Author's Note: A special thanks for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and The Faint for inspiring this, also to MrDupin for helping me with some of the trickier parts. The story has been narrated by Creepy Pod and is worth a listen.
I was 20 when I Phineas Gage-d myself. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you my exact thoughts as I did it. Everything that had happened earlier in the day has been lost in a haze of whiskey and the brief smell of cordite. All I can recall now is about how angry I was, I had just left a rambling page-long rant on my ex-girlfriend’s Facebook wall calling her a bunch of terrible things that I didn’t really mean. I was mad at her for some stupid fight where we argued about stupid bullshit I wouldn’t remember in five years, but felt like it was the most important thing at the time. I was angry I had spent a year of my life with her and that we had thrown it all away over something so stupid. I was furious at myself for thinking that she was the one.
I was drunk.
I remember sloppily tipping over the empty bottle of gut rot whiskey while mumbling something about how unfair everything was and how I didn’t deserve any of this. I lifted the 9mm handgun and looked down the barrel. I assumed that the quickest and least painful way would be to make sure I hit the upper portion of my brain. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of biology will tell you this was an incredibly foolish assumption as the base of the brain actually contains the most vital sections. I thumbed the safety off and told myself I had wasted so long with her that I was fine with throwing away the rest of my life in a bright flash and a brief moment of pain. I was, am, and always will be, an idiot. I squeezed the trigger and shot myself in my left eye and through part of my brain.
The 9x19mm obliterated my left eye and tore through my frontal lobe. Everything erupted in a bright flash and even though I had closed my eyes out of reflex, I was temporarily stunned by the sudden brightness as well as the bullet which tore through my head. I tasted purple and smelled something acrid. The gun fell out of my hands and bounced on the carpet of the living room. Before the whole world went away, I remembered hearing the sound of someone screaming. I could only think about how it didn’t really matter and I was gone.
I woke up in the hospital almost forty days later. Another tenant in the apartment heard the gunshot and immediately assumed that there had been a murder. They called the police who quickly arrived and kicked open my door to find me slumped over my table. I woke up alone. Unlike the movies, I wasn’t surrounded by family or friends. They had work and their own lives to deal with. A couple of years of reflection have really helped me to deal with some of my more melodramatic moments. I finally alerted the nurses to my consciousness when I sloshed out of bed like a spilled martini and smashed face-first into the hospital floor. It was lime green and smelled like stale lemons.
The nurses rushed into my room and helped me back into my bed. They told me that I shouldn’t try moving after being out for so long. I looked up at them and tried to make out their faces, but something was wrong with my vision. It was like looking at a face that was being reflected by two mirrors placed next to each other. There were hundreds of overlays and I couldn’t really make out any details. This only happened when I looked at them, the bed in the hospital and the IV looked perfectly normal. I told them about what I was seeing and they looked at each other as if this was what they had feared.
The doctors told me I had lost my left eye and would need a prosthetic. It was slightly more brown than my natural eye color, but other than that, it looked real enough. They said a few more tests were needed to see what kind of damage I had done to my frontal lobe when the bullet tore through it. They explained that I had been incredibly lucky for shooting myself in the face the way that I did. I laughed at the ridiculousness of that statement and they put me on patient assist.
I was lucky.
I spent another month in the hospital receiving physical and mental treatment. Both helped to differing degrees. The physical therapy helped me regain some control of my body again as well as getting used to my prosthetic eye whereas the psychological treatment wasn’t really needed. In some dark way, a bullet to the brain gave me a bit of perspective in my life. I had wrapped myself up in the little bullshit that happens in everyone’s life and treated it like it was the end of the world. I decided that I would never lose the realization that nothing can be bad enough to require shooting yourself in the face. The final consensus from the physicians was a shrug of the shoulders. The doctors couldn’t really figure out why my visual issue only was distorted with people. The best they could come up was that I had destroyed a section of my brain which was responsible for facial recognition and I was dealing with some form of prosopagnosia.
The visual distortion never fully went away, instead my brain just adjusted to accommodate my disability. Much like correcting to the change in stereopsis, I eventually learned to make sense of the constantly blending after-images of the same figure. By focusing on what I thought was the center image, I was able to see with a bit more clarity. I noticed that as I focused more on the image in the forefront or in the far back, it became more and more difficult to see. Even after I was cleared from the hospital, I still had difficulties with my vision and day-to-day life. During this time I found out I had been laid off of work and went on unemployment.
I spent most of my time looking for work, but it was a hard proposition to find someone who was willing to hire someone with a visual handicap; much less someone who had shot themselves. They all found ways to turn me down that didn’t involve my ‘instability’. As the weeks crept by, I started to experience strong migraines that almost paralyzed me. The worst one I can remember occurred after being home for a week. It had flared up while I was sleeping and it felt like someone had pounded a molten railroad spike into my head. My hand instinctively shot to my left temple and pressed hard in an attempt to quell the pain. To my surprise, it worked. I kept pressing as I waited for the pain to subside. I only stopped when my vision started to warp. As soon as I removed my hands from my head, my vision became more clear. I think the worry that I might end up blinding myself was what scared me enough to go to my doctor.
My doctor was quick to prescribe a butalbital-acetaminophen-caffeine medication to treat my tension headaches and to relieve stress. It worked wonders. The pain I had been experiencing for weeks was numbed and I felt a lot more relaxed. The miracle of modern medicine is that it can treat almost all of your symptoms but it rarely will address the cause. It’s funny how that works out sometimes. It did treat the pain of my headaches, but it did nothing to really prevent them. It just masked the symptoms. Unfortunately like all medicine, it slowly began to lose its efficacy and I found myself taking more to keep the migraines to a minimum.
I won’t lie, I ended up taking too much which was how I had my first accident. I had popped a few tabs thirty minutes earlier when someone knocked on my door. I struggled to my feet and made it to the entrance after a few moments. I swung open the door and found my neighbor standing at the top of the stairs. I closed the door behind me and moved to greet him, but I lost my footing. I reached out to catch myself only to feel my hand slide through him. I looked down the stairs just in time to see my neighbor at the bottom. I had tried to interact with one of the after-images. With nothing to stop me from falling, I toppled down four stairs and banged my head on the wall in the stairwell.
Everything exploded in a bright flash and my vision became almost painfully crisp. I could see my neighbor’s shocked expression and in that brief moment, everything was clear and it felt like I could see for miles. I saw each after-image of my neighbor perfectly and I realized that each iteration was different in some way. The images that were closest to me looked younger and the images that were furthest back appeared slightly older. I saw one image with his back to me and a small part of me knew what was coming. I knew he was going to sprint down the stairs and run out the front door. He wasn’t going to call anyone. He was more worried about getting in trouble with the law. He had heard about my accident and was seeing if there was some way he could buy some of my medication off of me. The idea of having to call the ambulance and possibly talk to the police was enough to cause him to bolt.
As soon as my neighbor sprinted down the stairs and fled out the door, I slowly picked myself up. I was fine for the most part. I had banged my ankle on the rail and felt a bit dazed from the impact with the wall, but other than that I was okay. I went back to my apartment and iced my ankle and tried to make sense of everything. It took days for me to figure out how I saw all of that stuff about my neighbor and once I did, I wished I never knew what I know now.
It took a few days of observing people at the park to understand the full extent of my abilities. Watching the pre-images of people, I could see where they had been, what they were doing, and how they were feeling at that time. The after-images revealed where they were heading, what they would do there, and what emotional state they would be at that point in time. Despite only seeing the person, I somehow knew what was happening in each stage. The images never faded away completely. They blended into each other and stretched out, a twisted amalgamation of thousands of limbs and trunks contorted in different positions, emotions, and states.
It was like we were all humanoid millipedes whose images encapsulated our past, present, and future. By looking at someone, I could experience sections of their life.
It was not without its limitations. After a certain point, about a month in the past and the future, I would be unable to see the images clearly. I could accurately predict their lives in thirty day segments. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what to do with this newfound ability. I think that’s why I decided to go back to the hospital. I didn’t know how to process all of this information, but I hoped a doctor might.
That’s not quite how it went down.
Let me set the stage a bit so you can know my exact mindset for everything that happened. I scheduled a follow-up examination with the intent of talking with the doctor and getting their opinion on my circumstances. I decided to stop taking my medication as it had a tendency to muddle my thoughts and I wanted to be clear-headed for the meeting. The day of the appointment, it took an hour for the follow-up examination to begin. I understand that sometimes life happens that you can’t plan for but it didn’t help ease my frustration as I sat in the waiting room for an hour with a massive migraine sawing through my head.
Then when I was finally called back, the doctor was an ass. He tried to rush through my patient history and examination and he brushed off any of my issues as nothing to worry about. As I told him about the severity of the headaches and the degradation of my situation, he fidgeted in his chair and tapped his pen on the clipboard to pass the time. Finally, I decided to bite the bullet and told him about what I had discovered. I talked about the distortion of images and how they were different from each other. I told him how everyone appeared like a jumbled mass of limbs, joined together by their own torsos and that by focusing on a specific image, I could see what they had done or what they were about to do. He didn’t take it seriously.
He spoke in a manner like he was talking to a child, patronizing and bemused, “It was a traumatic event so of course you’re going to be a bit unsettled by what your vision is like now and try to make up a story to justify it. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about it physically, perhaps a therapist might be better suited for you.”
I told him that what I was seeing was real and that was the point he started to wise-crack, “Maybe I’ll call this new condition Tralfamadore Syndrome as it seems fairly obvious you copied this off of Vonnegut. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to increase your dosage and I don’t have a lot of time to spend on people who are telling ridiculous-”
I was mad that he was making light of everything and talking to me like he was re-assuring a foolish child so I said something I regret. If I had spent a little time looking at him, I would have seen that Doctor Jones had spent the entirety of last night dealing with an uncooperative drunk driving patient who had crashed into a house, crippling a nine year old girl, and a majority of the day having appointments with drug-seeking junkies and his patience had run out. He thought I was telling him a tall tale to try and get a stronger medication and he lost his temper. If I had known that, I may have tried to be a bit more compassionate. I wasn’t. I told him, “You die auto-erotically asphyxiating yourself.”
That was true. I could see it clearly in his future. I just didn’t realize that I was the one who kicked off the entire thing. I saw everything clearly in that moment, he would kick me out of the clinic and he would write everything off as a ridiculous joke. Unfortunately the thought would stew in his head for a couple of days, each time he thought about it, it would grow in strength to the point that it couldn’t be ignored. Then one night when he was drunk, he would decide that the only way to put it behind him was to confront it head-on. It would not end well. He would die auto-erotically asphyxiating himself with a belt in a drunken stupor while attempting to eject the thought from his head. I was the catalyst for his death.
The sad part is that I tried to change it. I thought it was malleable and could be corrected. I tried to alter the future, but it’s stuck. I couldn’t tell you how many times I called the office and tried to get in contact with him in a desperate attempt to change his fate, but he always ignored the call or hung up once he recognized my voice. The worst part was that even my attempts to stop him were set in stone. My frantic calls (sometimes verbatim) telling him not to touch himself while he was physically depriving himself of oxygen were locked in place. My desperation to stop him from doing the Carradine Crank only served to guide him towards the end. He wouldn’t have wrapped the belt around his neck had he not been so disturbed by my constant insistence that he not touch himself to the point where it became an obsession. The aberrant thought wormed its way into his head and he had to have some small victory, a small assurance that I wasn’t telling the truth; that I was full of shit and that he had complete control over his life, that he didn’t have to suffer the same cruel twist of fate as his son had years before.
He didn’t, no one has control over their lives. I think that’s a partial reason as to why I’m writing all of this. Not to convince somebody that I’m telling the truth, but to convince myself that what I’m about to do is necessary.
After reading about Doctor Jones’ death in the obituary a few weeks later, I went off the deep end. It seemed like everywhere I looked, I saw what was about to happen. It wasn’t all bad things. Life is never composed of entirely terrible events, but I couldn’t help but focus on the worst: I saw grown adults about to lose their jobs and their livelihoods, children about to get in fights, husbands about to beat their wives, and yes, even some people who were about to die.
Think of it like this, approximately one hundred and fifty thousand people die every day from various things (gun violence, heart attacks, drugs, car accidents, animal attacks, old age, suicide, the list goes on). On a typical day if you work, go to school or attend social events, you’ll see hundreds of people living their lives. Statistically a number of those people you see will die or suffer some traumatic event in the time span of a month. I stopped taking my migraine medication in my depression which only served to make everything worse. I was constantly in pain and would frequently see people who were about to experience terrible things that I couldn’t prevent. Even if I tried to stop it, it would be ignored or serve as a catalyst for their suffering. I think being surrounded by that realization was what finally broke me.
I so desperately wanted to find some way to stop those terrible things from happening that I put my own life in danger. I remembered what had happened to my vision that time when I applied pressure to my left temple and reasoned that I could be in a better position to prevent these things from happening if I could see the events more clearly. If I knew the full extent of everything, I might be able to find some way to stop what was going to happen. It was that misguided thought and the horrifying sights I had seen which drove me to trepan myself.
Trepanation isn’t quite the right word as I didn’t drill through my own skull (that would be crazy), but it’s a bit more rational-sounding than lobotomizing yourself. As I had lost a large portion of my frontal lobe already, a lobotomy isn’t quite the right word either. Enough about semantics though, the simple explanation is that I used the hole where my left eye was as an entry point for the screwdriver to target the area for my distorted gift. As I write this, a part of me says that I was doing this to help people, another part tells me that I was trying to eradicate this vision. Regardless, I still did it.
I had sterilized the screwdriver with a copious amount of scrubbing, rubbing alcohol, and flames beforehand. I was worried about anesthetizing myself or trying to numb the area and rendering myself a vegetable so instead I tried to push through the pain. The only thing more excruciating than the headaches was digging through the scar tissue until I hit my target. The calloused tissue gave way and I struck something solid. The previously shattered and now mending sphenoid bone gave way with a disturbing crack and I hit something spongey. I felt an unbelievable pressure in my head and pain sparked with the the slightest shift of the screwdriver. Once I hit that mark and saw the blood-tinted mass in the mirror, I scraped that part out of me and the world was opened up in all its horror.
I didn’t obliterate that ability. Instead, I gained full insight.
After falling asleep for what felt like days, I woke up to find that now the after-images were clearer than ever. The single benefit of my ‘operation’ was that the headaches stopped. The only reasoning I can think of for their disappearance is this: It was like the persistent headache someone might experience from squinting for an extremely long period of time. I was no longer squinting. Now my vision was clear, now I was seeing decades into the past and future when I looked at people. Everyone’s lives were opened up to me and I saw the human millipedes in all their dark tragedy.
The final straw was seeing my neighbor and his growing addiction. On the outside he seemed happy. He would greet me in the hallways, I would see him walking his dog (a Collie he called Melon), humming a song to himself, and talking to friends on his phone. In the future though, I saw what was waiting for him. In a few months, his pill-popping party habits would hit a dry spell. His usual source, an elderly man who hated how the medication made him feel (fuzzy and disoriented), would pass away and would rather spend the money on gin (which also made him feel fuzzy and disoriented, but in a ‘fun’ way). With Jaimie’s (my neighbor) source gone, he would find it increasingly difficult to get his hands on pain medication. He would try to score from nearby neighbors and clinics, but he’d always be rebuffed and one time would even have the police called on him.
He would eventually resort to heroin. It was easier to get than pain medication. It was less regulated. He would snort it, telling himself that as long as a needle wasn’t involved, it really wasn’t that much different than taking a couple hydrocodone. He would slip further and further down until he was mainlining heroin. His last moments would be in his bathroom with a bit of belt wrapped around his arm. Melon would succumb to hunger in his apartment and police would find his body a month later with his starved pet curled up in his lap. He would die by himself, and would be swallowed up in the melee of our daily lives. No one would care, he would just be gone. He would slip beneath the waters of life, leaving only ephemeral circles.
I tried to save him. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stop it. Believe me, I attempted it. I tried everything. Under the pretext of selling him my butalbital, I hung out with him a few times. It was after we had partied a couple of times when I tried to explain everything to him, but he thought I was out of my mind. He didn’t talk to me for a week after that, until I promised to give him an entire bottle of medication. After that, I tried to talk him into getting himself checked into rehab. He told me to fuck off, saying how he was just having a little fun on the weekend and to not be such a narc. As a last resort, I tried to provide him with a steady supply of my medication as a more toned-down alternative, but he didn’t enjoy the high as much as the hydrocodone and just ended up doing both. I tried everything I could think of.
Nothing worked. The last time I saw Jaimie, he was calling a bunch of his friends and asking if anyone had a hook-up for him. He looked frantic. Our elderly neighbor had passed away. I knew this was the beginning of his downward spiral. I knew that this was the moment he needed help the most in his life. He was about to slide head-first into addiction and ruin everything. I knew he would die if no one stopped him. No one stopped him, in the end, I walked away. He died.
That’s why I’m leaving. I won’t be surrounded by this charnel place populated with people I know. If I can’t stop people from their fates, and I can’t get rid of this vision, I decided my next best option would be to go where no one knows me and I don’t know anyone. As long as I can be apathetic, I can stay sane. Don’t care, don’t worry, don’t feel. It’s the only thing I can do, and a dark side of me wonders if that will really be enough in the end. Can I really live a solitary life, free of meaningful interaction? Will it even work or will I end up entangled in someone else’s life? I’m too much of a coward to look and see for myself. There is one last thing, one last reason why I’m writing this. I want someone to read it.
These are not my final words. This is not my suicide note. I’m not going to kill myself. I made that promise to myself and I intend to keep it. I am living a life not worth living, but I am saddled with an iron will to survive. There’s a laughing god up there somewhere, enjoying my tragedy. The reason I’m writing this is because I need someone to read this.
I can’t stand having this horrible knowledge all to myself.
I know what you’re thinking, that there’s some horrible event coming in a few years which will ruins us. That it’s some chaotic catastrophe which will reduce the earth to rubble and swallow everyone in hellfire; that everyone you care about is going to be left dead and dying in agony. That’s the issue though, there’s no great calamity coming. The terrible knowledge isn’t that we’re going to be obliterated in some terrifying moment, it’s that we’re not.
We’re going to continue down this path and nothing will ever change. I've seen it.
We’re going to keep on surviving, we’ll lose ourselves in minor distractions like video games, music, movies, books, or seek chemical means of distracting us from our issues. We’ll cower from our existential crisis and wrap ourselves up in mental armor to shield ourselves from it. We’ll distract ourselves with memes joking about crippling depression, feel-good stories about animals being more humane than humans, and the drama and gossip of our friends’ lives that we won’t see that we’re living empty lives. We’ll surround ourselves with people just so we don’t feel so alone. They’ll be alone too. Those empty interactions won’t give us purpose. We’re not going to fill that hole that’s inside of us and we’re going to propagate the insanity. We are a perpetual motion machine of pain, it is reiterative, it is cyclical, it is forever growing. Its legs stretch on forever in a march alongside soul-crushing hollowness.
I know a small select of you are sitting back in your chair thinking of a way to blame this on the ‘bleeding heart’ liberal cucks or the ‘racist’ Trump-tards for our current state and I can only say this: You are the problem. You are not the solution. Extremism favors no one except a select few. Setting up scarecrow arguments to strike down to give your life meaning will not work. Life is not an absolute with perfect answers for every situation. This is human nature. People like to think that their voice matters, that they matter, but we don’t. We’re small parts of a greater whole. Nothing we do will ever really change anything that was already destined to happen when this universe squeaked into existence. Life is messy, it’s beautiful too. I just wish I could see the silver lining amongst the clouds, but I can’t focus on the positives anymore. Now all I can see is what we really are and that thought is eating me away inside.
We’re a death march of endless millipedes, desperately trying to distract ourselves from our own lives with the bland scenery as we shamble towards our end. That’s why I’m writing this, I know some of you may read this. I know you will, but you won’t change. A small part of me hopes against hope that you will, and break the cycle. It’s why I won’t stop. I’m drowning, but I refuse to sink. I’m not going to vanish beneath the wake like Jaimie, never making any difference, never generating any waves. I’m going to keep struggling to keep my head above water and not sink into the empty malaise of the human condition. Please don’t leave me alone, treading water on the surface.
Written by EmpyrealInvective