Next Stop: The Floor ☠️
Going, going... Passed out.
I'm a food and travel writer from the shores of Lake Erie, now based in Berlin. I attempt to send out weekly essays on my latest mishaps and travels around the globe and in the kitchen. If you would like to support my work, please consider sharing this newsletter with a friend or acquaintance (I’m not picky).
My heart’s racing. I can feel the blood leave my face as my body starts slumping to the floor.
“Here it comes,” I think to myself. “Next stop… The floor.”
Ever since I started exercising––a good 20 years ago at this point––I’ve had the tendency to occasionally pass out if I push myself too hard. It sounds scarier than it is. Once it happened at my office in Cleveland. I joined my colleagues for an after work bodyweight session in the office. I felt fine… Until I didn’t. The next thing I knew I was on my back, opening my eyes to the sight of a bearded man holding my legs up like a gynecologist setting me up for an exam.
So why does my body decide to shutdown from time to time? Vasovagal syncope. Basically it’s what happens when your blood pressure and heart rate drop suddenly, causing you to pass out or faint. There are a variety of triggers. For some, it’s the sight of blood. For me, it’s apparently exercising too hard and exacerbated if I’m rockin’ an empty stomach.
It didn’t happen again for years. I had just finished at the office gym while working at trivago in Düsseldorf. I quickly got myself in the shower as I felt the early signs of vasovagal––shortness of breath, racing heart, nausea. I thought ahead and even lowered myself to the ground, lying on my side in case I ended up fainting.
I learned the importance of minimizing the distance between head and floor during an episode in Chicago. My boss at the gym put me through a hard workout and I fought the vasovagal response all the way up until the lights went out, slumped over on a toilet like Elvis. Oh, and that reminds me of the time in Cleveland when I felt it coming on, so I sat in a chair at the gym sandwich counter. This was all well and good, except the chair was for a high-top table.
Triggering the vasovagal response is like walking a tight rope. Sometimes I know when I need to stop. Other times I know I have one last set in me before I need to call it quits.
On Monday, I miscalculated.
I had all but finished my workout. After one set of leg presses, the final exercise of the day, I started to feel a little nauseous. I gave myself two minutes of rest and went at it again for the second set. I don’t think I felt any better or worse. I thought of calling it a day to be safe. But after another two minutes of rest, I thought I had one last set in me.
Reader, I was wrong.
After finishing my last set, I took a moment on the seat, hunched over my knees like a bruised boxer in the corner between rounds. After a few breaths, I stood up and started to put on my jacket to head out into the brisk November sunshine.
I needed to sit again. Vasovagal was around the corner. But I thought I could fight it with some deep breathing. So I made my way to a wooden bench near the gym entrance, took a seat, and started scrolling on my phone so passersby didn’t think I was depressed, staring at the ground as I slipped slowly into madness.
But sitting wasn’t helping. I needed the floor. I worried that would give me away, but I figured collapsing like a corpse would be worse. So, I slithered down onto the floor, sitting cross-legged, trying to be as inconspicuous as one can be while plopped on the main walkway between the gym equipment and the stairs leading to the locker room. I watched as a handful of legs went passing by, seemingly unfazed by a grown man crunched into a hunched meditative position.
In their defense, they probably thought this was normal for Berlin. To them, I was an impromptu performance arts piece, perhaps symbolizing the defeatedness we feel as individuals in the face of a climate change catastrophe that requires global change and cooperation.
Whatever they thought, I was fading. Fast.
I stopped trying to fool anyone and let myself slide to the floor and into the fetal position, though still conscious. I was present enough to think about what I’d say when someone from staff inevitably came over.
“How do I say, ‘I don’t feel well’ in German again? It’s not, Ich fühle mich schlecht. That’s more about feeling bad for doing something or out of empathy…”
Lying on my side, I pulled up my German ←→ English dictionary app.
“Ah, right! Übel. But it’s dative, so I gotta say, ‘Mir ist übel.’”
Right on cue, a ponytailed staff member came over, kneeling by my side like a soldier checking in on a fallen comrade.
“Hallo…” she started with a soft, empathetic tone. “Deutsch? Englisch?”
Even if my state of despair, I wasn’t going to be another American in Berlin who couldn’t Deutsch.
“Beides geht,” I said. “Both.”
“Alles okay?” she asked.
“Ja… Sorry… Mir ist nur ein bisschen übel,” I mumbled from my side, too faint to feel embarrassed.
“Ist das dein erstes Mal?" she followed up. “Is this your first time?” My pride took a colossal hit like a swift kick to the nuts. I thought she was asking if this was my first time in the gym. In retrospect, she was probably referring to me slumping to the ground.
I explained the gist of what was happening and that I’d be fine in a little bit. Another colleague came over. I heard her say that I was looking a little “blass” or pale. I wanted to assure her that that’s just my November color.
After a few minutes, I was already starting to feel better and I didn’t even need a full reset. The lights flickered, but they ultimately stayed on.
Kukkolaforsen: Exploring Swedish Fishing Culture
A day out at Kukkolaforsen, Sweden for some Swedish fishing culture and a taste of Chef Tony Blom's viking-style food.
Ooof, that sounds like quite a thing to have to manage!