I once accidentally (accidentally!) took twice the maximum daily dose of Wellbutrin, a non-SSRI antidepressant even more poorly understood than the usual ones. The nurses passed a bag of saline through my arm and held me overnight for observation. They were kind, pleasant–I had the sense that they were providing the maximum deserved amount of care for someone who was taking up a bed as a result of their own ineptitude. The overdose itself was awful, but the shape that awfulness took was more immediate. Not too many people out of the general population fly off the floor with a drug like Wellbutrin, and of the fraction that has, they don’t tend to write about it. Instead, we have reports of the experience from the outside.
Our eyes can’t see inside of other people, but they can see what other people do, and in this case they see seizures. A typical bupropion overdose is an escalation of the seizures that occasionally occur even at therapeutic doses. Remarkably, I had none, at least not while anyone was looking – instead, I was preoccupied with something more singular.
I’ve lost enough of the direct memories that I can’t play back the experience in my mind, but the totality of it is superimposed onto itself, hours and hours of far too much feeling turned into a video stripped of time: something moving, but all at once. I’m glad, then, that the discharge paperwork quoted me directly: “the patient reports “itchiness inside of her brain”, or something to that effect. The wonder of it all! Itching – the precursor to scratching, physical, the earliest sign that something’s wrong, get it out, out, out – but in my brain. So rarely do we feel in our brains: we stick needles and probes in there in the course of medicine, but we don’t feel cold steel sharing space with our childhoods and our sexual hang-ups. Instead, we walk away from a coma or the extraction of a tumor with a newfound love of German, or a sudden aversion to toast.
It’s for this reason I know that what I experienced was likely hallucinatory, but even as a hallucination, I felt it palpably, felt it totally, even. What I experienced, even if it could be committed to the medical literature on overdoses of Wellbutrin, isn’t something that could be described in its own right, rendering it instead a medical MacGuffin to satisfy conventions both institutional and grammatical. “Patients sometimes report itching inside their brains” is a wonderful sentence that, in this context, is robbed of wonder, even curiosity. Pragmatism, I know–taking the time to understand this sort of mystery doesn’t help silence the ward. And yet, it’s the only thing worth knowing.
I had not imagined, but had felt, sensation in a place I am not equipped to sense. Perhaps there are other impossible sensations to be felt like this: feeling in places where one cannot feel, things to see outside of light. And, with that, I started seeing what I always had been seeing, what you see too: snow, coruscating like dead-channel static, suspended through everything around me.
That isn’t my turn of phrase; it’s one commonly used to describe Visual Snow Syndrome. The Journal of Neuro-Opthalmogy and Neuro-Otology recently put it this way in a recent review: patients see the “snow and flickering similar to what was between television channels”, have the “inability to suppress the just-seen”, the “inability to suppress the visualization of the optic apparatus”. The journal, however, isn’t terrifically interested in describing what’s actually being seen – the most relevant part is that Visual Snow Syndrome takes up the whole visual field. The authors, Puledda et al., are much more concerned with practical answers, and (very cautiously) suggest that the broad prevalence of secondary symptoms among sufferers points to the existence of a unique and common syndrome. But despite the evidence, people with the syndrome remain the only ones who can see it. Eye examinations turn up fine, even the fancier ones involving an array of electrodes. One of the few features of Visual Snow Syndrome that we’ve been able to get to show up on a screen (in exactly one study) is “hypermetabolism of the lingual gyrus”, and I have no fucking clue what that means, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.
The kind of “patient reports” – vlogs – that you can find on the Internet tend to follow the same pattern, cribbing the language used in the Wikipedia article to describe their own subjectivity, much as their doctors had. The key differentiations are in severity. I get off easy – I can still drive. One kid I found saw so much that he was functionally blind. The site I found him on was the sort of mom-and-pop Charitable Incorporated Organization created to “actively raise public awareness of Visual Snow Syndrome” to “help patients, friends, and family understand and come to terms with their symptoms”. The goal, per their About page, is to “see a world where sufferers are given a clear diagnosis the very first time they seek medical help, rather than being left in the dark for years”.
A pop-out box when you first visit the site informs you that they are in the middle of proctoring an “unprecedented” survey of sufferers of Visual Snow Syndrome, with their cohort, I guess, being people already drawn to visiting an advocacy site on an already obscure condition. What’s your age, gender, country of residence, please check the boxes to describe exactly how the world distorts for you, does it hurt? When did it start hurting? What does it hurt like? Does it hurt your parents, too? Do the doctors believe you when you say it hurts? Do you believe that, one day, it will stop hurting? Spell it out, please. If there were a microphone, we’d ask you to speak clearly into it; if there were a camera, we’d need you to look into it.
The focus on pain, suffering, and incapability is what surprised me here, though I understand why they’re doing it this way. Philanthropy is visited upon those who can produce the loudest and clearest picture of suffering, ideally one that supports universalizing every aspect of the condition. There’s not much here to garner institutional interest when some people can go their entire lives without realizing that they have the disorder in question, even if it’s disabling for those who experience it the most acutely. My suspicion is that if we want to understand the snow, we need to let ourselves actually see it, sit with it without expectation or pretense, and provide some record of the sensation that isn’t trying to prove itself. In making appeals to describe what your average person can experience, or a description of our abnormality that your average doctor can work with, we lose the colors themselves. We deny ourselves permission to let our experiences be real, and instead we beg for that permission from the people we hope can help us. But if we trade our experiences for something else, something palatable, easily understandable, something more readily able to be deemed objective, then we’re fundamentally asking the people who can help us to find a cure for something that doesn’t exist. We don’t see television – but if television is all people believe we see, perhaps it’s time we expand the term far beyond its boundaries.
So, sit with me. It’s time for a ritual.
We’ll start from first principles. The contract to see another world is to drown out the first; we’ll need darkness, running water. Lock the bathroom door, run the shower. Leave the lights off. Let it rain. The temptation is to close our eyes, but we’re not here to pray, so leave them open. If we close our eyes, we can allow ourselves the useful fiction that all this is somehow willfully imagined, but if we leave ourselves open, surround ourselves with nothing, and still see something, we know that what we’re seeing is real. Not real in the sense of something you can touch, of course, but real in the experiential sense, real as in something non-consensually imposed or imagined.
Shimmering, glimmering: the color of television. The metaphor gets close enough to the actual object of it: infinitely small dots flickering either gray or technicolor, constantly multiplying, dividing themselves, trading places with one another. What the metaphor misses is how unmercifully infinite they are. Focus on them for a second, and you’ll find that you can see a thousand miles outside your bathroom; if you crave vertigo, you can see that same distance if you press your face up against the wall. It’s terrifying, it’s beautiful, and then it just is: you will learn, if you haven’t already, just how quickly wonder and awe can be separated from the infinite.
I can’t remember the first moment I started seeing static and colors and private rolling clouds, but I do have a moment that comes to mind when I try to. My partner and I were nineteen, and we had both the aimless ambition of that particular age and the youthful lack of shame and abundance of energy required to achieve it; we both decided we were going to have a real Adult Date and see some art. We stayed at the Art Institute of Chicago until we both silently realized that we had no idea what we were doing, and so we went out onto the massive steel ramp in the back that brings you back down to Millennium Park. She leaned against the railing, set in relief by the sky around her, and I closed my eyes only to find that she was still there. She displaced the light around her as if she were submerged in it, and I, for some reason, kept my eyes closed, at which she giggled, a moment of added absurdity to a whole moment which itself, we knew, would not make any sense to anyone we explained it to. By my count, it took a good ten seconds for the haze around her to seep back in. I opened my eyes to see her again, and she asked what I was doing, and I couldn’t explain. But the truth was, I could. However illogical and impossible it was, I knew something that I didn’t before: the moment that she was gone, I could hold onto her for ten seconds longer than reality could give, ten seconds before she, too, would be taken by the color of television.
Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.