Before Your Eyes Understands the Trauma of Childhood Chronic Illness

Sometimes, you can only move on by looking back.

This article contains heavy spoilers for the game Before Your Eyes.

Often, the happiest moments are gone in the blink of an eye. That trip you took as a kid, that first kiss that swelled your heart with joy – these memories fit into a larger picture of who you are. Over time, they become fragmented, turning into quick flickers of light behind your eyelids, reminding you of a time and place long gone. While these moments get blurrier, there are other memories buried so deep you dare not think of them at all. For me, those painful times are ones I wish to erase, and it’s a sentiment Before Your Eyes deeply understands.

Before Your Eyes is a short, story-driven indie game with a peculiar gimmick: Each time you blink in real life (the game senses your eye movement through your webcam), the story moves forward. You play as Benny, a young soul being ferried through the afterlife. As he tells his life story to the ferry master, the player experiences Benny’s memories through tiny vignettes, displaying his life from birth to adulthood. We’re led from one short memory to the next, where he practices piano tirelessly to appease his mother, falls in love with a childhood friend, and eventually becomes a world-renowned painter.

At least, that’s what Benny wants you to believe, and what he wants to convince himself. But the truth is Benny never lived past age 11. He was never a painter – just a young boy with no control over a terminal illness that eventually kills him.

I sobbed so hard that I cried out. The story’s unexpected and heart-wrenching turn left me in what felt like physical pain because what I saw before me was agonizingly familiar — the kid stuck in bed reminded me of myself.

I’ve battled health issues my whole life. When I was 12, a chronic illness left me homebound for four years. My world shrunk to the four walls of my bedroom. On the few occasions I did leave, it was either for dreaded doctor’s appointments or to get my hair washed at the salon because I couldn’t care for myself. Some days, I was confined to my bed. Other days, I couldn’t use the stairs because I would faint from exhaustion. And while my illness wasn’t terminal, it still felt like a death because of how much I had lost.

In Before Your Eyes, once you uncover the cracks of Benny’s romanticized story and revisit his true memories, you overhear conversations whispered by his parents. They talk about his condition and his doctor’s appointments. I overheard similar words from my own parents behind closed doors because they, too, thought I’d never get better. “Will we have to put her on welfare when she’s older?” they’d ask. “Is homeschooling enough for her to graduate?” And the worst one: “What are we going to do?”

When I first got sick, my friends called or reached out on MSN Messenger, asking how I was or when I would return to school. But as the months rolled on, they eventually stopped. “I know you’re faking it,” Benny’s best friend tells him on a phone call. I was told the same on a rare day I felt healthy enough to go for a pool swim with a friend. Those accusations stick with you, and in my case, they also came from doctors before my diagnosis.

“Because if you were sick, like really sick, you’d have told me already,” Benny’s friend continues. At this point, as the player, you can throw the phone across your room – a small act of defiance in a world where you hold little power. But this scene also shows that Benny wasn’t talking to his friend, or likely anyone, about what was happening to him. I did the same. When my mother would drive me around the neighborhood, just to get me out of the house, I’d duck my head down as low as I could whenever I saw another kid. What if they went to my school? What if they recognized me? I couldn’t face them, let alone face myself. I went through a year of not even looking in the mirror. It was simply easier to not exist.

Eventually, certain scenes in Before Your Eyes repeat themselves. You see Benny in bed, with a pill organizer that labels the days of the week. Every day, he takes his medicine, presses a red button to self-administer drugs, and taps away at a typewriter dreaming of a life he’ll never have. This level of monotony is instantly recognizable, mirroring the days when I would wake up, eat, stare at a wall, and fall back asleep only to do it all over again. When you’re sick, your body is a prison. But when you’re homebound, your house becomes your prison, too.

When life is that harsh, and you’re too young to comprehend the gravity of it, all you can do is block it out. I escaped to somewhere better through my writing and video games. I avoided the gaze of my grieving parents, who became bitter or hopeless when they, too, saw no way out. I couldn’t bear to think of my own guilt, either — was I not trying hard enough to get better? Was I ruining my family’s life by being so weak? Benny similarly struggles with these cruel and unrelenting thoughts.

“Benjamin Brynn was a loser… He was the worst Brynn to ever live. He didn’t even try to fight the disease inside him. He just laid down and died.”

During the latter half of the game, the player is forced to type those words, one letter at a time, on Benny’s typewriter as he lays in bed. This was excruciating because I had written the same about myself a thousand times over while sick. And those sentiments stem from a deep self-hatred that can’t easily be shaken. Like him, I sought to erase everything. Once I got better, I stopped talking about it. For more than a decade, I didn’t tell a single friend what happened because they didn’t need to know, and I was convinced they wouldn’t understand. I eventually chose not to think about it at all.

As a severely ill kid stuck at home, my life wasn’t mine – in many ways, my life was in the hands of my parents who chose which doctors I saw, which treatments I received, and what I was healthy enough to do on any given day. They pulled the strings. As I grew older, it felt like my memories from that time belonged to them, too. Benny rewriting his life makes so much sense to me. It gives him some semblance of control, a way to reclaim a life that is no longer his, even if it isn’t real. His story ended prematurely, and so he changed the conclusion.

The difference between Benny and me is that I got out, but he didn’t.

“No matter how painful it gets, I need you to remember,” the ferryman tells Benny as they approach the Gatekeeper’s paradise. Soon, he must recount his story for a second time – but he may be denied entry if he isn’t honest. It’s an uncomfortable but unavoidable position, for Benny is forced to accept his truth to move on. The only path forward is to go backward and face what happened.

I don’t think I’ve ever completely moved on, and maybe I never will. But I want to try, and I think part of trying is allowing myself to remember; to write pieces like this one. Benny’s story may be over, but mine is still being written. And my life is fuller than I ever thought it would be. I feel so lucky I have to pinch myself.

Chronic illness has followed me well into adulthood, but it never left me homebound again. I left my parents’ house, moved to another country, and pursued a dream career that I never could have imagined. I’m incredibly thankful. Some days, however, I still grieve those lost teenage years. Playing Before Your Eyes reminded me of that crushing hopelessness, that voice that always told me I would never get better and nothing would change. But it also reminded me to hold onto moments that are meaningful. Just like Benny, I dare not blink because, as I’ve learned, fleeting moments of happiness can disappear as quickly as they come.

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