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Computer Vision Syndrome

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Hey. Been a while.

I know I haven’t had a presence here for some time now. Just… things have changed for me, and I think some of you might want to hear about it.

Right now it’s 3:12am, and I can hardly type because I’m afraid it’ll make too much noise. I’m afraid to do anything. Eat. Sleep. I can’t even leave this spot to get to the bathroom—not that the stains in the carpet will matter a few days from now.

You’ll have to forgive me if this post feels terse or disjointed. I can’t… focus. At this point I’m practically blind and almost certainly insane, but I still feel like this is something I need to do. I know if I’d found this story on the forum when I first showed up, things would have gone a lot differently for me. I might not be here now, paralyzed with fear in this computer chair, soaking in my own piss.

They might never have found me.

This is all pretty cryptic, I know. It’s just not something I can explain in a couple of sentences. You’ll understand everything by the time you’re done reading. At least, everything I understand, which may not actually be much.

Among other things, I’m about to lay out a set of instructions that, if followed, could really, really fuck you up. So, step zero: if you have anything at all to look forward to in this life, stop reading. This isn’t for you.

For me, the descent began as a steady downward spiral into mediocrity. Probably a process most people my age are familiar with. You put off adulthood for a while by attending college until, finally, you realize the center can’t hold and you have to choose a career path. If you plan on being a productive member of society, this is when the real work begins. You stop putting off study until the night before. You forget you ever had a social life. You acquire a real, bonafide work ethic.

Or, if you’re like me, you drop out before the pressure piles on, and you commit to a life of MMOs and cereal because you can’t be bothered to fix actual meals. Granted, most people aren’t like me. They still have to get out and work a job to keep bread on the table. I don’t. I was lucky enough to have a mother who left me at an early age and an estranged father who shows his love not by answering my calls, but by keeping my joint bank account full.

Needless to say, I never had to work. Never had to get out at all, really.

So for half a year after I left school, my life consisted of three things: League of Legends, Netflix, and order-in sushi. The only time I remember leaving the house was to get the mail every other month. What a dream, right?

That is, until you discover that the human body isn’t really built to sit hunched in a computer chair, staring at a light source for weeks on end. It takes a while for it to sink in, but when that revelation finally hits, it really knocks you on your ass.

I remember pretty clearly the night it first occurred to me that something might be off. I was waiting for a game of LoL to start, sort of zoned out, staring at the junk on my desk. For some reason, my eyes came to rest on the Styrofoam cups that they delivered my lo mein in. They were collapsed into a stack about five or six cups tall. I think I was contemplating how to go about finding a maid to get rid of all the trash piled around the apartment, when I noticed something strange about the cups: a faint outline, offsetting the cups by an almost imperceptible distance.

I blinked a few times and waited for my vision to refocus. It was just blurry from all time in the dark. Obviously. That’s what I tried to tell myself. As I rubbed at my eyes, as I dripped water into them from the tap, and then finally as I crawled into bed, I tried to believe that my eyes were just tired from the hours of grinding. They’d be better in the morning.

Of course, you already know that isn’t how things went. If it had been that simple, you wouldn’t be reading this.

My vision was no better the next day, nor the next week, nor the week after, and it was steadily getting worse. Each day I watched the outline of the foam cups drift further from the stack, slowly transforming into a ghostly double. It was the same for everything of contrast I looked at. The white plate of the light switch. Black text on bright backgrounds. The glint of light on the metal arms of my computer chair. They all acquired their own ghostly twins, which hovered just above them, and just to the left. Light sources were even worse, casting thin, radiant webs out toward their doubles. Before long the green LED light on my computer tower was surrounded by a dim halo.

I quickly became obsessed with my worsening vision, testing it by closing one eye and then the other, moving my head back and forth, spreading my eyelids with my fingertips—anything to understand what had changed. A lot of the hours I’d been devoting to games turned into anxious scrolling through medical websites. I didn’t actually break down and schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist until I came across an article on WebMD titled "Early Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis". The first on the list? “Blurred or Doubled vision.”

I won’t waste your time with all the medical stuff. Suffice to say it did more harm than good. I spent a couple months pestering my general practitioner and visiting every eye doctor I could get to. After about a dozen different failures to diagnose anything in particular, the anxiety got so bad that I started to develop new symptoms altogether. Fatigue. Head pain. Paranoia. During the day I tried to drown out my condition with video games. During the night I sat awake, watching the shadows, unsure whether they were actually moving or if my fucked up eyes were just getting the best of me.

It’s a strange thing to be so acutely aware of your own body. Easy to take your senses for granted. But the moment you experience the slightest change, your whole world shifts. And it’s an inward shift. Your body becomes a prison, separating you from the outside world, and your life is a series of scratches on the prison wall, counting the days since you were whole.

That’s how it felt to me, anyway.

The little sleep I got was precious to me. It was my escape. I often wished I wouldn’t wake up. But after weeks of slogging through that misery, I managed to find for myself a dim little beacon of hope: a condition that seemed to fit my symptoms to a tee, and that—according to the articles I could find—few medical professionals take seriously. Computer Vision Syndrome, or CVS. Essentially, you focus on the screen too hard for too long and all kinds of things start to happen to your vision.

Having a name that you can attach to your illness is… well, it’s hard to describe the feeling. It makes the whole thing less like some overwhelming force in your life and more like something you can fight. And lucky for me, the fight against CVS is a pretty simple one. You just have to condition your eyes and give them proper rest. That’s all there is to it. They call it the 20/20/20 rule. For every twenty minutes looking at the screen, spend twenty seconds focusing your eyes on something twenty feet away. Simple enough.

Again, though, too simple. This wouldn’t be worth writing if that was where it ended, would it?

20/20/20. Let’s say, for congruity’s sake, that I did this for about 20 days. In that entire time, the only difference I saw was that, now, when I flicked my eyes too quickly in any direction, dark strands drifted like shadows across my vision. I might have made another appointment with my doctor if I hadn’t already spent so much time reading about this stuff. They were floaters; little strands of collagen moving around inside my eyes. Everyone has them, but most peoples’ eyes focus in such a way that they’re more or less invisible. I knew they were harmless, but for some reason they horrified me. In my developing mania, they felt like an omen of some kind; a sign that I would spend the rest of my life looking out from behind these broken, kaleidoscope eyes.

It might sound a little melodramatic when you think about all the terrible stuff people go through, but I could never boast a particularly strong willpower. That little flame of hope my discovery of CVS had ignited was beginning to dim, and really I just wanted to die. The floaters had a way of exacerbating the paranoia and the anxiety. I kept catching glimpses of… things in my peripherals that weren’t actually there. My brain interpreted them as human shapes, but I knew better. Still, that knowledge didn’t make it any easier for me to sleep at night.

Exhausted, and mostly consigned to my fate, I did what people in my situation do: I began to shout my woes into the void of the internet. That was how I found this forum, tucked away in some domain board for people suffering with CVS.

It’s been a while since the last time I checked in here, but some of the veterans may remember my first post. It was a wall of text—not unlike this one—describing in probably too much detail the minutia of my condition. And if you remember that post, you might also remember one of the members who responded to it: BlindBat2020. I don’t know if she has much of a reputation around here, but she certainly made an impression on me.

All she said on the thread itself was that she knew what I was going through, and that she might be able to offer a solution. She told me to shoot her a PM if I was interested, and within the hour we were talking on her private IRC channel. It was called “The Watchers Chat.” Everyone there seemed to be just as receptive as she was. I’d feed them pieces of my story, and they’d all tell me about their similar experiences, and how they were on the road to recovery. I remember one user in particular—someone by the name of Transdermia—who said that he almost never thought about his vision at all anymore. Soon, he said, he’d be all better.

You can’t imagine the effect this news had on me. I took my fingers off the keyboard and… again, dramatic. I wept for a while.

After that, I spent almost all my time talking to BlindBat, learning about the chat and what they were all doing to fix their eyes. They called the process depersonalization. It wasn’t something any one of them had come up with, but rather a method that had just sort of been… passed down by the members of the chat over the last half-decade or so. None of the original members were around anymore, but they didn’t need to be—BlindBat and the others really seemed to have a handle on things.

She guided me through it, taking me a little further each day. It felt like a series of physical therapy sessions, if a little more… unorthodox.

Step 1: find something to focus on.

They called this a “locus.” It’s not going to be a youtube video or a game; it has to be something that doesn’t stir any thoughts or feelings in you whatsoever, but something you can still look at for hours on end. Harder than it sounds. For me, it ended up being a looping gif of the baby from Eraserhead, wrapped in bandages and gasping for air. Weird choice, probably—it might reflect something about my psyche—but it doesn’t really mean anything to me, and I find it visually interesting. So it works well enough.

Step 2: prepare yourself.

This one she spent a lot of time drilling into me. You really have to be able to concentrate fully on your locus. Keep the lights off. Cover the windows. If you have to, plug your ears. Wear earmuffs over the earplugs. Wrap yourself in blankets. Tape blinders to the sides of your head to keep your peripherals from distracting you. Anything you have to do to remain fully centered on the computer screen. You cannot afford to break your concentration.

Step 3: focus.

You remember that 20/20/20 rule I mentioned? This is basically that, adjusted for depersonalization. Every day for 20 days, you spend an additional 20 minutes each day concentrating on your locus from no more than 20 inches away. 20 minutes the first day, 40 the second, an hour the third, so on.

I remember cracking a smile when she first told me about it. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of the original rule. According to her, if you follow these steps, you slowly condition your mind not to notice your body. It’s a way of… escaping yourself. Hence, “depersonalization.”

I thought it sounded a little like hippy bullshit at the time, and I guess typing it now I still sort of do. That didn’t stop me from following her into like an excited puppy, though. I’d like to think that anyone in my position would have done the same, but, again—I’ve never been possessed of a particularly strong force of will. I was so tired of the life I’d been living, and everyone in the chat had gotten me so riled up for what was to come. Despite its weirdness, it seemed like the reasonable thing to do. The only thing to do.

Before we could actually start on the full 20 days, BlindBat insisted that I practice. She said things would get much worse before they got better, and if I quit half-way through she’d never forgive me. I really think she meant it.

So I pinned my quilt to the window frame to block out the sun, found my earbuds, and every day I wrapped myself up in a sheet, peeking out through a hole at the computer screen to watch the same black and white clip of that deformed creature play out ad nauseum.

I was surprised by how difficult it was to sit so still and so quiet for such a long period of time. At first I couldn’t even pass half an hour before I needed to take a break. She was right. Even after all the time I’d spent sitting in front of a computer, I wasn’t ready for this. It was different from anything else I’d ever tried to do. It just felt like… nothing. Waiting for time to pass as my eyes dried out. Thank god there were no rules against blinking.

Eventually, with the support of the chat, I began to acclimate. One of the other members described it in a way that changed my entire perspective. Have you ever stared at one of those flat, ugly, industry-standard carpets with all the different specks of color on it, searching for invisible patterns? After a while, the dots all start to crawl around like television static. It’s just an illusion, but it sort of… “animates” the carpet. I learned to look at the gif in a similar way, finding invisible shapes in the negative space, memorizing the places where the shadows and highlights go patchy.

The more time I spent practicing this way, the worse my symptoms became. The halo encircling the green LED on my computer tower became a gauzy disk which hid the entire thing from view. The doubled images split into triples, and then into quadruples. The floaters in my periphery became so pronounced, I constantly felt as if I was seeing figures huddled against the walls of my room, inching around in time with the quiet creaks of the settling building.

The only thing unaffected was the perpetual white glow of the computer monitor.

I tried not to mind. I didn’t want to break stride with my practice. I wanted my body and my mind to be fixed so badly.

Eventually I broke down and told BlindBat about it. She said that there was nothing to be worried about; laid out a few more instructions for me to follow. Something to the effect of “if you see something out of the corner of your eye, no matter what, don’t look at it. In fact, avoid looking at windows, ceilings, and walls altogether. Spend as much time looking at the computer screen as possible. That’s the best way. And if you hear a sound you don’t recognize, whatever you do, don’t investigate. You can’t let the paranoia distract you.” In retrospect, these new rules ought to have terrified me, but I found them strangely comforting. This was all just part of it. Normal. If I could ignore it, I’d be over the hump and on to my twenty days soon enough.

Over the following weeks, I often tried to get in touch with the other members of the chat. I was surprised to find the place mostly empty. I guess the crowd had been thinning for a while. I’d noticed, I’d just never thought it was anything to be concerned about. Out of the dozen or so who had been there when I first joined, by the time I felt ready to start the process, there were only six of us left. Soon, it was just me and BlindBat, alone together in The Watchers Chat.

When I asked where everyone else had gone to, she said they had started already. And then she announced, quite suddenly, that she was planning to begin her twenty days as well, and that she thought I was ready to do mine.

I was. At least, I thought I was. That was what I told her.

But I was also still afraid. Something about going through it my own, without anyone to talk to if I messed up… I don’t know. If there was actually anything to be afraid of, I wasn’t sure what it was. Just one of those irrational things, I guess.

I prepared myself to do it anyway; dragged the economy-sized bundled of cereal boxes from the apartment pantry into the bedroom, stacked the packages of water bottles beside it. It felt like I was getting ready to hibernate. And then, once everything was in order…

I just sat in the dark, scouring the internet aimlessly.

I never actually got around to doing the deed. Instead, I waited out the duration of BlindBat’s twenty days, practicing like a diligent little student while my instructor was away. Thirty minutes a day, staring at that black and white gif, trying to forget that I exist. To forget the darkness around me. The feeling of subtle movements just beyond my line of sight. Of being watched.

Twenty days passed. Twenty became thirty. Half way through the following month, I still hadn’t heard back from her, and my anxiety was beginning to overwhelm me. I didn’t sleep anymore. Could hardly will myself to leave my room. The only comfort I could find was in the hypnotic animation of my locus. If she never came back, I knew I’d be stuck this way for the rest of my life. The thought hung over me like a funeral pall.

In the end, I gave in to my desperation and went looking for her. By searching for her username on google, I was able to find her Deviantart account, and from there I followed a link to her facebook page. I think that was when I discovered that she was a girl. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me until then. Anna Ridley. She was pretty. Long, red hair, unkempt in the most pleasant way. Easy smile. Freckles. Familiar, dark rings under her eyes.

And she was dead.

Whoever had been posting for her must not have been too concerned about privacy. Her profile picture was framed with a flowered, “rest in peace” border. Her most recent status was a wall of text full of all the usual post-mortem reflections. Surprisingly, it also went on to describe how she was found sitting upright in her computer chair, rail-thin, eyes fixed on a looping image of autumn leaves blowing across the pavement. They guessed she’d gone a number of days without eating or drinking, but they weren’t actually sure how it happened.

I couldn’t breathe right. I felt the world closing in around me as I searched for any possible discrepancy—any hope that I’d ended up on the wrong facebook page, or that this was some kind of avant-garde art thing, or maybe that I had against all odds managed to fall asleep and I was caught up in a terrible dream. It took me most of the day to reconcile what I was seeing on her page with reality.

For a long time after that, I just sat in The Watchers Chat, waiting for her to log back in. Waiting for anyone, really.

It remained as empty as it had been for the last month.

Few people know what it’s like to feel totally alone. Most have at least one person they can reach out to. A friend. A relative. An acquaintance of some kind. Ultimately, if worse comes to worst, you can just call up the police and tell them you’re dying. They’ll send someone to do something. But I’d spent so long in the dark—let my life become so much about my sickness—that I was afraid to reach out. It’s like when you’re little and you don’t want your feet to slip out from under the covers because you know that something will grab you. I didn’t want to come out of the dark.

I could only see one way forward, and the person who was supposed to guide me there was gone. If I could sleep, I think I would have crawled into bed and just… stayed there.

But the shadows were growing longer all the time, and my vision was getting worse. Often, I swear I could hear the sounds of shoulders brushing against walls; floorboards creaking under imaginary feet. All I could do to keep from devolving into a trembling, paranoid mess was to stay wrapped in my sheet, earbuds plugged into my ears, gazing at my locus.

That was how I started my twenty days.

It was difficult at first. Not the concentration—I’d had enough practice to be good at that by then—more so the image of BlindBat in my head, sitting lifeless in front of her computer. I didn’t want that. No one wants that. I wasted a lot of time worrying about how it might have happened and how I could avoid it. I eventually decided I’d just have to be vigilant about my eating habits and make sure I stayed hydrated. If something did happen… well. I wasn’t ready to believe my circumstances could get much worse.

Twenty minutes the first day, forty minutes the second, an hour the third, and keep going until you’re spending upwards of five hours a day, entranced by the image you’ve chosen. It works better than you can imagine. As the seconds tick by, you sort of… enter the image. You lose your body and your memories. You become the pixels. The scanlines. You forget the way your open eyes start to sting, and your dry cotton mouth. You forget the world.

You even learn to forget the silhouettes in your peripherals; the subtle sounds of movement.

By the fourteenth day, I was almost gone. The things that had mattered to me a little over a week ago had melted away into the comforting glow of the screen. My failing vision, my paranoia, my steadily increasing fatigue? They became an itch at the back of my mind, too insignificant even to scratch.

In less than a week, I knew I’d be done with this nightmare. Freedom was only six days of careful concentration away.

I was nearly finished with my five hours for the day, when something pulled me out of my trance. It happened slowly. A creeping awareness that something had… changed in my environment. Air currents, probably. Paranoia. I was used to filtering these things out. But there was something more this time. Something tangible. A new sound.

I repeated BlindBat’s instructions in my head like a mantra: If you see something out of the corner of your eye, no matter what, don’t look at it. Don’t look at windows, ceilings, or walls. If you hear a sound you don’t recognize, whatever you do, don’t investigate. For a while, that helped. Only for a while, though. The sound was so persistent and subtly distracting that soon I was focused more on ignoring it than on my locus. I didn’t feel concentrated; I felt trapped halfway between myself and the screen, and the sensation was sickening.

All the anxiety and dread I’d spent so much time pushing away came flooding back. I could feel the cold air on my skin, the emptiness in my gut. My eyes hurt, lips were dry and cracked. For the first time, beyond the barrier of the sheet and earbuds and the repeating image of the deformed baby on the screen, I noticed how impossibly present my floaters had become. They’d coalesced just out of sight, forming shapes that I couldn’t quite see, but that I somehow knew were coherent.

And they were making sounds. Actual sounds.

In a moment of weakness, instead of trying to regain my composure and concentrate on my locus, I let myself react. I broke the rules. With quivering hands, I pulled my earbuds out. I could hear feet stirring gently against the fibers of the carpet, and quiet, labored breathing. My vision and my mind had been playing tricks on me for so long, what reason did I have to be genuinely concerned?

Fully expecting to see nothing, I glanced over my shoulder into the darkness.

A dozen pairs of eyes glared back at me, pinpricks reflecting the monitor’s light. They were set into the faces of gaunt, emaciated figures, all pressed against the walls, crouching in the corners, clinging to the ceiling. One of them stood in the doorway, torso arced as if it could barely support its own weight, head lulled to one side on its useless neck. A few wisps of dried-out red hair trailed down from its scalp.

I froze, twisted in my chair. I knew already that it couldn’t be a trick of the eyes. It was too specific. Too real. Still, I tested them anyway, the same way I had all that time ago when I had first noticed the double image of the foam cups. I tried to blink the figures and their staring eyes away, but they wouldn’t go. They simply continued to stare, their dark eyes pinning me in place. Watching. Watching.

It’s been this way for three days, now. I can’t leave this chair. I can’t eat. I’m afraid just to move. I’ve considered calling for help, but I don’t see the point. I’m pretty convinced that this is my life now. Seems like I’ve done too much damage with this whole depersonalization thing to go back, and… I just don’t want to go on this way.

I won’t pretend to know what they want, but I think I have an idea. When I’m done typing this, I’m going to put the earbuds back in my ears, wrap the sheet around my body, and spend a lot of time watching my locus.

I guess that’s all. I just… wanted to share, you know? Seemed like the thing to do, in case anyone else stumbles across this rabbit hole and is thinking of going down it.

And hey. If you’re that someone and you decide to go through with it—even after reading this—maybe I’ll pay you a visit sometime. Who knows?

‘Till then, I’ll try not to disturb you.

Written by Tale Foundry
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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