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Hallucinating Severed Heads

January 21, 2009

Today I opened my medicine cabinet and there was a head in there, just some random dude’s head, sitting between my Nyquil and my toothpaste. So I did what I always do when I see something like that, I said to myself, “Self, that can’t be real, there’s no way your medicine cabinet is deep enough to hold a head.” Lo and behold I was right. I closed my eyes and *POOF* the head was gone, my Nyquil was unmolested. Which was good, no head, but yes cough syrup. So I closed the cabinet and then my head was missing, right there in the reflection, no fucking head, just a stumpy bloody neck and air. But then I said to myself, “Self, if you didn’t have a head you couldn’t see that you don’t have a head.” And sure enough I was right. Because my head appeared out of nowhere and went back to it’s rightful place. There it was in the mirror, I mean, there I was in the mirror. I can’t really say I was anywhere without my head. Without your head your nowhere at all. Well, you’re fucked, but that’s beside the point, stop nitpicking.

To clarify, I have hallucinations, pretty powerful and vivid hallucinations. And all I have to get me out of them is my reasoning. But I have some tricks to help me spot them. Here are the things I’ve noticed about my hallucinations after years of journaling them and charting them and such.

Number one, when a hallucination is done another can appear pretty quickly, but it will never be more than two in a row. Number two, once they are done it’s at least a half hour before I have more. Number three, it’s never anything moving. Nothing I ever hallucinate moves or is supposed to be alive. Number four, it’s never pleasant. It’s never anything like, say, a cute little puppy dog or Yogi Bear bringing me a picnic basket. If it was shit like that I wouldn’t try to think my way out of it. It would be like that Chappelle’s show sketch where Tyrone the crackhead  is telling the kids not to do drugs, because if you do, all your favorite cartoon characters will show up and laugh with you and you can eat all the cereal and it’s HORRIBLE!

So your next question is, what the fuck made you volunteer for relief efforts in Afghanistan when you hallucinate gruesome things like severed heads? And the truth is I don’t know for sure. I know had a total lack of fuck all going on in my life before I decided to do it. I didn’t have a job so it’s not like I had health insurance to afford the anti-psychotics I wasn’t taking. I had no girlfriend. I had no prospects. I probably would have joined the marines if I hadn’t been so grossly overweight, well, that and I wouldn’t have passed the mental health exam. Excuse me son, is something wrong? No sir doc, just telling myself there’s no way you have a severed hand on your shoulder so I’ll stop seeing a severed hand on your shoulder. They’d give me an assault rifle after that wouldn’t they? No, probably not.

So I decided to come out here and try and do something good, maybe lose a little weight in the process. I’ve always been big but I’ve never been this big. It only happened in the last couple of years when I didn’t…

I’m sorry, I only answered half your question. You wanted to know why someone like me would volunteer for relief efforts in Afghanistan, not just why I volunteered to do relief work. Well the honest answer is that I didn’t know. I had no fucking idea they were gonna send me here.  I thought I was going somewhere else, somewhere where the fighting was already over, like Vietnam or some place like that. If I had known I would be some place where the shit was still hitting the fan I would not have come. But I’m here now so I figure I’ll stay. They need me. There’s an incredible lack of people who want to do this. Hell I don’t really want to do it. I’m here for the ancillary things. Things like losing weight and gaining some understanding of myself. I don’t even really like helping, I just like the feeling I get knowing that someone over here has it a little better because of me. So that makes it a little less altruistic and a little…

I’m sorry, I still didn’t answer your question. You wanted to know why I volunteered and I told you that. But I think what you were getting at is “How do I manage?” except, rearrange that so it’s you asking me, not you asking yourself. Well I manage well enough, but I didn’t always. Let me give you an example.

A group of us were in a village, sorting through rubble after the Americans bombed it to shit because they got a report about a sniper in the area. Which, let me digress for a moment, is a huge over-reaction to a sniper. First of all, there weren’t any troops in the area for him to be sniping at so, you know, do the math. The other thing is, even if he was there, I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained by taking him out like that. It’s not like there’s a lack of second hand rifles floating around and high places to perch yourself. I’m not saying they should let it go if there really was a sniper, but, come on.

Back to where we were, where I was. It was a place that had just had a sniper in it and everything was leveled. We were sifting through the place with our little vests on that say, “DON’T SHOOT! WE’RE HERE TO HELP!” and if you never have to walk through a place like this you’re lucky. When you see this footage on TV it’s always the same ten or fifteen seconds over and over again because that’s the only footage anyone could get without all kinds of gore and viscera in it. If you see a place like this in real life you trip over arms and torsos and the blood literally flows down the street. I came across what used to be a school and started to yell for survivors, but I didn’t hear anything, so I was about to give up when I noticed an arm sticking up between some concrete slabs that used to be  the roof or the wall or maybe both or neither.

The fist was all clenched up and it had a piece of paper in it. So I went over to investigate and it was a test, a basic math test of addition and subtraction problems and it was all slashed up with red ink where the teacher had marked a lot of answers wrong. There was a giant F with a circle around it in the top corner and a little note at the bottom that said “You are doing very bad at math Jen, see me after class.” And I know now where the feeling came from, but at the time I couldn’t place it. All of a sudden I had a terrible sense of empathy for this kid. The actual situation for her could have been very different. Maybe she really was bright and just having trouble. Maybe all the shit going on around her made it hard for her. But that’s not what I thought at the time. At the time I thought that I knew, for sure, that this Jen was actually not very smart, that she was bad at math because that part of her brain wasn’t there. I also knew that she was chubby and the other kids picked on her. I knew that she went home dejected and depressed and cried a lot because there was nothing good in her life, her schoolmates were mean to her and all she wanted to do was stay home.

I saw it very plainly. Rather than pay attention she would stare at a cute boy in class. Rather than take notes she would draw variations of their names together, of names their children might have. The simple dreaming that young children do. And when class was over she would head to the door, keeping her eyes down, trying not to look anyone in the eye. But she trips and her notebook goes to the floor. The cute boy sees it, sees the names of their marriage and children. He’s disgusted by it. He embarrasses her in front of everyone. He yells out loud for all to hear, “I would never go out with you. I don’t like you!” And all she can do is try to grab up her books quickly and get away before anyone else can look at her. I saw it all very clearly, an average day for her.

But there she was, in math class, trying to learn things that were way beyond her. The teacher wrote vaguely threatening stuff on her tests while her classmates made fun of her, and all she really wanted to do was go home and hug her mom and be reminded that at least one person in the world loved her. All of that, and then a bomb lands on her and tears her arm off, still holding a reminder of how fucking abysmally awful her short little life had been.

I should point out here that I ran through my little tests of rationalization for this to be sure I wasn’t imagining it. And it all cleared. It had been less than a half hour since my last hallucination. The thing wasn’t moving. It was pretty horrible. A severed hand made perfect sense in the setting. So I went with it, and looking back now, I know where that feeling came from. It was the first time I’d ever let a hallucination sit for that long. I’ve never let one go that long since, so I don’t know if they would all lead me to feel powerful emotions like that one did, but I don’t intend to find out. I would have been there much longer and felt god knows what if someone hadn’t come along and noticed me holding an imaginary arm and reading an imaginary piece of paper.

“Hey!” he yelled, and I remember it very clearly. I turned to look at him and I’m not ashamed to say I had some mist in my eyes, feeling for that poor imaginary girl and her shitty imaginary life.

“There’s nothing there,” he said, and that’s what did it for me. The rationalization clicked. If it’s supposed to be real then he should see it too, if he doesn’t, and he was in clear sight of me, then it can’t be real. And just like that *POOF* it all went away, the arm, the test, the bad feelings, that feeling of depression sucking me down, it was all gone.

“Thanks. I don’t think I would have spotted it,” I told him, honestly. That one had me. It would have taken me for a real ride. I told him everything that had happened as he led me away. This guy knew about me, most of them did. But they also knew I had a system for getting myself out of trouble so they all felt pretty safe around me. They all thought of it as something like LSD flashbacks, but I’ve never done that so I can’t make a comparison. And I told him all about what I’d seen and how it made me feel. That’s when he pointed it out, the thing I missed.

“It wouldn’t have been in English,” he said, “The schools around here don’t teach a second language, and even if they did, they wouldn’t speak it outside of that class, like in a math class for example, so that’s how you should have caught it, that’s how you could have known it was in your head.” So I made sure to make a note of that, the information about language and where it’s taught. It has served me well. There hasn’t been one get by in a long time because of it.

I mean, I still see stuff. Always have, always will. But it’s managable. I do just fine out here. I still see the occasional severed head. My arms and legs look to be chopped off every now and then. But I haven’t seen anymore fists holding tests. I haven’t had to think about the depressing lives these dead people lead. Which is about all I can ask. If I have to contend with the visual evidence, the real sights, of how alike we all are on the inside, I can at least be spared the feelings.

Can’t I?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2009 7:52 am

    Fascinating, It is so rare that a person with such an affliction can manage themselves and express their experiences with the mind as clearly as you can.

    when I read the part about the note I instantly thought hmm english, and a western name, odd.

    I do not know your illness, however I have a cousin who has a very bad case of scitzophrenia. He will lapse into periods where the reality he sees and hears is not anyone else’s. This usualy just serves to frusterate, depress, or scare him. Unfortuantly for him though it sometimes makes him very very violent (and he is a big guy).

    I am glad you can deal with these issues yourself and maintain a life unlike him.

  2. Girl from New Zealand permalink
    August 1, 2009 11:47 pm

    Im not sure how i managed to stumble upon this story or even this website. But this article is so engaging.
    Your condition sounds like something the rest of us couldnt even imagine tryna deal with and ontop of that, doing relief efforts in Afghanistan is so amazingly admireable and selfless.
    Reading your story has reminded me that there is a whole world outside of my current life and as a 17 year old thats a pretty rare thing to think about.
    I wish you all the best for the future, keep on being inspirational =)

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