Trapped in the Body
by Rachel Howard
A few weeks ago I had an experience, in reaction to a Covid vaccine, that was both strange and, I suspect, common. I am speaking, of course, of the side effects so many have weathered after a second dose of that antibody-spurring super-serum that the sane among us clamoured for, but I am also speaking of something more specific. Like many just-vaccinated, healthy, middle-aged women, I came down with chills, and fever, and lay in bed alternately shaking and sweating. But then the specific thing happened. I cannot explain it as a purely physical experience. A heat so unbearable that it felt like a noxious gas began to fill my toes, my feet, my ankles, and rise up through my legs and bowels and lungs. I closed my eyes tight and felt my brain harden within the brown cave of my skull as the heat continued to climb, forcing the person inside of me – the “me” who was not my body – to crane her head above the boiling waterline, like a drowning swimmer gasping for breath. There was a “me” in there, and she was trapped in a shadowed cave, though a cave with no walls, only darkness and fuzziness, like the static on a bad TV channel, in all directions. Strangely, this infinite, fuzzy space was also a pressure, squeezing the “me” of my pure consciousness tighter and tighter and tighter. And suddenly, squeezed to a pinpoint, I knew only one thing: I have to escape my body.
I lost consciousness.
Then I came to, retching and thrashing.
As I recovered, I thought, I’ve experienced that before. That earlier time I was also a bodiless “me” surrounded by a cave of infinite black. Again the static and a dull ringing. The bodiless “me” began to scream, but it was a scream with no sound. Then I realised: I was in hell and this hell would go on forever.
I came to, that time, on the cold tile floor of a doctor’s office hallway, a nurse in scrubs urging me to sit up. (I should note here that with a resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute and freakishly low blood pressure, I lose consciousness easily, and have passed out many other times, but these are the worst times I remember.) I was 34, back in that doctor’s office. And I stood up embarrassed, and shook it off. Even as I recount it now, a part of me that knows the experience is relatively common thinks, Oh, what a funny experience, being very ill and passing out. Aren’t I being melodramatic? But this time, at 45, I cannot forget it. Because this time when I came back into my body, crying out “help me”, I thought, That was real. What if I choose not to forget it? And so I am still thinking about what that experience—I have to escape my body—portends of death. I am still thinking about this at least a dozen times a day.
I have been obsessed with death before, in my twenties. The flavour of death-obsession was different then. In case it’s relevant, I first saw death very early in life, at age 10, when someone (the case has never been solved) crept into our house at 4:30 a.m., took a knife from our kitchen, and stabbed my sleeping father. Dark pools of blood all up and down the hall, a glimpse of his foot rolling past on a gurney (I knew he must be dead), and then, at the hospital, the doctor asking if we wanted to be alone with the body. (My grandmother did not.) For a time in childhood I worried that I would be killed, and as a teenager I had a recurring dream of someone stabbing me until I died. But in my twenties, my death obsession had nothing to do with all that.
In my twenties, I used to climb from my sooty Tenderloin apartment to sit in the hoity-toity park atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill and listen to the tolling bells of Grace Cathedral. As the bells tolled I used to visualise how, when I died, worms would eat my flesh and my rotting corpse would ooze. I wasn’t panicking about the last moments of life, though. My problems were purely philosophical, existential. I was simply finding it impossible to accept that after I died, I would be nothing. I wondered not how I could withstand the last physical moments in my body, but rather how I would bear those last moments of intense knowledge that all my experiences, which to me were so profound, were about to become mere dust. It was a problem of ego and attachment. When I imagined my last moments of consciousness – and I imagined them often – I imagined them as unbearably poignant. Oh, it would be like an Elton John song! How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world. And then you’re not! I pictured myself old and veiny and frail on a fluffy bed with eyelet lace pillows, a breeze lifting the white curtains. Maybe I imagined myself on morphine. It was as though death were purely a mind experience. Death as the ultimate thought experiment.
Right when the death obsession of my twenties began, I bought a Burmese cat. He was a very intentional acquisition, his breed selected after months of analysing temperament profiles in fancy cat books and magazines, and right away I thought about how he would die. I felt sure he would live 20 years and he would die when I was 45. I imagined this moment of the cat’s death, daily. Mainly I imagined myself as it happened. I pictured myself as the middle-aged women I had known in my childhood tract house neighbourhood in Fresno. The horror was – I am not proud that I was horrified by this – at 45, I would be fat. I could see clearly that I would be fat, and like the middle-aged mum-neighbours I had known, I would wear sweatshirts appliqued with Disney characters layered over turtlenecks and I would have a poodle perm. And somehow I would be OK with that when I was 45? Well, somehow I would have to be, and that was who I would be when the cat died.
As it happened, in some ways I was right about the cat’s death. In his prime years, he nearly died many times – we grew closer every time I saved him – and in his last years I gave him weekly injections of fluid beneath his skin to help his kidneys, and then finally he did die, last autumn, when I was 45. I was not fat and I did not have a poodle perm. I was not wearing a Disney character applique sweatshirt. It was the year of the pandemic and the vet could not get us in for euthanasia and so I was home with him – his name was Jarvis – when he died.
I had long imagined Jarvis closing his big gold eyes and releasing a final breath. I had not known if he would do this at home, or perhaps at a veterinarian’s office after lethal injection, but I had imagined it in either case to be like that vision of me on the fluffy bed. A poignant intensity—how wonderful life is, now you’re in the world—and then a letting go. But Jarvis’s end was not like that at all. After hours of heaving, as I prayed he would curl up into a ball, or let me hold him, he began to thrash like a fish out of water. Even after I gave him morphine, he would thrash and rise, as though, if he could only walk a few steps, get to the right location, he could take a breath. The pure consciousness inside his cat body was trapped. His eyes seemed to say, Get me out of this body. He could not see me, because he was entirely focused on this problem of needing to breathe and of being trapped. Finally he rose again, took two steps, fell to his side and thrust out his tongue, like a silent scream. His front paws curled violently and then relaxed. The “me” of Jarvis’s pure consciousness was no longer inside. His eyes were open, his little barbed pink tongue still hanging out.
My husband tore a white sheet into a shroud, and I enfolded the cat’s body and carried him. We buried him in the backyard, at the sunny spot he had loved next to the lilacs. I wept. In some ways it was a good death. Jarvis would not have wanted to be at the veterinary office at the end, my husband said. But I had been with my cat for every moment and I knew that in the final hour his death was sheer horror. And months later, after the vaccine and the fever and my own experience of needing to leave my body, I knew that the cat’s end had been hell.
The death obsession of my twenties passed in my thirties when I divorced my first husband, a staunch atheist of the Nietzschean stripe. After I left him, I became truly, deeply religious, though not in an orthodox or literalist way. I read Kierkegaard extensively, and I made something like the “leap to faith”, though not faith in doctrines like a miraculous virgin conception, or Jesus’s body literally rising into heaven, wherever that was. It was instead a leap towards a faith that it was fine that my life – which to me was so singularly profound – was just one among an infinity of lives that were each, simultaneously, nothing special unto themselves and singularly profound. It was a leap towards deciding I didn’t mind that my life would wither like grass and become cosmic dust. Just deciding that. At first, I was intractably horrified that my life was not in itself some shining, grand, eternally wondrous thing; then, I was completely fine with my life being a tiny, forgotten, mortifyingly insignificant thing. I can’t explain how. But that’s what happened.
So, for approximately 15 years, I lived with a sense of peaceful assurance, thinking of death daily, but not with horror. The thought experiment had been solved. The philosophical problem was settled.
And so it remains. But now comes this newly refreshed knowledge about the physical problem: what it truly feels like to be trapped in the body. And holding this knowledge, do I continue to be at peace?
Lately, before sleep, I have been reading the Dalai Lama’s On Death and Dying and his first discourse, from 1984, Opening the Eye of New Awareness. Both writings, to my surprise (but should I be surprised?), focus on the literal mechanics of rebirth and the importance of being peaceful and lucid in one’s final moments in order to focus on “meritorious” thoughts to achieve a favourable rebirth.
After the panic of having my pure mind-consciousness trapped in the body during a mere 103 degree fever, I now know that if rebirth does actually happen (and truth be told, other than in a larger metaphorical sense that I find “real”, I believe rebirth does not) – if rebirth did actually happen – I will be reborn as an amoeba or a snail.
I recall witnessing others in those unpeaceful throes: my grandmother, who in the convalescent hospital after failed surgeries on her bladder cancer cried out, “Just leave me alone!” My good friend Harold, who at 97 curled like a shrimp in his wheelchair as the TV jabbered. Harold, who used to shout out “Hello, doll baby!” and sing “Moonglow”, muted by the pain of broken vertebrae as his heart failed. Harold unable to look up at me, muttering into his chest, “Stop. Stop. Just make it stop.”
I tried, at the time, to imagine what Harold felt. I now know that my imagination failed, that being trapped in the body is not just misery, but horror. This should leave me with a problem: my own certain future horror and how to circumvent it. Because I value reality for its own sake, and knowledge of reality as a rare and precious gold, I have wanted my experience to leave me with a problem. But already the panic I tasted as the “me” within faced the only option: to leap from her own imprisoning body. Already that is a reality I must re-imagine more than remember. Already it is fading into a past self’s experience, and even straining to recall it a dozen times a day cannot halt the decay.
I am still relieved not to be wearing sweatshirts appliqued with Disney characters. Next month, I am getting a new Burmese cat.
Image: Cory Doctorow: Pretty Good Snow White Sweatshirt, 2012 (CC)
Frontpage image: Édouard Manet, Letter Decorated With a Snail on a Leaf, 1880 (detail)
About the Author
Rachel Howard is the author of a novel, The Risk of Us, and a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, The Lost Night. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Waxwing, Zyzzyva, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. She also writes dance criticism for the Fjord Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Nevada City, California.