Friday, June 12, 2009

The Man Who Woke Up in the Third Person

He awoke on the morning of his fortieth birthday and knew right away that there was something wrong. He wondered where he was. Not where he was physically – he was lying in bed, surrounded by familiar walls – but where he was. His subjective faculties seemed to have evaporated – his self, his ego, whatever it is that made him the protagonist in the story of his life. It was as though he'd exited himself and was now dully observing the experiences of the thing that once was him.

What had become of I? He dimly remembered being I the night before, just as he'd been since he was born, or at least been able to remember. He was pretty sure it wasn't he who'd brushed his teeth and gone to bed; it was I. I this, I that. The way it's meant to be. But this morning, I was gone. He lifted his right arm and gazed at his hand. This is his hand, he thought, helplessly. He's holding up his hand and looking at it. It was incontestably his hand, not my hand. He's starting to freak out a little, he thought. How could he have lost his self? Where did it go? How could he get it back? As he pondered these weighty questions, he realized with some concern that he didn't care that much. He didn't care enough. He cared about as much as he would if this were happening to someone else. Which, it seemed to him, it was.

He watched himself get out of bed, make coffee, perform his usual routine. He called in sick to work. His boss, Mike, answered.

"Hi Mike. It's Chris."

"What's up, Chris?"

"He won't be able to come in to work today."

"He? Who's he? You?"

"Yes. Him."

There was a pause.

"OK. Are you OK?"

"He hopes so. He just needs a day off, he guesses."

"Why are you referring to yourself in the third person? Are you fucking with me?"

"He has to, Mike. He's sorry." Chris cleared his throat, knowing the odd effect his words must be having but incapable of using any others. "The first person seems to be gone."

Another pause.

"He's serious," Chris continued. "He's sorry. He's not kidding."

"OK, Chris. Just try to get some rest or something."

"Thanks, he says," he said. "He'll see you later."

"Bye!" said Mike with a puzzled laugh.

Now Chris dialed his psychiatrist's office. The receptionist, Sonia, picked up.

"Sonia, it's Chris Mitchell. He has an emergency."

"Who are you?"

"Chris. He's Chris."

"Why are you seeing 'he'? Who's he?"

"He is him, Sonia." Chris was sweating now, lost in the depths of his confounding malady. He always did sweat a lot, he thought.

"Wait a minute. Tell me who you are."

"Chris. Mitchell."

"OK. And who has the emergency?"

"Chris Mitchell."

"Uh, OK. OK, Chris. What is the emergency?"

"He thinks he's stuck in the third person. He thinks that's what happened."

"Is that why he – you – keep saying 'he'"?


Sonia made an appointment for him later that afternoon. That meant a few hours of this strange new truth to endure alone. Well, not exactly to endure. To watch himself endure.

He decided he should lie back down. He decided he should lie back down.

What was he going to do about this? What did it mean? he thought, staring at the ceiling, with the faint yet vexing water stain in the far right corner. He's thinking about the water stain again, he thought. In fact, he's thinking about the fact that he's thinking about the water stain. The more he thought, the more he realized that he could, in fact, not "think" about anything. He could only think about thinking, he could only observe or experience anything from degrees away. One degree if he was lucky. He felt like he was three or four steps removed from what was happening now, what was happening now, what was happening now, what was happening now. Like he was reading a book about someone watching a TV show about someone watching the movie of his life. That's how far away he was from him. He was the actor in the movie, not mehe was the person who used to be me. Now I was spiraling away through layers of reality, with no sign of any end.

He began to feel nauseous. Somehow, he managed to drift off to sleep.

When he awoke he felt much better. In fact, he felt something glowing within him and radiating out his limbs. Was he cured? He thought about it. He thought about whether or not he was cured, he thought, and realized he was not. And yet, he felt whole in a sense that was both unfamiliar and undeniable. He thought he might have located I again, but not where it was supposed to be. He watched himself check the clock. It was time to go.

Driving in his car, he felt a dawning kinship with the occupants of every other car and the people on the street. He identified more with them, he realized, than with the strange and lonesome ghost whose eyes he saw them through. He parked in the medical center lot and went inside.

"Hi Chris," Sonia said.

"Hi," Chris replied. "How am I?"

Sonia smiled. "You're just fine!"

"No, no, not him. Me. How am I?"

Sonia stared blankly at him. He was convinced, more than he had ever been of anything in the world, that he was her. More specifically, that the deepest part of himself now rested within her.

"Have a seat, Chris. Doctor Manning will see you soon," Sonia finally said.

"Thank me."

When Chris entered the doctor's office, he had exactly the same feeling about him that he'd had about Sonia. This was not Doctor Manning. This was him.

"What's been going on, Chris?" the doctor asked.

"He's me. And he's me, too!" Chris said, pointing towards the door in the direction of Sonia's desk.

"Slow down. Who's 'he'?"

Chris pointed to himself.

"And who are you?"

Chris immediately pointed to the doctor, and then back at the door, and then out the window in various directions, indicating his profound conviction that he was everyone out there.

"Chris, you're suffering from a very rare disorder called subjectivity fugue. I'm going to write you a prescription."

The doctor clicked his ballpoint pen and scribbled on his pad. He handed the slip to Chris.

"Take one of these pills tonight and you'll be yourself tomorrow morning."

"I'm an amazing doctor," Chris blurted.

"Thank you Chris."

"He'll see me next week."

"That's right," the doctor smiled. "We'll see each other next week."

Chris got the prescription filled on the way home, watching in a daze as he took his insurance card, as he handed him the package with the pills inside. He was the surly teenager on the sidewalk outside, he was the old lady walking her dog, he was each half of a bickering couple getting out of his car. He was every human being, doing everything they do, feeling everything they feel, suffering, lusting, hoping and despairing. His consciousness stretched out around the world and penetrated every single person everywhere.

When he got home, he slammed the door shut, trembling. He knew he had to take the pill. He knew he knew he had to take the pill. But did he want to? Did he want to? If he were him, would he want to? What did he want him to do? Did it matter, really? Clearly, it didn't. What benefit might there be to reentering this shell, this deteriorating soul trap with its petty comforts and its woes? Was it not better to observe it from afar, through billions of other eyes? Did he care? What did he want?

He sat on his couch and thought about it all a little more. Thought about thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking about it. He watched himself noticing the blinking light on the answering machine and getting up to play the message.

"Chris, it's Mom. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Chris, happy birthday to you! Haven't heard from you in a while, how have you been? Things are good here, Dad's getting better. The azaleas are in bloom. Give us a call. We love you."

For the merest fraction of a second he was jolted back into himself, into a realization that he might yet be himself, that it was not impossible nor undesirable for him to clamber back into this vessel and to continue to meander down its senseless path. He opened the pill bottle, quickly so he would not have time to interfere with himself, don't think, don't think, don't think, don't think, and he was a bit surprised to see himself pop one in his mouth and swallow hard.

I woke up early the following morning. I was looking through my eyes. I was turning my head, I was making a fist. I was thinking about my job. I was remembering my childhood. I was hungry. I had a hollow feeling in my chest. I was sad. I was aware that I had given something up, something enormous, something priceless. But I was me.