My Life with the Horror
There’s nothing funny about motion sickness. Really. I mean it.
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The second-worst physical sensation I’ve ever encountered came upon me like a hurricane just a few miles off the coast of Virgin Gorda. I was in the British Virgin Islands to do some deep-sea fishing with a bunch of professional anglers. I remember well the élan with which we wolfed down our breakfast of banana-nut pancakes sodden with heavy maple syrup, and I remember that as we headed out to the marlin lanes as the sun rose, the sea began to churn.
The horror came upon me before anyone had cast a line. As always, it began with a strange idea. How absurd, I thought. Here I am heading out for a bit of rod-and-reeling in the deep blue when all of life as we know it is doomed as of today.
The violent bout of motion sickness that ensued continues to rank very high on my list of remembered agonies in motion, less for its physical intensity than for its terrible and unceasing length. By 7 A.M. I was paralyzed—so spent that one cheek was riveted to the bottom of the cabin, so weak that I couldn’t even moan. For the next ten hours—as the day grew hot and steamy above me—the old boys on deck continued to fish, eat innumerable salami sandwiches, guzzle beer, belch, and tell long, derisive stories about other seasick wimps they’d observed over the years.
There are so many other moments, each of them welded forever to my memory. There was my first ride on the Boomerang, an amusement at the now-dismantled Riverview Park in Chicago and clearly invented by a psychopathic sadist. The Boomerang rotated a tiny car so quickly that the very lips of the four children seated inside would roll back to reveal the tops of their gums. The dreaded machine then unleashed the whirling car into a parabolic tunnel, the walls of which bore the results of more than a few riders’ neurovestibular responses.
There was the day I spent in 28 feet of fiberglass hell called Livin’ II—a craft from which I trolled for coho salmon and provided free chum for several hours under a hot sun. There were the times I rode the elevators—vertical coffins, really—in the old Morrison Hotel in Chicago. The elevators stopped short of the desired floor several minutes before your kishkes caught up, and they never failed to make me ill. There was the un-air-conditioned airplane in northwestern China that was missing a cowl over one engine, which actually might have been fine if not for the various farm animals on board that were as sick as I was. I’m not proud to admit it, but there are even rocking chairs of an uncertain arc that have set my gizzards and soul to quivering.
One of my favorite examples of bureaucratic understatement has long been the commercial airlines’ decision to refer to the horror of motion sickness on their official barf bags as “motion discomfort.” “Discomfort” describes the internal upheaval of motion sickness in the way that “neck ache” describes hanging. The specific feelings that attend a full-fledged case of motion sickness are probably impossible to describe, but what the hell, let’s try.
It begins subtly enough with a flickering sense of ennui. You might find yourself sitting in a boat or a plane or a Boomerang car at Riverview, minding your own business, when you realize in passing that you are strangely uneasy about something. You might sigh a few times and notice that you are salivating uncommonly. Then you might feel clammy.
By now you have begun to yawn. This, I’ve always believed, is your system’s way of suggesting that in a perfect world you would be at home in bed, fast asleep, for no organism should have to experience what’s about to happen next.
You soon realize that your entire life to this point has been devoid of meaning, and then you actually begin to lose touch with your emotions, your capacity to reason, and most of your motor skills. The demons of motion sickness are now fiendishly disengaging all unnecessary functions to allow you to concentrate every faculty on the appalling sensations that are on their way. Your operative senses become sharpened to everything too loud or too bright. Engine noises seem deafening, and radios scream like air raid sirens. Terrible, noxious odors begin to gallop through your nose in stampede.
You begin to pant. Your skin grows tingly, then numb, then cold as your blood abandons your useless extremities (your throbbing, spinning head, for motion sickness purposes, being an extremity), and flows into your heaving thorax to rally round your heart as if to make one valiant last stand.
A thin coating of sweat covers your entire body, and the world around you begins to resemble a vast emissive basin. You are now approaching the peak of the exponential curve traveled by the symptomology of the affliction. The pain is astonishing: a braying, mocking, undefined sort of pain that makes you yearn for a gunshot wound or a compound fracture…anything to distract the mind.
Eventually a centrifugal force begins to emanate from the bonfire in your gut. A private tide then sets out on its inexorable rise toward the blinding light, and finally emerges as an expression of such unbelievable biological urgency that people some distance away will join you in wishing that you had never been born. Finally—and in many ways, worst of all—the horror crosses that delicate membrane that separates transitory sensation from indelible experience. It lodges there in your trauma file forever, ready to be trundled out for future travels so that it can all be recapitulated in great detail once again.