01 Feb Charles Bonnet Syndrome
I suffer from a condition called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or Visual Release Hallucinations if you want to get more technical.
It’s a condition that’s far more common than you might realize — it’s estimated that as many as half of people with gradual loss of vision will experience one or more bouts over their lifetime. Yet I’m willing to bet that most of you have never heard of it.
The reason for that is because most sufferers are scared to tell anybody what we experience. I know I was.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Andrew and I’m 26. Two years ago I woke up with awful blurred vision, every single edge and detail clouded as if somebody had smeared Vaseline on a camera lens. It never got better.
I was scared then, and got over to Doctor Harper’s surgery as fast as I could, suddenly needing to take a cab rather than climb in the car I’d driven without incident ever since I’d bought it three years prior.
The doctor did some tests, asked me some questions (‘Have you been much thirstier lately?’, ‘How often do you urinate?’, ‘How would you describe your tiredness levels?’) and then gave me the diagnosis that changed my life forever.
He explained that I would need to take insulin shots with every meal, that eating the wrong foods without monitoring my blood sugar could see me drop into a coma — or worse.
Then he got to my eyes.
‘Andrew, your diabetes has resulted in maculopathy. Do you know what that is?’
I shook my head dumbly, already reeling with the shock of my diagnosis, and Dr. Harper went on.
‘It’s when the diabetes affects the blood vessels at the back of your eye, blocking them and causing them to leak into the macula, the central part of your retina that helps you to perceive color and fine detail. When these blood vessels leak into the macula, it can cause significant damage.’
With a lump in my throat, I asked: ‘OK, so how do we make this better?’
I couldn’t see Harper’s face properly when he spoke, but his tone of voice was enough to tell me what I’d been dreading.
‘I’m sorry, Andrew,’ he replied gravely. ‘Perhaps if we’d caught this a little sooner we might have had some treatment options available to us, but I’m afraid the damage has been pretty extensive. We can take steps to arrest the development of the condition, but I’m afraid it’s irreversible.’
I felt as if my world had come crashing down around me. I was just 24, still at my physical peak. I was active, playing basketball and cycling a couple of times a week. And now my health, my body and my sight had been taken from me.
The first six months were tough. I broke up with my girlfriend, a sweet girl called Holly who tried to make it work but couldn’t because I was so damn angry all the time. I lost my job, because if there’s one thing an architect needs it’s his eyes. I even fell out with a lot of my friends, making excuses to not meet with them until they stopped asking. In truth it was jealousy on my part, envy that they got to keep on living while everything I’d ever hoped for had been snatched away.
I became a recluse, never leaving my apartment, barely bothering to wash, shave or get dressed each day. I was so sure that my life was over, I stopped even trying to live it.
I was an asshole.
It took me a long time to realize this, but in the end, it was the nurse assigned to visit me at home, a tall, no-nonsense, experienced woman called Lois who brought this to my attention.
‘You’re an asshole,’ she said.
‘What?’ I gasped, shocked at her language.
‘So you’ve got diabetes, do you know how many people do?’ she asked, then, before waiting for my answer, she continued: ‘Do you think they all hide in their apartments, refusing to get on with their lives? Losing your vision is a terrible thing and you do have my sympathy, but, Andrew, it’s no excuse to give up.’
‘But you don’t…’ I argued, trying to defend myself, but she hadn’t finished.
‘Understand?’ she growled. ‘One of the bravest men I know was paralyzed from the neck down when he was just a child and he hasn’t given up. You can do so much more with your life, and you have people that want to help you do that, but you can’t even be bothered to shave that ugly fucking beard off. Stop being a crybaby and make a fucking difference.’
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, and I argued with her. I was furious at her blunt insensitivity and told her to leave. I said I’d tell her superiors, but she laughed and told me I wouldn’t.
‘You won’t because you’re a smart guy and you’ve got too much pride for that,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you next week.’
That night I shaved. I opened my curtains and actually looked around. Things were blurry, but when I really looked, I could see the things scattered around my home. The mess I’d let it become.
When Lois came back the following week the place was tidy. I was clean-shaven, dressed. I’d even attempted to comb my hair. She didn’t say anything about it, didn’t mention the argument of the week before, but she took me out for coffee down the street. She guided me along the sidewalk to the coffee shop, talking to me, reassuring me. It was daunting, even though it was less than a block away, but I felt so proud when I got there.
We talked, me and Lois. I think I even laughed.
Afterwards, she walked me home, then, when she helped me back inside, she said: ‘It’s nice to meet you, at last, Andrew.’
That day was the beginning of my new life. I moved to a new apartment, a ground-floor place, and joined a group of other young people with visual impairments. I made friends. I got out, every day, even if it was just a short walk, but I made a point of seeing what I could of the world.
I bought what I could, but the Sawyers — the old couple that ran the local store — would bring my groceries by once a week. Clark’s a gruff old coot, so he refuses to coddle me, and he’s told me that he respects me for being like I am, for maintaining my independence, for not giving up.
From a guy like him, that’s one of the sweetest things I’ve ever heard.
Things were going so well… and then, one year ago, it started.
I walked into my living room, a mug of coffee in my hand, and I saw a Victorian funeral carriage stood right there on my rug, complete with two huge, proud horses in full livery, adorned with long black plumes in their bridles. They stood perfectly still, while the driver, a small bearded man in period costume and a top hat, fidgeted with the reins and peered at me expectantly. Bizarrely, they were far clearer than the usual blurry shapes that I could see.
I damn near pissed my pants.
I dropped the cup, spilling scalding hot coffee over my bare feet, jumping backwards with a cry of pain and alarm. When I returned my attention to the horses and carriage back in the room, they were gone.
At that moment I wondered if I was going mad. Apparently, most of us do, which is understandable. How would you feel if you’d seen that exact same sight in your home? Unless you’re Jack the Ripper, I imagine many of you do not have a coach and horses just lying around. I certainly didn’t.
Eventually, after much quiet swearing to myself, and more than a little self-delusion, I managed to convince myself that I had not seen what I thought I had, that it was merely a very vivid daydream.
This seemed to work and I got on with living, even if I entered that same room a little more cautiously in the days that followed. Finally, I forgot about it.
Two weeks later I saw a giant, floating, swirling, orange ball in my bathroom.
I damn near pissed myself again.
I stood staring at it, this bizarre, rotating levitating globe that was a little larger than a beach ball hanging in mid-air over my tub, open-mouthed for a full 10 seconds, before finally screwing my eyelids tightly closed and whispering to myself: ‘That isn’t there… that isn’t there…’
After five seconds I opened my eyes again. It wasn’t there.
Have you ever had cause to doubt your own sanity? To wonder whether what you perceive is truly there, or if your mind has betrayed you?
Honestly, compared to the loss of my vision, the prospect of losing my wits was so much more terrifying. I’d fought against adversity and took pride in the fact that I am not just a survivor, but somebody who is living his own life. How could I do that if I was insane?
I barely slept that night, and I remained jumpy for days afterwards. Any sign of movement or any unfamiliar shape would set my pulse racing, would cause me to doubt whether it was truly there.
It was the toughest time I’d ever been through, worse even than that time after I was diagnosed with diabetes.
At least when Dr. Harper had told me about the Diabetes I had a definitivew prognosis, I was given facts by a medical professional, my affliction was physical, it had a name, and most important, it had a treatment plan.
This was something else. My own mind at turned against me, my senses and perception of reality had become twisted and unreliable. It’s only when you’re in that position that you realize just how terrifying it is. Your senses and the way in which your brain interprets them are your only true defenses against danger. You perceive danger and you avoid it, preventing your body from becoming harmed. But what happens when you can’t trust your perception to alert you to dangers that are truly there?
Lois picked up the problem first, noticing my skittish manner. She asked what was wrong, if I needed to talk about anything, but I told her no, I was fine but I hadn’t been sleeping well.
That last part was true; I hadn’t been able to sleep a wink. Just the very thought of being institutionalized — spending the rest of my days a sedated, blue-pajamas clad zombie in a white room with only the echoing cries of my fellow inmates for company — terrified me beyond measure.
But what was the alternative? Live life as a risk to myself and others?
Ultimately, I chose to ignore it. I reasoned that if I was able to function around other people without them realizing what was going on, that was good enough.
A full month passed before the next incident, and I really did think that maybe I’d put this whole mess behind me. With every passing day my confidence had grown, so that Wednesday morning I’d stepped out onto the sunny street feeling pretty carefree.
Each Wednesday I’d treat myself to a latte down at Joe’s, the same coffee shop that I’d visited with Lois. It was a custom that gave me a great deal of pleasure, one that had seen me forge friendships with other regulars as well as the staff, including Joe himself.
As I made my way down the street, white stick in hand, I glanced about me, taking in the colors and shapes of the world around me. I enjoyed the feel of the sun on my face and the sounds of the birds singing. It was a good day.
Then I saw them.
A party of pilgrims, six of them, all dressed in Settler-era attire, sitting cross-legged on the asphalt. They didn’t look at me. Instead, they were engaged in a heated, yet strangely silent, conversation.
I froze, staring at them. Still they argued, gesticulating furiously at one another. However, I couldn’t hear their angry voices, despite the fact that (judging by their ill-temperament) they must be screaming at one another.
Paralyzed by shock, the white stick fell from my numb fingers, clattering onto the sidewalk. I turned to leave, desperate to flee from the haunting sight of the Colonists in the road, but I was so panicked, in such a hurry, that I stepped on my cane. It rolled underfoot and before I knew it I pitched over, tumbling to the hard ground below.
I didn’t quite break my fall in time, banging my cheek hard on the floor and skinning my palms.
I heard a cry from a passerby, a friendly concerned woman who rushed to my side. She knelt beside me, helping me up, applying a Kleenex to my throbbing cheek which she informed me was now bleeding. I tried to tell her that I was okay, there was nothing to worry about, but this Good Samaritan insisted on driving me to Dr. Harper’s office to get my injuries looked at.
Now I think back to it, I’m pretty sure that she knew my obvious distress was nothing to do with the fall. At the time I was embarrassed and angry, but now I realize I owe her a debt of gratitude. Without her intervention, I don’t know how much longer this would have gone on before I cracked up and ended up in an asylum after breaking down through sheer stress.
‘Andrew, why don’t you tell me what happened?’ Dr. Harper asked, gently dabbing at my cheek with disinfectant.
I explained that I’d just lost my balance, and that no harm was done, but I think he saw through my feeble protestations to my underlying agitation. He didn’t press or force the matter. He simply asked what might have caused my clumsiness. Then he asked how I’d been as of late.
When I’d finished mumbling my way through the most non-committal answer I could muster, he placed a gentle, reassuring hand on my shoulder.
‘Andrew,’ he repeated gently, ‘why don’t you tell me what happened?’
I burst into tears. I told him how scared I was, how I’d fought so hard for my independence and now I knew it would be taken from me.
He listened patiently, and then asked me to tell him why I ever thought that?
I paused then, took a deep breath and thought about it. This was the point of no return. But really, what other option did I have?
So with tears running down my cheeks, I told Dr. Harper everything. I told him about the horse and carriage, the orange globe and the pilgrims. I told him how I’d been living each day in fear, how I was terrified that I was losing my mind.
Dr. Harper thought for a while, and then he said: ‘Andrew, I don’t think you are losing your mind.’
The sense of relief at that moment was so powerful it overwhelmed me, rendering me speechless.
‘You say that even though you’ve seen these things, you’ve never heard any noise from them? Have you detected any odors or experienced any other physical sensations, such as touching them?’
I shook my head no, and he patted my shoulder once again.
‘Andrew, have you heard of Charles Bonnet Syndrome?’ he asked.
‘Charles Bone… who?’ I asked, confused by this sudden unexpected turn of conversation.
‘Okay, let me explain,’ Dr. Harper said kindly. ‘Charles Bonnet was a Swiss naturalist who was born in the 1700s. He discovered a curious condition in his elderly grandfather, who was nearly completely blind due to cataracts. The old man regularly experienced visual hallucinations, including random patterns and even people and places. Sound familiar?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, still confused. ‘Am… am I suffering from dementia?’
‘No, Andrew, not at all,’ Dr. Harper reassured me. ‘Do you know how perception works? In layman’s terms, your eyes take in light, via the iris and pupil, which is then processed via the retina and translated into electrical signals which are decoded by the brain, which simply organizes these signals into a recognizable image. With me so far?’
I nodded, finally starting to understand.
‘When the retina becomes damaged, such as those that have undergone macular degeneration, those signals become warped and jumbled,’ Dr. Harper went on. ‘The brain still receives them, so it does its job, translating these distorted signals into an image. It kind of fills in the gaps for you. Sometimes it fills these gaps with colors, patterns, creatures, and places that aren’t present. And this is called Charles Bonnet Syndrome.’
I nearly wept with relief. ‘So I’m not mad?’ I cried.
‘Not at all,’ the doctor replied. ‘This is an entirely physical condition; your mind is in full working order. If you were suffering any form of mental illness your delusions wouldn’t be limited to just the one sense — you’d hear these interlopers, smell them, even feel them. This is a condition solely related to your eyes, not your brain.’
As I left Dr. Harper’s office I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Sure, my vision was still an issue, but now I knew it was only a problem with my eyes, not my mind, I knew I could handle the situation. I was ready to face the world again.
Since then I’ve seen plenty of weird visions.
I saw a huge waterfall in the park, complete with a hazy mist and butterflies flitting about it.
I saw a Native American warrior, complete with a huge feather headdress, sitting at a stool at the counter in the coffee shop.
I saw an intricate — and quite impossible — structure of scaffolding crisscrossing the entire front of my apartment block.
Hell, on the Fourth of July last year I even saw a great swooping green dragon in the sky, twisting and cavorting through the air overhead.
All looked utterly and completely real, yet, now I knew they were simply tricks of the eye, they were no longer disturbing. In fact, I actually came to quite enjoy them, even looking at them as unique and entertaining little shows or works of art that existed purely for my pleasure and nobody else’s.
I came to welcome them.
Then, a month ago, I saw her.
It was night time — it’s always night time when I see her — and I was just getting ready for bed.
I walked into the kitchen to get myself a glass of water and actually cried out in alarm when I spotted the figure in the corner.
She was tall, by far the tallest woman I’d ever seen, and even though she stood hunched, she still had at least six inches on me.
I was used to seeing ‘characters’ in dated and bizarre dress, but this was different somehow. It didn’t seem like an outfit from any one time, instead a bizarre mishmash of items.
She wore a tuxedo jacket, figure-hugging and black, tailored to the female body-shape, over a dirty old ruffled dress-shirt. To complete the ensemble she wore a bright red bow-tie.
On her hands, which she held out to either side as if shrugging, or maybe feeling for rain, she wore dirty white gloves. Her fingers were disproportionately long, almost spidery, and occasionally they twitched, as if she longed to grip and squeeze something in them.
On her lower half, she wore shorts the same crimson as her bow-tie, over opaque black nylons. Her legs were long, lithe — attractive, if the truth be told — the legs of a dancer.
She also wore red heels, the same hue as her shorts and bow-tie, but they sparkled and shimmered, bringing to mind Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
As strange as this ensemble was, I couldn’t tear my eyes from her face.
Most of it was obscured by a jaunty bowler hat, tipped and tilted to hide her eyes and nose, but beneath the brim of her hat, I could see the deathly pale skin of her face and a grin that sent shivers down my spine. It was wide – too wide – with entirely too many teeth. A smile is meant to be an expression of warmth, it’s meant to feel welcoming and benevolent. But the look on this woman’s face oozed malice, it felt much like the sort of glee I’d expect from a snake as it corners a rat.
However, the thing that startled me most was that she had a third arm sprouting from her back, curled up and over her head like a scorpion’s tail. It was longer than any arm should be, and the hand only had three fingers, like a claw. It was pointed straight at me and as I swore in dismay and stumbled sideways it seemed to track my movement.
I stood staring at the creepy figure for a few seconds, trying to get my head around the situation. She just stood there in the corner, grinning back.
Finally I realized that this was just another of my hallucinations and breathed an audible sigh of relief.
One of the tricks I’ve picked up over the months of suffering from Charles Bonnet Syndrome is to break the line of vision toward whichever stimulus is causing my brain to interpret the images into the hallucination. Think of it like restarting a faulty computer, how refreshing the system debugs it. To this end I close my eyes and count to five. Then, when I reopen them, the hallucination is gone.
So, as I stared at the horrifying, malformed figure in my kitchen, I knew that to make the image go away I simply had to close my eyes.
I’ll be honest here, when I counted to five I hesitated a little before opening my eyes. If I’d opened my eyes and she’d still been stood there, smiling that wicked smile at me, I think I might have had a heart attack. She wasn’t, and I breathed another long sigh of relief, fetched my glass of water and went back to bed.
The Tall Woman haunted my thoughts in the days after I saw her. She was different from the other visions I’d had. Somehow she felt more real.
It was this agitation that my buddy Jason picked up on when we met for lunch the following Friday. Jason was one of those same friends I’d tried to drive away shortly after I lost my vision, yet he’d refused to give up on me, continuing to get in touch week after week.
Good friends are hard to come by, but great friends — the ones who will be by your side for life — are even rarer. Jason, God bless his kind heart, is one of the latter.
‘You’ve got to tell me what’s going on, dude,’ he said, as we sat down over pizza.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, trying to brush it off.
‘You’re so distracted, it’s like you’re looking for something in here all the time. You’ve eaten, like, one slice in pizza in the time it’s taken me to eat four. So, I repeat, you’ve got to tell me what’s going on,’ Jason said, waving a slice of pizza around for emphasis.
‘It’s nothing,’ I replied, feeling a little stupid, ‘I just had a hallucination a couple of nights ago that really got to me.’
‘I thought you were cool with those now?’ he asked, putting the pizza slice down.
‘Yeah, I am. I mean, I was, but this was different,’ I replied, resigned to talking about it. ‘She scared me.’
‘She?’ Jason asked, his interest clearly piqued. ‘Tell me about it.’
So I did, I described the Tall Woman and how she’d appeared to me. I explained that unlike any of my other hallucinations she felt more real, and that she was the first to feature such a weird and unsettling mutation. Sure, I’d seen smaller versions of people in the past (a phenomenon referred to as Lilliputian by medical professionals), but the extra appendage and impossibly distorted face were something I had yet to encounter thus far. I think it was that, combined with the unnerving expectant stance, that had disturbed me the most.
‘So,’ Jason said after I’d finished, ‘You say she had great legs?’
‘Shut up, you asshole,’ I laughed, throwing my napkin at him.
‘No, seriously, I get it, man,’ Jason replied, passing the napkin back to me. ‘If I walked into a room and a giant mutant was waiting for me, it’d scare the shit out of me too. But you know what caused you to see this. It’s like the coachman and that waterfall you saw, it’s a condition that you know you have and it’s one that you know how to deal with, OK?’
‘I know, I know,’ I replied. ‘Thanks, man, you’re right.’
I did feel better too, so I smiled at him, took a big bite of my pizza and changed the subject, asking him about his psycho ex, a conversation he was all too happy to dive in to.
The next time I saw the Tall Woman, just under a week later, I was brushing my teeth.
I was stood at the washbasin, brushing away, when I spotted a figure in the mirror. She was out in the dark hallway, peeking around the door behind me. That same sinister grin I’d seen before stretched her narrow face into a distorted grimace, the dirty bowler hat pushed down over her eyes once again.
Each of those three long spidery hands gripped the door frame.
As crazy as this sounds, it felt like she was trying to avoid being spotted.
I cried out, spitting toothpaste foam all over the mirror, my toothbrush clattering into the basin.
I spun around, my heart thumping in my chest, my breathing ragged in my throat.
She wasn’t there. Of course, she wasn’t.
The doorway was empty.
I tiptoed forward, hesitantly, trying to look around the doorframe into the hallway without actually sticking my neck out into its shadowy confines. The seconds ticked by as I drew closer and closer. I couldn’t see anything so, finally, with a whisper of self-affirmation, I stepped out of the bathroom. The hallway was empty, as was the rest of my apartment.
I was shaken again — this was the first time I’d seen a hallucination in a reflection, and I wasn’t even sure that I’d actually seen it.
Now, as I sit here, writing this, knowing what would follow, I think I thought like that to try to protect myself, to shield myself from the truth.
I was an idiot.
A full fortnight passed without incident. Sure, I saw a flash of color one day, a dancing yellow lightning bolt that zigzagged back and forth on the street outside my apartment, but that was exactly the sort of thing I’d come to expect from my condition. It was exciting, otherworldly, but it wasn’t scary, not like she was.
In retrospect, that fortnight was blissful. It was a reminder of what life could be like, the existence that I’d carved out for myself since my diagnosis. Life was good.
The night that changed the way I viewed the Tall Woman, last night, I’d been out and had a couple of drinks. I’d met the other guys with visual impairment for dinner and we’d ended up at a bar afterwards. I wasn’t hammered, but we got through plenty of beer between us, and by the time I stepped out into the cool night air, I felt decidedly light-headed.
It took me a while to make it home, laughing and talking to a couple of the other guys from our group as we strolled along. It had been a great evening.
It’s probably the last truly good one I’ll ever have.
I bid the other guys goodnight and, fumbling with my key, let myself in.
With swaying steps, I strolled into my hallway, slamming the door a little too loudly behind me.
I took off my jacket, hung it on the hook by the door, and then hit the light switch.
She was waiting at the end of the hallway, all three hands held aloft into claws, reaching for me, that same maddening malevolent grin on her pale face.
I swore again, louder than ever, actually jumping back a step, recoiling from the impossibly tall and terrifying figure lying in wait in my own home.
The Tall Woman didn’t move. She just stood there, staring and smiling at me.
I stared back, but I sure as hell didn’t smile.
‘Jesus Christ…’ I muttered under my breath. You know how you can feel a little paranoid after a few beers? That feeling of non-specific post-alcohol dread? Imagine that combined with a giant grinning mutant woman suddenly appearing in your home.
Suffice it to say, it was very, very, very uncool.
‘I don’t need this,’ I sighed and closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes her face was just a foot from my own, grinning wider than ever.
She’d dashed the length of the hallway and was now stood so close that her long, grasping arms were either side of me, her fingers twitching and clawing at the air around my face. I could see her chest heaving as if she were actually laughing silently at my attempts to dismiss her.
As if the thought that I could ever be free of her was amusing.
I screamed, a full-bodied shriek of terror, and actually dropped to my knees, covering my head as if to fend off an expected blow. It never came.
Finally, I lowered my hands, gasping for breath, shaking. The hallway was empty, the Tall Woman nowhere to be seen.
I stayed there, on my knees, for a moment, gasping for breath, then I was on my feet and I turned and ran, out of the apartment, out of the building and into the street.
I stood there, shivering, terrified beyond reason, without a clue as to what I’d do next.
Finally, I pulled my phone from my pocket and I made a phone call.
‘Hey, Andy, what’s up?’ Jason asked.
‘Jason, I need you to come here,’ I said, sobbing.
Jason didn’t ask why, didn’t complain, instead he simply replied: ‘I’m on my way.’
Less than 20 minutes later his car pulled up outside and he dashed over to the steps outside my building where I was sitting, shivering.
He threw his jacket around my shoulders and asked what happened, his voice filled with concern.
‘She’s in there!’ I stammered. ‘The Tall Woman. She’s back.’
‘Okay, Okay,’ he said, gently helping me to my feet. ‘Come on, man, let’s go in there and check it out.’
I wish I could say that I was brave when we went inside, but I’d be lying. I cowered behind Jason, one hand on his shoulder as we made our way through my home. Of course, we didn’t find a thing — we’re talking a giant mutant woman in a poky little one-bed apartment — where the hell was she going to hide?
Finally, after we’d checked every single room twice, I had to admit that she was gone.
‘I’m so sorry, man,’ I apologized, feeling genuinely stupid. ‘I got scared and… I’m sorry man…’
‘Hey, forget about it, buddy,’ Jason said. ‘So, I’m here now, where do you keep your booze?’
Half a bottle of bourbon later, we were both feeling pretty talkative.
‘She’s, you know, just kind of different, you know?’ I tried to explain.
‘I get it, I get it,’ he said. ‘It’s like, you saw something bad and you feel bad and… that’s bad.’
He didn’t get it.
‘No, she’s different, you know,’ I explained. ‘I’ve never had a repeat hallucination before. And they’ve never been scary, you know. She’s not like the others.’
‘Dude,’ Jason said, taking another sip of bourbon, ‘you’ve got, like, Charlie Bony Syndrome and you know that makes you see shit, so…’ He waved his hands in the air like a magician who’d just performed a trick.
‘I know, I know…’ I replied.
‘No listen, Andy,’ he said. ‘You know it makes you see shit, it’s just your eyes, yeah? You didn’t hear anything, you didn’t feel anything. This is how that stuff goes. It’s your eyes, and I know it’s scary, man, but you’ve been through, like… hell and high water in your life so far. You’re tough — one of the toughest, bravest guys I know — and you can handle some creepy hallucination bitch.’
I laughed, I couldn’t help it.
‘She is a very creepy hallucination bitch though, dude.’
He laughed too and we both took a drink.
‘You know, that could help…’ he said finally, his voice thoughtful.
‘What, drinking?’ I asked.
‘No… well, yes, it does,’ he giggled. ‘I mean like, demystifying her. You should give her a name. Something stupid, so she’s not scary.’
‘I’ve got say that as much as I like Creepy Hallucination Bitch, that’s a bit of a mouthful,’ I laughed.
‘Yeah, I get that,’ he replied.
Suddenly something he’d said came back to me.
‘How about Helen?’ I suggested. ‘Helen Highwater?’
‘Awesome,’ he said, then raised his glass. ‘Here’s to Helen, buddy.’
‘To Helen,’ I smiled and drained my glass.
Jason spent the night on my sofa, mainly because he’d had too much to drink to even think about getting behind the wheel of a vehicle, but honestly, I think the reason he drank so much was so he’d have an excuse to stay and keep an eye on me.
I’m glad he did, knowing that he was there made me feel safer and I was able to get some sleep. It gave me a sense of security to know that if the strange vision I’d just christened Helen was to appear again, I’d be able to call on him for support.
This morning, we both needed support.
‘It feels like a mule kicked me in the head,’ he groaned when I made my way into the living room.
‘Yep,’ I replied, my own head thumping. ‘Joe’s?’
‘Joe’s,’ he replied firmly, and staggered to his feet.
As we drank strong black coffee and ate muffins, we didn’t talk much.
Finally, Jason broke the silence.
‘So, you feel cool now?’ he asked, his mouth still full of blueberry muffin.
I nodded. ‘Yeah, I think so.’
‘Not still freaked out about you-know-who?’ he asked.
‘Helen?’ I replied with a smile. ‘No, I really don’t think I am. I reckon I can handle some creepy hallucination bitch.’
‘Good,’ he laughed, giving me a hearty pat on the back. ‘That’s cool, man. I bet you can.’
Now, as I sit here cowering in my bathroom, too scared to go out into my apartment, I know we were both wrong. About everything.
Remember how earlier I told you that the thought of being institutionalized, that the very idea of losing my grasp on reality was the most terrifying thing I could imagine?
Now I’d welcome that, because the alternative is far, far worse.
After breakfast, I said goodbye to Jason and he climbed into his car and drove away.
The day passed without incident, and when Lois stopped by this afternoon she even commented on how upbeat I seemed.
‘You got a lady in your life?’ she asked, casually.
I laughed at that, wondered what she’d think if she knew the truth.
‘Yeah,’ I chuckled, ‘Something like that.’
‘Good for you,’ she sniffed. ‘You make sure you treat her right.’
That tickled me even more and I had to bite my lip.
‘Sure,’ I replied, ‘I’ll do my best.’
Tonight, still a little wiped from the exertions of the previous evening, I decided to turn in early. I brushed my teeth, washed my hands and face, and got changed. Finally, I fetched a glass of water and walked into my bedroom.
I climbed into bed and instantly felt so, so relaxed. Within mere seconds I was ready for sleep, that sudden overwhelming drowsiness that comes when you’ve spent a whole day keeping sleep at bay.
I decided that resistance was futile and sat up to switch off the light.
I nearly didn’t see her, but as I reached for the switch, I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye.
My heart leaped into my throat as I turned to the foot of my bed.
The Tall Woman was crouching there, her grinning face staring at me from just beyond my feet. So many teeth.
Her long, slender fingers spread out over my blankets, twitching slightly as she gripped the end of the bed. Slowly, excruciatingly so, her third misshapen arm came into view over her shoulder, joining her other hands on my bedding.
I froze, utterly petrified.
I was at a crossroads here, arriving at a pivotal moment that had been coming for some time.
But this time I’d had enough.
‘You don’t scare me anymore,’ I said, my voice filled with defiance and anger. ‘I’m not letting you do this to me…’
I reached across to the light switch.
‘… Goodnight, Helen,’ I said triumphantly, then flicked it, plunging the room into darkness.
I laid there, a sense of tremendous pride surging through me, and I grinned to myself in my warm, comfortable bed, overjoyed at the emotional victory of overcoming my own fear.
And then it happened.
The thing that led me here, something that turned my blood to ice water and my bowels to jelly.
‘Goodnight, Andrew,’ her rasping voice hissed from the darkness.