Fear of the dark


I found myself in total darkness and everything around me was spinning. I had no idea who I was or even what I was. For all I knew I might be some creature that found itself trapped underground, or an animal that was being dragged under water and rolled by a Nile crocodile. Or maybe I had just died and was now experiencing what death is: a never-ending, nausea-inducing spinning blackness. The only things I knew for sure were that I – whoever or whatever I was – was conscious and that things had not always been this way. Something had changed and I had just arrived here from some very different place, though where that place was and how to get back to it I had on idea.

If only the blackness would stop spinning I might be able to compose my thoughts long enough to remember what had gone before this moment. Then maybe I could retrace my steps to wherever I had just come from and belonged.

I put out my arms a little to stabilise myself and waited for the spinning to slow down or stop. Then, as though arriving from another dimension, I became aware of a distant sound trying to push through from its world into mine. The sound seemed to come from no particular direction but became gradually louder and clearer until I was able to discern that it was a male voice repeating the same thing: “Mr. Smith? Mr. Smith?” At the same moment I became aware of hands gently holding me by the shoulders. The voice and hands slowly pulled me out of my spinning black hole I had fallen into. I came to.

As I sat there with my head between my knees, sweating and exhausted, a male voice above me said, ‘He stiffened, straightened up and banged the back of his head against the wall. I’ll fill in an accident form’. The person he was talking to, who turned out to be a senior nurse, replied, ‘You should do that kind of injection while the patient is lying down, not while he’s sitting upright’.

Now it was all coming back to me. A junior doctor with an Afrikaans’ accent had asked me if he could give me the injection I needed prior to having a small exploratory camera inserted into me. He said he needed the practice. I breezily replied, ‘Sure, no problem’. I had always been blasé about injections and had had many before. This injection was apparently slightly more awkward to administer, but not greatly so. After poking around in my wrist for a while the doctor had asked me if I was still feeling okay to which I replied, ‘Yes, fine’. Yet almost immediately upon uttering the word ‘fine’ a sudden wave of heat swept through my body, making me quickly qualify my reply, ‘Actually no, not fine. In fact I think I’m going to be sick’. That was when I must have fainted. It was the first time in my life.

After sitting and recovering for a minute or two the orderlies took me back to a bed where I was given the injection again, this time not by the junior doctor and not in my wrist but in my bum, which was a little painful but didn’t make me faint. I then underwent the exploratory check-up and an hour later rode home on my bicycle (apparently something you shouldn’t do after a semi-general anaesthetic). A Japanese friend who was visiting me at the time rode with me. She found the whole episode funny, as I would have done if it had happened to someone else.

That was about 6 years ago. Since that day I have disliked injections. If I need one I half expect to feel that sudden wave of heat, like some tidal bore surging through my body, followed by the confusion of being dumped in a spinning blackness. Even when injections are far from my mind I occasionally recall that feeling of being stripped of my identity and memory, leaving me only with a kind of bare animal consciousness.

Two years ago I was on holiday in Germany visiting a German family I have known for 20 years. The mother and I took the two children to an old manor house that has various attractions, including a pitch-black, winding tunnel with one or two minor hazards along the way. You are supposed to emerge blinking and laughing at the other end.

The kids went first, followed by their mum and then me last. I could hear their voices just in front of me as I stepped blindly from one black nothingness to the next. I put my hand on the cold, rough stone wall so as to get my bearings. Then I reached a place that seemed to be cordoned off and required that I duck down under some kind of tape. Could that be right? Maybe I had gone wrong somewhere in the darkness? Perhaps I had wandered off-route and come across some real maintenance works? Was I going to fall down some deep hole at any moment? I could imagine the later inquiry: How had he managed to get himself lost in so small a tunnel? Why had he ducked under the cordoning tape that was so obviously there to prevent people from falling into that pit?

Up in front of me I could hear the children and my friend laughing in the dark but I could feel a rising sense of panic as I fell behind. I made several hurried steps forward, didn’t fall down a bottomless hole but instead found my friend’s back, breathed an inward sigh of relief and from then on kept contact with her until we emerged into light. Before that injection I would have laughed at the whole thing, as the kids were doing.

It would be nice to believe that if I ever faint again I will recognise the situation as being temporary and harmless and simply wait for it to pass. However, I doubt this will happen. There was something about that state of mind that short circuited all reason and memory transported me back to the primitive consciousness of some terrified creature. Thinking straight when your world is black and spinning renders logical thought impossible.


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