I can breathe.
They say that it takes approximately seven years for every cell in one’s body to replace itself. This is a wildly inaccurate myth, but it’s nice to think about. It’s nice to feel like that could be the truth - that after seven years, there is no part of you that has ever been touched by the trauma you want so desperately to outlive.
It isn’t, though. Many of our cells live from their initial development in the womb to the moment respiration stops, whether death comes at 100 days or 100 months or 100 years. Your permanent teeth - which are definitely there the whole time, not just after the first set falls out - are not only covered with enamel cells that can never regrow, but are actually becoming living fossils via calcification if you neglect to have plaque buildup taken care of at the dentist. Permanency upon permanency, with no chance of natural regeneration or reset.
Your brain is made up of beautiful little beings called neurons, as well as many other cell types that aren’t as famous, that largely do not regrow - parts of the hippocampus seem to go against this generalization, but that’s pretty much it. They spend your whole life with you, wrapping themselves in an insulation called myelin that causes specific pathways to become strengthened and streamlined as you practice something, whether that something is good for you or is actively killing the very cells that are enacting its repetition. There is no hope for a new brain to replace one that is tired, broken, or diseased.
Unseeing something terrible is impossible, but the same is true for something beautiful. The lenses through which those images haunt or bless you are yet another group of cells that do not offer you any second chances. This is why people can’t just take medication or vitamins and improve their eyesight by repairing the damaged cells.
It is unfortunate that the body does not, cannot, replace itself every seven years.
But I can breathe.
The dust is taking longer than one would expect to settle. Perhaps it’s due to the method of demolition, or some other explanation that I don’t have because I’m a biologist, not an architect or foreman.
I told my therapist last week that this place was condemned and scheduled for demolition, and that I was considering witnessing the event, or at least just visiting the aftermath. She nodded and said that it was an idea that could go either way: catharsis or catastrophe. Or it could even be both, which I think is what will end up being true.
I could probably pick through the rubble and identify pieces of that apartment, that hellhole, if it weren’t for both the wire fencing and my knotted gut keeping me out. So much time spent staring at the door, at the floor, at the ceiling — it creates an image stamped on the backs of one’s eyelids that takes years of therapy or gallons of bitter poison to erase. Your brain builds a neuronal pathway in the shape of the porcelain sink with leaky, rusted pipes, despite the fact that you can assume that plenty of neurons no longer fire due to repeated impact with said sink and pipes. The fillings you had to get to conceal chipped teeth will never grow enamel to match what was left after you dared to try to explain that his dinner burned because the oven needed to be repaired or replaced and that you’d tried to get management to address it three times this month; he didn’t need your excuses, you were clearly either too dumb to read the instructions on the box or just intentionally burned his food.
I feel like I’m being strangled by my seatbelt, so now I have to face my options: stay in my car where I’m hiding from the past and gasp for air while I swear the cabin is shrinking, or get out and breathe in the micro-debris of my fallen personal hell. My therapist’s voice comes to mind. “Have you ever heard of the phenomenon ‘hysterical strength’?”
Hysterical strength is when the body reacts to a dangerous situation in such a way that they can tap into their absolute strength, which the average person uses about 65% of when pushing their limit at the gym. It’s also the example she gave when she talked me through comprehending what it took for me to save myself.
"Your psyche was forced to reach near or at its absolute strength, Nora, and you had to keep that up for two years nonstop just to survive. When the muscular system performs at absolute strength due to an episode of hysteria, you’re extremely susceptible to getting hurt in ways that never go away. You can think of PTSD as being like an old back injury from pulling a friend up off the edge of a building that flares up if irritated in just the right way. Those triggers can be so small you barely even recognize them, and you’ll very rarely see them coming. I don’t say this to scare you, but to illustrate to you that you’ll very likely have to deal with panic attacks for a long time, if not the rest of your life.”
“Just like physical injuries, though, psychological trauma can be improved on with time and treatment. Most people with PTSD find that treatment helps them get back to a normal life, but their likelihood of having a panic attack is still always going to be higher than that of a person without PTSD. Those panic attacks are the back pain flare-ups of the mind, and the coping mechanisms we work on in our sessions and in your own practice are the anti–inflammatories, massages, and salves that would be helping you through physical pain.”
I unfasten my seatbelt and rush out of the car so abruptly I barely keep my balance on the asphalt. My head is spinning and I bend over, hands on my knees, both in an attempt to keep myself from vomiting and in preparation for failure in that effort.
I stare at the parking lot beneath me, which is littered with the crumbs of that despicable building.
After a few long minutes, I can breathe.
Slowly, I stand up and face it again. Jagged mounds of concrete are piled up with bent rebar sticking out at odd angles. Splintered and charred wood, broken glass, and pieces of abandoned belongings are scattered everywhere. When the dizzy spells roll over me it becomes an AI’s guess at what a demolition site should look like; everything that was common is now completely unidentifiable.
One step, then another. I’ve made a decision that has some primal part of me screaming, “Regret! Regret! Regret!” It has to happen, though. I just know that this will be a crucial piece in my closure.
I raise my hand to the dusty fence. Index, middle, ring, pinky, thumb, all trembling as I hook them through one by one. My left hand comes up to repeat the process, but it lands in a spot of the fence that had been broken or cut. Now I see blood welling up from a tiny slice in my palm.
More blood here. More of my blood here, but there can never be more of his. I inhale, slow and deep, focusing on my breath to hopefully stop the racing thoughts.
I can breathe. I can breathe. Because he tried to stop me, I have to breathe.
I can’t get any closer today because of the fence. Would I go closer if not for that boundary? I don’t know. I haven’t been there since the police took me away for questioning.
I look down and the blood on my hand is no longer my own, but a hot red curtain covering both hands. It drips onto the carpet beneath me, splattering and mixing with the mess of shattered glass and cheap vodka that was still spreading. Everything is happening in slow motion and I can only see it all through a red haze. Suddenly there’s half a bottle in my hand and his fingers go limp around my neck. He’s falling onto me, dead weight with a slack face, and I scream as my knees simply disappear and I fall, too.
Asphalt and gravel dig into my skin when I land. Why did I wear a shirt with such a high collar? I can feel it wrapping around my neck, and it seems to creep upward and inward with each silent, violent sob. I get the collar away from my skin, then take both my hands and pull to stretch it out. Feeling the fibers tear as I ruin this shirt–which part of me remembers but does not care that it was a gift–is exactly the tactile life preserver I needed to stop drowning in the memories.
Catastrophe. We definitely ended up with catastrophe.
I’m white-knuckling fistfulls of rocks, unblinking and unable to move. What are things I’m noticing using the five senses? Inhale. I can smell dirt and gasoline from the demolition machinery parked for the evening. Exhale. I can feel gravel under my knees and the rocks I still haven’t let go of. Inhale. I can taste bitter bile that I fought to keep down. Exhale. I can hear the highway in the distance and the arhythmic clank-clank clank of a flagpole’s chain as the wind blows. Inhale. I can see…
A demolition site. That’s all there really, truly is right here and right now. If I focus on the facts I can fight the fear.
There was an apartment building here yesterday. There were families, singles, couples, and even a few university students who couldn’t get a lease with one of the complexes that primarily house their peers, but that all ended eight years ago. The final tenants in this shithole were one such university student and her husband, who got married when she was eighteen and he was twenty-four; he didn’t want to share their living space with two strangers in a place nearer to the university. She eventually left and stayed with the one friend she was able to keep secret from him, but only after he died of a heart attack caused by a combination of alcoholism, cardiac disease, and severe head trauma. Statistically, brain injury-induced cardiac arrest is nearly unheard of, but it does happen.
It did happen. I watched it.
And unlike the body, an apartment building can be replaced. Lives can be rebuilt where they were once broken, beaten, and bruised.
But now I’m watching a bird hop from one concrete chunk to the next in front of a setting sun. Streetlamps pop on one by one, but this place stays dark. For me, of course, it always will be.
I stand up slowly, letting the gravel slip through my fingers on my way. What lies in front of me is nothing more than the crumbled remains of a building. It has to be. It has to be. It cannot be anything more than that to me, at least not today.
Ten more seconds frozen. I blink, I roll my shoulders, and I turn around toward my car.
There are so many things that happened there that can never be undone. Some would even say that there was a murder, though the majority of people accept that it was self-defense. Sometimes, I’m not sure which I believe. There’s always going to be a voice in the back of my head that will see the demolition of this decrepit, dangerous building as being nothing more than malicious destruction. It will say that ‘self-defense’ is bullshit, and that I should’ve just let it happen. It will say that I was the perpetrator, and he was the victim of a senseless act of violence. It will repeat over and over what the prosecutor said five years ago.
Once I’m finally out of the parking lot and on my way down the road, I find one more comforting fact to focus on:
I can breathe.