01 Feb Phantom Limb
Like most people, I’d heard stories about how amputees could still feel their missing appendages. I didn’t doubt it at all. Too many people had made the claim for it to be fantasy or delusion but I never expected to experience it myself. Who would? Unfortunately my near fatal car accident was both irreversible and life changing.
The damage to my body was so extensive they had to remove my right arm at the shoulder joint. That made having a prosthetic arm very difficult (and nearly impossible to have any functional use of it). With a morbid sense of humor, one of my friends suggested I could become a rock drummer like the one-armed drummer in Def Leppard. He was just trying to make me laugh but it really hit home my new disability.
Pretty much right away I started getting those fabled phantom pains. I could still feel ‘it’ right on my shoulder stump. It was surreal to realize the arm I felt wasn’t really there. I could finally understand the reason for the surprise and disbelief so many others experienced. Worse than that though, my phantom limb began to do more than just tingle or ache. It started having ‘impulses’.
Here’s the thing. These impulses didn’t match my own feelings. Not by a long shot. My missing arm wanted to do ‘things’; independent and diametrically opposed to my own wishes. Quite frankly, it was very disturbing the things that popped in my head. My phantom hand would ‘reach’ to put itself around the necks of people who I had no ill will for. It was strange and frightening to imagine doing harm to them.
Why would ‘it’ want to hurt anyone? (Especially those who had been nothing but kind to me). The creepy sensation was so visceral and bizarre that I didn’t know how to tell anyone about it. What would I say? “Hi Aunt Gertrude, for reasons I can’t explain, I can still feel my disembodied arm and it wants desperately to strangle you. By the way, these cookies are fantastic!”
Feelings of malice grew stronger by the minute. The rising tide of anger I felt inside was so alien to my normal temperament that I had to remind myself it was all in my head. There was a conflict raging and my body was poised to be the battleground. Of course I knew that a phantom arm couldn’t harm anyone, but I worried it might try to influence the rest of me. As it was, I was already having a hard time tuning out the inappropriate impulses my missing limb was trying to accomplish.
Can you imagine standing next to your new boss and keeping a calm demeanor while your imaginary arm tries to throttle him? My face must have betrayed some hint of inner turmoil. He took me aside afterward and asked if there was something wrong. I assured him it was nothing but I’m not sure I convinced either of us. The impulses were getting more violent. If the same sinister force that inspired them was able to get my remaining arm to cooperate, I would be in a world of trouble.
I realized I needed psychological help. Hallucinations of that level were no mere fantasy or role-play but I was afraid to be completely honest with a therapist. Frankly it sounded full-on crazy and I feared involuntary commitment. Wasn’t my efforts to get help for my delusions and phantom feelings a sign that I wasn’t malicious or out to hurt anyone? I felt sure my voluntary disclosures would be seen as an asset to my sincerity. It pointed to my enthusiastic cooperation but every asylum in the world is filled with people who believe they are lucid and clear. With murderous impulses coming from my missing appendage, perhaps I wasn’t in a position to judge my level of clarity.
There on the couch, my therapist asked what my phantom arm was doing at that very moment. It was a mind blowing question. No one else would have entertained the idea to humor me. It seemed like an important step in my recovery. I explained that it was reaching for the side of the couch in an effort to rise me up. He found that fascinating. He wanted me to go into greater detail. Could I ‘see’ the missing appendage with my eyes? Could my missing hand ‘feel’ the soft, plush material of the furniture? If I were to wave it through an open flame, would it feel burned?
They were fantastic questions. I could see why his fee was so high. He was very good at getting to the heart of the matter. The therapist listened intently to my answers. It was certainly far outside of the mundane things he probably heard from his other patients on a daily basis. I admitted that while I couldn’t ‘see’ the missing arm, I could still ‘feel’ the sensations of my missing hand brushing the velour on the sofa. It was like I was caressing the material of my sheets at night. Just because you can’t see anything in the dark doesn’t mean the object isn’t there or that the other senses do not work. He smiled at my telling justification.
He reiterated his question about the fire. I felt my response about being able to feel the couch material was enough to imply that if held over an open flame, I would feel the heat from that too (even if we both knew it was purely psychosomatic). He smiled in a way that made me feel very uncomfortable. Only later did I learn what he quietly whispered to his receptionist over the phone.
“You’re still very much in denial about the loss of your arm.”; He began. “Intellectually you know it’s gone, but subconsciously you still haven’t accepted it. It’s a profound loss to lose a major limb and the human mind is a very powerful, complex thing. It can convince a person crawling across the desert that they are drowning in a mirage of water. It can do all sorts of inexplicable things. In this case, your mind hasn’t let go. It has you convinced it’s still there and that you can feel things against absent skin and nerve endings. That part of your subconscious is still very angry about the car accident and lashes out at everyone you come in contact with, in blind frustration. It’s nothing more.”
It all made perfect sense. There was no one I could blame for losing my arm so everyone was the target by the phantom limb. I asked if he could help me overcome my delusion and finally accept the loss. He nodded with warm confidence.
“I need to help you come to grips with this terrible loss. It’s totally understandable. After you finally accept it, the unexplained impulses to harm others will immediately fade away. Rest assured, you wouldn’t have actually hurt anyone anyway. It’s just a subconscious frustration manifesting itself in the safest possible way to vent (via a phantom, nonexistent arm).”
My mind reeled. He saw it so clearly. For the first time in weeks, I felt relief. Maybe I wasn’t a budding homicidal maniac after all. It wasn’t clear how he was going to get the message across to my unaccepting subconscious, but the esteemed doctor obviously had a master plan. We made some small talk for a couple minutes until there was a knock on the therapy room door. His assistant came in with a large canvas bag from a hardware store chain.
“Oh yes! That will do perfectly. Thank you, Cynthia. We are about to do some unorthodox, experimental exercises with these visual props. Mr. Pierce may become emotional and cry out during the therapy. If you hear any raised voices, please just disregard them. I hope we can have a breakthrough for him. It’s imperative we are not disturbed.”
His assistant nodded slowly while raising an eyebrow in curiosity. She couldn’t imagine what her boss had in mind, and frankly that went for me too. I was especially startled when he brought a large camping hatchet and chopping block out of the shopping bag. Before I could ask him about them, he raised his hands to calm me.
“Intellectually you know your arm is missing, right? You can see that it’s gone and you know that there is no one else to blame for it. It was an accident, but your subconscious mind is stubborn and wants to pin the blame on someone. It doesn’t want to let go of that tremendous anger and it doesn’t want to accept you are an amputee now. To reinforce that your arm is really gone, I want you to stretch the phantom limb over this chopping block and ‘hack it off yourself’ with this hatchet. Once your eyes relay that the missing appendage is removed (by you), it will let go of the misplaced blame on others and accept the truth. It’s the only way your subconscious can come to terms with the devastating loss. The removal of the phantom limb must come from you.”
It was one hell of a speech and the explanation sounded logical but I was very reluctant. It seemed like a dangerous maneuver. The doctor tried to reassure me. He suggested that any hesitancy on my part was my subconscious trying to avoid accepting the inevitable. My jitters were really a last minute ‘hail Mary’ to avoid coming to final terms with the loss.
With a shaky hand I accepted the hatchet from him and tried to force my rebellious ‘arm’ over the block. There was a fierce war going in my head. I could see the doctor (out of the corner of my eye) observing the unorthodox therapy from a few feet away. He was transfixed. I think he saw his idea as revolutionary and groundbreaking. In the symbolic gesture of ‘severing off’ my already severed arm, he was sure my mind would finally accept the loss and stop projecting anger at others.
He was wrong. Dead wrong. I blacked out. I have no firsthand knowledge of what happened next but the doctor videotaped all the sessions with his patients for official records. I’ve since watched the gruesome bloodbath a number of times during my hearing and the subsequent murder trial of Doctor Berkeley. It was hard to argue with video evidence but I swear it wasn’t really ‘me’ swinging that hatchet in the footage. I was possessed by the will of my phantom arm as it fought for its existence.