By Guest Blogger Kevin H. Posey
Our lives typically unspool like a very long, frequently boring, movie. One scene segues into another with no breaks in the continuity, except when we sleep. Even here, though, some semblance of continuity exists. Our minds fill the gap in consciousness with dreams which, though they rarely last more than a few minutes, seem to fill an entire night thanks to the way REM sleep distorts time within the dream. You know, like Inception, but typically without all the automatic weapons and car chases.
Yet when we get knocked out, dreams don’t come along to fill the continuity gap. The scene in our film suddenly changes with no fade-out and fade-in. It’s as though Scotty from Star Trek got a little tipsy and started randomly beaming the crew all over. One minute you’re having a nice sonic shower, the next you’re in a city surrounded by weird, furry creatures (relax, it’s just Times Square).
I’ve had this experience several times. Most were planned out ahead of time, as anesthesiologists were involved. One was very unplanned.
The latter incident involved a bike when I was about eight years old. My friend Jimmy and I were zipping along on bikes that featured banana seats and a low-slung aspect—like a Harley, but without the engine and German WWI helmet. Oh, and in my case, replace the chubby, tattooed rider with a skinny kid in Harry Potter glasses. There you go.
Jimmy had a really, really bad habit of getting in front of me whenever we reached a corner. He would start on the outside, and then zip in front of me like a NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., cutting a corner on a track. On one occasion he cut a little too close and my front wheel connected with his back wheel, resulting in a crash that could have only been more spectacular if one of our bikes had actually exploded (NASCAR on bikes!). When I got home after that crash, my mom asked if I had been dragged by a truck. It took awhile to get the asphalt out of my skin.
But the crash that deleted scenes in my movie came later. Ironically, it happened because I actually anticipated Jimmy’s wild maneuvering. As we took a fast left from smoothly-paved Roanoke Drive, which ran in front of my house, onto badly-paved Jenkins Road, I tapped my brakes and shifted a bit further left to avoid him. Unfortunately, that put me on a collision course with the Mother of All Potholes.
By tapping my brakes, I lost momentum. When the front wheel hit the far edge of the pothole, the bike stopped. I didn’t. The last image I remember is the rough pavement of Jenkins Road rushing at my face.
My return to consciousness was a curious thing. I remember feeling something cold on my chin and hearing someone far away repeatedly ask, “What happened?” Gravity was fluctuating as I felt myself shift from side to side.
As the voice got closer, I realized it was my own. I opened my eyes and asked, “Where am I?” My mom said something, but I only heard frantic gibberish, like an adult in Charlie Brown if they had an expresso problem.
I discovered that my chin was resting on a towel covering a tub of ice. This tub was on the back seat of my mom’s car which, thanks to my mom’s lead foot, was swaying side-to-side as we blasted down the Manchester Expressway towards the doctor’s office. Upon arrival I received a lovely set of stitches that made me the envy of every other pint-sized daredevil in school. I still have a small scar on my chin, just like Harrison Ford (we get mixed up all the time).
Between my mom’s rather uninteresting tale filled with admonishments about the laws of physics and Jimmy’s far more awesome/gory account, I learned that after falling I didn’t pass out like a Parisian connoisseur who discovered his favorite wine came from a winery in remote Guyton, Georgia (there really is one!). Jimmy told me that my eyes were wide open, but I just kept repeating, “What happened?” That, along with a rather spectacular and bloody gash in my chin, told him this situation was rather more serious than my usual skin loss.
He coaxed me to stand up and walk the short distance to my house. Like an early preview of The Walking Dead, I just plodded along, looping, “What happened?” I never acknowledged his increasingly alarmed replies. When my mom opened the door, she got the biggest shock I gave her until I started dating.
Of course, I remember none of this. It’s like I stepped away from a video just as the most interesting bit happened. Who was piloting me? Who was that repeating the same question, walking, getting in a car, and resting my chin in a bucket of ice?
As disquieting as that is, at least there was some transition on regaining consciousness. Contrast that with that most exciting experience of middle age, the colonoscopy. Unless you’re kind of kinky, having a long cable with a camera attached slowly worked up your digestive tract is not something you want to be around for. “Are you okay with being sedated?” asked the nurse. Yes, please!
“Count backwards from ten,” said the anesthesiologist. After I muttered, “…eight,” I found myself alone in a completely different room. A nurse walked in and asked how I was doing. I replied, “Fine, but when are we doing the colonoscopy?”
“You’ve already had it.”
Maybe the Director’s Cut of my life won’t have such a terrible edit. I expected to slowly come to, not suddenly be wide awake and fully alert like someone had found my “on” toggle switch. I now empathize with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Mr. Data, who got flipped on and off more than a toaster oven. Too jarring!
Perhaps I am not the only person to be disconcerted by abrupt breaks in perceived reality. When I was getting the lining of my throat checked (too much soda and fast food as a kid), the doctor didn’t want to give me the full lights-out. He just wanted to “mellow me out,” as he put it, but it was still to be another camera-and-cable setup.
“Are you sure this will work?” said the skeptical patient. “You don’t want to knock me out completely?”
“No, you’ll be fine,” said the over-confident doctor.
I got the “mellow” sedative and, strangely, felt no different. I’d claim that means I’m usually pretty mellow, but my wife read the initial draft of this and started laughing.
The medical team fitted me with a mask and starting working a tube into my throat. As fun as that may sound to some of you, my autopilot thought otherwise and took over. My entire body started to flop like a freshly-caught fish, something that happened to me before during a near-fatal asthma attack (featuring a funky out-of-body experience that I’ll save for another story). Arms, legs, everything was trying to leave the room and in different directions.
“Relax, relax!” an increasingly-alarmed nurse implored. Sorry, but I’m not flying this plane anymore, ma’am.
“Give him the stuff,” I heard the doctor sternly say.
And then I was in another room, with both my wife and the doctor looking down on me with bemused expressions. “That’s some gag reflex you’ve got there,” said the probably less-confident doctor.
“I did warn you,” said the smart-aleck patient. Inside my head, though, I was still disconcerted by the missing section of my life that both scared and amused others.
The troubling question is this: what really constitutes our personal realities? In quantum physics, perception appears to have an impact on reality, but whose perception counts? Mine, Jimmy’s or that of some doctor jamming a tube into an orifice on my unconscious body? Schrodinger’s or that of his dead/living cat?
In a sense, it is the memory of perceptions surrounding an event that create a part of reality. I know reality didn’t entirely skip a scene after I fell off my bike because of Jimmy’s memory of what transpired afterwards. Well, that and the scar on my chin.