When I had my series of mortifying moments at the gym at the end of January (calf muscle problems leading to nausea leading to passing out leading to cracking my head on a wall leading to blood on the gym floor, for those who came in late), one thing I didn’t mention was that this was actually a faint echo of something that happened before. The same superficial moments were there, but a lot of the other parts are quite different.
It was February 1988, about halfway through my freshman year of high school. A bunch of good friends that I’d had from 4th through 8th grade had also gone to the same magnet school as I, and up until that day I still thought of them as being just that—good friends. Then I got sick and to coin a phrase, that’s when I really learned who my friends were and were not.
Because our school had people from all across the county attending, morning transportation involved everyone taking a bus or walking to their “base school” (the location that you’d normally attend if you weren’t accepted to Jefferson Tech) and then waiting for a shuttle bus that transported all of us Jefferson students to our actual school. When the weather was good, we’d wait out in front of the school, but winter meant that we’d wait in the main foyer. People would play cards, or talk, or catch up on homework. I remember that two of my best friends from earlier years, Will M. and Steve S., were both there. And that was when I went to school with a nasty cough that turned out to really be bronchitis.
I was standing next to the wall, we had another ten minutes or so of waiting before we’d leave, and I’d started to cough. This was nothing really new, I’d been coughing for the last day or so. But I couldn’t help but notice that each bout of coughing was getting progressively worse. The last series of coughs made me feel light-headed, and I even remember wondering how I was able to breathe when I was coughing for so long and with such force.
So I began to cough. And cough. And cough. And suddenly I had a horrible feeling that I was about to get the answer to my earlier question. Everything began to swim in front of my eyes like they do in movies, with me coughing merrily away even as I started feeling weak in the knees. With the grace of a drunken man trying to pretend he’s sober, I know I stepped backwards in an attempt to lean up against the wall and catch my breath. So I extended my foot behind me and began to move backwards, when everything went black.
A second later, I was disoriented and confused. What was going on? Where was I? What were all these things on top of me? And what was that throbbing pain on the back of my head from?
Slowly I got my bearings. I was still at Madison High School, only now I was on the ground, and there was a pile of coats on top of me. Above me, everyone was talking amongst themselves like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was still more than a bewildered. I felt sick, and run down, and my head hurt, and no one seemed to give a damn. Finally (and all of this happened in the space of about 15 seconds) I started crying. I didn’t know what exactly had happened, but I felt horrible and lost and alone.
After an uncomfortable amount of time, Will helped me to my feet and asked me if I needed to go to the clinic of Madison. I nodded, and he helped me down the hall to where someone finally got me some help and sent me home. (I lived around the corner from Madison so I think I walked home.) It wasn’t until later, though, that I was able to piece together with the help of others exactly what had happened when I passed out.
Apparently when I stepped backwards and then blacked out, I’d managed to get right up next to the wall. And about four and a half feet up the wall from the ground was a little ledge that ran all along the wall. So when I coughed so hard that I stopped getting air in and passed out, on the way down I cracked my head on ledge. And my friends? My good, good friends that I’d known for five years through thick and thin?
They decided I was pretending and proceeded to throw everyone’s coats on top of me, then turn away and ignore me.
I was out of school for the better part of a week. When I got back, there were no apologies, no “hey what happened?” from them (although many other people did ask—turns out they’d asked when I went down and my friends had told them not to worry), nothing. Great friends, huh?
I stopped thinking of them as friends pretty soon afterwards. It wasn’t an isolated incident, the more I looked at it. They’d found new friends and decided that as part of that process I needed to be cut loose. All the signs had been there, but it involved me getting hurt to finally figure out what was going on. Meanwhile, the new friends I’d made turned out to be ones that I really could count on; some of them whom I am still in touch with almost twenty years later.
Now I wish I could say that moment was a big turning point for my life, that from that day on I learned to figure out when I was trying to be accepted by people who’d written me off. Well, no, not really. But it’s something I’ve started to pick up on a little more. And every time, I think back to that day in 1988 when it took me passing out and cracking my head on the wall to figure out that the people around me just didn’t care.
Hurting myself at spinning class may have been mortifying, but when the dust settled I had a bunch of people genuinely concerned for my well-being. So some things, at least, do change. It’s not the storybook happy ending, but I’ll take it. Easily.