Phantom Selves and the Simulations You Stuck Them In

Is a part of you still living in a past event playing on a repeating loop?

Until a few weeks ago, a part of me was still dying. The power of the past to live on in my imagination was never so apparent. Although a year has passed since I finished chemotherapy and radiation, and the cancer, once at stage III-C, just a hair shy of untreatable, has withered out of view, I was still back in the infusion center, facing the end of my life, making edits to my will, wondering exactly how my body would expire and what may or may not await consciousness after death.

In stark contrast, when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I enjoyed a quiet day or two of ignorant contentment. I was actually dying, but that reality was still mostly beyond my apprehension. My experience continued to be that of life moving forward as planned. I left the clinic with a curious shrug and half-hearted concern as a gaggle of nurses, struggling to hide the alarm in their eyes, emphatically repeated, “We’ll be praying for you!”

“Um, okay. Thanks.” I drove home in a state of otherworldly euphoria, far from the red alert consuming the clinic behind me. The sun was shining. Everything felt fine.

To fully comprehend my situation, slowly, I built a world within my mind, piece by piece. With every bit of news, with every study I read, with every medical conversation, I shaped this world like a movie director or CGI artist. In this world, my body was traveling a short path to destruction, and the only thing that might avert that destruction was a sequence of treatments with a high probability of failure. That uncertainty appeared in my simulated world as something shaky. I could not stand on it or hold onto it as the river of time pulled me toward death, and en route, the unending flood of pain and fatigue validated the imagined sense that my life was effectively over.

Setting the Trap

This simulated world was established to represent my “actual” reality, the one first grasped by the nurses as I floated on in ignorance. As a mirror of reality, I took this simulation to be real. This meant that, to a great degree, much of my experience of cancer was my simulation of it. My experience and the simulation were one.

Because I created the simulation as a lasting comprehension of my reality, I put myself right in the center of it. In a sense, I cast a shadow of myself, a “phantom” self moving forward with me like a tethered clone, and put that phantom self into the simulation.

Then I left her there.

Time passed. My treatment began. I endured it. Eventually, it ended. Within months of that anticipated event, a PET scan revealed “no evidence of disease.”

I should have celebrated, but the bitter truth about cancer is that once you have it, you will never know if it’s completely gone for good. Recurrence is common. In the foreground of my simulation is a ticking clock marking probabilities and expectations, and the calendar of my life which once measured in volumes was thinned to pages.

My simulation of dying kept running. My phantom self, never imbued with full awareness or volition, remained trapped in it.

The Lump of My Dreams

Before my diagnosis, I had a vivid dream that I was walking through an unusual set of adjacent hospital buildings. In one building, rows of hospital beds lined the walls, all half upright. That scene made no sense at the time. I’d never seen a chemotherapy infusion center.

In my dream, a strange creature was hovering over one of the beds. I became aware that I was dreaming and stared at it with intense curiosity. Like a character from a Studio Ghibli movie, it looked back at me with cartoonish eyes. The more I stared at it, the bigger it got.

Looking back, I think this creature represented my cancer.

The creature followed me as I walked to the exit. It hovered in the air behind me like the ghost of a baby duckling, imprinted. I thought, “You don’t need to be here! You’re only allowed here because I believe you exist!” With that, somehow, I just stopped believing in its existence, and it faded away.

But even as it faded, some faint echo of it continued to follow me, invisible. As I walked out of the building, I could tell that little fellow was still with me, even though it had disappeared.

Fast forward 18 months, and indeed, though gone by every measure, cancer has tagged along in my mind, a character in my perpetual, background simulation in which I, as my phantom self, have been dying.

Out Damned Spot!

In Macbeth, the play by William Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth paces and panics as she tries to wash blood from her hands. Since committing murder, she cannot be free of it. Even as her hands are, in reality, no longer covered in blood, a spot always remains. Her guilt keeps the image of blood vivid in her mind; it is a key element in her ongoing simulation. She cannot wash away imagined blood. Hence, her cry: “Out damned spot!”

Last month, I had a CT scan to determine whether cancer had returned, and I had my own Lady Macbeth moment. I fully expected the worst. When I returned to the cancer center, the nurse entered the room with the expressions and mannerisms of someone giving no thought to cancer. She was, in other words, completely untroubled and seemed unaware of my anxiety. She delivered the news offhand, as though it were an afterthought.

“No evidence of disease.”

Again. I continue to be free of it. Meanwhile, the nurse and I had traded places, so to speak. I went about my day feeling as though my life were ending, while she dwelled confidently in the reality that I would continue on just fine.

This highlighted the distinction between actual reality and simulations. Sometimes, the two are aligned, but they may also be misaligned in either direction—leaving us blissfully ignorant of real dangers or falling apart over nothing.

What would it take, I wondered, for me to live as though I will continue living? No number of perfect scans, just as no amount of hand washing for Lady Macbeth, has rid me of the perceived danger. How do I get free of the damned spot?

What has helped, in fact, has been the simple act of recognizing my simulations as simulations. Realizing that I’ve been stuck in a loop has been, by itself, a key to the prison door.

Simulations Without an Ending

You may have one or many simulations running on an endless loop in the back of your mind. In these simulations you have trapped a phantom self, a portion of your whole self which retains a whisper of your essential consciousness. You are, in other words, still there facing the dangers or losses that once came your way. Whether those dangers have passed or persist, the simulation is always just a simulation.

Imagine these inner worlds, these deeply felt ongoing realities, as holodeck programs in the Star Trek universe. Ordinarily, characters can stop the simulation with a verbal command to the computer. On more than one occasion, characters have become stuck in the holodeck, and they had to find a way to end the program without their usual powers of command. In at least one episode, they had to solve the story before the program would end. The plot had to reach its intended conclusion.

Of course they succeeded, but some stories, some simulations, cannot be solved. The only real solution is to end the program as it is.

Even if I had perfect scans every month telling me not a speck of cancer remained in my body, I could never tell myself all danger has passed. The only solution is to end the simulation as it is. And so I have, or at least I’m trying.

Computer, end program.

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