*As told to Chloe Metzger by Anonymous (names have been changed)
We were having sex tonight—I knew that much. He had touched my knee, and I was pretending that the sudden chasm of warmth in my body was the result of the oppressively hot Washington, DC summer, and not the countdown clock that had just started in our brains as we waited for the dinner check. I had spent the evening nibbling on my hamster-size, “womanly” salad, because I obviously didn’t want to gross him out by eating a real meal on a first date. Of course, neither of us knew that only hours later, I would be viciously puking up those “womanly” mozzarella chunks in front of his naked body just three minutes after we started having sex, and two minutes before I lost consciousness for eight days straight. But at that moment, I was playing it cool.
The tiny voice in my brain was chanting, “It’s goin’ down, it’s goin’ down.”
I had moved to DC three months prior, after graduating from a Midwest university with double majors in jobless areas: international studies and journalism. Being newly saddled with student loans and an impending quarter-life crisis, I gladly accepted the first relevant job that was offered to me, which was at a sketchy, international development nonprofit. And that’s where I met Eliot, an incredibly good-looking, super-educated, and well-traveled man with the interpersonal skills of a biscuit. He was a dream. OK, a distraction, but I was still pumped when he messaged me on Facebook, asking if I wanted to get together on Saturday. Being the romance-whisperer that I am, I suggested we see an afternoon showing of Annie Hall at the Jewish Community Center for $3. It was a date.
As far as weekends go, that Saturday had started uneventfully. I puttered around my house, which I was sharing with five nice, but messy, grad students, popped a few Tylenol for an annoying headache that had been plaguing me since Thursday, cursed the July heat, and headed out for the movie. We rounded out the night with a romantic dinner on a patio downtown, some suggestive knee touching, and an anticipation-filled cab ride back to my house, where we immediately began making out on the way to my room. My headache had somewhat receded, drowned out by the tiny voice in my brain chanting, “It’s goin’ down, it’s goin’ down,” which only got louder as we finally got in bed and started having sex. And the sex really was amazing—for a full 50 seconds.
Then the earth kind of tilted. Splotches of bright, vivid lights flashed in my left field of vision, which was odd, because it was pitch-black in my room, and I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to puke. Mumbling an apology, I rolled off of him and stumbled into the bathroom, where I vomited. I was determined not to let puke kill the mood, though, so I headed back to bed, sex appeal intact, and then promptly got sick again, vomiting a brilliant display of mozzarella and lettuce into a trash can next to him. At that point, I admitted defeat and laid down, muttering a billion apologies while Eliot stroked my hair, told me I was sexy, and revealed his undying love for me as I laid in a coquettish heap on the bed. At least, that’s what I like to think had happened. I’ll never really know, though, because by that time, blood had been steadily hemorrhaging into my brain for almost five minutes, and I was already unconscious.
“I tried to piece together what had happened that night.”
I didn’t know that that night would become a dividing line in my life—the BC and AD to my memories. I didn’t know that I would spend the next six months obsessively learning the details of what happened after I lost consciousness, how Eliot said my name over and over again, before frantically calling 911. I couldn’t have known to tell him my address, so he, a terrified stranger, wouldn’t have had to bang on my roommate’s door at 1 a.m., asking for directions to give the ambulance. I didn’t get to defend myself to the paramedics who casually labeled me as a drunk, overdosed college student, and I couldn’t be the one to comfort my hysterical parents when a nurse called them while they were sleeping. But I did get to have the minutes of that night replayed to me again and again for months, as I tried to piece together what had happened between the time I laid down to the moment I woke up, eight days later, with emaciated limbs and a tube coming out of my skull.
And what had happened was the ticking time bomb in my brain, one I didn’t know existed, had finally gone off. After the doctors ruled out an overdose, they gave me a CT scan, where they found a massive hemorrhage in my optic chiasma—the point where your optic nerves cross and form an X in your brain—which explained my flashing vision from before, and my permanent partial blindness later. The doctors quickly induced a coma, shaved half of my head, drilled into my skull, and inserted a tube to drain the blood, since seeping blood is like acid to the brain. Then, after a dozen tests and scans, they finally found the cause of the bleed: an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an incredibly rare congenital abnormality that suddenly reverses the blood flow between your veins and arteries, causing a rupture in your brain. It exists in fewer than one-percent of people, and mainly only in men. Oh, and in me.
Doctors would later tell me that my run-of-the-mill headache that Saturday was actually my AVM starting to leak, and that the reason my blood pressure was unusually high at my annual physical three days prior—yes, I was literally at a doctor’s office just days before landing in the emergency room—wasn’t a heat-related fluke, but a sign that my brain was about to explode. And because a person’s blood pressure skyrockets when they’re turned on, having sex with Eliot was essentially a shot to the brain for my AVM.
At the hospital, my parents, who had hopped on an overnight flight from Illinois, during which my mom couldn’t stop crying, were told my odds: AVMs kill 15-percent of people who have them, and even if I survived, I had a 30-percent chance of permanent brain damage—a terrifying prospect that couldn’t even be ruled out until I woke up from the coma. So for eight days, they waited.
On the 8th day, I woke up, turned to my mom and said, “I’m so sorry this has been so traumatic for you,” to which she responded by laugh-sobbing. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. Because despite being in that hospital for two weeks after waking up, I don’t remember one moment of it. My brain was so injured, and I was on so many drugs, that I have no recollection of the dozens of friends who came to visit me, or the fights I picked with people because my brain was literally exhausted, or the moment I looked down at my legs, shrunken from losing 35 pounds in a week, and started screaming. I only know about those weeks in the same way someone knows their favorite novel, creating mental images to go along with the words they’ve read so many times before.
To say my life felt weird and horribly unfair would be an understatement. It was like someone else had possessed my body while I was sleeping, and then sent me the photographic evidence of the damage. I was swollen and sunken in all the wrong places, I had lost a significant amount of muscle mass and strength, and my brain, now surrounded by metal plates, was expending so much energy trying to heal itself that I didn’t even possess the bandwidth to get up and walk around sometimes. When I was eventually transferred to a rehab hospital the following month, I had to re-learn high-level functioning, like organizing and memorizing, and how to cope with my new, super-fun souvenir: permanent blindness on the left side of both eyes, which makes it difficult for me to read or drive.
I also devoted all my spare time trying to fill in the gaps of my memories, a task that proved completely wasted on Eliot, whose charming lack of social skills quickly went from tolerable to infuriating after my surgery. Despite being the only person in the world who could tell me exactly what had happened that night, he met my questions with a series of shrugs and clipped responses. Soon after, he decided his true calling in life was to move to Russia, and off he disappeared, taking my memories with him. I’m sorry to say we never had a second date.
The following months of recovery passed in a shitty, anger-filled blur. I had to have another open-brain surgery so the doctors could remove the tiny, five-millimeter AVM clot that had completely fucked up my world, and my employers did the somewhat illegal thing of reassigning me to a dead-end department. I developed epilepsy from the brain damage, which requires me to take four pills at different intervals throughout the day. And unlike some traumas that aren’t visible from the outside, my AVM was written all over me in those early months, making my self-esteem plummet. Not only did I need to walk with a white cane until I got used to my blindness, leading to horribly ignorant comments from strangers on the street, but when I tried to get back into online dating, guys would message me to say how much they hated girls with short hair. As if any of it were even my choice.
But, just like the jagged incision down the side of my skull, and my toothpick legs, and even my hatred toward Eliot, I began to heal. I started drawing a comic series called “The Coma Diaries: My Summer Asleep,” which helped me work through my emotions and gave me a voice to my own narrative. And, after going on a bit of a sex bender (which I felt I needed to do to prove that I could actually have sex without dying), I met Mark, an incredibly good-looking, super-educated, and well-traveled man who accepted my brain and eyeballs for what they were. A year and a half after my AVM, he proposed, and ten months later, we were married. And my wonderfully cool neurosurgeon, who had gotten pretty chummy with me and my temporal lobes over the years, even sent us a wedding present. Standing in my wedding gown, with my grown-out hair wrapped in an updo, I felt like I had reached a symbolic end to my chapter.
Later, I would look back on the series of events and realize how lucky I was that I had decided to hook up with Eliot that night. Every year someone lives with an AVM, their chance of it rupturing increases by a few percentage points. That night, I was unwittingly living with a 66-percent chance of it bursting, which could have easily happened in my sleep. It’s hard for me to accept how close I was to dying alone, in the middle of the night, with only my roommates to find me days later. So even though I still have some residual anger toward Eliot, that dumb heartthrob kind of saved my life. Well, him and a team of brilliant neurosurgeons, of course.
It’s been over three years since my summer asleep, and the only lasting signs from that night are a few metal plates in my head, permanent left-side blindness, lifelong epilepsy, thick scars, a deep hatred of hospitals, and a really, really excellent story to tell at parties. Because no matter how bad your first date is, it’ll never be as bad as mine, when I almost died having sex.