The Return (Alice in Wonderland Syndrome)

A gulf of understanding opens wide between me and my partner, and soon after, I fall into the rare, but familiar Return of something I’ve carried with me since I was a little girl.

Previous encounters with this phenomena, over a lifetime, combined with consciousness work and the support of a loving spouse (and healing practitioners), have left me more and more curious and less and less terrified.

For the very first time, I stay, without turning away.

My husband is beside me, under the covers, but he feels miles away or alternately so close that I am smothered by his presence.

I deepen into the strong witness that I’ve cultivated over years of therapy and bodywork and yoga and meditation.

I begin to narrate my experience. To remind myself that I am not alone. That I am the witness, not the experience itself.

“Should I call for help?” my husband asks, panicked.

“Shhhh,” I reply. “I’m trying to stay with this. I have to stay with this if I’m going back to West Point.”

I am so, so small, I tell him, and so, so far, far away—down a narrowing tunnel, crouched alone, like the night after the fire, when I hid in the cement crawl space under the stairs and trembled with the realization that a little boy could be left alone, that his family, even his mother and father, even his sisters, even his brother who first rescued him, could burn, so close to my house, not far away, on the television set, in a black and white place called Viet Nam.

And now, I am so, so large, I tell my husband, filling up all the space around me. Like the Ghost of Christmas Present from the Muppets Christmas Carol—a jolly giant who overtakes the tiny room in which he arrives, laughing, with no memory of anything past.

This large presence is like a fireworks display, which fans out above in wonder, and then expands, larger and larger, until it falls, ominously toward me before fading into the sky.

Or the time I had the fever. Two different times. Once in the summer at my grandparents house, in the master bedroom, under the covers of their bed–a bed which grew larger and larger–entombed by the roar of air condition and the blood pulsing in my head–while the black and white television set, across the room, grew tinier and tinier as it moved further and further away.

And then again, in Colorado, when I was older, and the shelves from the storage room moved toward my bunk bed and away again. Back and forth, back and forth.

“I can’t tell where you end and I begin,” I tell my husband. “Or if there is any me at all.”

“It’s your calmness that’s frightening,” my husband says.

“I am really afraid,” I say. “But I have to stay with this, and I can’t if I have to worry about you.”

What is this largness I feel? I ask. It’s like I’m a big thumb. Like those images of that weird-looking little guy with the big thumb.

“Do you know what I’m talking about?” I ask my husband.

“I don’t,” he says.

“It starts with an H, like humulougous or something. It has to do with the brain or nerve endings.”

“You’re making me nervous,” he says.

“It’s a real thing. I saw it in a yoga book. I’m like that big thumb right now.”

No, no, actually I’m more like a boulder, I say.

Actually, it’s not all of me.
It’s just my head.
It’s my head that’s so huge.

It’s so heavy.

I can barely lift it.

Like cement.

Like the crawl space in Colorado after the fire.

My head is so full and so large and so… numb. The family that burned. Viet Nam. The movies of the world ending. The Bible stories. The Devil.

“This is how I felt when I got the news,” I say. “About the accident. Apocalypse.”

“When someone dies,” I continue, “Someone who is that close to you, someone who means that much to your life, it’s like the world as you know it ends.

“I’m so sorry,” my husband says. “Are you alright?”

“My head is pulsing right now,” I say. “I think it’s a good thing. It’s not so big.”

“Good,” my husband says.

“I’m in the plane. In the back seat. My dad is crying in front of me. The carpet is brown.”

“You’ve never shared this before,” my husband says.

My head is softening, I say. It’s beginning to settle down.

I can hear the sound of the engine in my head. It’s all around me. Everywhere.

I can’t feel a thing.


(Of note: This piece was written a handful of years ago in connection to a work of memoir I’ve been developing. I’ve posted the piece now upon discovering that it apparently describes something called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AWS) or Todd’s Syndrome in the hope that my experience and exploration of it might help shed greater understanding.)

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