I sat in the middle of the dim, wood-panelled corridor. Lined up along each wall stood a handful of people I vaguely recognised from some previous occasion. I wondered why nobody else had decided to sit down while we waited outside the closed door. Then, as the assembled men and women muttered amongst themselves, the strangest thing happened.
It was more like weightlessness than falling; either way, the floor was no longer there. And it seemed as if a cloud of TV static had been pumped into the hall from behind me and was quickly filling my vision; the muttering descended into a pervasive monotone whine, and within a brief and powerless second the universe had fallen away.
Then came a dull series of sensations, but try as I might I couldn’t figure out exactly what they were. I took a quick tour of my senses, the sensations became impacts, drifting into place somewhere near my hands and feet. I realised my arms and legs were scrabbling furiously, and at the same time — like a fleet of ships emerging from the mist — vague shapes appeared in front of my eyes: a window frame, another, a solid floor, a table. I emerged into the dream world, regaining control of my limbs, and looked in terror around at the strange room in which I found myself sitting.
What the fuck? Where the fuck am I?
Eerie silence penetrated by the ringing in my ears, I shook my head in an attempt to clear the fog from my vision. As if things couldn’t get any weirder, I found that I could no longer remember where I’d been when I had — as I could only assume — passed out. How was I supposed to wake myself up?!?
With a chill that penetrated to my very core, all became clear. I hadn’t passed out at all. The very opposite: I’d come round. This strange room was in fact the kitchen in my flat in Yerevan. The corridor had been the dream.
What the fuck?
It was the first of five terrifying black-outs that morning, three of which my dear wife was unfortunate enough to have to watch happen after I’d stumbled back into the bedroom to wake her up. I’d got up, early, to go for a run while the streets were still empty, which was my routine. Feeling unusually weak, I’d decided to have a cuppa and check my email first. While drinking tea and perusing the contents of my inbox, the world had slipped sideways into oblivion.
No warning. No explanation. I was lucky I’d been sitting down. The fifth attack happened in the lift on the way down to the ambulance. I woke up slumped in the arms of the paramedic. “Don’t be afraid,” he’d said into my ear. I was fucking petrified. What the fuck was happening to me?
It’s been four weeks since that hideous morning, and since then I’ve returned to the UK, and I’m overwhelmingly glad to be able to report that no further attacks have happened. I’ve felt horribly ill — disoriented, nauseous, off-balance, with discomfort in my chest and neck, and that recurrent ringing in my ears — until about a week or so ago, since when things seem to have improved a lot, and I’ve finally been able to get out for a few short rides and runs.
The cause of these episodes and of the illness remains a mystery. Initially suspected as epileptic seizures, the consensus from the legion of doctors who’ve inspected me and quizzed my wife about them is that they were occurences of ‘vasovagal syncope’ — the medical term for common fainting. The question remains: why would an otherwise fit and healthy young man spontanously pass out one sunny morning over a cup of tea?
A battery of tests has shown precious little. Blood tests, electrocardiograms of my heart, X‑ray computed tomography scans of my head, ultrasound scans of my abdomen, electroencephalograph recordings of my brain activity, chest X‑rays and multiple physical examinations have revealed that there is nothing wrong with me. Nothing. In fact, I am in excellent shape.
That’s great, but why?
The only lead that the doctor-detectives have to follow is the two conspicuous swellings — lymph nodes — on the side of my neck, which appeared the day before the blackouts. Taken together with the early blood tests, which showed that my white blood cell count was unusually high, my GP suspects that I picked up a particularly nasty virus in Armenia.
Doctors find it difficult to precisely identify viral infections, and the most common prescription is simple rest. The human body is remarkably good at defending itself; being fit and healthy is greatly beneficial too — although, ironically, athletes are more susceptible to blackouts, having stronger, more efficient hearts that beat more slowly than average while at rest. (I’m not an athlete, but my heart rate still turned out lower than average from all that cycling!)
“If you want to know what I think,” said one doctor, “I think you’ll never know what it was. I think you’ll recover on your own, which might take up to six weeks. And I think it’ll never happen again.”
What struck me on this journey through the institution of medicine was the notion that — after health — everything else in life is optional. Our lives and what we do with them are entirely products of our own volition, given the opportunities available to us. All the inanities of modern existence, the procrastination and pointless pursuits, assume that being alive and healthy are entitlements.
It’s probably worth reminding ourselves that they aren’t — then we might look upon our options with more respect, seeing real alternatives waiting to be grasped, not tomorrow or in a few years’ time, but today. We all hear stories of those who’ve had near-death experiences or terrible accidents and have gone on to grab life by the balls as a result of coming so close to losing it.
Wouldn’t it be tragic to end up in a hospital bed, your heart on its last legs from too much nicotine and alcohol and inactivity, with the knowledge that you did this to yourself — that you took your health and systematically destroyed it?
Equally, it would be tragic to look back on a lucky life of good health and vitality and to realise that it was squandered in a system of living which wasn’t your own, and from which you never managed to wrestle control.