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The Doctor Is In

B-52 'Boneyard,' Tucson, AZ 1993, Alex Maclean, 1993. Courtesy the artist

Fight or Flight

A near-death experience makes this week’s International Asteroid Day a little more tricky to celebrate.

In both hospitals and airplanes, you are apt to become distracted by the tightrope of your life. You remember that your slow-burning body is a knot of blood and bones. You are a precarious body in a precarious zone. 

Stewardesses, like nurses, are there to help you with this. They give you juice in little cans and pretzels in little packages. Once upon a time, they could administer aspirin and cordials from the aisles. On planes you could get fried chicken and cigarettes too. There is rich appeal in a woman leaning toward you and asking, What can I get for you? I see this in the eyes of the men around me, men who mistake courtesy for an invitation to appraise a woman’s pores. The face that looks into your fear can become a fantasy.

I used to board airplanes and spend my time waiting to arrive. Now, ­it’s like being blind in a bad theme park. I wait for my stomach to drop and the windows to blow.

I used to think all waiting was like thirst: You know what you want and how to relieve it. But all waits are not equal. After accidentally poisoning myself at a dinner last spring, flying has taken on something else, a different kind of expectancy. I wait for an ending I dread. At these times, there is no question of possibility: there is no if, just when. I have learned to endure the precarious zone.

On a recent transatlantic flight, staring at the square of light on the plush seat in front of me, the captain announced we were entering a new phase of turbulence. When he spoke, a string of type interrupted the screen: PA IN PROGRESS. PAIN PROGRESS, I thought. Where does pain go? Where does it end?

 

Brian May—better known for his role as the lead rock guitarist of Queen than for his Ph.D. in astrophysics—and science-fiction film director Grigorij Richters have christened June 30, 2015, Asteroid Day. It will be the 107th anniversary of the Tunguska event, when a small asteroid carrying the weight of 1,000 atomic bombs shattered not far above Siberia. To call this disaster an event is to make it finite, the sort of happening you choose to attend or avoid on a busy afternoon. Searching for photos of the explosion I found images of only its denouement: tossed spindles of felled trees, the grassy, flat, circular void that remains.

The website of Asteroid Day states that it is “a global movement to protect earth from asteroids.” Signatories of the supporting declaration include astrophysicists, astronauts, cosmonauts, engineers, Nobel laureates, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye the Science Guy, singer Peter Gabriel, and Jerry Zucker, director of the slapstick aerial disaster film Airplane! The mission statement cites the destructive nature of potential strikes, and calls for donations to develop preventative technology. An asteroid the size of a few football fields could, the founders write, trigger tsunamis and devastation that would wind humanity back centuries. The motivation of the day is fear, but the language dislocates the emotion from the human body—fear of pain, fear of death—and dwells instead on the body politic. Instead of personal peril they invoke a fear of society slipping backward, of civilization un-progressed.

“The probability of Earth being impacted in a random location by a 100-megaton asteroid in your lifetime is about the same as the probability of you being killed in an automobile accident,” the founders say on their website. “These odds on any individual day are small, yet few among us would drive a car without wearing a seat belt.”

The website talks about our “responsibility” to develop asteroid-stopping technology. We are the only species who can save “the abundant life” of our planet. We owe it to our unborn grandchildren, great blue herons, rhododendrons.

It occurs to me that we are the only species who knows what asteroids are, so we are the only ones who fear them. We are the only ones who know that dinosaurs existed and—more importantly—that they no longer do. We are, I think, the only ones juggling the rationality of our fears.

 

Fear is at the start of pain. Fear is a pair of nickel-sized nerve clusters located deep inside the brain’s temporal lobes. As a unit they are called the amygdala, from the Greek word for almond. When you fall asleep at night the amygdala stays awake, the noise-sensing sentinel of our primitive fear system. This part of our brain functions right from birth, while the rational frontal lobes don’t develop until we are late teenagers. Because of this imbalance, children are more prone to seeing monsters in the closet.

When we eat spicy foods, our pain-drunk senses may tell us we are imperiled. Our rational mind assures us otherwise. Most of us enjoy this disconnect. If true, this is the same reason we ride rollercoasters: for pleasure.

 

Whenever I am in the precarious zone, my body cries for sugar and salt. This is primal. We are taught that sustenance is survival. When I am scared, I crave things that I do not crave in normal life: tomato juice, corn nuts, packaged chocolate-chip cookies.

It occurs to me that we are the only species who knows what asteroids are, so we are the only ones who fear them.

In hospitals and airplanes, my need for treats is understood. Once, when my veins could not be accounted for in my arms, two nurses tried to draw blood from the back of my hand. One stabbed me and then she called in another and she stabbed me, too, and still I was too white and would not bleed so they apologized and gave me neon hard candy. This was not a prize, and it was not an incentive, it was just chemistry to keep my heart beating. But I reveled, quietly, in the possibility that the candy signaled the achievement of some superlative. Had my blood sample been the most difficult of the day?

Another time, barricaded against an airplane window by heavy sleepers at night, I found myself vomiting repeatedly into a coffee cup above the back of Middle America. When I finally escaped to the bathroom, the stewardess gave me crackers. These were not the same crackers that had been passed down the rows. They were special, and I had become special, too. To be cared for is the opposite of oblivion.

 

In March, I spent a night hallucinating in the emergency room of a rural Sicilian hospital. I had poisoned myself eating mandrake that two friends and I had foraged, mistaking it for wild chard. This sounds like a bad movie, and the hospital was like a bad toy, without the bonus pack that included toilet paper, rubber gloves, and bathroom soap. The walls were the color of jaundice. One room over, one of my dinner-mates screamed, and seized, and fell into a coma. The doctors did not tell me this at the time. They told me he was sleeping, then they stood around my bed, whispering, like saints.

My pupils were so dilated that my irises were mere shadows of green. I remember a cast of nurses watching my body go in and out of sleep and madness. One looked particularly like someone I went on a bad date with once. For hours, I woke to see him staring at me. He held my hand and kissed my forehead. This may have been customary in such a place; I don’t know. More than once I unplugged my IV, trying to escape when the room was empty. I never made it past the revolving glass mouth of the front exit. Later, they brought in a nun to make the waiting better. She was the first English speaker I had encountered all night.

Flying above life, I felt the walls between the internal and external collapse. Consumed by the wait for—and the weight of—death, everything was dear: the song of my parents’ laughter, eucalyptus trees, my first French kiss, a zipper of ants on the wall, my fingers, red-tipped like matches. 

The next morning, the sun was bright. I demanded release, because I demanded normalcy. I wanted to progress from pain and fear. I wanted to be driven back to the house where I was living at the time, one hour away through winding country roads. So after I drank two liters of milky blue laxative, shot by shot from a Dixie cup, they discharged me. But back at home, I was still in the precarious zone, waiting for the end. I could not follow conversations because I did not have short-term memory. I chatted with my shampoo for 30 minutes. It grew big eyes and a grotesque, red cartoon mouth, and I mistook it for an old friend.

That night, through the blurred black ink of my pupils, I scrawled in my journal: ”Sometimes it is, amazingly, comforting to be infantilized. Spread out like a pinned butterfly / a first-born / a soon-dying.” I was, in some small, shameful way, nostalgic for the hospital.

 

Out of body experience observing one’s self. Passing out. Dizziness. Cannot speak coherently. Palpitations/irregular heartbeat. Tightness in throat and chest. Legs shaking uncontrollably. Rapid breathing/panting. Can’t get a full breath. Blurred vision. Feeling uncoordinated. Face flushes. Forgetfulness. Short-term memory loss. 

There is a thin beige book called Flying Without Fear. “Flyers’ concerns about bombing and terrorism are understandably at an all time high,” wrote author Duane Brown in 1996—now a dizzying confirmation of the innate human fear that things can always get worse. Flipping through the book at the library, I found myself reflected in its list of common biological responses to fear. The symptoms are an almost complete index of my body’s reactions to the poisonous mandrake.

Hai preso la cocaina?” they asked when we first got to the hospital. Have you had cocaine?

I had laughed, wincingly. I was clutching a plastic tub of the still-unidentified leaves, and I was surprised that they questioned our story. But now I understand: The symptoms between poison and pleasure are blurry. In the weeks after I was discharged, I struggled to drink alcohol or coffee. Whenever I felt the fog of relaxation or the thunder of caffeine, I seized with fear. And when the fear reared its head, the symptoms felt like poison.

 

Almost 15 percent of people are classified as more fearful than normal, while about twice that number are “relatively fearless,” according to a solemn book called Fear Itself: The Origin and Nature of the Powerful Emotion that Shapes Our Lives and Our World. What is “relatively?” Are there exemptions for rational fears? What are rational fears? Getting salmonella from eating raw eggs? Falling out of love?

Dr. Christopher Bader directs the Chapman University Survey on American Fears. He told me that he is irrationally afraid of blood and needles, but the top fear of the 1,500 surveyed Americans is walking alone at night. As more people stay inside—avoiding the dark places and the busy spaces where we think we are at risk of mass shootings—criminals move in. “We are creating the things we are afraid of,” he told me.

In his survey, 18.2 percent of people were “afraid” or “very afraid” of flying. Usually these people—aviophobics—are those who fear trust, according to Duane Brown in Flying Without Fear. These are the ones who do not trust their spouses to avoid affairs. They may tend to keep separate checking accounts.

My hands had helped harvest, wash, cook, and serve the mandrake. After that night, I struggled to trust myself. The next time I cooked dinner for guests, I watched their pupils, waiting for the blacks to swell. When they did not, I felt a gust of relief, a quick, endorphin-filled high.

 

Justin O. Schmidt has been stung by poisonous insects over 1,000 times. I ask him if he considers himself brave. He tells me that bravery is a trait for soldiers in Afghanistan and quarterbacks. He does not fear stings. He fears tall ladders, one of the greatest risks for adults over the age of 55, according to a lecture he had recently heard. Schmidt is an entomologist at the University of Arizona, and the creator of the Schmidt Pain Index, a 5-point scale he invented in the late 1980s to quantify the relative pain of various insect bites.

“Why suffer in pain if you’re not getting anything useful out of it?”

“There’s no way to get a response on an electrical instrument, there’s no voltage, no measure how much the pain existed,” Schmidt told me over the phone. He created the index to be a “short-term immediate intensity measure” made legible by its poetic anchors in human experience.

A yellowjacket gets a 2.0, with 4 to 10 minutes of pain: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” The paper wasp is worse, a 3.0 with 5 to 15 minutes of pain: “Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”

He has rarely sought out the stings; they come naturally through his work as a biologist in the field. Once he found himself reeling after the 4.0 sting of a tarantula hawk (“Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath.”) He told me he was less concerned with the pain than about making sure the nearby camera crew recorded his distress.

“Why suffer in pain if you’re not getting anything useful out of it?” he asked.

 

At the end of that transatlantic plane ride home, clutching my empty plastic cup and rattling toward Earth, I thought of the beginning of the flight. Did you know that the tinny “flight attendants, prepare for departure” announcement is captain code for: “Arm the emergency slides, so that if the need arises, you can deploy them”? Before that, the stewardess—poker-faced with perfect eyebrows—had performed a one-woman show in a prop lifejacket by the emergency exit. I did not want to watch her enact my nightmares. Even the men around me had looked at their palms. You are the star of a play nobody wants to see, I had thought, and was instantly sad. Later, when she leaned over the beverage cart to ask them, “What can I get for you?” she was loved again, and I envied her.

When our wheels hit America, the captain thanked us for flying with them. The unspoken words here were Thank you for your trust. The in-flight movies had long ended, and my seat-back screen was black, but when he spoke, it flickered alive with PAIN PROGRESS. My eyes were wet, my armpits were damp, and my chewing gum was dry, but I wanted to laugh, giddy with relief. Landing does not resolve our mortality, but it lets us forget about it for a while.

You’re wrong, I thought, stepping into the row to join the slow escape of other red-eyed, matted-haired passengers.

PAIN OVER.