In 2013, I was drunkenly farting about with my friends when I fell awkwardly. Fortunately, it was from the floor straight onto a couch -- one of the only household items bought specifically for its delightful softness. Unfortunately, my left lung is a maverick that plays by its own rules, and it took the opportunity to fill up with about half of the blood in my body.
And unlike the lessons that pop culture has taught us about falling in love and surviving a malfunctioning dinosaur park, it does very little to prepare us for what it's like to ring death's doorbell. One could even say that it taught me almost completely nothing.
We're all the main characters in our lives, and in TV shows, main characters only die for damn good reasons. Or at the very least, a reason that has little to do with haphazard couch mishaps. Almost every significant death in The Walking Dead comes as a result of a heroic sacrifice, a headshot after turning into a zombie, or being a Glenn in a world in which bats exist.
Even in Game Of Thrones, which is the current pop culture overlord of unexpected deaths, they all tend to happen to either show us how badass someone is or to give us even more motivation to hate a bad guy. And by the end of this column, I doubt that you'll be driven to passionately slaughter couches in the name of vengeance.
So if TV is to be believed -- and it always is -- when death comes, it should mean something. Should.
One of the first things I remember the paramedics telling me as four liters of blood gushed into my chest cavity (which was then repeated by doctors and nurses nonstop over the coming months,) was how common it is to see someone of my size and build have a lung collapse on them with barely any outside encouragement. Are you maybe picturing me to be heavily overweight, so there was a lot of inertia slamming me into the luxurious, gentle embrace of those soft cushions? Or maybe you've gone the other way, and you're imagining that I am frail and feeble, with bones made from sawdust and hope?
Nope. I was in trim shape thanks to all the full-contact boxing I was doing at the time, and stand tall at a lofty 6'4. These are major red flags for getting what is called a pneumothorax, or its more hardcore blood cousin, the haemothorax, which was the one I got after losing a dust-up with a couch. At least I got the rad one.
"We see it all the time" is a phrase I heard a lot, which is weird, because I had been the same height and roughly the same weight for almost ten years by that stage. So why in the raging fuck did no one at any point think to mention it in a decade of doctor's appointments? What other seemingly arbitrary things are out there that will try to kill you for no reason at all? Do folk in the northern hemisphere have a predisposition for their hearts to explode if they see too much of the color blue? Can sponges kill redheads? Who knows?!
When the accident happened, I was way out in the sticks, and the doctors were more used to dealing with arthritis and dementia than total lung breakdown. That is a polite way to say that they had no fucking clue of what to do with me. In the months following, I found out from the specialist doctors who cared for me that I was lucky to be alive, because they should have cracked my chest right down the middle as soon as I came in, like I was John Hurt LARPing my way through dinner on the Nostromo. Instead, they attached a cute little drain to my lung and hoped the blood would see itself out. It didn't.
And being so far from home, I could initially understand why my closest friends didn't show up to see me. But I was confident that would change when I transferred to the Central London hospital close to my house for major surgery. Thanks to movies, I know that if there's one thing I can rely on in times of trouble, it's my friends. I'd get my surgery and we'd all high-five. Then I'd make a joke like "Hey! Go easy next time!" And then everyone would laugh because this is my damn movie, remember?
Whether it's doing something as simple as suggesting we go bowling because talking about our problems is too hard, or helping me face an angry Mike Tyson, everything in pop culture told me that my best buddies would be there when I really needed them.
So it came as a huge shock that my core group of friends, whom I had known since childhood and considered to be almost brothers, didn't come to check on me. Not even a call, text, or sheepish Like on one of my many, many petrified Facebook status updates to let me know they were thinking of me. It was only after getting better that I found out that close friends abandoning you during times of real hardship is a depressingly common problem that stems from people not wanting to face their own vulnerabilities. Thanks, psychology, you stupid dickhole.
At the time it stung like hell, and this was coming from a guy with a sack of blood where his left lung used to be. But looking back, it capped off my 20s in a kind of beautiful way that I could never have achieved without giving the Grim Reaper a little peck on the cheek. Instead of strained friendships that evaporated awkwardly into nothing over the decades, this meant that there was a definite stop. The only play in which I get the lead role by default had a clear and concise End of Act I.
I'd been brought up by TV and films with the belief that experiencing massive, life-threatening trauma was meant to give me a new perspective on the world. In Netflix's The OA, a blind woman literally regains her sight as a direct result of almost dying. Near-death is meant to be that much of a game-changer that it is basically Jesus, and we're all lepers.
Reams and reams of blogs and websites talk about how flirting with death will change you for the better, up to and including suddenly being certain of an afterlife. All I can guess is that the guardian angel that was meant to be guiding me to the white light that day must have been balls-deep into an It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and medical marijuana binge, because I got none of that special treatment.
The only sensation that did stick around after the event was a nagging worry that the world was not what I thought it was. It was no longer mine anymore. Instead, it is a horrendously dangerous place that will fucking murder you with a couch on a whim and not care one bit about it. This is something of a regular thing for people who have almost died to have to deal with. A thing that, again, I was woefully unprepared for, because Spielberg never thought to leave a memo.
When you're stuck in the hospital for an extended period of time, all you want is to get out of there. After eight months, I found myself pretending that I wasn't in much pain by rejecting most of the morphine offered. I hobbled around the ward as best I could before exhaustion got the better of me. And I flirted with the nurses in a way that only a man wearing a pair of paper underwear for over half a year in a hospital can.
It was all to show that I was fine, let me out of this place. And the medical professionals largely encouraged it, because post-surgery patients are urged to get back to their life quickly.
But when they finally do release you back into the wild, it's exactly like you've been taking shots out of a stripper's bum cleavage all day and then suddenly remember that you have to go to a kid's birthday party. You're too far gone to control yourself in any proper way. This came to a head when I went back to work way too early in my recovery. I still vividly remember my old boss's face when she insisted I go to the emergency room like, this second, because my entire face had turned blue from blood loss. That landed me another two weeks in the hospital.
This is another lesson that pop culture totally failed to prepare me for. In montages of people recovering, you never see the months of someone trying to work out how they can stop the blood seeping through their work shirt because they leaned forward too fast and split a stitch. Or how you have to curl up and sit with your eyes closed from time to time, no matter where you are, to keep from blacking out due to the uncanny numb sensation at the back of your skull that's been brought on by all of the super strong painkillers. They don't show you tearfully swearing at the top of your voice in the bathroom because morphine derivatives are just the worst for jamming your pipes up like an LA freeway on Thanksgiving.
Goddamn it, pop culture. Before his transition into canned ham, you taught me via Steven Seagal that I could come out of a seven-year coma and go straight into kickass martial arts, weight training, and heavy punning to prepare for my sweet revenge. In reality, recovery is a constant thing that takes over your life for a long, long time. To put it in a way that you and Steven Seagal can understand, it'll be a while before you're ready to take anyone even close to the blood bank.
When you're recovering from a major thing, your entire thought process is dedicated to not dying from that thing. You can't appreciate an early morning bird song or how the autumn light plays delicately on your loved ones' skin when you're trying to focus on not vomit-collapsing on a cramped London Underground train.
I've been completely fine for a few years now, and I've noticed that it's only when you finally get to somewhere near your original baseline health again that you can appreciate how much you have been changed by your ordeal. And this is where pop culture let me down the most, because it totally realizes how important this change is, but rarely -- if ever -- takes the time to explore it properly.
Pop culture heroes only ever show that they understand the importance of their journey with a little smirk that comes right at the end of the film, when they look to the camera as if to say "I totally get it now." James McAvoy does it after shooting Morgan Freeman in the back of the head, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt does it after meeting a girl whose name is similarly seasonal to that of another girl he tried to bang those 500 times. Even Christopher Nolan's goddamn Batman does it when Michael Caine and Christian Bale mug at each other straight into the camera.
But the truth is that little smirk is the real story. That smirk is the moment when you realize that you've taken your life-threatening awful luck and turned it into something useful. It's the smirk you'll find yourself doing when you can shrug off a pants-shittingly awful problem as insignificant. It's the smile you give yourself when you finally grasp that you have to move on from the various dead weights in your life that you allowed to hold you back for years.
It's even the reason you can truly forgive your oldest friends for not being there when you needed them the most. Because at this stage, you took the worst that life had to offer and you survived. Not that pop culture gives a rat's ass.
For more, check out 5 Ways Movies Say You Can Die (That Science Says Are Wrong) and 5 Insane Ways You Can Be Killed At Any Moment.
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