At one point during an unexpected, serious medical emergency earlier this month, I genuinely thought I was dying. This is the story + a tiny reflection on physicality + impermanence + love.
We wake up and cuddle and pull on clothes, then smoke with M in his Bedstuy apartment, where we are staying for a few days. J unties the black hematite cross necklace I had been wearing like a choker since he bought it for me, three months ago. It needs to be cleansed.
We leave it on the table, exit the apartment and walk hand in hand to a Soul Food restaurant he found on yelp, one block away. I’m happy to arrive at the front door, respite from the cold March winds outside. There are no seats, just a service partition and a thin ledge to the left. The menu is long, detailed. J studies it; the lines on his forehead creasing in a familiar way as he scans the shiny black paper with too many options on either side.
(Less than one hour later, I am traveling through the door again, this time, to go. The only difference is that this time, I am near unconscious, in unbearable pain, in a wheelchair: being hauled out of the store where an ambulance awaits on the street. )
I stand beside him, considering what to order, feeling tired and spacey, but writing it off as a result of smoking. My eyelids begin to feel heavy, the joints in my legs suddenly weary and annoyed with the laborious act of standing. A minute later, I am dizzy. Standing starts to really feel like a lot. I tell my love, who is still focused on the menu, that I need to sit down, and I make my way to the ledge, which is just wide enough for small butts to perch comfortably.
Relieved, my legs relax into the ground. The dizziness only increases. Then, all of a sudden, nausea. I begin to start slipping out of present awareness and into the increasingly worrying sensations that are only beginning to overwhelm my body. I am very dizzy now, and not thinking about the menu anymore. At this moment, I begin to realize that there is something strange happening to me, in me.
Then, the nausea increases, and I begin to sway, ever so slightly, the beginning of losing consciousness which would soon rapidly progress. J comes over to check on me, and around then, my body temperature starts rising. Within two minutes, my body is extremely hot, to the touch, I can feel the heat emanating from my skin. I look up at him. Baby I don’t feel well. At this point, things begin to get blurry. I am burning up and in a state of mental confusion, but not in super visible distress, yet.
He goes back to the counter to put in orders and my dizziness gets worse. I lean over onto the wall, this is the beginning of my body no longer being able to hold itself up. At this point, I begin to feel my consciousness slipping away. But very slowly at first. Confused, since I’d been fine five minutes before, I tell him ‘J, there’s something wrong. Something is really wrong right now.’
The women in the store begin to notice but say nothing.
Then, I start having trouble breathing. I cannot seem to get enough air into my lungs. I am not gasping for breath, just aware that my breathing isn’t working how its supposed to anymore. It is slow, labored, heavy, uneven, obstructed. Now I am terrified. J says something along the lines of ‘lets go home, its so close, we can leave now honey’ and at that point I have to tell him to call an ambulance because I am not OK. The realization of the extent of what is happening sinks in for both of us. I don’t remember if he called or if someone else did. I lose more consciousness and begin to go ‘in and out’ of awareness.
Then the abdominal pain kicks in, and I lose more consciousness and begin to fall over, slumping into J who is suddenly having to ‘catch’ me. This is where it gets hard to detail, because I was coming in and out of responsiveness. In one moment I am in darkness, in the next I open my eyes, although unable to speak or respond, and I realize that my boyfriend is holding my head and neck up with his hands, saying things like stay me with coral, stay with me please, asking if any of the women at the store have any experience because his girlfriend is having a medical emergency. One kind hearted stranger steps up and helps him, because I am really passing out now and will fall to the ground without support. The pain in my intestines and abdomen is becoming acute now.
In and out, in and out, hearing people’s voices as if they are far away. I come to, then become non responsive again.
It is at this point that I start to believe I am possibly dying. In the muted corridors of unconsciousness, I ask God to let me live. I want to live. It almost feels like something is trying to kill me and I am begging it not to. Why am I shutting down, why is my body failing me right now, I ask, when cognizant. In and out, curled over in pain one second and almost slipping to the floor in another. I groan with pain when I come ‘out’ of faint mode, feeling as if I’ve been poisoned.
I had never faced the sheer terror of a physical experience so extreme, with so many body systems seeming to malfunction at once, all within minutes of each other, after feeling perfectly normal right before. I had never experienced a medical emergency so sudden or profound, had never had to cope with such a loss of bodily control, with the stunningly real possibilities that I knew could come from not being able to breathe or passing out over and over again. People with serious long term illness, who go through things like this….dear god, I fucking salute you. You are so strong and impossibly brave, and I only got a glimpse of your struggle.
Suddenly, the pain gets so bad that I realize I will actually shit myself in the next few minutes if I don’t get to a bathroom. My bowels start preparing themselves for movement, and I can’t really control it, to my horror. The physical need to go is what wakes me up enough to stumble, person on either side of me, to the bathroom, groaning on the toilet in horrible, inexplicable pain. Afterword, I cannot stand. I fall off the bowl onto the bathroom floor, writhing, still in and out. The EMTs arrive and put me in a wheelchair, roll me out of the restaurant and into the ambulance, and lift me from the chair to the gurney. My guts are still aching, but already I am just beginning to return to more awareness, aided by an oxygen mask, the harshness of the cold, and the rumble of being in a moving vehicle. By the time we arrive at the hospital, the worst of it is over, but I am still so out of it, exhausted, confused, sore, scared. J is by my side, holding my hand and letting me know its OK. He was my hero through it all, even though I later realized he was deeply shaken as well, especially in the moments when my eyes were open, but blank, like a dead persons would be. He hid it to care for me.
After four hours and simple tests, all the doctors told us is that I experienced syncope, a fancy word for fainting but not immediately, a more complex and gradual loss of consciousness. He didn’t have answers for the sudden fever, the nausea, the breathing issue, the abdominal pain and bowel cramping. We were just ready to go, and were relieved to be released. I have a clean bill of health from the blood tests.
And now, sitting here writing this a week before my twenty fifth birthday, which I am grateful I’ll be able to enjoy, I briefly reflect. I am thinking a lot about the impermanence of our bodies, the dangerousness of life, incarnate. To be physical, to be human, is so terrifyingly vulnerable. When I think about our bodies from a soul perspective, it’s almost frightening, how the vast expanses we truly are, are confined to these flesh things, which respond with pain to anything that threatens their homeostasis. We’re so soft and our bodies are these unique, fussy little ecosystems, so sensitive and susceptible to external things that puncture or poison, to hard things, to wires crossing, to any myriad of things going wrong inside of them or outside of them. We’re eternal beings, who are so fucking breakable.
There is something so horrible, and so stunningly beautiful about it. Without these bodies, without your softness, how would you experience the vulnerability, the profundity in cuddling with someone so closely that your two hearts start beating in unison through two chests?
Our skin has to be thin enough to feel anothers heart pounding. Perhaps our deep knowing of the possibility and eventual inevitability of our hearts stopping gives each beat endless depth and meaning it couldn’t have otherwise.
(ps, im doing fine now.)