It was an overcast day, and I was walking through Bury St Edmunds with my best friend, Hugh. After lunch sometime, killing time before our scheduled afternoon classes. I don’t know the date or even the year — and Hugh is not sure he was with me at the critical moment. I think he was a few steps behind: certainly he joined me within a few minutes at most, but I recall talking to him immediately after the experience. Memory plays funny tricks.
I can’t recall precisely what we were doing — we had I think bought aniseed balls, but why we had strayed as far as Chequer Square I don’t know. I don’t know what we were talking about, what I was thinking or feeling, or why Hugh was a few paces behind (by my memory) as I looked left down the side of the cathedral, and saw myself looking back.
Not exactly — this is the memory I have of what I saw, and Hugh confirms it is what I said I saw…
A crocodile of school kids, rather strung out and disorganised, in St. James middle school uniform, walking towards me. The sun had come out, suddenly everything was warm, and the bright light bathed the scene. They were walking down the path from the gate that leads from the left side of the West Front towards my position, between St. James Church (the Cathedral) and the Norman Tower.
And I was among them, looking at myself. I was very neat, but my shirt hung out a bit (this was always characteristic of me) and I did not appear to notice myself looking back — only myself some five or six years older, a hippy looking type with shoulder length hair and a slouched demeanour very different to this upright young Chris I was viewing.
Frustratingly, I don’t know how the experience ended, I know I looked again and I was not there, and I think I asked Hugh if he saw me, and he looked at me oddly, and I told him what had happened, Hugh says he clearly recalls me telling him about the experience, but whether it was there, later in town when he met me, or even back at the school he can’t recall. He was concerned because I was clearly very upset and “not myself”. He remembers the realisation I was ill, and that we spoke at length before I went to my afternoon English class with I think Jill Curtiss back at KEGS. Hugh wasn’t doing English – he went off to his class — but by that time I was feeling very odd indeed, and was shaking a bit, had nausea, and a bad headache.
Our conversation revolved around the fact I thought my Middle School me would have hated my Upper School me – and now if it had seen me, the reason I felt so dizzy, “not me” and in fact downright odd might have been because previous-me was now making life changes that would result in now-me no longer existing. The fact that I claimed to have seen myself did not seem to worry Hugh – he was convinced I had, and intrigued, and I think we both thought our conversation was perfectly normal, which just shows how imaginative and odd we could be. The fun of the whole parallel time lines/ weird Dr Who type vibe was spoiled by my increasing anxiety, and the fact I felt absolutely awful. I was by the time I somehow made it up the stairs to my English class suffering from a stomach pain, legs like jelly, and a raging headache.
Was it Miss Curtiss or Miss Daniels who took that class? Again I have no idea. My friend Gary McFegan may well have been there — but I don’t know. What I recall was I was sitting by the door, facing across the room from the windows, and the dull light shining in seemed ridiculously and painfully bright, and it slowly dawned on me I had a fever. I could not look at the window, covered my eyes with my sleeve and began to retch.
Whoever took that class, they realised I was very unwell, and told me to go to the nurse, or home, or something. I offered no explanation, and think I just walked out of school and to my grandmother’s house, only a few streets away. There I recall sitting quietly in the dark of her front room with the curtains drawn, until somehow I was taken home to my parents, and went straight to bed. I don’t know if my parents knew I was ill – mum never took or gave pills, and so I was probably left to sleep it off. I have vague memories of flashes of pink and green lights, and of a raging headache. I never get headaches. This was incredible.
I think I missed a couple of days of school, because I felt like I had been through a tumble dryer. I ached from head to foot. I felt abysmal. Yet at no point was I running a temperature, and curiously it was only last night reading a book on hallucinations I finally understood what had happened back then. I had had my first migraine.
Most of my friends who suffer from migraine seem to do so regularly — at least not infrequently. I have had three migraines as far as I know, and the next one was in the early 1990’s when I lived at Hewlett Road, Cheltenham. Each one has hit me terribly hard, but there appears to be a decade or more in between them. However I have lived with migraine sufferers, and have seen their symptoms. I never realised however that what happened to me that day was a migraine induced hallucination — I had never heard of such a thing.
I think I would have forgotten the incident, putting it down to a trick of the imagination, if I had not been so ill afterwards. Oddly, despite having spent two decades of my life working on other peoples ghost experiences, and hallucinations, and having trained in psychiatric nursing in the early 90’s for a while, I have never thought of this as a ghost, or even a hallucination. I put it down to some wild hiccup of the mind. It had scared me badly, but nothing bad happened. Hippy Chris morphed in to CJ as we know me today, and that bizarre moment when I appeared to be seeing myself, well, it was an in-joke for Hugh and I to laugh over.
I was also frankly embarrassed. I have always prided myself on my rationality, and while I recalled a tale of Goethe seeing himself (or was it Schiller?), and probably knew even then that the doppelganger was an omen of the percipient’s death, it was easier to forget about it. I think I have told a handful of people over the years, maybe mentioned the experience in passing online, but I have never felt it “paranormal”. (Compare and contrast with my obsession with the event at Thetford Priory). Even now I hesitate to share the story, as it does make me sound nuts. The truth is of course that given the right conditions, we can all hallucinate.
So why do I think it a migraine? Well the symptoms I felt after the “vision” certainly sound like migraine to me now — though I’m no expert. Becky is making her final amendments to her PhD thesis, and is deeply involved in the mechanics of the apparitional experience right now, and I had picked up a pile of her books and was reading through them. Oliver Sack’s popular 2012 book Hallucinations was among them, and I was reading through it when I found the section on autoscopy, seeing your own body from outside, most commonly mentioned in Out of the Body Experience (OBE) research. I had noted years before the section in Green & McCreery’s classic Apparitions (1975) on what they term “autophany”, seeing one’s own apparition; and I knew the case from Gurney’s Phantasms of the Living (1886) of a lady called Sarah who alarmed herself and guests at diner one night by manifesting by the table! Strangely despite my own odd experience these cases had never really interested me much — but on reading Sacks book I suddenly realised the link between the migraine that followed the experience and my doppleganger vision.
It seems I am in good company — the great naturalist Carl Linnaeus had similar experiences, linked to his migraines according to Sacks. So did Goethe, though we know not if migraines was involved, and also Guy de Maupaussant, who wrote Le Horla. I have never had such an experience again, and in a sense I am relieved: there was a strong sense to me, however unreasonable, that my double was in fact hostile. Given I interpreted the experience in terms of a projected memory, or a timeslip — I considered both — that is actually quite odd. I quite like myself after all!
Migraine is just one reason for this kind of unpleasant experience, and a search on Google shows up several papers on the subject published in the last ten years. And yet, despite my immense love of studying the apparitional experience, and the years I have read round the literature on hallucinations to understand it, I have a curious reticence about even speaking of this odd little thing that happened almost thirty years ago.
Last night, Hugh and I, still friends and now both living 150 miles from the scene of the incident talked about it over a boardgame, and I thought maybe others might be interested. So many kind people have over the years risked ridicule t share with me or Becky or other researchers their own anomalous experiences, and I find it easy enough to discuss what happened at Thetford; that was something one could easily classify ghost, and “ghosts are OK?” in our culture I guess. So I am sharing my story, and hope it might perhaps reassure others having truly weird experiences that nothing bad came of it, either in the form of a severe and prolonged illness, or being haunted to my doom by my doppleganger. I’ll tell you what though: migraine was bad enough.