The Fainting Couch: Lessons in Public Humiliation

I went to renew my visa today and after having found my way outside, I had to stand with my head against a tree.

My boyfriend, noticing that I was very pale and probably not having some Silvan Elf moment, bought me a can of Sprite from a cornershop presided over by a young woman who looked like she was wondering why I was lurching up the sidewalk like Frankenstein’s monster so early in the day.

The truth was – I was slain by a bout of nausea and dizziness that could make a grown man weep (or so I would imagine, anyway), but didn’t know enough Arabic to explain it to anyone. I barely tasted the Sprite in my mouth, what for all the bile. I tried to discreetly spit it out, and came face-to-face with a little girl who was standing by her apartment window, transfixed at the scene below.

I tried putting on the “I’m not a weirdo” grin. It didn’t work. It never does.

“If you weren’t here,” I asked boyfriend, “and I were to keel over on this very sidewalk, do you think anyone would call an ambulance?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t imagine that they would in Kiev. They’d probably think I was drunk.”

“Maybe.”

“You know what I’m always terrified of? I used to pass out a lot when I was younger, due to being underweight, I guess, and I’ve always been afraid that one day – someone will grope me when that happens, or worse.”

“You’re morbid.”

That’s not the worst of it, even. I’ve always done public humiliation quite well, actually – surviving nicely while popping out of dresses, falling in the mud, singing off-key, severely misjudging the transparency of certain outfits, making an ass out of myself while attempting to speak a new language, swearing like a sailor in front of my friends’ Southern Baptist parents, walking around with spinach stuck to the front of my teeth for half the day, etc. – but it’s public humiliation with the angle of illness that truly makes a mess out of me.

There’s usually a fuss of some sort – whether sincere or mocking. People feel sorry for you. Or else they think you want attention. And they also tend to assume the worst – they think you’re pregnant or high or drunk or suffering from a terminal illness. As a hereditary hypochondriac, I just can’t handle that sort of thing.

love Scully, hate the whole "Mulder did you get me pregnant?" thing (well, hate the last two seasons, really)
love the lovely Scully - despite the secret, terrifying impregnation stuff

Once, when I was about seventeen and having gracelessly collapsed in the middle of Sunday prayer, I became terrified when the men who had carried me out, both of whom happened to be doctors, gently inquired as to whether or not I might be pregnant. At that point, I was seeing about as much action as a finger bowl in a Texas steakhouse, but paranoid thoughts crept into my head nonetheless.

“Is there such a thing as secret, terrifying impregnation?” I wondered. “Happened to Scully.” Normally, I’d never think like that, but something happens to me when I get dizzy – something primal and strange and very much akin to holy terror when alien abduction seems like the tip of the iceberg of terrifying possibilities.

My brain circuits promptly overloaded, and I fainted again.

“You can tell us, you know,” they said when I regained a semi-upright position and attempted to sip the obligatory Sprite. “We sent your mother to get you a cookie.”

Stars were still fizzling across my vision, but their density was lessening.

“No… my doctor says I’m just underweight. And it was really hot in there,” I pointed back at the church entrance (it wasn’t actually a church in those days – the largely Greek Orthodox congregation rented a stuffy middle school auditorium on Sundays while we waited for construction on the real church to start).

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with some carbs from time to time,” one of the men said. “Don’t look at too many fashion magazines.”

“Or, if you want, we can go buy a pregnancy test,” the other one generously offered. “There’s no shame in knowing, Nat.”

“I can’t be pregnant, guys. Not unless this is an X-Files episode,” I said grimly as I watched my mom approach with a cookie tray.

I thought they would congratulate me on staying true to the teachings of the Bible, but they just laughed and clapped my back and winked in a manner that suggested – “it’s cool, comrade, you’ll be getting laid in no time.”

... it was nothing like that.
... it was nothing like that.

When a simple warm-up exercise left me lying face down in the spring grass, my track coach matter-of-factly suggested that I get an MRI.

“Why?” I murmured into the grass.

“You just never know,” she said. “They can find all sorts of things.”

“Ignorance is bliss,” I protested.

“Not for me it isn’t. Can you imagine a mid-season breakdown in the 4 x 8 line-up while you’re in the hospital with your brain fried? It’s not saying much, but you’re the best runner in that relay.”

“We’ll get lapped. With or without me.” I actually attempted a riff on u2 right then and there. I shit you not. I was that kind of obnoxious teenager.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Nat,” she said as she dumped the contents of my teammate’s water-bottle on my head. What either of us failed to anticipate was that the thing was filled with Orange Gatorade. I don’t understand why she laughed so much, I certainly didn’t find having to wash out my hair at the water fountain by the track to be particularly hilarious, but, at the very least, it did make my dizziness go away.

Fainting is usually associated with Victorian-era women clutching at lace hankies. It’s messier than that, of course. I once saw a guy go down hard while lunching in Dubai – slip sideways as if his head was suddenly too heavy for his body and *boom* smacking his temple against a nearby chair. It’s a miracle someone could live through that, honestly.

“Too many steroids,” one of the waiters snickered confidentially after the ambulance was called and the drama of the moment began to subside.

“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” I seethed on the inside, affronted by the assault on the fainting guy’s honour and good sense (his biceps didn’t look that big).

While fainting is the affectation of silly females, according to some, a fainting guy is pretty much screwed. Women, forever in thrall of their “mysterious lady-parts,” or so the sexist logic goes, aren’t judged too harshly when they suddenly go down in, say, a locker-room – as it happened to me on yet another memorable occasion. Imagine a guy fainting in a locker-room. The only thing that’ll prevent him from getting a penis sketched onto his face is the relative improbability of finding a marker in a gym-bag.

This is just another example of how stupid patriarchal standards hurt men too. See? This is why feminism is not just for us wimminz. Ha!

"I am perfect. I am perfect when I'm falling off my horse after sweating for hours in a too-tight jacket. I am perfect with a huge wet stain spreading across the front of my pants. It's just the way it is."
"I kick ass. I kick ass when I'm falling off my horse after sweating for hours in a too-tight jacket. I kick ass with a huge wet stain spreading across the front of my pants. It's just the way it is." (image from filmpeek.net)

I suggest that any man who has ever fainted and been the subject of pointless derision should take comfort from the existence of Hugh Jackman. Jackman can describe fainting in the heat and hanging off his horse on the shoot of “Australia” at an odd angle while retaining his dignity. Why? Probably because he has so little to prove. Of course, you’re thinking – “well, yeah, he’s only the Sexiest Man Alive, what’s left to prove anyway?” And I say – “yes, but there is more to Hugh than being the embodiment of every sane person’s delightful fantasy! He’s not afraid to make fun of himself! That’s the whole point, you see! You take that sexism, boys, and you laugh at it! And maybe then, you can be someone’s delightful fantasy too!”

All kidding aside, the guy has even survived peeing himself while on stage. None of my public humiliations come close to that. Do yours? He still went on to play Wolverine – and convincingly, I might add. Having heard his story, I began preparing myself for the inevitable accidental public urination – and how I’m not going to let it be the highlight of my life either. I might be able to survive it – because Hugh Jackman had the good grace to talk about it (and then some kind soul uploaded the entire thing to YouTube – thank you, o anonymous internet soldier).

In the meantime, I’d be curious to see a study as to whether or not fainting spells statistically affect more women than they do men. One of the causes of syncope (the fancy medical term for fainting) is emotional stress, and I have always wondered if this is what perpetuates and popularizes the image of the fainting woman. I don’t know if it’s science or society at play, probably a bit of both, but women do tend to be given more space to play out their emotions in public (and subsequently get derided for it) – so do we perceive women as the more accomplished fainters? Do women fake fainting more? Do we actually faint more? Inquiring minds want to know, dammit.

happy tampon enjoys life to the fullest (image cribbed from Feministing.com)
happy tampon enjoys life to the fullest, literally (image cribbed from Feministing.com)

Now, today, the day that I nearly went down on an Amman sidewalk, also happens to be the Dreaded Second Day of my period. I don’t know about you, but for me the second day is always the one that most closely resembles Teeth Gnashing in Hell. My track coach also believed the second day to be the worst – which is why she always kicked my ass a bit less on this day (unfortunately, you can’t have the Second Day more than once a month. I’ve tried sneaking an extra one past her. She never bought it).

I wonder what sorts of biological and/or cultural links fainting has with menstruation. Especially since I appear to be the only woman in my family so strongly affected by my periods. On a normal day, I have no problem running a pretty fast two miles, followed by a hundred crunches, followed by twenty minutes on an elliptical machine, followed by weight-lifting. On the Dreaded Second Day, I sometimes can’t walk down a street without clutching at trees and scaring little children.

It’s all connected.

But I wasn’t thinking about any of that as I gave up on spitting and started to sip the eternal Sprite, while waiting for my boyfriend to hail a cab in the Shmeisani neighbourhood of Amman today. I was just worried that the cabdriver might object to me sloshing around in the back seat with a can of carbonated beverage, and so I attempted to hide the Sprite by draping my coat over my arm.

When we finally found a cab, I took surreptitious slurps as the car lurched in ever-worsening traffic. By the time I realized that what I was doing was probably stupid, the Sprite had already resulted in a medium-sized stain right on my crotch.

It wasn’t quite a Hugh Jackman moment, but I’m still working on that.

14 thoughts on “The Fainting Couch: Lessons in Public Humiliation

  1. Ah- fainting.
    My last lovely faint was the first time I spent at an orthodox service, that first visit with my then boyfriend.
    I was standing next to him, nervous that everyone was watching me (he was pretty much the only young single guy in that church and I figured everyone would be hostile to the heathen chick that had taken him out of the dating pool), distracted by all the incense, the heat was on (it was the vespers before nativity, so cold outside, hot inside).
    I looked over at my boyfriend, feeling sick, pukey, and seeing black spots and tried to grab his hand, he gave me a look like ‘are you trying to hold my hand and get cuddly in church???’ and then I hit the floor.
    Pretty embarrassing. I was also menstruating. I was always told that that kind of fainting is either from locking your knees (ah, standing in church), iron deficiency, and or not breathing enough.
    I’ve also been told it is a red head thing.
    Mostly I avoid it now by sitting when I need to, putting my head between my knees, and eating lots of leafy greens.
    When I was a kid, I lived in New Delhi and we used to try to make ourselves to pass out to avoid having to play field hockey in the summer… It worked better for some than others.
    Sorry for rambling- I really related to this post!

  2. Yazikus,
    Most people probably weren’t phased, I’ve seen alter boys bite it in church and the priest barely skips a beat. I had the whole, “don’t lock your knees” discussion with our wedding party since most of them weren’t orthodox

  3. I thought you weren’t supposed to go into an orthodox church anyway if you’re menstruating – coz, y’know, you’re dirty or something…

  4. Well, as I recall, I wasn’t on my period then.

    I guess it’s a rule, but in the age of tampons, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. My priest once explained it to me as “the menstrual blood interferes with the sacrament… we’re supposed to have communion without the spilling of blood, and here you are, bleeding. A guy with a huge gash on his head wouldn’t be allowed either.”

    And I said – “A guy? Wanna bet?”

    And then we just decided to agree to disagree.

  5. I always loved Hugh Jackman. And then I found out he also sings and does high kicks.

    And he’s hosting the Oscars this year……..

  6. Last time I fainted – I think – was a few years back during an illness of unknown sort. It caused me the worst stomach pains I’ve experienced ever. I usually have a high pain threshold, but this had me crying like a baby. I went to the bathroom, and I remember registering the beginnings of the spell and thinking “Oh shit, I’m going down, try not to hit the sink or the toilet bowl.” I’ve no idea how, but unconsciously I managed to land my head inbetween the toilet bowl an the wall – a space of 10 inches max.

    And it scared the crap out of my boyfriend back then who found me after wondering what the hell took me so long. I hadn’t actually been out more than 10 minutes or so, but still.

    My current boyfriend took a fall down the stairs, I heard and came to check on him. Found him leaning on the sink in the bathroom, getting his bearings. I lifted up his shirt to check the abrasions and all of a sudden he was 75 kilos of dead weight in my arms. Scared the shit out of me, I was worried he’d hit his head and not just his back, but he woke up less than a minute later and was fine – if somewhat confused. He’d been on his way to take a leak, so when he passed out he peed in his pants. A natural function of muscles relaxing, I had to explain to him, when he was so very puzzled why his pants were soaked.

    Other than this, I’ve not much experience with fainting spells. I’ve gotten close, but usually I catch it in time and avoid it. And there’s always been a physical reason, like not drinking enough, or being otherwise ill etc etc

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