What It’s Like To Black Out

The only time I see in black and white is when I’m about to pass out. I know it’s going to happen when my stomach compresses into an airtight knot and pushes up into my esophagus, then my vision blackens at the edges and goes grainy, narrowing into a shrinking static tunnel before the film cuts and I hit the floor. Eventually I wake up to someone panicking and slapping me in the face, cold and sweaty with a head full of ants.

The first time I understood this was a thing that happened was on a day trip to Romania, when I was nine. My mom had sent me to Poland for the summer because she was worried I was forgetting the language, which was true — I was already one of the weird foreign kids in my Midwestern elementary school and had put forth every effort into becoming as American as possible, everything from scouring the discount stores for Limited Too castoffs to purposely getting C’s on spelling tests. When I started actually making up Polish words and declining them as if they were real, she’d had it. I was shipped off to Poland for the entire summer, during which my aunt took the summer camp she ran on a two-week trip to Hungary. From there we detoured to Romania. One minute I’m eating an ice cream cone in Romania, and next thing I know I’m spread out on a stretcher in the pitch dark, crammed into a set of too-small boys’ pajamas with a crooked IV sticking out of my wrist. Drugged and chilled under the skin, with a soreness in my back teeth like the kind that comes from sucking on an ice cube too long. No one was able to figure out what was wrong. Heatstroke or anemia, it was decided, and I was sent home.

When I was thirteen I blacked out in the middle of Easter Vigil, which, if you’re Catholic, you know is the two-hour Mass before Easter Sunday that you only suffer through if your parents make you or there are snacks afterwards. Jesus was getting crucified and I, in the throes of my middle school goth phase, had worn a heavy black velvet dress for the occasion. They were driving the nails hard into his palms and feet when I heard the muffled siren hum in the back of my skull. The altar candles flared up static-black and I felt the cavernous church stagger as I forced myself out of the pew, the tunnel connecting my temples squeezing shut. My mother dragged me out into the hall and laid me down on my back on the cold tiles and, in a swoop of medical efficiency, lifted my legs into the air at a 90-degree angle to force the blood back in my head — simultaneously exposing my ass, bisected by a cherry red G-string, to several worried members of the congregation. She said nothing about the event afterward except to tell me, breaking the silence on the short ride home, that I was no longer allowed to be a vegetarian and we had to have a serious talk about my underwear.

After a couple more random blackouts throughout high school I started to think I’d grown out of it — until last fall, when it happened again in Chelsea, where I never go. It was a lovely October night and I had dragged my roommate to a reading hosted by the No. 8 Literary Society at what used to be Bungalow 8. Even though you don’t need a key to get in anymore, No. 8 still retains its fair amount of cheesy pretense, fake palm trees and bouncers acting like the Queen’s bodyguards. The reading was in the record room upstairs, glossy wood everything and shelves of vinyls lining the walls, if your grandfather had a bachelor pad sort of feel.

“Addiction Literature” was the theme and Tony O’Neill was reading from his upcoming book Dirty Hits. He was talking about shooting dope, poking the blunt needle around in his sick and collapsed veins in shitty rest stop bathrooms, about how he was so close to going into his neck but something stopped him. There was something too grotesque about it, just this side of psychologically unbearable about pinning down the jugular, the life vein, and making it sit still long enough to swallow a needle-full of poison. If he had been any kind of resourceful, I remember thinking, he would have tied up with the necktie he was wearing and driven right into it the way Burroughs described, the way old-time junkies who weren’t afraid of anything did. A terrible thing to think at an addiction literature reading.
At any rate, something was happening. I was beginning to feel warm. The vodka soda in my hand was starting to taste metallic, like rubbing alcohol, like methanol, and the heat of the room was closing in. Everyone who was anyone in so-called literary society was packed into No. 8 like sardines in a fucking can. There was an airbrushed blonde lady to my left holding a glass of white wine. I stared at her, using her as an unwavering focal point to calm my quickening pulse. Who were all these people, and what the hell did they know about addiction? Why was I the only one who looked ready to dissolve? Were they even goddamn listening to this? And why was this woman drinking white wine? Wine was $18 a glass, didn’t she know the Stoli cocktails were free? Who the fuck pays for alcohol when there’s alcohol for free?

Thoroughly mystified and increasingly ill, I looked around for a place to deposit my body. What I really wanted to do was lie down, spread myself out in all directions like a warm pâté, something you can normally do in New York without judgment but there were people sitting and standing all over the place and I didn’t think it would look good to collapse on the floor either, fucking social conventions. But at that point nothing had ever seemed so tempting — the cold comfort of tiles against my cheek, the ground safe and unyielding beneath my unhinging body.

Through my darkening vision I managed to spot an empty space on a couch next to Ted, Ted who I’d spoken to earlier when we were both craning our necks for people to entrap in conversation, Ted who was coming out with a legal thriller that winter and didn’t mind that I’d never heard of him. He looked bewildered but said nothing. The guy next to him knit his eyebrows and started to chatter, probably saying something like Oh, Someone’s Actually Sitting There, but I couldn’t hear him. I didn’t care. My eardrums were already caught in the wind tunnel. My finger pads felt tipped with needles and I was no longer able to see color, the floor below me taking off in a sickening static roil.

Shit, I thought. I’m going to puke. Or die. I dry heaved. I felt the sweat globules roll steadily down my back, the slimy coldness of them, the fact that I probably looked like a junkie, fresh out of rehab who couldn’t stand to listen to the mechanics of doing drugs. At the very least someone who could have used a trigger warning. The event photographer was slithering around snapping photos and I thought about how absurdly horrible, but also how hilarious and honest, it would be to be tagged on Facebook puking or dying, no filter. Maybe even glamorous in my thrifted Balmain coat. I locked my head between my knees and squeezed my temples together, counting each breath as my vision contracted in a steadily tightening pinhole to total dark. My roommate eventually found me, dead pale and on the verge of collapse, just before I fell forward into a stack of hors d’oeuvres. He carried me out before we got a chance to hear Elizabeth Wurtzel.

I always wonder what would happen if I blacked out alone somewhere with no one around to catch me mid-fall, flip me upside down or slap me in the face, how my body would react on its own. If I would ever even wake up. I try to put that thought out of my head because I know if I think about it too much there’s always the weird cosmic chance that it will happen. Don’t tempt disaster, is what my mother used to tell me. Not with your luck. TC mark

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