Part 1: Pareidolia
To hell with it! Modern psychiatry has been co-opted by lethargy and bureaucracy to a degree that makes it impossible to actually help our patients. If I get caught posting HIPAA-protected information to the Internet, I'll be thrown in prison, but I cannot stay silent any longer. Not after what I've found.
I have a personal theory that's gotten me into a bit of conflict with my superiors. After being passed over for a promotion because of it, I knew I'd have to find proof if I was ever going to get anything done. Like everyone else, I've seen other doctors post their findings, rants, and conspiracy theories to the Internet over the last four years since the first big leak, but I'm not one of those nuts. I want meticulous proof of my personal theory before I begin telling laypeople about it.
In pursuit of evidence, the first file I'm exploring is that of our most recent patient, Rhett. I've stopped to write this down and get coffee to keep me awake through this rainy night drive, but I'm on my way to investigate his story for myself. Attached is the transcript of the story he told upon admittance. I'll let you judge for yourself why I'm using my Friday night to visit his hometown.
They called me strange. They called me neurotic. They had no idea.
It started when I was very young, and I think I even remember the first time it happened. I was watching TV and I was maybe four or five years old. A face was talking on the television; some news anchor or politician I think. I remember looking down at my tray and seeing a traced image of that man's face sticking in my sight. At the time, I laughed, because it made my mashed potatoes wiggle and blur like an afterimage.
But after that it began creeping into my childhood like a choking vine. At first, it only happened once or twice a summer, and sometimes during the school year. I laughed it off, blinked it away, and went on like nothing had happened. By middle school, it was happening at least once a month, and I began to have my first publicly embarrassing experiences.
You see, whenever someone's face would press itself upon my vision and move with it wherever I looked, I would get very nervous and do my best to look away. Have you ever tried to look at those floating little dots in your vision? It feels like you can almost catch them, but you never can, because they're in your eye. The same feeling seized me whenever afterimage faces imprinted themselves on my sight—look away, look away! But I couldn't, it followed every glance. When this would happen at school among my peers, I would immediately begin to quietly panic and constantly look away, moving my head back and forth in a futile attempt to escape the shimmering image. Elementary kids never cared, but middle schoolers were both observant and cruel. By high school, I was labeled a freak.
But she didn't care. Autumn was an outcast nerd that everyone also picked on. We sat at the losers' table together during lunch all through middle school, and continued to do that as we entered ninth grade at a new school. She would always make me feel better by telling me that at least my fits only happened every so often, while she had to be ugly every single day. I would always make her feel better by telling her that she wasn't ugly at all, she was just fat. It sounds cruel when I say it now, but it made her laugh back then, because ugliness can't be helped, but weight can be lost.
But then she did lose the weight, got popular, and left our losers' table by tenth grade. She did what she could from afar to help me avoid being bullied, but my fits were getting more frequent. By the time tenth grade ended, I remember that it was happening once a week, and that was when I finally told my parents and got taken to a doctor.
They really couldn't do much. They diagnosed me with something called Pareidolia, which sounded like a catch-all term for seeing a face or hearing a word in visual or aural patterns, but their medications did nothing. I pretended like I was better so my mom would stop freaking out, and I went back to suffering. Thing is, I could never get them to understand that I wasn't seeing faces out in the world. It seemed like everybody could see cutesy or scared faces in wall outlets, clouds, certain carpets, that kind of thing; this wasn't that. It was like my visual sense—the very nerves and section of my brain responsible for seeing—was a kind of movie screen plastered against my awareness, and on that movie screen, sometimes a person's face would fail to fade with the rest of the frame and remain there for several minutes no matter how much I tried to close my eyes, look away, or dispel the image.
If that was all, maybe I could have hidden it, but these episodes always came with a sense of terror, as if winged misshapen doom was soaring toward me and the only way I could escape it was to somehow not look at my own sight.
As I neared the end of high school, I began to notice something changing about the shimmering afterimage faces. They'd always been two-dimensional—you know, images on a movie screen—but with terrible apprehension I started to feel as if the faces were taking on a bit of solidness. Just like the episodes themselves, this new quality crept upon me over time, and it was my first day of college when I became truly certain that today's face had a nose that was definitely sticking out toward me. As I jumped my eyes back and forth in an effort to avoid looking, I half-saw one side of the nose first, and then the other.
It was becoming three-dimensional.
It was Autumn that found me clutching a bench on the quad and crying. She sat next to me and helped me get through it until the face finally faded and I could stop dodging my own sense of sight.
"Who was it?" she asked, speaking to me as if we'd never grown apart and she was still my confidant in this. I remember every word of this conversation. Nothing has been more dear to me.
Wiping my face dry with my hoodie sleeve, I told her, "Just some random person in the crowd walking by. I'm glad I wasn't really looking at him, so the face was really far to the side in my vision."
She listened compassionately, and then said, "I've been thinking a lot about this. Do you know I'm pre-med here? I got into all this because I needed to find a way to help you."
I couldn't quite believe that. "But you were so popular. Why would you care?"
It was a cool fall afternoon. I remember that. She looked out at the campus quad with its bustling students. "Turns out those friends were all shallow and selfish. My boyfriend? A jerk. All I could think was that you liked me before I got pretty."
"Hey," I countered, trying to retain at least some dignity. "I liked you, but I didn't like you like you."
And she just laughed. We both knew I was lying.
Her theory, as she told me that night at dinner, was that I was actually experiencing migraines. She told me that the blurs and shimmering I described sounded like a precursor symptom of migraines, and that they were possibly the result of a storm of misfiring neurons. The episodes didn't cause me any physical pain, which, she theorized, was why previous doctors had misdiagnosed me, but they did come with a sense of overwhelming doom and panic that I could not control. That meant the causes of the neuron storm could be anything from mono to diabetes, and she'd been up every night that semester studying her books to try to figure it out.
And good that she was on it, for the episodes were happening every day by then, and whichever face became the shimmer in my sight was taking on more and more parallax. As I dodged my eyes back and forth rapidly, the face was beginning to appear nearly real, albeit phantasmal and shimmering. I could almost feel its gaze upon me in return, daring me to look it in its three-dimensional eyes.
By the time it began to happen twice a day, Autumn had me visit a facility with MRI capabilities. After taking a control scan, we only had to wait an hour or two until I reported that it was beginning to happen, and the doctors rushed me back into the machine.
I didn't understand the scans they showed me, but Autumn pointed to two areas that lit up extraordinarily during my episode. The first was the amygdala, which she explained is linked to the parts of the brain that, among other things, govern the senses—and fear. The other hyperactive section was my primary visual cortex in the back of my head. Initially she said it looked as if the neurons in these two areas were firing off in complete chaos, but as the weeks went by and she spent an hour or two each night studying the results and looking things up online, she apparently noticed a pattern. She got her hunch halfway through our second anniversary dinner, and we left the restaurant abruptly.
The first thing she had me do when we got home was, oddly enough, art. I was terrible at painting and complete garbage at music, but she nodded in confirmation when I picked up clay and began sculpting. That day, I sank into something real, some consequence of my internal flaws. Having never sculpted before in my entire life, I shaped a large chunk with my fingers and thumbs into a perfect recreation of the news anchor I'd seen on TV when I was young.
I remember the look on her face. She recognized him from old broadcasts. "I don't think you're sick." She stared down at her notes and scans of my brain for a minute before saying, "I think you're some sort of sculpting prodigy, and you've just never had an outlet for what your brain is trying to do before."
I so very much wanted my condition to turn out to be something good. "What do you mean exactly?"
Her smile was both disbelieving and the biggest I'd ever seen. "I think your brain, during these episodes, is not trying to scare you or hurt you. I think it's memorizing a face in every single detail. I mean look at that. You've recreated this guy from a two-dimensional image on a TV screen you saw when you were hardly more than a baby!" She looked up his picture on her phone. "Look, you've even got the wrinkles and the creases of his eyelids!"
She wasn't wrong. The grey clay had been formed by my hands into the spitting image of that news anchor as he'd looked back then. But I had to ask, "Then why I am so scared when it happens?"
"Your amygdala," she said, nodding to herself. "It governs the senses and fear. The fear is just a byproduct of what's going on in there!" Very excited, she got up and began gathering more clay for me. "I want you to do something you've never done in your entire life."
I gulped. I could guess.
"Honey, I want you to trigger an episode on purpose."
I shook my head.
"Please. I think the key to curing you of this is letting it happen. Give it an outlet, control it. You've been trying to suppress something your unique brain is wired to do, and it's going to get the better of you sooner or later. Try it. Please. Just once. I'll be here the whole time."
I was getting anxious just thinking of the coming feeling, but she was very convincing, and I got caught up in her enthusiasm. I agreed to do it.
"Here," she said, setting me up in front of a big block of clay. "Focus on my face and then harness the episode. Let it fully realize itself into a sculpture."
So I did. For the first time in my life, I let the anxious wall of terror inside me slip a little bit.
The episode began almost immediately. There was extrinsic fear, as she called it, but I pushed it away and let it happen.
She was so pretty. I'd always thought so. I stared at her delicate features and gorgeous green eyes and I let my brain do its thing. For the first time, I let the afterimage build and stared right at it.
It was three-dimensional. It was her face, being completely realized in what I now knew was my 'primary visual cortex.' My god, I could more than see her face. I understood it. Have you ever completely held in your mind a math equation or a baking recipe or an engineering spec? I wasn't just remembering details, I had the whole thing. It stared back at me with the full sensation of another human being looking at me. It was alive and aware of me; it was smiling.
And then I put it in the clay.
That's it. That's the only explanation Rhett wanted to offer when he was admitted. He did have prior medical records to corroborate his previous diagnoses and MRI visits, but I was the only one at our facility captivated by his story. Pareidolia is associated with neurotic behavior, but he didn't strike me as particularly neurotic outside of his condition. He was just called neurotic by his peers, and most people don't understand the clinical definition.
Thing is, this one has physical reality to go with it. It's late, but I can't stop thinking about what I saw when I reached his hometown. The doctors at the local hospital were more than willing to allow another set of eyes upon their perplexing medical mystery, and I'm pretty sure the X-rays and MRI scans will haunt my dreams tonight.
They initially took Rhett into custody because neighbors heard him screaming and the police described her as 'mutilated,' but that doesn't even begin to do it justice.
By her fingerprints and blood tests, the girl in that bed in that hospital was supposedly Autumn, Rhett's girlfriend of two years, but that just wasn't possible to her close-minded doctors. They had the police out looking for the 'real Autumn', and I seemed to be the only one willing to consider the obvious truth of what had happened.
Her X-rays and scans showed her esophagus and trachea terminating just below her jaw, which itself was part of a solid mass of bone and tissue that could never open. There was no nasal cavity, no mouth cavity, and no tongue inside. There were no eyes and no eyebrows, and nothing but solid bone where the sockets should have been. Her face was completely smooth skin from top to bottom, and the only way she continued to breathe was through an amateur tracheotomy hole that Rhett had stabbed into her throat. That hole now hosted tubes keeping her alive.
The doctors at that local hospital couldn't even answer my simple questions. If this woman was not Autumn and was just some random female with strange congenital defects, how had she grown to maturity without a mouth to eat with or a nose to breathe through? She was answering questions through a computer because she still had ears, but how had she learned to type on a keyboard without eyes? She didn't know Braille!
As absurd as it sounds, I think it's patently obvious that when he 'let his unique brain do its thing,' Rhett somehow removed her face right from her head. If their apartment wasn't already a crime scene, I would consider breaking in, because I have a hunch where her face might be. He probably hid it when the cops began pounding on the door, but somewhere there must be an extremely detailed sculpture of her head, possibly even sporting real human eyes, lips, and a tongue.
Like he said—he put it in the clay.
Part 2: Glossophobia
I told him, "I went by your place, but the police have it cordoned off. Where did you hide the clay sculpture?"
Rhett just curled harder in the corner of his white-padded room, his hands over his eyes. "Go away. I'm serious. It's not safe to be around me."
I bet he didn't expect me to reply: "I believe you. I just want to find proof to help save you from this mess."
Still clasping his own face, he lowered his head. "I don't deserve saving."
That was all he would say.
But that was fine with me. His trauma was still very recent, and the weight of life in an asylum would eventually compel him to talk to me. After all, I was the only one who believed him. His alternative was accepting life as someone that everyone viewed as a maniacal amateur face-surgeon, and human beings tend not to accept realities that frame them as monsters.
The next person of interest on my list, Asase, a Ghanaian immigrant, was not in the high security wing. Her affliction was merely glossophobia; she was too terrified of talking to speak for any reason. More than that, she had not communicated more than the basics of her identity through writing. I'd been presenting myself as a friend for the last four months, and, as I entered the public area where a few dozen patients were wandering, I found her watching the news on television with a confused glare. When she turned and saw me, she pulled a crumpled paper out of her pocket and slipped it to me when the orderlies were looking the other way.
Finally, I had her story. I was surprised to find that she knew English perfectly well despite having only been here four months. The script became increasingly small as she ran out of space, and it even continued onto the back of the page. Attached is my transcript of what I read.
He who utters the words shall be saved.
That's what it said when we found it.
I trust you, so I will tell you. You must not repeat what I write.
The best way to cross the ocean was to volunteer on a nomadic fishing boat and take the long route. I was a tough girl from a tough father, and I did my share & more. A storm came upon us after several weeks working our way up the coast. The captain took us further from shore in search of the swarms of fish that would follow once the storm cleared, but when the Sun came out, we saw a hole in the boat. We tried to bail water, but it flipped over, and the simple boat had no radio. We picked a direction and tied our clothes into a sail.
It should have been east, but east brought us nowhere.
The men found the captain holding out on water, and they threw him off to drift away on a piece of wood with a disbelieving stare as he shrank to nothing in the distance. I can still feel his eyes on me when I think about it. His water did not last long, and we began to peel and crust under the Sun. East continued to bring us nowhere, but how? It was not possible! East is Africa, east is Europe, east is maybe even Ireland. How was it that we could go east day after day and never find land? Sometimes we tacked back and forth when the wind was against us, but always we followed the rising Sun, and found nothing.
We began to die.
Six of us lingered under the shadow of our sail made of clothes. Those in the light blushed red, peeled apart like flowers of dry skin blooming, and no longer moved or spoke. In the night, unseen jaws tugged at their feet, removing their nails, then their toes, then pulling the body down the slippery wood and out of sight with a splash.
I used a spear of broken wood to catch fish. We drank their blood like wine, ate their meat, and languished. This kept us alive for many days. In the night, the spear slid into the water and was lost.
There was no more to eat or drink. We had been on the water heading east three months when we started to understand we would never find land. Even if we had been going west by mistake, we would have hit the Americas. There was something wrong with our navigation. We began to have the feeling that at night we were going west and during the day we were going east, and we had been going back and forth just out of sight of land for the entire time. This feeling grew delirious as our last few days without water and food approached death.
On our fourth evening without water, we knew were about to die. That was when we found it.
We were wrong, and we had always been going east, but we had missed all of the continents completely. Ahead of us, the ocean ended in a steaming line from north horizon to south horizon, and beyond was only sky. Behind us was the setting sun in the west, and the sky beyond the end of the ocean began to turn to night as death neared. How? This was the question. How had we gotten here? We had always thought we could sail forever and never reach the end.
The raging waters took three of us as we turned the boat and tried to sculpt the current against the boat to avoid going over the edge. The best we could do was to move perpendicular to the edge, never going over, but never escaping. We had to hold the sail with our hands for eleven hours, but the wind was strong and constant, and the living three of us spent until dawn staring over the edge down at the stars of a night sky we were never supposed to see.
We were only let go once light burned like fire below and the Sun shot heat and wind and water back the other way. The open ocean took us back, but not before a strange lizard-insect with long wings flew overhead and dropped a bottle down to us. It curved back and soared out past the falls to the sky without end.
Inside the bottle was a scrap of brown paper, and on it was written one sentence. The Frenchman was fearful, the South African was eager, but I was just confused: we could all read it. He saw it in French, he saw it in Afrikaans, and I saw it at times in English, Akan, and Twi depending on the light. I also knew some Ga, but the words on the paper grew sullen and refused to appear in that language when I tried to see them that way.
What it said was: He who utters the words shall be saved.
"But what words?" the South African asked over and over that day. I remember. I remember. Their fight will always be in my mind.
The Frenchman would only say, "Throw it overboard! That paper comes from beyond, it is evil!"
"It will save us. It says it will save us!"
"But at what price?"
"There is no talk of a price!"
"Always a price. With forces like those, you saw that accursed flying thing. There is always a price."
"Would you rather die?"
"For my immortal soul? Yes."
"You French have some absurd ideas."
"I take my beliefs very seriously. And besides, what words?"
They repeated this fight over and over again for another day and a half before they realized they'd died of thirst some time ago and grew silent. I was too weak to push their bodies off, so they sat hunched over where they were, still arguing in my head at louder and louder volumes as they blushed and bloomed like the others before them.
And do you think I am some heroine? That I had the courage to die? With cracked lips and a dry mouth, I uttered the words.
I said the words.
It began to rain.
The rain poured down my nose into my mouth, and I was saved. For hours, I drank. A tiny bit at a time was the rule, this I knew. But I grew stronger as the rain continued. After some time, I could stand, and I set the sail to take advantage of the wind. It was west, always west, away from the delusions of starvation and thirst. For water, I drank the rain, and for food, well. We had made a pact before, so I knew they would not mind. Their limbs kept me strong enough to reach the world again.
It was North America by the signs. I let the storm slam my boat right into the sand and limped up to the road, where all the rain-drenched yellow signs were English. I'd make it across the ocean after all.
My relatives found me after a phone call, and they even funded a visit to a real American hospital, which was very large and very white and very clean. It was a lot like home, but much more expensive. It continued to rain outside while I was given needles and solutions and recommendations for skin treatments to help heal. I did all this and also found a job.
But it kept raining. I was at the warehouse job for two or three weeks and my life was returning to normal when I realized I had never seen the American Sun. From the moment I had said the words, it had been raining. At my relative's apartment, on the bus, and even walking at the mall it was always raining outside.
I thought maybe I was dead. Maybe I had never returned alive from the ocean, and this dreary existence was all I had now. I knew I had seen death over the edge of the world, but had any of that been real? All the delusions of the dying. But how could it be that I was dead? Each day was too ordinary, too boring. Dumb television shows with laugh tracks made fun of science, and on other channels were beautiful people doing stupid things but being praised for it. The bus was dirty and had gum on the seats. My coworkers carried umbrellas. What kind of afterlife was this? No, I was alive.
But if I was alive, what had I invited back from the beyond with me? Water began piling up to an inch or two on the street, and the television went crazy with coverage of the global storm. It was raining everywhere all the time, and people were reporting strange slithering things in the deepest waters.
Life went on as normal for many months. Crews were hired and machines were made to pump water and shield areas from rain, and walls were built to keep floodwaters back. Sometimes, I could walk to work without an umbrella because awnings were attached to all walls. I would get home at the end of the day and play games while on the couch. It was the American Dream, just wetter.
But the rain kept falling. Rich people began to launch huge boats, and the people around them fought to get on board. The news showed that, in the end, the rich were all thrown overboard and the poor swarmed onto the boats until they tipped and sank. Day after day, this story repeated itself in France, in South Africa, even in Ghana, until I realized that everyone around was me gone and the news had been reduced to people screaming at each other over my radio, which had lost its battery life some time ago. I was on a boat on an ocean that had a few skyscrapers emerging from it, and I couldn't tell if it was the same boat and the same ocean as before. Had I ever even reached land? I could still feel my baby cousin's weight in my arms and my uncle's laugh over dinner. It had been real.
They'd been on the boat with me, too, as the waters broke through the walls around the city and brought a flood of panic. That had been months ago. We'd made a pact, my uncle and aunt and cousin and I, so I knew they would forgive me for what it took to survive now that they were dead. Their limbs kept me strong. Their bodies still clung to the wood where they'd starved, only this time they were not blushing and blooming, but melting and molding. The rain was relentless.
The skyscrapers shrank as if they were descending into the sea. I could only see their bulk as shadows in the fog, but their absence once they were gone was unsettling. Now it was only grey in every direction, sometimes punctuated by lights on distant boats that were unwilling to contact each other for fear of cannibals and thieves.
Two years, maybe three, I existed in darkness, fog, and rain that never ended. During one particular storm I was swept on a world-wave high enough that I broke through the clouds for a moment, and I saw. I saw. It had just kept raining day in and day out until the Moon itself had begun to sink into the water. No, the Earth had expanded so much that we had reached it. The waves its impact made were so big that I hardly noticed them on my little boat. I was ant not caring that she was on a mountain because it was all dirt anyway.
But it did not sink alone. Huge limbs like that of an octopus reached out and encircled it and drew the Moon down into the depths. Then, I sank back under the clouds, forever bereft of hope. That was what my uncle and my aunt were still arguing about in my head. Was there still hope? I knew the answer then, and the argument was settled.
No. There was no hope. It was all my fault.
The heaviness crept up after that. It had always been growing, but movement became so difficult that I could not even catch fish. The boat was heavier and ran lower in the water. I was heavier and my heart strained all the time. We weighed too much. The world weighed too much.
It began to glow that last night. Deep, deep down under the ocean, a dark watery green light became visible. It was so bright that the fog lit up beryl and I could see other boats tacking away in terror, but there was nowhere to go. The light in the deep was at the center, and so was everywhere. That was when the ocean began to rotate.
Have you ever seen a whirlpool happen in three dimensions at once? Not just on a flat surface, but an entire globe of water draining at once? I have. That was the end of the world, and it was all because I spoke the words. We went down together screaming toward that green light, that eye and that mouth, those grasping curled limbs, but I was the only one to survive.
He who utters the words shall be saved.
I was saved.
It didn't mean saved from dying of thirst on the ocean that night so long ago. It meant that I would be spared the fate of my species because I opened the door and let them in.
I reached the shore again, this time without a boat and this time coughing up saltwater. I reached North America a second time, but it's all wrong. Your highway signs are green instead of yellow, and it's not raining. I said, Asase, it was all a dream-before-dying, none of it was real, but still I dare not speak. The beings from beyond did not send me here out of kindness.
They want me to open the door for them again. I chose the way the world ended.
Therefore, I must not speak the words.
I'm not sure what to make of her account. Obviously, none of that really happened, but my personal pet theory about mental issues demands I look deeper. What really happened to Asase? She was found half-drowned on a beach before being brought to us, so it's likely that she really suffered on some sort of lost fishing boat, but her delusions are too cyclical and thematic to be real events.
Many of our patients are afraid of death and injury. Perhaps Asase thinks that if she speaks, she'll risk drowning or dying of thirst on the ocean again. If her brain has made that connection instinctively, no amount of coaxing will get her to speak.
I don't think there's anything here to support my working theory, but I'll tell you more about that later. Right now I'm just sitting in my office trying to understand this second scrap of paper. I went back to her after I transcribed her tale and I asked her what the words were. I promised her I wouldn't say them aloud, but she just shook her head, indicating that it had to be her to say them, a typical neurosis trope.
She wrote down the dooming words she spoke for me. I'm missing something, because they weren't even on the parchment that some flying lizard thing from beyond the edge of the world or death or something supposedly gave her. He that speaks the words shall be saved? But apparently all she said was, "Water" and "Please."
Credited to Matt Dymerski