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My Unconscious Life
I’ve spent more of my life unconscious than most people
I’ve spent more of my life unconscious than most people.
I don’t mean unconscious in the metaphorical sense, like aimlessly floating through life without purpose. No, I mean in the literal sense. Actually unconscious.
You might read this to mean that I sleep more than most people. Also incorrect. No, what I mean is that I pass out easily—and often.
What follows are several stories of my unconscious life. Or, rather, what I remember about what occurred before and/or after losing consciousness.
Wet, Hot, American Fainter
The late afternoon sun blazed down on me as I squinted and waited in line at the snack shack. The intensity of the sun doubled as it reflected off of the bright, yellow dirt. I was hungry and thirsty. It had been several hours since my little league baseball game and all I had eaten—if you could call it that—was Big League Chew bubble gum.
After I’d pitched my team to victory, I stuck around and manned the electronic scoreboard. My parents headed home and gave me a crisp five-dollar bill for lunch. After two long games, I made my way to the snack shack.
I could smell the hot dog and almost taste the Coke I desperately needed. I pulled my cap off my head and wiped my sweaty brow with my sleeve.
A moment later, my vision started getting fuzzy. The world around me began to look like the static on an old TV and the details of the people in front of me morphed into dark silhouettes.
After what felt like a split-second, I was in the snack shack sitting on an upside-down five-gallon bucket with my head between my knees, a cold, damp towel over my head, and my assistant coach on one knee next to me.
I don’t recall if the paramedics showed up, though I do remember someone told me it was heatstroke.
That was the first of countless times I’ve fainted.
My face felt swollen. My teenage skin was bursting with so many zits they were impossible to count. Zits merged with other zits to create even larger, more disgusting zits. The pain was both physical and emotional. If only Zoom school existed back then so I could turn off my camera.
After what seemed like a decade of trying various topical creams and face wash methods, it was time to step it up a notch. Accutane. My dermatologist was reluctant to prescribe it, but eventually decided it was the best option for me.
There are downsides to Accutane.
It makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight so you burn easily—not the most exciting prospect for a high school baseball player.
It’s so potent that it’s usually only prescribed once in a person’s life. Your triglyceride, cholesterol, and liver enzyme levels can go up considerably. If they go up too much, there could be lasting liver damage or other complications.
This last point meant I had to go in for a regular blood draw once per month for the six months I was on the drug.
My mom drove me to Kaiser Hospital in Santa Clara for the first blood draw appointment. The room was reminiscent of the DMV with a wide counter, Formica partitions, and a single stool in each station. I sat on the stool, rolled up my sleeve, and the nurse cleaned my arm with an alcohol wipe. Before she stuck my arm, I turned my head to look at my mom instead of the needle. I was telling her about something I don’t recall when it hit me.
The next thing I knew, I was lying down on a bed in a different room with a cold, wet washcloth on my forehead and my mom and the nurse staring down at me.
It’s important for me to pause here for a brief moment and point out that I’m not at all scared of needles. I do fine with shots. For example, when I received my second-round COVID vaccine shot yesterday, I was totally fine.
Okay, carrying on.
There Will Be (even more) Blood
In December a few years back, my wife Allison wanted to forgo gift-giving for her birthday and donate blood instead. She didn’t need anything and she thought it would feel good to help those in need. One of those blood bank buses was scheduled to be set up not too far from our house on her birthday, so we booked our appointments.
At this point in my life, I was experienced with blood draws for lab tests. I would always ask the staff for a place to lay down while they did it. I’d hang out for a few minutes after the draw and go along my merry way. No issues. I figured I could do the same in the bloodmobile.
Allison was up first while I waited for another woman to finish her donation. I noticed her sitting in what looked like a grey, vinyl reclining chair built into the side interior wall of the bus. I looked around the cramped bus and didn’t see a place where I could lie down. I brought this concern up to the nurse who checked me in and she said, “Oh, they recline back more than that. Not quite flat, but close.”
“Okay,” I said as I flipped a pen nervously in my hand, “Let’s give it a shot.”
She handed me some paperwork with various exercises to help reduce the chances of me passing out. It included things like clenching my butt cheeks or flexing my abs and legs. One of the nurses handed me a stress ball to squeeze to help dilate my veins. Once she had the needle set, she suggested squeezing it in my other hand. I have no idea if there’s any science behind these fainting-reduction techniques. In all likelihood, they were just trying to keep me occupied.
After finishing her donation, Allison walked past me and said, “You’re doing great, babe. Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I feel fine actually,” I said.
And I did feel fine.
Until I didn’t.
A little over halfway into my donation, I started to feel those familiar sensations—lightheadedness, a cold sweat forming, a bit of nausea, and blurred vision.
A minute later, I came to. My head, neck, and t-shirt soaking wet from the sweat and damp towels draped over my head. My mind filled with regret. I’m sure Allison regretted it too. It wasn’t exactly the birthday gift she had in mind.
I saw her sitting on a bench in the waiting area at the back of the bus. A nurse was standing next to her. The nurse told her, “He is never to do this again.”
There are more stories just like those.
Like when I worked at a golf course snack bar. I cut my hand on the meat slicer while talking to my coworker. My right hand was completely covered in blood. I dented the metal garbage can behind me with my head when I fell to the ground.
Or the time when I was at the eye doctor. The optometrist was shining a light in my eye to look at my retina. I looked up to the corner of the ceiling as she instructed and with no warning sign I immediately passed out.
Or the time on the ferry in San Francisco. When I got on board I needed to use the bathroom. My heart rate was elevated because I needed to run to catch the ferry in time. I felt the fainting come on while standing mid-urination, so I spread my legs wide to brace myself, hoping to minimize the chance of injury when I fell. I woke up laying on the ground and somehow didn’t make a complete mess of myself or the restroom.
Or the time at the gym after I did burpees. Or the time when I stopped to pee off to the side of the trail on a jog.
I’ve conveniently left out some of the more embarrassing stories.
Like the Halloween when I dressed up as a vampire and passed out after applying fake blood dripping from the corner of my mouth.
Believe it or not, I’ve only gone to the hospital once. I waited around in the emergency room flipping through magazines for over an hour even though I felt fine by then. The diagnosis? Vasovagal syncope, a dysfunction of the mechanism that regulates my heart rate and blood pressure. It’s a benign and relatively common issue that can be managed.
I’ve learned how to deal with my fainting issues better over the years. I can usually feel them coming on and lay down until they pass.
My brother is a paramedic and told me he often treats patients who are adamant that they didn’t pass out. “Trust me, I would remember if I fainted,” they tell him. It’s a funny thing to say since it’s literally impossible to remember anything when you’re unconscious. But I get where they’re coming from. It’s embarrassing.
It’s been 2,237 days with no fainting incidents. But knowing me, there are many more embarrassing stories to come. Stay tuned.
A big thanks to all these amazing people for their editing help: Sasha Levage, Steven Ovadia, Kushaan Shah, Sunil Suri, Abu Amin, John Lanza, Ryan J Williams, and Ergest Xheblati. Click on their links and check out their writing.
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