From the day that you were born, you have always been a sensitive sort. Your hands clutch and grip everything in sight, taking in the sensations from each and every new object. From your fingertips and beneath the surface run a web of nerves, watching, waiting for their instructions. Everything you touch, everything you feel around you remains embedded in your soul – and it will only continue to expand as you get older.
You mature and develop as well as you can, sharing secrets in the dark, navigating the forests around your home with care and attention. You sprawl out amidst the playground of trees and learn the sensation of bark beneath your hands; little grains of dirt and grit deposit between your palms. You fall once, twice, and again the more you explore, forced to patch up the memories you left behind. Pain cut deep and sharp until your eyes well with tears. Blood seeps from the open wounds. But you fumble home to those who love you, have them ease the pain with gentle, nimble fingers. Through closed eyes you place your head against your mother’s shoulder, humming the words that you’ve always known:
I love you.
The years pass, and you grow stronger. Your hair grows out, and you are wild as can be. Your nerves buzz with all the energy in your heart as you leap and bound back into the world, caressing you in their promise for security. Fifth grade, and your brain swims with all the “endolphins” it could carry, tracing patterns amidst the sand of your synapses. Your body is a maze of commotion beneath the surface, a menagerie you cannot see. Nevertheless, with the chaotic presence of the inhabitants, you know it’s always there.
You wonder what would happen when you die, and if this ecosystem will surpass you. Bandaged, scratched-up hands ply the bark of the tree as you make your way up; you roam and scavenge like a wild bear, looking for its prey. The sweet sound of songbirds in the breeze drowns out the ache in your heart, as you sustain yourself on tremors and vibrations beneath your fingertips. Your nerves protract as they find their sustenance; they engulf both sound and silence. Beneath each and every surface they devour and absorb, those nerves never stop to serve you; they will help you all they can, but they will coddle you no longer.
The smell of cheap cologne and antiseptic wipes clogs your nose; the sting returns as your tongue protests the limited atmosphere. Leather grates against your legs as you sit down, hoping, praying that you won’t have the stink of an adolescent body next to you. Middle school is hardly luxurious, but it’s the first time your schedules have made it hard to navigate things by yourself. The screech of bus tires frighten the fauna of your cerebellum, leaving the menagerie in disarray. Hallways flicker with the gaudy shine of old incandescent lights; you brush a hand over your eyes when you first feel it. The warmth of overcrowded bodies, unwanted contact with skin – it makes your hair prickle as though you’ve been stabbed, even though it was less than a brush of fabric against your shoulder. You’re overreacting, but you can’t find the solution just yet.
The frigid steel of the railing scrapes against your hand. This isn’t where you belong. The world is full of noise you can’t stand, so you drown out the world with the drone of an iPod to keep your thoughts in and keep others out. It’ll work for the time being, but your menagerie is growing restless. There’s only so long you can dam the flood before it takes over.
High school, still growing, still changing. Your temporal lobe prowls along the crowded hallways as it stalks the clip of people’s feet. The screams of rowdy teens amplify with every swipe, herding the cacophony into your ears. Your hands shake, and you try to brush it off, but something about that web of nerves is always growing.
It wants more. It needs more, and it doesn’t care if you’ve had enough. It sinks into sound and sight with crooked teeth; its claws rake at every inch of your sanity as they reproduce exponentially. The wild beasts run rampant as they overhunt the neurological plains.
A touch becomes a needle in your side; a single sound out of rhythm becomes your poison. The more the sound exists the less you know, and it isn’t long until you find yourself lost, bursting, fighting to keep sane. This is not the forest you grew up in, and this is not the land you once knew – you’re thrust back out into a world of tactile horror, where nothing feels right, and it never will. Other people smile and look the other way, others seem to ignore you – you’re on the outside of this world, and until you neurons learn to cooperate you’re never getting anywhere.
The beasts are insatiable.
Class assignments shuffle before you. You can’t see a thing on the poorly-printed paper; while your nervous system is abuzz, your eyes don’t work the way they used to. You peer from behind your half-moon glasses and wait for a moment to ask a question; the anticipation burns you up inside. Your nerves don’t stop just because you’re in class; they continue to roam the classroom and stretch out of bounds. Unless you find the antidote in your bag, you’re unlikely to ever get a shot at this. Your feet tap against the floor, your legs shake, and before you know it you’re back in the same place you were. A bioluminescent flicker rushes past you, engulfing your legs in neurological slime; you’re not in their world, grounded but not really.
You’ve never been one of them, and you never will. While their world is colorful and bright, you can’t stand it. The light burns your skin like acid, and if you have to be saturated in that bright hue any longer you’ll be soup in minutes. Your body is far from frail, but it has a long way to go if it wants to succeed out here.
Nobody can help you. Nobody knows about who you are. Nobody knows what it’s like to be tormented by the palpable sting of the cerebral cortex, its fins slapping against the foamy sea of gray matter. Your plane of existence is fragmented by overfunctioning neurons, firing their bullets into your skin to the point you feel more empty than full. With every touch of the world around you, you can tell there’s nothing that can be done. Your programming’s all wrong; you can’t think, can’t feel. The assault of your nervous system keeps coming and coming and coming in droves and armies, battered and bruised by stimuli. You can feel your nerves electrify and fizzle out all at once; your synapses can’t keep up with this. By the time you process any of this your mind will lay barren.
You’re falling, falling out of this world. You see the web of neurons spread across the halls, still connected to your fingertips. The lights flicker beneath you, until you are standing on solid glass; every step leads you further down this path. The waves of stimulation begin to swallow you up like a ginormous whale; you see the fragments of light within their belly, and as the neurons and fragments of synapses connect you to it, you don’t question what follows. This world is not for you, and if the world will not yield to you, then you will yield to it. But this is your escape; this is your last chance to make up with your senses. You close your eyes as the world fades out, until it is just you, the hallway of light and color, and this big beautiful whale. It’s been waiting long enough for you, and thus you don’t hesitate to follow it where it leads.
Fragments of cerebellum adorn the whale’s head, gray matter running off every spot and stripe. It doesn’t answer you as the stingers of neurotic jellyfish pass you by; you’re at the mercy of your controller. You always were, and always have been a bit outside of the usual. You never knew it was possible to have a conversation with your own brain until now. You keep your hands out in front of you and take a deep breath, taking in the absence of feeling in your hands.
“What do you want from me?”
Things come to a halt, and you can’t tell if it’s because you’re dead, in limbo, or merely zoned out to get rid of the stress. For all you care, you might as well be dead; feeling everything, every sound has brought you to your knees. If your brain decides to swallow you whole and be done with it, it’s better that you have an alibi. It’s best that your frontal lobe stays out of this.
“We need to get control of ourselves.”
The voice is disembodied and echoes all around you, but doesn’t produce the same pain that a normal one does. Your neurons ensnare you like the tendrils of a jellyfish, binding your arms and legs to your sides. You can scarcely breathe, or even think of what’s going on around you. You give in to the sting of firing synapses and close your eyes, trying to keep focus.
“Do you think I don’t want that?”
The ache is in your chest this time; the world seems to all but crumble around you as you take it all in. Your logic and reasoning won’t get you out of this one; you’re going to have to express yourself if you want to get out of this alive. “I can’t keep going on like this. It hurts.”
“Then find a way to make it work. We don’t have anywhere else to run to; we can try to escape, but there’s only one such thing as reality, and we’re still in it. Take a breather, now; respond in your own time. Nothing can hurt you in your own subconscious unless you permit it to.”
You take a breath and choke on the sensation; your thoughts have the effect of liquid air in your lungs. You can breathe but barely. The negative sensations built up in your systems pollute your mind and body alike, like river waste after a hurricane. You can’t keep up with this. You can’t make it through unless you try.
You open and close your eyes in rhythm to your breathing; your heartbeat echoes around you as though you are within yourself. You can hear the fizz and crinkle of your systems hard at work, like a well-oiled machine. The only thing that seems to fall out of place is that sting of pain that accompanies every one of your senses; if you let go, you’ll drown. If you stay, then there’s no telling if you’re getting out.
You breathe again, and you can feel things begin to get less hectic. Your hands grasp at bubbles full of catalogued sensations, drifting past you on the open currents. You reach out and touch one: breathe, relax. It forms in your hands and covers your palms, bathed in the soft foam of warm water. Suddenly, it seems things aren’t too bad.
Your hand moves on its own as it scours for salvation. The approving eyes of the whale watch you as you take them one by one, letting your mind and body begin to form again. Your blood grows calm, your lungs steady with every inhale and exhale. The pollution of your dread begins to clear out as the tides change.
You feel around until you find the things that calm you; the light glints on all those little sensations. You can feel your body getting lighter, your senses less alert. The neurons and synapses retreat, and return to their place inside your body. No longer severed from you, then begin to intertwine themselves back in their designated spots beneath your digits. You begin to feel less eviscerated as the whale shrinks and curls back up into your brain, remaining there until you need it next. You take a deep breath, watching the static fade, feeling the fizzing begin to die down.
Deep breaths will get you there slowly; you’ll need help, but you know where to find it now. You feel the world begin to shift and move beneath your feet; the fabric of your shirt begins to comfort you as it wraps you up in its soft embrace. You can feel the approving nod of the whale as it filters out the noise, bringing you back from a world of static. Feeling the weight of your bag on your shoulders comforts you, brings you back to all your senses as you pick up your pencil and continue to write.
The web of nerves grows ever-bolder, and you hold the keys to control the storm as you grow older.
About the Author
Alder E. Beck was both in Atlanta, GA, in 2000. Raised by her intersex father, Max Beck, and pansexual mother, Tamara Beck, Alder grew up with a broad understanding of LGBTQIA2S+ communities and their complex inter-workings. Her disability diagnoses were discovered much further into her development. Even with the most accepting set of parents anyone could ask for, she often felt as though there was something “wrong” with her, became a frequent target of bullying from her peers and teachers alike, and learned early on that the world was not the kindest place to or for people who were viewed as “weird” or “different.”
Alder picked up creative writing through fanfiction in middle school, where she built up to various original works in the making, such as the Neuroqueer novel series, The Acacian Chronicles; her senior thesis anthology, Prey Sense; and her literary debuts in Agnes Scott’s literary Magazine, Aurora. (An earlier version of “Nerves” appeared in Aurora; the work’s revision is published with permission in this issue of Wordgathering.) Alder predominantly works with fantasy and magical realism, reclaiming these tropes and queering them from a Neurodivergent mindset.