In October 2013 I flew out of Heathrow while sitting next to a friendly British man. It was in that liminal space between the UK and the US that I traveled, as Sontag described it, to the land of the sick; four hours from landing, I began to drip sweaty rivulets in the air-conditioned plane. I turned to the friendly man and said, “I don’t feel well.” I unbuckled my seat belt and stood.

I woke up on the aisle floor, looking up at a circle of Virgin Atlantic flight attendants. Almost immediately, my eyes began to close again. I couldn’t keep them open. I’d apparently scooted out to get to the lavatory and fainted in the aisle, though I hadn’t hit my head—one of the female attendants had caught me as I fell.

Later I would hear one of them say to my husband on an airplane phone that I’d been in and out of consciousness for the rest of the flight, although I’m not sure that’s true. I spent the four hours sitting in the aisle seat, formerly occupied by the friendly Brit, with an oxygen mask pressed to my face. I placidly considered my life up to that point. It was possible, I thought, that I would die.

At San Francisco Airport they wheeled me through Customs and to the curb by the baggage claim, where C picked me up. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. He remained eerily calm as I sat, slumped, in the passenger seat of the car, and he drove to the emergency room. I still couldn’t keep my eyes open, but I was able to crack a few jokes, none of which I can remember now.

They dumped me in a hospital bed and began to run some basic tests regarding my temperature and blood pressure. The basic tests resulted in normal outcomes, and the doctor informed me that the nurses would be running some more complex tests, and that I should wait for them to return so that they could perform those tests, although he confided in us that he doubted those more complex tests would tell us anything about what was happening to me.

The doctors and the nurses were gone for a long time. So was C, who had left to get us both something to eat. While I waited for someone to return, I noticed that I was able to move my arms again, and then I was able to keep my head up, and my eyes could stay open.

C came back to the hospital with french fries for me, which I ate. I told him that I was feeling pretty good. “They’re not going to find anything,” I said. “I want to go home.”

The diagnosis was “idiopathic response to fainting.” Idiopathic is a medical term I quickly became overly familiar with; it means that the cause of the symptoms is unknown. I endured a similar episode of full-body weakness immediately before, and during, a neurological consult a month later. The doctor ran me through the gamut of standard neurological tests, but told me straight off that she was seeing me as a favor to my psychiatrist, and that she did not believe, based on my medical records, that I had a neurological problem. She did not change her mind even as I couldn’t stand up without falling, or walk a straight line across her office. She gave me a list of numbers to memorize, telling me that she would quiz me on those numbers later. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

As we left her office to go to the lab in the basement, I told C—leaning on him for support—that the appointment had felt like a waste of time. “She didn’t even ask me about the numbers,” I complained.

He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, and then: “Yes, she did. And you recited them.”

I wanted to turn around, go back to the neurologist, and tell her that her memory test was flawed, because it assumed that someone who passed the memory test would also remember a few minutes later that she’d been given a memory test. But I didn’t. Her door was closed. It was a final say, at least for that afternoon: I had become disabled, though the prestigious neurologist couldn’t explain why. 

Over the next seven years, I would never receive a satisfying answer to the question of what was wrong with me, leading me to the conclusion that it was possible to simply break down and lose functions I had once relied on; it was possible to spend time and money searching for answers, to be given a variety of guesses, and then to give up on a satisfying narrative—even if I was a writer, and clung to narratives in order to make sense of the terrifying world.


Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018.

Art by Jill Khoury