After so much nothingness, something had decided to place my consciousness back inside my skin. I could feel the hair on my forearms again. I could sense the living things around me. And I could remember them: my fingertips against the lukewarm grass, a whistle zipping through the air. The low rasp of my father’s voice. A lazy and quiet breeze. I opened my eyes, and boom, the year was 1995. A California sky. A smattering of clouds. Who knew how long I’d been gone or how I’d learned to jump time, but I had.
And that was pretty confusing for a thirteen-year-old kid.
The facemask from my football helmet fractured my view into angular pieces. The shoulder, butt, thigh, and knee pads all began coming back into being.
But what had happened? I sat up.
“Hi.” A woman in a blue uniform approached me from the side. “Do you know where you are?”
I looked around. “I think I’m at a football game?”
“Good, that’s right.” She wove a finger in front of my eyes. “Do you know what happened?”
“I don’t think I do,” I said.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
I tried and tried to picture anything, but I couldn’t. I scanned the sideline I was on for context clues: my green jersey. That’s right. I was an Eagle. The orange jerseys of the Bengals were scattered across the other side line. “I think I remember waking up,” I lied. Everything was jumbled, flashes, nothing concrete.
“Hey dude.” My dad crouched down next to the paramedic lady and rested a hand on my shoulder pad. “You stripped the ball and ran it back for a goddamn touchdown!”
I did?” I tried to flip through the rolodex of football scenes from my brain until I found something familiar. That was right. I had been on defense. The opposing team’s quarterback, Dave Mayhew, pitched the ball to Richard Seitz. He headed my way behind two big blockers. Rather than trying to hit the blockers or tackling Richard Seitz, I ran up to him and stole the ball. I immediately started sprinting the long sixty-yard journey toward the end zone. But when I got about five yards away from my six-point destination, I let up because I didn’t think anyone was close to me. That was when Dave Mayhew who had been madly dashing after me the whole time made his final leap, tripped up my feet, and forced my helmeted head into a dive straight into the touchdown dirt. I scored, but I think the impact knocked me out for a moment.
The strangest part about that memory was that it felt like I was watching it through an old super-8 camera. My view of it was dim and blurry, and there seemed to be a grainy yellow hue around edges, like some kind of fisheye lens on a damaged film strip. What was even weirder was that there was no sound. I remembered laying in the end zone with my eyes closed and someone putting a water bottle in my hand, but then nothing until I woke up on the sideline, staring at the sky.
“Did that just happen?” I asked my father.
“In the second quarter, dude,” he said. “’Bout a half hour ago. We’re in the fourth now.”
“What did I do after that?”
“You kept playing a while, but they took you out. You missed a tackle, and you kept telling everyone that you couldn’t remember anything. You came over here, and this nice lady told you to lie down while she checked you out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Why don’t you take your helmet off, bud?”
“No, I’ll keep it on.” I felt safer thinking with it on, and I had a lot to think about. I was trying to wrap my fuzzy thoughts around the facts: I had been awake and playing for a quarter and a half after I’d hit my head. I’d been running around on a football field, slamming my tiny body into other people, without the ability to remember anything at all.
“You wanna get up and catch the end of the game, dude?” he asked. Dude has always been an affectionate term used between my father and me.
“Sure.” I stood up with his help and walked up to the thick, white painted sideline to watch my teammates, careful not to cross it so that I remained off of the field of play. My father continued talking to the paramedic behind me.
When you’ve got a concussion and you’re chasing Dave Mayhew and Richard Seitz around, you are literally all body and no consciousness. I’m sure that while standing there watching my team beat the Bengals six to zero that day, though, that I couldn’t have had the capacity for those terms to describe what felt so terrifying. I think it was more along the lines of all body, no control.
To have my physical body and the brain sever like that: I started to wonder who that person was that stood up in the endzone after I’d scored that touchdown and kept playing because it couldn’t have been me.
What had I said or done on that field? Who was I when I was only my body and not my whole self? Somewhere mixed in with all those other feelings was a profound gratitude for getting the opportunity to be a unified and thinking and feeling human being again.
A few years later, in high school, I tried a tail grab on a snowboard at the Sierra Summit Ski Resort. The jump wasn’t high enough, so the nose of my board dug into the snow, and I went head over ass into a kind of frozen end zone. My girlfriend found me sitting off to the side of a run, repeating the same mantra from a few years before: “I can’t remember anything.”
She told me later that she rode next to me down the hill to the medical building, and I barely remembered any of it. Like before, the ride seemed yellowed at the edges and splotchy. No memory existed of the actual fall either. I only knew what’d happened from a stranger who’d witnessed it, who’d checked on me and had told my girlfriend what’d happened. Then I was in an ambulance, strapped to a board, headed down a winding winter mountain and trying not to throw up. I survived, of course, and I got a helmet for snowboarding after that. But I got deep in my thoughts again. I couldn’t stop comparing the second concussion to the first.
I wondered what I’d done while sitting there on the side of the run or while riding down the mountain without control of my body. Had I run into someone and just kept on going? With only my body driving itself around, what if I had hurt someone else? What if I had hurt myself worse? What if I’d broken my neck and been paralyzed?
I’ve never been the type of person to drive drunk, but every single friend I grew up with had had at least one DUI. Many of my friends and extended family members had drinking problems. Everyone I knew had some kind of alcohol charges on their record and had lost their license at least once (including me). Many of them had done time for it. My cousins, my friends, and even my sister had all been in late night car wrecks involving alcohol. Alcoholism ran deep in my blood line and in my small town, so it made sense that I would eventually have my own love/hate relationship with alcohol as well.
Of course, I’ve been a bartender and an alcoholic, and I’ve spent enough time around drunk people to know this: consciousness can be a burden, especially if you’re like me and you spend entire eight-hour days inside with a guitar and a notepad, obsessing over half-cooked creative ideas, many of which will never materialize into anything real and tangible.
And then, of course, there’s the world.
Did you hear about the mass shooting at the elementary school? Did you hear the noise your car is making? Did you hear about the new war? Did you take your father to the doctor? Did you hear about the five-alarm fire in New York City? Did you hear about the new outbreak? Did mom tell you they found your grandfather at the gas station again, talking to the soda machine? Did you think about the way that you disappointed someone you love last night?
Consciousness can be paralyzing, and while I was afraid of what’d happened to me when my body had taken full control during my time concussed, I also realized through much trial and error that alcohol was a way out of consciousness, and I loved that about it. I didn’t want to always overthink every damn thing in my life, so I decided to let the body take over and drive for a while, to let the mind climb into the back seat and enjoy the show, or more often, forget about the show altogether. There would be plenty of time for regret and shame and overthinking in the following days and months and maybe even years, but not tonight, tonight I would follow the body.
I followed my body on alcohol for many years after the age of seventeen. The utter recklessness of a wild night on alcohol was always hilarious to tell after the fact, as long as everyone survived and was not seriously injured.
I woke up one morning to the news that I had wrestled my friend standing up in the back of a pickup truck going seventy miles an hour down the 101 Freeway at 2:30AM with a drunk driver behind the wheel.
I woke up one morning on the floor at my friend’s mom’s house having shit myself. Have you ever tried to clean up an adult shit in your own pants while drunk at 4AM?
I woke up one morning in San Luis Obispo, California to a knock on the door of the room which belonged to the woman I was lying next to. I didn’t even know her name. When I got up and walked through the living room, pulling on my shirt, her entire family and friends were gathered in her living room with a nametagged counselor for some kind of intervention. I nodded, slipped out the screen door, went to breakfast and had a Bloody Mary.
I woke up one morning to find the girl I had been dating on the floor of her bedroom with my manager’s sleeping dick in her sleeping hand.
I woke up in Sacramento in the back of a van in a neighborhood I didn’t recognize.
I woke up one morning on acid I’d taken while blacked out to find that I’d hidden my keys, cell phone, and wallet from myself and locked myself out of my own room.
I woke up wet in a pool chair outside a hotel.
I woke up on a stack of hay bales at Cal Poly University.
I woke up, peed on my friend’s leather couch, and then made myself comfortable in the puddle I’d just made and fell back asleep.
I woke up in a strange Las Vegas hotel room beside an open bottle of pills.
I woke up on a beach in Mexico without any shoes.
I woke up, laying in the dirt in a rock quarry in Virginia without a shirt on.
I woke up to a text from Trev that read: “Someone broke my shoulder at the bar last night, was it you?”
There was a noticeable difference between the many nights blacked out and the two days I’d had concussions. I no longer really cared what’d happened to me while my body was in control. There was no problem to solve or deeper connection that needed to be made. It wasn’t really me anyway. I didn’t have to have feelings about things I couldn’t remember. That’s it. I didn’t have to have feelings or confused thoughts about any of it at all. The beauty of repeating an idea over and over again to yourself is that it eventually becomes true. I was deliberately going out every night and giving myself a new kind of concussion. I was following the body. I did it because it was fun, and I don’t regret any of it. There was also this: I’d survived it all, and what gives a person more appreciation for the life they’ve been given than a close scrap with death?
And I wasn’t an asshole when I was blacked out. Of course, there were exceptions, depending on your definition of an asshole, but I never got behind the wheel of a car. I never punched anyone. I didn’t get kicked out of bars for kicking holes in the walls. Most of the recent research about who we become when we’re drunk agrees with me. According to a series of studies by Kathryn Francis, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bradford, this is because while alcohol might affect our empathy levels, it does not fundamentally change our personality or our “existing sense of morality.” At the deepest of levels, I always knew I could trust my body to keep me out of any real trouble. I knew whoever I was when I was blacked out wouldn’t just go out and deliberately hurt another human being.
That one morning, though, upon receiving Trev’s text about his broken shoulder and realizing that we’d been at the Frog and Peach Pub (where I’d once worked) the night before, I called the manager and asked if we could watch the security footage. My good friend Case-Dogg had been with me the night prior, so he came along too. Was my blacked-out self becoming violent? Was I the guilty party? Was I going to have hop on the wagon like so many of my friends and family before me?
Only the video could tell me the truth.
It was a very strange thing to watch myself on camera walking around a room. I didn’t remember the drink I was holding. I didn’t remember the spot where I stood. It was also a very boring watch. I stood talking to some stranger I also couldn’t remember. My friend Trev walked in and walked right past me. He and Case-Dogg started drunkenly hugging. Awkwardly, they both fell down on top of one another.
“That’s it,” I said to the manager working the computer mouse. I turned to Case-Dogg. “It was you, mother fucker.” And then I punched him in the arm.
“Shit.” Case-Dogg shrugged.
While all this was going on, on the video I mean, the drunk me simply looked at my two drunk friends until they both stood up, and then I went right back to my conversation. Who knows what the conversation was about? Who knows what Trev and Case-Dogg said to each other after their dust up? Poor Trev stumbled out the back of the bar with a broken bone, through the back patio, and into the night where the camera lost him. My old manager x’d out of the computer window and cut the feed. Case-Dogg and I sauntered downstairs, had a few screwdrivers, and got fun-day drunk together.
When I dig around in my actions, I can see now how that Psychology lecturer, Kathryn Francis, was right about alcohol and a lack of empathy. Maybe that’s another reason why I loved to get blacked out: so I didn’t have to care about everything that deserved being cared about in my life and in the world.
And I know what you’re thinking. In every addiction narrative you’ve ever seen, this is where something terrible happens that makes the speaker quit that evil substance forever, but that’s not what’s going to happen to me. I still drink alcohol pretty regularly. I don’t blackout near as often. And I do think I still do drink to calm those thoughts and emotions which still can get pretty loud for me.
What I want to talk to you about now is a very closely related and much more recent condition I’ve been struggling with.
Around 2015, I was studying for my comprehensive exams to get my doctoral degree in English and Creative Writing. What this basically means is that they give you three subject areas, each with a list of about 100 books, and then a few months later, they give you six essay questions to answer, two for each subject area, and you’re not allowed to bring in any notes at all. This means you have to memorize entire poems, plot lines of novels, important character’s names, dates, critical quotes, detailed information about the author’s life and the historical context of the period in which they were writing, and important literary movements and tropes. They can ask you any question they want. At that time, I was reading nearly one book per day for several days in a row. It could get incredibly stressful, and I did my fair share of drinking and blacking out through that process as well.
But what I didn’t expect was what happened one night after a long day of studying and with the date of the comprehensive exams drawing near.
I woke up in my Dover Hills Apartment in Kalamazoo, Michigan to two silhouettes standing at the foot of the bed. They looked like a couple from the 1800’s, dressed in old clothes like farmers, the man in a top hat, and they were touching my legs and crawling up my body. The thing was, I couldn’t feel my legs. In fact, I couldn’t feel my body at all, but I could see them and could think about and readily experience the brutal fear of what they might do to me. I’d spent twenty-some-odd years coming to understand the comfort of evenings out more deeply where I was all body and no consciousness. Now, I had stumbled upon something different: all consciousness and no body. I started to scream, but nothing came out. Even my vocal cords didn’t exist in this state of sleep paralysis. It took what felt like five minutes before my body fought its way to the surface. I screamed and woke up my wife, Ann, who was lying next to me.
A few weeks later, in the same bed, I woke up fully conscious and unable to move again. This time, someone else had control of my body and said “hello” in a voice I didn’t recognize, but here’s the thing—it was my own voice. My control over my own faculties seemed to be drifting away.
I visited my parents in California a month later, and I woke up to a hole in the ceiling of my old bedroom that sucked me into it, as if I were being taken away by aliens from Mercury or Pluto.
I went camping a few nights after that and woke up to someone trying to drag me by the feet out of my tent and into the rainy night.
The result of all of these nights was that I was fully conscious and trying to scream, but it took minutes before my screams would actually become audible.
Each of those occurrences was the most unbridled fear I’d ever felt in my life, fear whose only remedy was the loudest and longest scream I could muster. A howl, older than language itself. An ancient-ass feeling, and it’s true meaning was please, please, please just make this stop.
How prevalent is sleep paralysis?
A Polish study puts the number at about 7.6% of the population. WebMD puts the number much higher at 40%. Wikipedia in its never-ending quest for democratic and general knowledge provides a range of 8-50%. If you’re one of the unlucky ones, you know what I’m talking about, and I feel for you.
Some people like me report demons sitting on their chests or alien abductions or people from the past taking control of their bodies. Just about every culture has some sort of mythical explanation for this condition. Scientifically speaking, this the best explanation I’ve found:
The discovery that my sleeping body and half-waking consciousness could be intermingling in this new way brought on a very real and very fucking terrifying phobia of death.
Because what if death is just a never-ending case of sleep paralysis in which I can’t feel anything or do anything, but I can perceive everything? What if death is consciousness floating around without a body, and I’m forever stuck in those moments where I’m trying to scream but can’t? What if I’ll end up just having to stew in that fear without any remedy for it, without even the ability to express it with a full-bodied scream? After all, though sometimes I might mistreat it, I do actually love my body, and I do actually need my body in order to express my consciousness.
It’s a Tuesday evening in January 2022 now. Already there’s been a few mass shootings. America just had more than a million diagnosed cases of Covid in a single day. My wife totaled her car pulling out of her job at the middle school, and the insurance company won’t call us back. It rained last night, and my crawl space is flooded. A thirty-foot-long limb broke off of one of my Pin Oak Trees and fell into my front yard.
I don’t know the best way to tell you that on a day like today, my waking life feels like a kind of sleep paralysis. The caring has gotten to be too much. I can’t seem to move, and I’m acutely aware of everything that’s going wrong around me. In order to solve it though, I’m not going to have someone knock me out with a punch to the face. I’m not going snowboarding because I live in South Carolina, and I know that even sleep won’t offer any kind of cure.
I know I’ll pour myself a vodka and soda with a splash of cran. I’ll grill a steak. I’ll write a song. I’ll do a puzzle with my wife.
And maybe after all of that, I’ll get lucky.
Maybe I’ll blackout.
Maybe I’ll keep on creating wreckage in my life and not dying, so that when I wake up, one more time, I’ll be reminded how grateful I am to be alive.