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How ‘Clerks 3’ triggered my PTSD and other stories about almost dying

by Richard Foltz 2 months ago in movie
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How watching Kevin Smith's latest movie reminded me of the times I almost died.

Listen, this isn’t a clickbaity article about how bad the movie is because it’s not. And frankly, I don’t know if I have PTSD, but I don’t think it’s normal to not be able to control your emotions a day after watching a movie about a guy dying of a heart attack. And to instead spend that day crying and getting unnecessarily angry at random things.

Just an FYI, spoilers ahead.

To explain: Kevin Smith’s movie Clerks 3, which I saw last night because my best friend and fellow movie compatriot Max Castleman (who actually just wrote a piece about Kevin’s films — you should check it out) also wanted to see it, is about a man suffering a heart attack. Well, two men, to be frank. As I said, there are spoilers herein, but not too many outside of the heart attack aspect of the story, so if that doesn’t bother you, then read ahead.

But Clerks 3 is about dying of a heart attack. Have I had a heart attack? No, not technically, but I have had a long history of cardiac issues due to a congenital heart defect, and I’ve experienced a lot of cardiac events known as SVT, or Supraventricular tachycardia.

To explain…again: Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) is an irregularly fast or erratic heartbeat (arrhythmia) that affects the heart’s upper chambers, according to the Mayo Clinic.

What does it feel like? Hmm. Have you ever run well past the point that your body can take it while an elephant stands on your chest and knives slide through your chest cavity? No? Well, it feels like that.

But that’s not the worst part. Spoiler Alert: The rest of this is really sad. So, if you’re not cool with that, eject now.

The worst part about having an SVT is the memories of it. The fact that you then have to live with the knowledge that life is but a thin piece of cloth ready to be ripped to shreds at any minute, and with that reality, the knowledge that everything you love, everything that you hate, every little person, place, or thing can disappear in an instance, and you can literally be seconds away from not existing.

I told you it gets sad. But that’s not the worst of the worst.

When I was little, some of my earliest memories are of my mother pouring freezing cold water on my face. Have you ever jumped in a lake in the middle of January? Has your mother ever tossed January lake water on your face to restart your heart? Yeah, those are my earliest memories or at least some of them.

It wouldn’t be until years later that my mother would tell me that after she did this she’d walk into the bathroom, lock the door, and cry.

Yeah…life’s a motherfucker, ain’t it?

When I think of the franchise The Planet of the Apes, sometimes I remember going to see The War for the Planet of the Apes, and right at the start, just as the opening battle was taking place, my heart skipped a beat and sped up like a rabbit caught in a trap.

I walked out of the theater, my friend Max unaware, and sat down in the hall as a birthday party took place in one of those glass, aquarium-like rooms filled with screaming kids and balloons. My first thought was, “I can’t do this here and ruin these kids’ lives.”

That experience would end with me crying in a stranger’s arms, thinking that the SVT had passed only for it to pass a couple of minutes later in the ambulance surrounded by EMTs who didn’t believe that an SVT would just stop. Instead, they wanted to inject me with adenosine, a drug that effectively reboots your heart, or shock me with those little heart paddles George Clooney uses. (Is that reference too old?)

Imagine this genuinely enjoyable movie being a source of sadness. Now that’s sad, right?

In another experience, I was doing dishes and ended up laying down on the floor while my then-girlfriend and roommate sat around me. In another, my then-girlfriend (a different one) came home early from work for my birthday to hang out and make me bratwurst when an SVT started and she had to drive me to the emergency room. In another, I was at my best friend’s house dancing to “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors when suddenly my heartbeat wouldn’t slow down. I sat in his bed assuming I was going to die until my mom showed up and drove me home.

In another, I was on a walk with my girlfriend who wanted to cook me bratwurst and her daughter on New Year’s Day in a state park. They ran to get the car as I lay down in the middle of January, sweating profusely, my eyes aimed up at the decayed fingers of the canopy above, wondering if it’d be the last thing I saw, and if it was, would I see it alone waiting for them to show up with the car.

In another, I walked out to my car after deciding to go home early from school and work from home, having just bought a bowl from Chipotle. This was a few weeks after the New Year’s Day incident. I was by myself, sitting in my car, the door open, in downtown Dayton, in a parking lot behind Chipotle just across from the University of Dayton. My heart started racing and instead of feeling scared, I felt mad that my goddamn bowl was gonna be cold by the time I finally ate it.

I called my mom and she didn’t pick up. I called my dad and he did. Throughout all of my childhood, whenever I dealt with heart stuff, it was always my mom who was there. It felt weird to share this with my dad, who nervously suggested I blow into my thumb, one of the ways they teach you to break an SVT.

I did, it hurt, I did it again, it hurt again. I blew and blew into my thumb until finally, like a damn exploding inside my chest, I felt that sharp violent pain, like a knife, ripping open my heart, and I knew I was scot-free.

I grunted in pain, a pain so unbearable and so sweet, knowing that it was over, that I had survived again.

As I watched the opening heart attack, as Jeff Anderson’s character Randle had an ablation explained to him, I nodded in understanding. I knew what this was, I had had surgeries like this. Many of them. I remembered listening to “Jesus” by The Velvet Underground a day after I had asked a girl I had a crush on tell me I was “nice, but…” as I got ready for that day’s heart catheter.

I remembered laying on the table, the cold operating room shrinking my exposed genitals as I slipped slowly off into sleep after signing a liability waiver. Beside me, the nurse who had just shaved my balls was holding my hand as tears formed in the corners of my eyes.

The doctor had said, “You have to sign this because, although this is a remotely safe procedure, there is always a chance of something going wrong.”

I thought of the scene in Black Hawk Down where they tried desperately to clamp that soldier’s femoral artery or else he’d died, black blood spraying all over Josh Hartnett’s distraught face.

But having said all of that, none of that is the worst part.

Not the elephant-crushing-my-chest-knife-marathon pain. Not wondering if I’ll make it as I stare at dead limbs in the middle of January. Not the memories of my mother baptizing me in January lake water and going to bawl her eyes out afterward.

No, the hardest part is what comes afterward.

After the Planet of the Apes incident, I cut back my hours at work. I was working in a grocery store at the time. Instead of 40 hours a week to 30, they cut me to two days, if even that. I spent my days writing, watching TV, and playing video games. I was depressed and stressed and afraid I’d never be able to be a functioning adult. My then-girlfriend and I broke up in the spring and she moved out in May. We’re still friends and I don’t blame her at all. I had no motivation to do anything. I was like living with a ghost, I’m sure.

Eventually, I met somebody else and moved on. That’s life. But, after the combo of the three SVTs, starting with the New Year’s Day incident, followed by the Chipotle incident, and then the birthday-bratwurst incident, my then-girlfriend and I broke up.

Number two. We stayed friends for a long time but I don’t blame her. Living with a ghost is hard and I was one. Living with this shit is hard. If I had the choice I’d get out too.

And I don’t say all of that to vilify anybody. Like I said, I was friends with them after the fact. I’m not ignorant of the reality. I know how quiet and reserved and inward I get after an SVT. They understood too. They didn’t kick me out of their lives. They had lives to lead. I don’t blame them. That’s not why I’m saying this.

I hazarded to say all of that, especially regarding the breakups because it makes me feel like I’m coming up with excuses or that I’m making them out to be bad people. For the record, they aren’t bad people. Relationships are hard in general. Life is hard in general. Having to live in a reality of constant possible quasi-heart attacks is an awful lot to live with, especially when the aftermath is a greying and a fear.

I don’t remember much about the aftermath when I was a kid. But I do remember laying on my dog, staring off into nothing for no reason, feeling a sense of sadness that I couldn’t explain. I remember pretending to be dead and scaring my mom. I remember coming downstairs in the middle of the night, and lying on my mother’s lap as the room swept away from me in a blurry haze and my hands felt like they were blowing up like two balloons, like in that Pink Floyd song. I remember feeling like I had to hold the tips of my fingers really tight in my hand because something that was hard to explain was happening to my body. I was afraid of dying before I knew how to spell my own name. I remember realizing that most of the fiction I write about is about dying. That every falling action in a story deals with the elements surrounding and accepting imminent death.

I don’t remember not thinking about death to an unnecessary degree. As in, every memory I have is one where death is a part of my lexicon. I don’t remember not having some concept of what death is, or what might happen when it happens. I just remember knowing that it was there, ever-present, like a friend you barely like in the corner of the party, waiting to rear its ugly face and ruin your night.

So then, back to Clerks 3. I don’t know how to end this except to say that I sincerely have enjoyed and loved Kevin Smith’s movies, even the ones that aren’t that great, and that although I wouldn’t consider myself a “Kevin Smith fan” I certainly appreciate his DIY aesthetic. Having been a failed indie filmmaker, who spent my 20s making crappy movies with my film-obsessed friends, I appreciate and love Smith’s heart. I appreciate that he has spent his life making movies with the people he loves.

Life is short and weird and infuriating and sad. And it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. If anything has helped me deal with all of this it's in the kindness of the people I love. It’s in feeling the love from people who can’t deal with it but still want me around.

Is there a silver lining? A parting lesson? I guess…if there is one it’s this: Be open about your trauma. Deal with it. Face it. It’s not gonna go away. It’s going to fuck up everything you love and everyone you love. Just be thankful for the few moments where it doesn’t. And enjoy them. Sincerely enjoy them. Sometimes I enjoy life so much that I can’t help but be affected by it. I can’t help but be filled by it.

There is one positive thing about dying. If you make it through it, you live like a ghost for a while, but then you come back to life and you feel it immensely more than before you died.

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About the author

Richard Foltz

Hey, my name is Richard Foltz. I refuse to use my first name because it is the name of frat guys and surfers, so...

I've written for years and currently work as an editor for my university's newspaper.

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