Alan Wake II diary #1: slicing the pie

on spatial attention, situational awareness, and the terror of being perceived

official Alan Wake II desktop wallpaper

Yesterday I was still adding to my third Twitter thread of the night—every tweet about Alan Wake II!—when I finally stumbled upon a series of thoughts that isn’t appropriate for an essay, or even for verbally processing out in the anarchic wilderness of a microblogging platform. So I will plant them here, off the main thoroughfare, right in my own little corner of a community garden.
This is my first time using this particular Internet diary, although I set it up a year ago in anticipation of potentially someday wanting to facilitate an Overshare. Editing to add: Okay, now it is too much. I just finished my footnotes, and no, it was not intended as a House of Leaves homage to Alan Wake—it’s just what happened when I decided not to self-edit “as I go.” It also looks like I set out to write about psychedelia, which I very much did not. All mortifying. Peruse at your peril. Back to the original foreword.
Please rest assured, you aren’t in the wrong spot. This is a public diary, not a private one. If you have any thoughts or reactions, feel free to reach out! It won’t be an intrusion. But please know that, given the nature of such a journaling space, this won’t be polished or well organized, and I might mention stuff that feels like “whoa, jeez, lady, who asked?” But it’s Hallowseason, when the veil is very thin and sometimes ghosts do slip through (and since I don’t care about being too put together, I also like to let my metaphors clash).
This post is haunted by: ptsd & fibromyalgia (–), agoraphobia/vestibular dysfunction/spatial attention (–), chronic illness (–), simulated violence (+), religion (~), therapy (+), legal psychedelic usage (++); but is also spoiler-free.

This morning, Ted praised my Alan Wake II skills: “Now you’re just Normal-bad at Alan Wake, like a regular person!” I cheered—“yaaay”—glumly. Then Ted frowned. “There’s still some room for you to improve, though. Your situational awareness is really just…! Okay. It has to do with how you enter a room. Let me teach you how to—”

“STOPP,” I said, laughing. “I am traumatized. I enter rooms like I enter any room I’m scared of! Like a feral cat, trying to sneak all the way across a party to get to the bathroom. Watch, I’ll demonstrate.”

I left the room. Then I slid back into the room, but sideways now. I looked for the nearest corner. It was to my left. Then I slid along the wall until I’d successfully backed into my target corner. “Like I’m picking a seat at a restaurant,” I explained. That was it, the whole process, but Ted’s perfectly blank expression (and sad eyes) were communicating to me that he just wasn’t getting it. Perhaps I needed to slide more slowly?

“Wait, I’m not done,” I said. I searched for the next closest corner, and I slid along the wall to reach it. Then I zipped, fast, to a piece of furniture, and I hugged it with both arms, trying to disappear into it. “See? It’s constantly looking for the next safe haven until, eventually, you’ve zig-zagged all the way across the room. It’s playing tag! Home base. Dredge rewarded this exact style of play, which is probably why I loved it so much. It’s actually how you navigate space for most of Dredge, zipping from harbor to harbor, barely escaping death. Until the endgame, when you’re powerful enough to sail the full ocean at night… mighty enough to finally confront your horrors.” I patted my bicep, trying to illustrate my adequacy.

“I’m the real horror on these seas!” Ted said, in-character as Dredge’s protagonist.

I slapped a tiny invisible man—the protagonist—down with my giant right hand, flat into the palm of my left. “No. You’re not,” I said in my best Strongbad voice, grinding the little man down, one twist per syllable, with the heel of my palm.

That made Ted laugh. “Okay,” he said, suddenly seeming very serious—because I had not managed to trick him into forgetting his current mission—“but it has to do with your situational awareness. I’m going to show you how the Marines navigate spaces, to assess for threat.” (Ugh. Let me interject here that my situational awareness is at the maximum human level; I do, however, struggle with low spatial attention [1].)

“Look,” he said. “This is what we teach all the new Star Citizen players. The key is to see the enemy first, before they see you.” Um, obviously, I thought to myself, that’s why I’m always flush against the wall. But Ted wasn’t pressed to a wall. I shook my head, confused: He was standing right in the doorway, easily attackable from all sides. Embarrassingly, I didn’t understand that he was perceiving instead of avoiding being perceived. Predator, not prey.

Ted walked to the end of the hall, where the qi is terrible because there are four open doorways all aiming “poison arrows” at you (to appropriate the vocabulary of feng shui, I think incorrectly. Perhaps all four doorways are, instead, sucking you in—a poison vortex). In other words, it’s impossible to decide which entryway is the scariest one. “See?” Ted said. “Slice the pie. Slice the pie.”

He’d actually been repeating “slice the pie” for awhile now, and I still didn’t know what it meant. But now I could see that he was actually doing something. It was almost like Ted became the “poison arrow,” pointing himself toward each doorway to threaten them individually. (I wrote this before Ted sent me a diagram! It made my analogy into something literal, and now I do understand.)


“Oh, wow,” I said, beginning to see the strategy of it. “See, I’d just slide directly into this one doorway here, on the right,” I said, “because I’m honestly trusting the game designers to be kind enough to not ambush me from behind while I’m actively staying away from the opposing doorway.”

“That’s a bad bet,” Ted said with what was, I shit you not, a little chuckle. Nope. I was no longer onboard.

I didn’t realize at the time that I felt indignant; it’s more like slicing the pie suddenly seemed too hard. I pursed my lips and tried to think of a way to be gracious. Ted, meanwhile, continued to pantomime slicing the pie.

“That’s so interesting,” I finally said. “I… I’ll be honest, hon, I don’t think I’m ready to integrate this new teaching just yet. I only recently started moving through spaces with any confidence, and I think I might have to do it my way for a little longer before I can be effective at any strategy whatsoever.”

“Okay,” Ted said—brightly, but gently, being tender with me now.

“But it’s so interesting,” I said, veeeery slowly, “how… slicing the pie… means that you walk into the scene as if the space itself is real, and you’re the one that isn’t real.” In retrospect, Ted was performing agency for me, but as a “freeze, fawn, play dead” person, I saw it as unreal.

“It’s like you’re just the camera,” I continued. “It’s a really assertive, active way to navigate space. And the way I, well, the way I get lost all the time, it’s more passive, like… I’m the only thing that’s real, and the space has become derealized—derealization [2]. My first priority is to protect me”—I folded my arms across my chest, put my head down, and hunched—“and assessing for actual threat is secondary, because every space is a threat. OH MY GOD.” I returned to my full height, slapping a hand to my forehead. “I don’t believe it!” I shouted. I paused and looked at Ted.

Ted gave me a look.

Fine. I continued, “Allocentric vs egocentric movement memory [3]! This is why I started getting lost!” Now I was covering my face with my hands. “Because… because I didn’t always have poor spatial attention.” (Here I meant proprioception in conjunction with an intrinsic sense of True North.) “But when I got ptsd, my brain filtered out all the allocentric information, all the vestibular data, and I switched to purely ego-driven movement!” Okay: I’d switched to misappropriating the language of neurology but, still, we’re getting closer. “And what do we always say about trauma?”

“Trauma makes your whole world small,” Ted said nodding.

“Confined to the space of your own body,” I nodded back.

Ted and I were now speaking in shorthand, the kind that couples use so that we don’t have to constantly reiterate complicated ideas that we’ve both already accepted as universal truths. Limited to your own body, and too tuned into it, with your autonomic system at a constant 11 and nerves utterly frayed (demyelinated, actually [4]): this is the setting for a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Constant physical pain confines your world in a very literal, tangible way, by limiting your range of motion while also psychically stripping you of your will. In my case, it also makes me unpleasant to be near: Too exhausted to move, I don’t have the energy to be verbose. I become terse, mean, impatient. I don’t have the energy for grace.

I frequently ruminate out loud about how it’s ego, in fact, that is the source of all self-preservation instincts. (“You worry too much.” “But if I don’t worry about myself, who will?”) But if you kill off your ego entirely, you stop fearing death itself—you need a little bit of ego to keep alive and healthy. Too much ego, and you become overcautious, isolated, locked up in your own body. You freeze in time, just like Alan Wake in his Dark Place—no growth, no movement, just terror. And you realize, this isn’t writer’s block anymore, this has become terror.

The goal of psychedelic therapies, for ptsd and treatment-resistant depression, is “ego death” [5]. Ego loss [6] is temporary and unsustainable—unless you’re Buddha himself—but it turns off your limbic system just long enough to feel safe enough to briefly rest and heal. (If you’re a religious person, well, it lets you pause your story long enough to swap roles, to see your story from God’s skybox seat.) Yes—a momentary respite, exactly like “finding the light” in Alan Wake II.

Anyway, I went straight back to being indignant. “Also,” I said to Ted, “I’m not that bad at assessing where threat is. Listen, I can definitely case a joint. What are my two most powerful senses, out of six?”

“Hearing and smell,” Ted said. He was now standing two steps below me on the staircase, because we’d reached the point in my pontifications where my own beloved have started inching toward the room’s main exit.

“Right! Too bad I can’t smell my enemies in a game,” I sighed, turning away and holding my chin. “But I realized you’re right about the sound system.” At this, Ted fully reentered the room.

“AHA!!!!!” he said.

“At the preview event we got to use these fancy headphones, and they were cranked up. And the sound design is so good—spatially, I mean, with the surround sound?—so I whirled toward every rustle, every snap of a twig. That very first enemy in the preview, when he’s high above? I beamed him in the face before I’d even seen him. One guy disappeared into shadow, and BLAM, headshot before I actually saw him. Because they are always exactly where they sound like they’re standing. It’s amazing, it was seriously so helpful. But now I don’t have that. These speakers… flatten everything.”

“I told you!” Ted said. “We need surround, but noooo.”

“Well, I only just noticed,” I said.

[1] “All the Spaces Between Us,” my essay about dementia, agoraphobia, and other flavors of time/space disorientation; about the metaverse and therapeutic applications of virtual spaces and simulations; and about isolation in search of human connection. Kill Screen Magazine #3: The Intimacy Issue. January 2010.
[2] Derealization [via Wikipedia]:
“Derealization is an alteration in the perception of the external world, causing those with the condition to perceive it as unreal, distant, distorted or falsified. Other symptoms include feeling as if one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional coloring, and depth. It is a dissociative symptom that may appear in moments of severe stress.
“Derealization can accompany the neurological conditions of epilepsy (particularly temporal lobe epilepsy), migraine, and mild TBI. […] The instances of recurring or chronic derealization among those who have experienced extreme trauma and/or have post-traumatic stress (PTSD) have been studied closely in many scientific studies, whose results indicate a strong link between the disorders, with a disproportionate amount of post traumatic stress patients reporting recurring feelings of derealization and depersonalization (up to 30% of those with the condition) in comparison to the general populace (only around 2%), especially in those who experienced the trauma in childhood. Many possibilities have been suggested by various psychologists to help explain these findings, the most widely accepted including that experiencing trauma can cause individuals to distance themselves from their surroundings and perception….”
[3] Allocentric memory: the recall of external, visual info to orientate; “landmarks.” Egocentric memory: an internal “sense of direction” that relies on other types of sensory memories, including proprioception (the automatic estimation of how much space your body takes up, where your limbs are, which way you’re tilted). Looking back, I definitely misstated what egocentric memory was in the moment, but I still meant what I said insofar as my recall is internalized and not externalized.
[4] Expressions like “a raw nerve,” “frayed nerves,” and “a live wire” are not merely idiomatic. Like electrical wires, which carry signals and are insulated by little rubbery tubes, your nerves are encapsulated by myelin sheaths. Demyelination is an autoinflammatory process in which that insulation tubing around your nerves is destroyed. But the result is not merely “nerve pain.” Because the human body (or so modern medicine has discovered in recent years) cannot differentiate between physical and emotional damage, our amazing strange bodies treat unprocessed traumatic events like bodies would of any unhealed wound: The body attempts to literally heal the metaphorical wound, deploying all its resources. By this disease process, a body can enter a persistent inflammatory state, with persistently elevated white blood cells, like cytokines, on the offensive, going after as many systems as they deem necessary. This is just one disease process of chronic autoinflammatory disease, of which demyelinating diseases are merely one little example.
[4.1] But what does demyelination feel like? It feels like a constant panic attack: demyelination can disrupt—alter, divert, or stop—the signals being sent along the brain, spinal cord, and/or entire central nervous system. Besides changing your perception of the world (through changes to brain, eyes, and physical touch sensation), it can also affect mobility and “coordination”—of the body and its limbs, of course, but also of autonomic processes like the rhythm of heart and lungs.
[5] A common concept in religious/spiritual/mystical/New Age belief systems—but with deep roots in (that softest of sciences) psychology—“ego death” is the sudden feeling of tremendous resonance. It is a feeling of connectedness to the social fabric covering the history of civilization—which suddenly feels small and brief—and the vast ocean of the cosmos, which now feels regular-sized. Now you no longer want to “make your mark” or to “be remembered,” because everything will be remembered by Time herself, and someone will reenact “your” part in “your” story again and again, with the story flowing in both directions. You see the archetypes that you’re playing—just for now, temporarily—and you realize, “I don’t want anything! I just want to make two far-flung dots connect, as my forebearers were tasked to do.” (In the words of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, “I want to be part of the people that make meaning […]; I don’t wanna be the idea.”)
[5.1] Can you believe in all of this—a type of determinism, a type of fate, that all of human history is as predictable as a 22-card deck—and still lead an ethical life? This is the concern that never stops haunting me, and it gets louder even when I’m feeling hopeful. While every archetype is, indeed, morally neutral (in that all “types” must exist, must participate, and “have value”), there seems, peculiarly—in the dark of the room, lost in thought, gazing at the shadow puppets playing out a story on Plato’s flickering cave wall—that there really is a duality, that it isn’t just some simplistic, moralistic, binary metaphor of good v evil, and that there is always an antisocial, power-hungry murder cult that needs to be shut down before more people are hurt.
[5.2] This feels like a dangerous answer—excuse me, who is “us” and who is “them,” exactly? Who are my people? What am I looking for? The more questions I have, the darker the cave wall gets. It won’t answer me. Finally, I understand. Well, I’ve always been a bad interviewer: overprepared, pushy, an accidental agenda. I shut my mouth, quiet my mind, close my eyes, and listen. At last, she answers in the stillness: Your first job is only to know what you value most. Then be ever-cautious, be discerning, be vigilant. And then what? Then, the rest. And when will it start?
[5.3] Oh, my poor, precious kitten: you were never the mother and always the child. I know how much you’ve always wanted to help out. But you were trying to carry the bricks—with your butterfingers and your noodle arms—and you wouldn’t stop dropping them on yourself. We politely pretended not to see, but then you laid down in the town square and yelled “okay I’ve had enough, I’m really bleeding here,” and we took you home and put you to bed and locked your front door for you. And then you got scared of us and just… moved away one night. No one asked you to be the brick-carrier. The opposite! We asked you to not be the one carrying the bricks. Why did you keep picking up the bricks? Were you just striving to show us that you can carry bricks?? We already have a guy moving bricks! It’s Steve, over there, with the cart.
[5.4] When will you understand that just this, right now, is enough? Just for right now.
[5.5] Permanent ego death—not in glimpses, but a permanent transcendence—is the aim of certain major religions of the world. And while it’s true that attachment is suffering, and to not be attached to anyone would mean becoming Godlike in His abundant apathy… I can’t help but believe that it’s equally important to become small, tiny, to go down to Earth and suffer and bleed and understand and fucking help us. My heroes—Jesus, Jizo, Fred Rogers—chose not to transcend. They didn’t want to be god, they wanted to help.
[5.X] “I’m becoming very worried about the fact that I haven’t experienced ego death yet,” a friend once said to me. “Ah,” I said. “Yeah, of course. Just remember… that nothing… is supposed to happen.”
[6] “Ego loss”—that is, when the death of the ego is just a half-hour vacation, and then that ego gets right back on a Greyhound bus and is now on your doorstep waving at you—is an explicit reference to therapeutic or recreational applications of “psychedelics.” For a complete explanation of the history of psychedelic drug use in the treatment of PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, and chronic or terminal illness, see How to Change Your Mind.
[6.2] I can also anecdotally tell you most of my neuropathic symptoms have remitted. Officially, the reason is unclear. But off the record, ketamine “ameliorates demyelination and facilitates remyelination” in lab mice, while simultaneously apparently restoring their heretofore weird-ass gut microbiomes.