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.)

what the soul knows

I grew up on the Atlantic, a beach girl. It wasn’t until I was pregnant that I came to appreciate the marsh.

Just after the miscarriage, I abandoned my people at the sea, but on my way out the narrow strip of land that connects the island to the mainland, I pulled over to commune with the verdant greens of the marshland before heading for the mountains.

A Blue Heron looked back at me.

It was my mother who taught me to notice the signs.

I miscarried a second time in the mountains, conceived that child in a rancher beside a pasture filled with cows who woke us early each morning and filled the place with flies.

That ski house was ours “until the snow flies,” and it’s the smell of camphor that I remember most about it, and blood splattered on the ceilings.

“Just one more,” I prodded Casey. “It’s the last one.” It never was.

That place sat above a brook, and there was a brook beside the next place too, only sweeter–the brook and our small farmhouse beside it, caressing one another through winter and into spring, summer into fall and around and around again for 7 years that changed everything.

I conceived both sons in that house. Labored with them there, the second delivered in the tiny bathroom with the gabled dormer; the first transported to the nearest hospital over Hogback Mountain where a novice EMT attempted an IV in my right hand over the bumpy road.

The road from the farmhouse to the highway ran along the mighty Deerfield River which opened into the great Harriman Reservoir. Once or twice, Casey and I rode horseback alongside it, and often rode bikes with a trailer pulling kids.

The boys grew up in a timber-frame the next town over that they helped build just above Neringa Pond.

After a rain, you can hear the Whetstone move through the dam from their bedrooms, and I spend many a morning on the dock between the pond and the brook, letting my attachments go with the rushing water, or at its other end, where the Whetstone sits in meadow-like repose.

“Lay me down beside still waters,” comes to me when I commune with the silence there.

It’s a line from my Nana’s favorite Psalm, read at her graveside.

She was the one who brought me from the beach to her people’s place beside the Indian River Bay.

I never understood what she saw in it. There was no boardwalk. No ice cream trucks. No umbrellas. Nothing but sky and water and marsh and not another soul in sight no matter which direction you looked.

This past April I returned to the place for the first time since the accident. 40 years has transformed 42 wooded acres into more than a dozen waterfront homes with a similarly crowded view no matter which direction you turn, except to face the water.

I had to squint my eyes to feel what I’d once felt there, what I hadn’t known I’d found there.

Instead of joy, I felt distressed to see our old boathouse standing, and a dock in the same place where I stood alone as a girl with the entire world before me.

There are some things that cannot be taught.

There are some things that take time to realize.

There are some things only the soul knows.

Obligate Ram Ventilator

Last week I had a dream whose central metaphor was so potent that I woke with a gasp.

A huge shark careened through deep waters, blasting through everything in its path.

I sat up from my nap with a sudden stab of understanding, my hand on my heart, speaking aloud in hushed tones, to no one:

“This is how I move through life.”

It’s only now, days later, that I recall something I once heard about sharks. A quick Google search reveals that this is mostly myth, except for a few species, including the one my subconscious produced.

When did I become an “obligate ram ventilator?”

Before the question finishes in my  mind, a scene flashes from my childhood:

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6…”

If I make it up the curved path to the front door before 0, I won’t implode.

Only this time there is ice.

No one comes when I call.

I’m not sure what precipitated this game I played with myself. There was the new baby, number 4, neglected. There was the yelling in the room above me, waking me in the basement of our split-level. There was the belt over my father’s lap in the upstairs bedroom. There were the bottles poured down the drain of the kitchen sink. “Don’t let her get more.” There was the fire. Not the one lit by the sashes of our freshly laundered Christmas dresses dipping into the furnace on the otherside of my bedroom, but the fire across town, in the middle of the night, with all the sirens.

Just last year while working on the book, I looked into it. A kind librarian across the country happened to stumble upon another librarian whose elderly father had been a firefighter in Aurora in the early 70’s. He still had the clippings.

“Would you like me to scan them and send them to you?” she asked.

The boy, a kindergartener, had been thrown from the window. His older brother had gone back in for their sisters and parents. Everyone perished in the fire but the boy from my school. This is how I always remembered it.

But according to the clippings, I didn’t have it right.

It was worse than that.

I’ve already forgotten how.

Or maybe the game of counting down to zero was an effect of the movie theater at the new shopping “mall.” There were no ratings then. Almost 50 years later, I’m still haunted by what I saw on the screen. Age 9.

Or maybe it was the nightly news on the black and white television. Viet Nam.

Or the drills at school, crouching under desks. Or was that when my parents were in school?

If I could just get up the path and into the house fast enough, “5,4,3,2,…” I would not die. My grandparents would not die.

The stakes were higher when I made it about my grandparents.

Is ritual akin to prayer?

The day I fell on the ice and broke my arm, I failed at my mission of protecting everyone.

This is why the truck crushed my grandmother’s car with my aunties inside, just like the truck that took tiny Gumdrop’s life when she dashed out the front door.

I am always on the lookout for what needs tending, for what has been forgotten, or will be forgotten, or might be forgotten.

If I keep moving.

If we keep moving.

Maybe then…