Fiction ยท 02/18/2015

A Certain Synesthesia

You’re fairly certain that a sudden ability to see other people’s pain as colors isn’t listed as a potential side effect of Evalia, the new arthritis drug prescribed by your doctor last week. The day after you first punch the pen injector against your thigh and feel the viscous liquid bruise its way into your fatty tissue, you begin to see rainbow colors glowing beneath people’s skin. Some folks are as radiant as neon signs; others are muted, faintly pastel. But every person you see is tinged with colors not usually found in human skin. 

You notice it on your housemate first. She has returned from a long bike ride, and her wrists are glowing with a crimson light below the sleeves of her insulated windbreaker. Before you can ask about the color — is this some new Burning Man-related bio-tech or something? — she mentions that she’s got to get her handlebars changed because her wrists are killing her. As she stands at the kitchen counter gulping water, you note that her face has a jaundiced cast, which dissipates as she hydrates. Later that evening, after she’s taken a few Advil, her wrists have faded to a light mango. You go to bed early, telling yourself that maybe you’ve just had too much medical marijuana.

The next day, a man waiting at the bus stop glows indigo wherever you can see his skin. He is unkempt and barely looks up from his shoes when the bus arrives. A woman passes carrying a baby; her shoulders, bare in a tank top, are mottled in a splotchy pattern that shifts from apricot to peach to gold as she moves. The whole street looks like a scene rendered in Lite Brite. Everyone is lit up to some degree, different colors of different intensities on different parts of their bodies. The colors sometimes blend and overlap, but mainly they seem to indicate different types and degrees of pain.

Over the following days, you develop a decryption system. Red is acute pain that fades to orange then yellow as it subsides. You term this the “terror alert spectrum,” in keeping with your therapist’s advice to find humor where you can. Blue indicates emotional pain, and purple is mental or intellectual pain; these often overlap and blend. Green is the hardest to figure out, until you realize that most of your joints and muscles have a decidedly green cast, mingling with the sharp reds and oranges of whichever joint is hurting at the moment. Then you have it: green is chronic pain — the aching, unrelenting, dull throb of sensation you learn to block out or just deal with, the uninvited houseguest who cleans out your refrigerator and then bangs the pots and pans together to keep you up all night. A low drone that slowly drains your energy. Your entire body glows in shades of green ranging from pine to lime, and you are speckled with reds, yellows and oranges like a frog. 

Since the onset of the ability to see these colors coincided with your first Evalia injection, you check the literature that came in the box. After reading through the possible side effects — which include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, vision impairment or loss, incontinence, impotence, insomnia, irregular menstruation, miscarriage, heart murmur, blood clot, stroke, and death — you are mildly terrorized, but conclude that other than the “vision impairment” category — which doesn’t really apply because you’re seeing these colors so vividly — your new perceptive powers are not on the list. 

Still, you can’t help but feel that there’s a connection with the new drug. And you’ve got to hand it to the people over at the Evalia factory — this is a new one. 

You should know, because you’ve had what you would describe as considerable experience with arthritis drugs over the years. It started when you were eight: a mysteriously swollen knee that wouldn’t get better, an ace bandage, a stone-faced Eastern European orthopedist, a giant needle, a puncture at once aching and acute, a draw of crystalline fluid off the knee, a solemn pronouncement by the doctor: “This looks like JRA.” You didn’t have to know what the acronym stood for to understand that your childhood was over. 

Life became regimented by the disease. Physical therapy exercises your parents made you do three times a day. Physical therapy in a hot pool twice a week during normal PE hour at school. Swim team three times a week — only water exercise from now on. Monthly visits to both the pediatrician and the rheumatologist. Monthly blood tests. Summer camp for kids with limited mobility. Positive attitude. 

You failed to get better.

But nothing failed as spectacularly as the drugs. And you hated the drugs most of all — for the chalky, bitter taste of the pills on your tongue before you swallowed them, for the stomach aches, the insomnia, the headaches, the general feeling of nastiness they left in the back of your mouth. You tried a whole rainbow of them: all manner of anti-inflammatories in combination with methotrexate, then the new biologic drugs that came onto the market a decade ago, which have worked better than anything so far. You’ve sipped various cocktails of these drugs over the years, becoming tolerant to one and replacing it with another, mixing it into the rest of your regimen of supplements, medical marijuana, qi gong, acupuncture, meditation, physical therapy, and lap swimming. You’re walking OK these days, but none of the new biologics has quite performed as your doctor would like. So you agree to try Evalia. 

Less than 24 hours after the first injection, you feel like Alice stepping into Technicolor when you walk out your door.

By the time you’ve double-checked the list of side effects of Evalia, your forehead is a bright shade of lilac. You’re sure glad for the therapy you’ve done to get over the crippling anxiety that things like lists of potential side effects used to cause you. Still, the colors lighting up your entire body depress you. You’ve lived with rheumatoid arthritis for almost 30 years now and you are still young. How will you bear all the pain that is to come? 

Staring into the mirror, you discern, underneath everything, an abiding cerulean — as bright a blue as blue can be, but blue nonetheless. With a mixture of dismay and shame, you are forced to admit that the sorrow you think you so valiantly hold at bay colors everything you are and everything you do. It is the exact shade of your eyes.

You put in a call to your doctor. When she calls you back, you begin with, “I know I sound crazy, but you’ve known me long enough that I hope you’ll hear me out.” 

To her credit, she listens to your account of the colors without scoffing or dismissing you outright. 

“Well,” she says, “I can’t imagine that Evalia could be causing this — change — in your vision — do the colors seem like hallucinations?”

“Not really,” you say, wondering if she’s trying to ask if you’re using psychedelic drugs. “The colors seem pretty real.”

“Hm,” is her only reply. You hear her tapping into her computer, taking notes about your case. You’re not sure whether to feel reassured or alarmed. “I have quite a few patients taking Evalia,” she continues, “But I haven’t heard any reports of anything like this.” 

You tell your doctor your theory: maybe the Evalia has triggered some latent genetic mutation to express itself, just as they think that your genetic propensity for RA might have been triggered by a virus. She listens politely, but says she isn’t willing to speculate about that. 

“I’m more interested in how Evalia is working for your arthritis,” she says. 

You almost haven’t noticed that you’re walking with a lot more ease and waking up fewer times in the night with pain, but you glance down at your right knee — the first joint involved — and notice that not only is it much less inflamed, it has faded from cherry red to mustard. “Um, actually, I think the Evalia’s working pretty well so far,” you tell her, and she makes a satisfied sound and takes more notes.

Your doctor quizzes you about other symptoms, but you don’t have headaches or dizziness or incontinence or stroke or death. She seems satisfied that nothing bad is going on with you, and recommends that you continue taking Evalia unless you have any more strange effects or the hallucinations get worse. She does refer you to an ophthalmologist, a neurologist, and a psychiatrist for testing, just in case.

The eye exam is easy. Your vision is still 20/20 and the wizened old ophthalmologist — after gazing into the depths of your eyes through his scopes as if he could see into your soul — reassures you that there is nothing wrong. 

The neurologist examines you and orders brain scans. Everything comes back normal. He has no theory about the colors. 

“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he confesses. 

You can tell he doesn’t entirely believe you.

Trying to demonstrate that you are a well-read, intelligent person, you tentatively mention synesthesia, and your theory that maybe Evalia has triggered some crossing of wires in your brain between visual perception, empathy, and pain. 

This provokes no response from the doctor. 

You mention Nabokov, which doesn’t seem to help your cause. 

The neurologist simply nods and says, “I don’t really know much about synesthesia. Not really of clinical interest.”

“What I’m trying to say,” you pursue, “Is that your lumbar spine is glowing such a bright red that I can see it through your clothes and your lab coat.” 

The neurologist rubs the area and winces, but merely recommends that you go see a psychiatrist. 

You tell him not to worry, you already have a referral. 

You wonder if this might be it. You’re finally cracking. The stress and strain of living with a chronic illness since childhood and all its ramifications on your life — you can’t do jobs that involve physical activity, you have to sleep a minimum of nine hours a night, you can’t conceive of having the energy or physical stamina to raise a child, you scare most men away when they learn that you have trouble carrying groceries and that there will be no sex in the shower, and then all the littler things like no dancing no running no hiking no biking no fucking high heels — all of this has finally caught up to you and you are going crazy. You thought you were dealing with it all in therapy, but maybe that has only been a band-aid over a much deeper wound. 

The psychiatrist evaluates you. He declares you to be a relatively well-adjusted individual — especially given the living with a chronic illness since childhood thing — with no indication of a chemical imbalance. Nonetheless, he offers to prescribe you either a mild anti-depressant or a mild anti-anxiety medication if you’d like. 

You ask if he really thinks that’s necessary, particularly in light of all the other medications you’re taking. 

He shrugs, says, “You seem both a little depressed and a little anxious. I have patients who are dealing with a lot less than you are who are happy to have the drugs, but it’s your choice. It might help with those colors you’re seeing,” he adds as an afterthought. The psychiatrist is one of the bluest people you’ve encountered thus far. 

You politely decline the prescriptions. 

Leaving the psychiatrist’s office, you feel both a soaring freedom — they didn’t find anything wrong! The doctor says you’re well-adjusted! — and a sinking in your gut. Thanks to therapy, you don’t fear doctors the way you used to — they’re just humans, like you, doing their best. But as usual, they don’t have the answers you need and they can’t really help you. 

You are beyond help.

You wander away from the clinic without a clear destination, noting that your knees don’t hurt too much as you walk downhill toward the waterfront. People look like walking acid flashbacks. You try not to look at them. You can hardly bear your own pain, let alone theirs. You wonder, somewhat dramatically, why you are being so afflicted with this enhanced awareness of human misery. Have you not been strong? Have you not met your destiny with good cheer whenever possible? Have you not been a poster child for how to live a full life in spite of chronic pain? You allow yourself to indulge in a momentary fantasy in which you are a character out of the Old Testament, whose seemingly arbitrary suffering is actually a parable that illustrates a larger lesson. Then you decide that, if the colors you see in the people around you are any indication, you are not suffering more than many. If anything, the thought is more depressing, because it means that there is absolutely nothing special about you.

At the waterfront, you are drawn toward an old woman whose body is so lit with different colors it looks like strings of bulbous Christmas lights have been wound around and around inside her skin. She is hunched before an easel, painting. You get close enough behind her to see that she is doing a landscape in abstract blurs. People are rendered much as you see them now, as mottled conglomerations of splotchy hues. You are mesmerized by the way she translates all that pain into something else and puts it on the canvas. Can she see the colors like you can? She turns, sensing you, and gives you a smile with several missing teeth. 

“Do you see pain as colors too?” you ask eagerly.

She shrugs, says, “No English,” rather cheerfully, and smiles again. Her eyes are the most beautiful shade of teal you’ve ever seen. As you smile back, you understand that this woman in front of you is dying. And you know that she knows it. You see it in the way her colors don’t stay still; they strain to burst from the surface of her skin. Moving when she moves and even when she doesn’t: her body an illuminated tapestry of amethyst, magenta, fern, saffron, chartreuse, salmon, vermilion. Her fingers holding the brush are orchid: the color of acceptance, you think. You are humbled by this woman and her painting. You would ask only to meet your own advancing age and eventual death with such grace. You give her something between a nod and a bow of respect.

The woman turns and continues painting.

It’s been six weeks now, and the colors haven’t abated. If anything, your ability to discern the pain in people’s bodies has sharpened. You are also walking with more ease than you have in years, and you feel more energetic. Your own coloring reflects the change, though you suppose your body will always have an undercoating of turquoise beneath the warmer colors. You begin to appreciate the shades of sapphire, azure, emerald, jade. They make you feel like you have a part of the ocean inside you.

At first it was excruciating to see other people’s pain marking their skin like living tattoos, but you’re getting used to it. Now, you notice more about people than just the colors. How the man with the amber limp holds himself upright and smiles at people on the street even though it would be easier to shuffle along looking down. How his undertone of periwinkle gets a little lighter when a woman smiles at him and helps lift his shopping bags onto the bus. How a mother hugging her daughter makes the little girl’s face shift from deep plum to a gentle lavender. You begin to notice that even the scorching shades of acute pain can be softened by human care and comfort. You treat everyone a little more gently now.

You no longer wish for your new powers of perception to go away, and when Evalia stops working to control your arthritis and you move on to the next drug, you continue to see the colors. Now you walk — or limp, depending on the day — through a world that is brighter, more astonishing, than you ever imagined it could be. 




Deborah Steinberg’s writing has been published in Monkeybicycle, Shelflife, The Café Irreal, Blood and Thunder, and other journals. She is the fiction editor of the online journal Rivet: the Journal of Writing that Risks and a founding editor of Red Bridge Press. Deborah lives in San Francisco, where she facilitates writing workshops with a focus on healing, serves on the board of the literary reading series Bay Area Generations, and sings in the a cappella group Conspiracy of Venus. Her website is