“Passing out”

Passing out sometimes looks peaceful, but never feels it.

Front cover of book The World I Fell Out Of, by Melanie Reid“The World I Fell Out Of”, by Melanie Reid

I read a passage in Melanie Reid’s excellent book that describes the sensation well. I am blessed in that I don’t experience the vomiting as much and my autonomic problems are not caused by spinal injury, and I am usually too hot rather than too cold, but the general visceral experience is absolutely as she describes.

You lose your limbs, your motor function and your autonomic nervous system, which automatically regulates both your blood pressure and your temperature when you are healthy. … Without temperature regulation, you feel permanently cold – that is, until you feel unbelievably hot. And without any controls over blood-pressure regulation, especially if you are as tall as I am, whenever you are raised into a sitting or standing position, your blood rushes into your feet and you pass out. There were times when my bradycardia, low heartbeat, was down to thirty-four beats per minute, enough to call a crash team for a normal person. In the spinal unit such things were unremarked. But fainting was a new discovery for me, a horrid one. It awakened memories of school, where it was always the pretty, delicate girls who used to faint in assembly. As predictable as Victorian heroines, they would fold to the floor with a little sigh during prayers, to general commotion, and lots of attention from the boys, while us roughtie toughtie hockey types in the back row would mutter cynically, ‘That’s Pauline off games’ or ‘I suppose it’s her periods again.’ Of sympathy from us, there was none.

Only now, decades later, I can understand just what those poor girls went through, because I’d turned into the same wan, pathetic creature, turning sheet white and swooning at the slightest provocation. Fainting felt as if death was ripping you out of life and you could feel it happening but could do absolutely nothing about it. There was a dreadful inevitability after I was hoisted out of bed and into a sitting position – visual disturbance, flashing lights, waves of nausea – and then rapidly everything went black with dark green blotches. Voices dimmed and retreated into the distance; I grew hot and claustrophobic; and if no one could tip my wheelchair back in time, and elevate my legs in front of me, I would start moaning involuntarily, flail my arms in distress a bit, and then vomit, mournfully and quite helplessly, into my surgical collar. … Fainting was debilitating and I was so prone to it that in those initial weeks any attempt to get me into a shower chair was ruled out. When they did try, I was a time-consuming failure, fainting and vomiting and fit only to be hoisted back into bed to recover. Shower chairs are minimalist plastic-seated wheelchairs, designed by the devil in a bad mood. I came to hate them with a terrible intensity, for the effort and suffering they brought me. And I still do.

The rest of Melanie Reid’s book also rang great bells with me. Particularly her description of life on the rehabilitation ward, which nearly exactly mirrored my experience on another such; the generally excellent staff stymied by pitifully limited resources and fundamentally undermined by the disproportionate impact of the multiple seemingly small instances of staff cruelty, both unconscious and conscious.

I don’t share some of the other elements of Melanie’s worldview, particularly her non-social-model outlook nor her clear disdain for disability rights activists. But then, not all elements of impairment are social model, and her description of some experiences, situations and reactions were and are painfully reflected in mine, in a way that makes me think: “Somebody Else Gets It.”

I am grateful for the description of passing out, and the precursor symptoms above. I’ve used it today to describe to carers what it’s like.