It started when I was a teenager. A sudden fainting spell would appear out of nowhere, irrespective of time, place or occasion. For the first few seconds it would feel like a normal lightheadedness. But then, my eyesight would go. Everything quickly faded to black as if someone was sliding a dimmer switch. That’s when I knew that I only had a maximum of 2-3 seconds before a complete system shutdown: just moments later, I would peculiarly find myself on the floor, not remembering how I had fallen. Those few seconds during which I had lost all consciousness of losing my consciousness, did not exist in my memory. They had simply never been recorded. It was like a data black hole.
The blackout episodes were infrequent enough to ignore. However frightening they were when they first occurred, I soon learned by experience that they always finish almost as soon as they begin. You just have to wait for each blackout to complete its cycle. I became accustomed to the routine of blacking out and finding myself on the floor, my nervous system quickly rebooting in a matter of seconds. I would casually get up and walk as if nothing had happened, quickly checking for any minor scratches or injuries. Only on rare occasions would I suffer any bruises as a result of my brief out-of-body experience with gravity. I never had a serious injury. Despite losing complete consciousness, somehow each time my body knows how to fall. If this isn’t the case, surely I would have been seriously injured by now in one of my dozens of encounters with what I simply call The Blackness.
As the years passed, I tried to collect clues that could potentially help me predict my next blackout event. But the episodes continued to arrive at random points in time. Rather than trying to understand them, I focused on making the best out of my precious two-three seconds every time, in order to make a quick but wise decision on where exactly to collapse. Walls were the ideal scenario: not because I can hold on to them, but because I can just lean against them. Gravity then does the rest, as my lifeless body safely slides down the surface on its way to the ground. The alternative is to collapse completely unsupported, which always comes with more risk. Chairs, tables and sharp objects in proximity to the impact zone are to be avoided at all costs, as I could hit my head or face on the way down.
With time, my blackouts became, and are to this day, part of my “normal” existence. Over the years I have even learned to conceal my “trips” into the black hole. In the unusual event of it happening in a public place, I can sometimes pretend that I was looking for something I lost on the floor, or that I had a sudden desire to do yoga. These days when everyone is absorbed into their smartphone screen anyway, it’s very easy to pass out completely unnoticed. But unlike their self-inflicted digital imprisonment, my blackouts seem somewhat liberating. As I surrender to the terrifying reality of everything quickly shutting down each time, for a few seconds I am able to disconnect from the grid of existence, perhaps even exit my own ego. I enter a realm that is outside of my consciousness and become one with the unconsciousness of the darkness. While everyone is congregating in the shops and restaurants around the busy tourist harbour on a balmy summer night, I’m out at the edge of the pier, face to face with the black waves. I can see the boundary between the world of light, and the world of darkness. I can almost touch it, every time, and it hurts. I can see the seaside village in the distance, a thin arc of lights in the blackness. I cherish every time the black hole of consciousness I come in contact with decides to spit me back out, into the light. My brief prison break from existence, this short flicker of darkness that comes and goes when it decides, is a constant reminder: at any point everything could just be switched off. Our rich, precious life is actually not the normality, but the exception within an infinite sea of empty, boring, mundane darkness, much like Earth in the infinite vacuum of space. Beyond our colourful daily existence there is a vastness of endless darkness that is much closer than we think, and much more prevalent. Our existence is a lonely candle in the night, trying desperately to stay alight in an otherwise loud, chaotic storm of darkness. We make stories and preoccupy ourselves with objects to delude ourselves of the false safety that the darkness will never reach us. The false impression that everything is bathed in light, when in reality, in both geological, biological and spiritual terms, each of us is just a spark. A flicker. A white feather rising into the warm air of the night, softly disappearing.
However much I have sought to normalise my otherwise benign condition, orthostatic hypotension, at the same time I’m always aware that at any point I can be as little as 3 seconds away from collapse. The plunge into the darkness can come unexpected, at a random time and place that can be as “normal” and mundane as working in the garden, getting up from the sofa, or finishing a blog.
(From the book Photographic Heart)
George is an author, researcher, podcaster, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, join his mailing list, or enjoy his books