It started in the children’s wing of a hospital in the year 2000. They were taking my blood to run some tests. The nurse pulled out a needle attached to a square bandage. Overall, the needle was probably only a couple of inches long, most of which was hidden behind said bandage. I turned my head away and stared at a wall, trying to think of anything else than what was about to happen.
Someone standing nearby, watching, gave a small chuckle and said, “Oh, that’s just ‘The Butterfly,’ show him the other one.” The nurse taking blood shared a knowing smile and pulled out another needle from her bag, twice the size in length and width.
I nodded my head and promptly blacked out. They had to wait until the next day to draw the rest of my blood—starting the process all over from the top.
I’ve never been great with things like needles and hospitals. Even as a small child, having to get a short for something (I honestly can’t remember what, but something ridiculous like tetanus) I remember seeing the nurse pull out the syringe and shoot a small stream of the vaccine in the air and explaining it was to get air bubbles out. I forced my eyes to the ground and hummed loudly as she stuck me.
That moment in the facility with ‘The Butterfly,’ however, was my first incident of blacking out, but certainly not my last. The very next year it happened again, but in a less likely place.
I’ve never been particularly good at science and math—my comprehension and memory of technical facts are not great. I always managed to squeeze by with the help of friends and some teachers. It was for this reason that I tried to keep a low profile in those sorts of classes. My greatest fear was being called on to answer a question that I simply wasn’t grasping.
In my eighth grade science class we were having a casual discussion about viruses and diseases (specifically the differences between the two, if I remember properly). As usual, I was just trying to keep a low profile while also retaining any information I thought would come up on homework or a test. My teacher began talking about a sister or cousin or someone she knew that had one of the forms of hepatitis. She described the symptoms and how the person had to go to the hospital and do this and that or whatever.
I remember my teacher’s voice getting foggier, and the edges of my vision going fuzzy then black. I had an inkling of what was happening, having experienced it the year before, and I fought it as best I could—keeping my eyes wide and shaking my head (both things did more harm than help).
The next moment I heard my teacher calling my name. “Oh, great,” I thought, “She’s going to ask me to answer a question and I don’t know the answer.”
Okay, honestly, I was probably actually thinking something like, “Wha? Am I…? Where…?” but my second thought was that I was about to get in trouble. Instead, she asked if I was all right and whether I needed to go down to the nurse. I was confused for a moment, turning to notice that the entire class was staring at me.
I’d blacked out, stone cold, in the middle of class. I was embarrassed more than concerned. I told her no, but she insisted I take a breather out in the hall—a good idea in retrospect, if not seemingly at the time.
And thus started a new tradition for me: Passing out in class.
Every year from eighth grade onward, in one class or another, I’d black out as my teacher lectured on something usually relating to human anatomy, blood, needles, or medical procedures. Freshmen year, in fact, it happened twice: Once in biology, once in health class the next semester.
I could typically pass it off as falling asleep—something I’d get in more trouble for, but I found less embarrassing—but occasionally a teacher would give me that suspicious look and I’d explain after class what had happened. They’d give me the option of skipping my next class to go to the school nurse, which I’d politely decline. After all, it was their talks on what would happen to the human body if subjected to the vacuum of space that did me in—I’d be just fine next period in art class.
The problem, ultimately, came down to my active imagination. When I read a book or listen to someone talk, I imagine exactly what they’re describing, whether I want to or not. Therefore, even when I’m not in an actual hospital, getting my blood sucked by The Butterfly, I can see myself there with the blood and bones and tissue and…
* * *
…Sorry, I was just getting a bit lightheaded and needed to take a break*.
I’ve been told that it’s “fight or flight,” and that my body is choosing flight. Really, I think my body is closer to a possum than a bird. “Fight or fall face forward unconscious.” It’s called “syncope,” from what I can gather (I tried to do some online research while writing this piece, but had to stop before too long). It occurs in lots of people, apparently. The fear of needles and hospitals are relatively common.
What’s strange is that I actually really like hospitals; they fascinate me. I watch medical dramas, even if I have to look away when they show the super realistic open chest plates in a surgical room. When I go visit family in the hospital I’m very comfortable—until I get a glance at an intravenous tube sticking out of their arm and I get a pang in my chest.
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve learned to see the symptoms and how to calm myself down. It’s easier now that I’m not in school anymore. Even when my friends who are nurses start up about how at work this and that happened and they had to do blah blah blah, I can tell them to shut the fuck up before I pass out all over their floor (certain friends think it’s funny, however, and will go on in fuller detail).
When you can just throw your hands up and leave the room, it’s different, though. It’s definitely not like being stuck in class where you can’t quite raise your hand and say to your teacher, “Excuse me, can you please shut the fuck up before you’re peeling me off my desk?”
It’s a funny sort of tradition I lived through for five years, from eighth grade all the way through my senior year of high school. I absolutely don’t miss that tradition, however. I’ll take my current life of muting the TV while watching Grey’s Anatomy and secretly being glad of not having health insurance so that I have an excuse to never go to the hospital.
Because when you blackout at home, at least no one notices.†