now, on…” she pauses as she thinks. “The latest play you’ve written. Whatever you feel like saying. Recording… now!”
I do so, and she’s pleased with the results. “So much better!” she says, scrolling through countless weekly videos of me talking about random crap. “Here!” she presses firmly on the first one and it bursts to life – me in a polka-dotted shirt, body much more twisted than it was, smaller and less built, my left side (the weak one) hanging limp and unattentive and voice much less intelligible. “See how much better you are?”.
I smile despite the hatred towards the sound of my recorded voice that course through my brain..
“I still think,” Amanda says. “There’s a little more work to do if you want to act again, but not much. Very nearly there!” Then: “Shall we say we meet every fortnight from now on? There’s not really much point having weekly sessions, is there?”
There’s a mechanical screech as the tram pulls up in front of me and I step onto it, pressing my myki into the reader and sitting down next to an old lady who smells of dried, pressed flowers and old cats.
“You can do what you want,” Danielle, my Occupational Therapist had confirmed earlier. “But if you’re not feeling confident, I can work on it with you. Would you like a session on public transport?”
“Yes,” I’d said, sudden and heady fear of the recent unknown outweighing the sensibility in my head, brain suddenly overflowing with grainy images of my body trapped underneath a train or tram, twitching ice-cold and bloody and lifeless.
“Sure,” Danielle replied. “Let’s do some sessions over the Christmas break – just email me what type of transport you’d like to do most of all and we’ll work on it together.”
With this I’d been discharged from nearly four months of house arrest. I was able to go places by myself, like a regular and free human being, except for the fear like black tar coursing through my veins and knotting up my stomach.
“Excuse me,” the lady next to me smiles, grabbing my elbow with a bony hand. “But do you know when the Glen Huntly road shops are?”
“Sure,” I reply on automatic. “Two stops away, we’re nearly there. I can pull the chain for you if you want.”
“If you could, that’d be lovely,” she replies, releasing my arm. “And, thank you.”
You’ve done this all your life, I think, so stop being a fucking scaredy-cat.
Two weeks later I’ve spent the holidays getting myself around – like a real life independent human being – and feel as confident as ever. Before I even suggest it, Danielle herself cancels the session.
It is the first week of my fateful overseas trip, long enough to have ended my jetlag but not long enough to yet have given me my proper bearings. I’m wandering around with my friend, Laura, stopping in every shop for a Scottish gander and the occasional midday pint of beer. We’re searching for a Kodak shop, the both of us looking to purchase a disposable camera for which to properly document our trip. In that strange way that you can only feel in a new city, we are together but on our own, without outside friends, jobs or hobbies or anything beyond the booming and theatrical fringe festival.
We link arms, walking down the steep cobbled steps from a nearby cemetery and down the street, tourists and Scotspeople streaming past in every direction; in a display that, since getting hit by a car, would confuse and terrify me. There is an oddness to the air brought whipping cold and raining around our faces, a feeling of aloneness, that there might be thousands or a million other people nearby but that we were out, out in the world, out on a ledge, on a foreign wire, achieving things by our own means and devices and trust in ourselves.
“THERE IT IS.” I bellow as we make our way down the street some four leisurely hours into our Kodak journey, pointing forcibly towards the yellow and red sign hanging and dully lit up in the sheer bleakness of Scotland’s grey air. Excitement coursing through our bodies and legs and refrigerated by the glacial temperatures of the day, we make our way into the store. A reprieve: we’re alone, here, surrounded by DSLR cameras way out of our price range and photo printing booths and no customers, just the man behind the counter, and blessed silence. The shop assistant stares at us, a look of expectation across his face, and we gingerly approach, our shoes making quiet squelching sounds against the fabric of the carpet.
“Hi,” I say, my heart suddenly alive and beating haphazard in my chest, body unnecessarily on edge, somehow wary of the situation I’ve just walked into, and irrationally afraid to ask the shopkeeper where he keeps the disposable cameras. Laura sidles up next to me, and I force myself to break out of this pointless terror and speak: “We’re looking for cameras,” I say. “Disposable ones. Where do you keep them?”
And this is how it’s always been, and how it is now, in a bitter sense. Time and time again, in the past, it has come down to body versus brain, and I’ve beaten the body, quite succinctly. I beat it when I weighed some fifty kilograms more than I do now. I’ve beaten it when my teeth were broken and askew, my eye pulled up and out, my legs unable to run and my torso fighting the weight of German hospital.
But neither time – indeed, really at any time in my 26 years of life so far – have I managed to beat my brain into shape. It still conjures up imagined vicious answers from shopkeepers, still paints my body with an imagined extra ten, fifteen or twenty kilograms, still tells me I’ll fall and fail without the support of people to tell me what to do, how to fix myself, how to better myself. Part of this can be explained away by the undeserved catcalls and vicious jeers of my schoolyard peers – the ones I can now see for what they were; completely fucking idiotic – but a bigger part comes down to me, the way my brain is wired and my own incredibly high expectations of my self. Perhaps, then, it’s time for round two of “body versus brain”; to train up that half of my self – heck, give it steroids if it needs – where it needs training and to rip the metaphorical carpet out from under it where else it needs it, to stand in its corner and rub its little squishy pink brain-shoulders and say “hey, motherfucker, I’m here for you.”
Say what you will, but this time I’m putting all my money on the brain. It’s about time I did.