This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.

Devin Kelly | Longreads | January 2023 | 17 minutes (4,692 words)

Read Devin Kelly’s previous Longreads essays: “Running Dysmorphic,” “What I Want to Know of Kindness,” “Out There: On Not Finishing,” “Repetitive Stress,” “I Miss it All,” and “Children in the Garden.”

In late November, I am standing near the front of the church at my fiance’s grandfather’s funeral. I am not feeling great, I would say. Earlier that morning, I woke up a little achy and anxious about the achiness. I am wearing the suit I will get married in and standing next to the person I will marry, and, halfway into service, I kneel down as part of the ceremony, feel something go wonky in my head and my mouth and my body, think nope nope nope, and collapse sideways into the arms of my fiance. I wish I could say I remember something about that infinite blackness of not-being-with-it, that space of the unconscious, but it feels, in the moment, only like giving oneself over without permission, and then waking into a sea of faces. The mass goes on; somewhere to my right the priest still speaks. I say sorry. I say sorry again and again. In this way, I am reminded that this is life, that I am alive. I say sorry and people look at me with worry. I say sorry and people look at me with love. 

My wrist is held by my fiance’s aunt, a cardiac nurse. She talks to me, gives me sips of water. I think of the people seeing me and wonder how long it takes for an image of someone to undo itself from your mind. I say sorry to myself because I know I will think about this forever. I say sorry again to anyone who will hear. I say yes to a question asked by a cop who is somehow between the pews, and then to an EMT with red cheeks and a Red Sox hat. I want to get up. I want to undo. I want to be in my own head for a little bit and have the people go away. But more people come. Another EMT, then another. I am embarrassed; I am thinking only of myself. I am walked to the back of the church; I am placed on a stretcher, wheeled into an ambulance. The man inside it calls me buddy. I smile. It feels good to be called buddy. It makes me think that I am a kid, that I could be a little bit of a kid forever. I smile and nod. When they put the IV needle in me, and I feel the rush of something cool injected into my body, I pass out again. They are worried when I awake. The man says buddy but with more urgency. He holds me by the shoulder as I am wheeled into the ER. He says something about my heart, something about a pacemaker. I think okay, okay, remember this — the red brick of the building, the one green leaf amidst the others long since gone to gold, the 10 feet of brushed gray concrete between the ambulance and the electric doors, the bench without a person, the cold air against my wet chest, the person I love holding my jacket. 

Twenty years ago, my brother nearly passed out in a church in Rochester. I remember the heater on the ground beneath the pew, and how it looked like a fire alarm bell. I remember the men in the back of the church, with their puffy Buffalo Bills jackets, and I remember the abrupt and almost-comforting cold coming from over the lake, and how it slapped and shattered the skin of my young cheek when we opened the door to take my brother outside. He recovered. We walked back inside and left after mass — it was midnight on Christmas Eve — to sit at my grandmother’s small kitchen table in her small kitchen two blocks from the shore of Lake Ontario, where we ate Entenmann’s coffee cake with our dad before we went to bed. Before my grandmother died, I sat with her at that same kitchen table, watching her refuse to eat a spoonful of peas. My dad asked her to eat them, in what was perhaps the gentlest act I’d ever seen him perform. I’d never heard him whisper until that moment. He asked her softly, and she refused. She was small then, just barely taller than four feet. Life had made her stubborn, then tender, then stubborn again. That is my last memory of seeing her alive. Her face, just above the table’s edge. Like a moon gone down to earth. 

He asked her softly, and she refused. She was small then, just barely taller than four feet. Life had made her stubborn, then tender, then stubborn again. That is my last memory of seeing her alive. Her face, just above the table’s edge. Like a moon gone down to earth.


You can use the word faint — or its almost-homophone, feign — in a myriad of ways. You can say I fainted. You can say that some tasks are not for the faint-hearted. You can describe the faint light of dusk as the sun descends beneath the horizon and turns what once was gold to purple as everything moves closer to shadow. You can hold a faint hope in your heart. You can hold that hope forever; it can perhaps burn faintly inside you — just enough to keep going. You can feign courage even if you are faint-hearted. You can feign so much: your life, your expertise, your sorrow, your joy. You can speak faintly, so softly that someone might say speak up, the same way they might ask — then yell — for you to get up if and when you faint.


There are no windows in the emergency room. There are wires coming out of my body. I close my eyes. I open them. I say to myself: I will say thank you to anyone who touches me. I don’t know then that some of the touches will be difficult, that I will be pricked and poked, will feel the somewhat gross and mostly uncomfortable sensation of the thick and blue rubber band pulled taut around my arm. The blood gone from me again and again. The TV airing reruns of Friends. In between, my fiance and I look at islands we might visit when all of this is over. We want there to be hydrangeas — 10 million hydrangeas. A sun to shine on them. A doctor comes in and says it might be Lyme. He says you never know. He says the word test a thousand times. I am struck, while waiting, of how horrible it feels to wait. A child cries next door, in his own windowless room. My fiance takes a balloon from my room and walks it over to his. I watch her leave and think if I am allowed to decide to love someone for the rest of my life, and then I know that I am allowed, and that I do.

I am worried about my heart because everyone is worried about my heart. They say I will stay overnight in cardiology. They say they will move me when a room opens up. My fiance fits into the bed with me. We are both small. We watch Friends and eat Goldfish. Because no one will tell me how worried I should be, and because there is so much time in between the scary things that people tell me and the less-scary moments of those same people telling me not to be afraid of the scary thing they said hours before, I make a list of what I need to become okay with. I do it in my head. At the very top, I say that if I have to be okay with dying, I will become okay with dying. I say that if I have to be okay with someone opening up my body, I will become okay with someone opening up my body. I say that if I have to be okay with never being able to run again, I will become okay with never being able to run again. At the very bottom of the list is my body in the bed, making a list of all I might have to become okay with, the anxiety and worry of wondering about the self, and the only thing I think I know at the time: that I feel like I will hold my worry forever.


In his long, romantic book Rome, Naples, and Florence, Stendhal describes what later became known as Stendhal Syndrome. By his account, Stendhal is walking through Florence on the 22nd of some long-ago January, his heart “leaping wildly” within him at the prospect of viewing art. So much art. With memories “crowding and jostling” within him, he finds himself, by his own admission, “incapable of rational thought.” I think of his honesty with such compassion; he is so vulnerable, so innocent, so unrestrained in his willingness to be transfixed and transformed. He wants so badly to be moved. And soon, he is. Standing in front of Volterrano’s Sybils, he undergoes “the profoundest experience of ecstasy” and, leaving the Basilica of Santa Croce, he feels a “fierce palpitation of the heart” and walks “in constant fear of falling to the ground.” 

Stendhal Syndrome takes that description as a kind of origin story, and, though unverified by scientific evidence as a true psychosomatic condition, posits that people can experience moments of lightheadedness, heightened anxiety, syncope, and more as a result of exposure to beautiful art. The Italian psychiatrist Dr. Graziella Magherini documented 106 cases of this, which she published in her book, La Sindrome di Stendhal. In an interview in Metropolis, she describes a man, Kamil, who visited Florence, took in a great deal of art, and, in almost the same spot as Stendhal, “felt like he was suffocating.” Magherini says that he “had to leave the church and lay down on the church steps, and that he was “able to collect himself only when he managed to imagine himself at home, in his bed in Prague.”

On the internet, I move back and forth between articles about Stendhal Syndrome and Magherini and Paris Syndrome — a term for people who visit Paris and experience a sense of extreme disappointment (which manifests as lightheadedness, tachycardia, and more) because the city is not what they expect it to be. It is perhaps the opposite of Stendhal Syndrome — a bodily response not to overwhelming beauty but to overwhelming mundanity. I am drawn to these descriptions of episodes and syndromes because they feel romantic — deeply symbolic and metaphorical. Reading about some of Magherini’s cases, I find myself thinking that they seem outlandish and absurd, true in their experience but only potentially true in their diagnosis. Perhaps Kamil was not really overcome by the beauty of art; perhaps he was tired from all the traveling and walking. Perhaps he was anxious about something in his life — some lost love, some unresolved desire — and the expectation of beauty (more than its reality) made him terrified, made him long for somewhere safe. His home, maybe. His bed in Prague. But I am no psychiatrist. I only know that, in the ambulance, when the EMT put the shock pads on my chest, worried that he might have to use them, I felt wildly calm. I saw the blue sky through the little window, felt the faintest rush of cool air, and thought this is real, this is here, and here is where I am. I wanted to make that little world safe. I breathed into it.  


They wake us both at two in the morning, and they make my fiance leave. I am wheeled through the dark emergency room, where the child — I hope — sleeps, and where a drunk man leans over his gurney, body heaving in some in-between state. He is left there in the hallway to recover, like a ragged doll of a wet fish. I wonder about what it must be like to work through this darkness, not knowing who or what is going to come. When I wake up again, I am in my own room, and there is a soft light — maybe even faint — spreading all orange above the trees, as if the sky is a blanket under-lit by a flashlight. Later that morning, after a nurse tells me the remaining tests they have to run, they wheel in an older man next to me, and slide a divider between us. He coughs. He coughs as if coughing is his breath. He had heart surgery months before; he thinks something is wrong with his heart again. He keeps asking if they will have to slide a catheter into his vein until it pokes up and around his heart. When his doctor comes in, the man coughs. He coughs and coughs again. 

In between each cough, he tells his doctor the story of a friend he had, a friend who called him on the phone to tell him he was about to take his life, that he had the gun right there. He talks about his friend with something that sounds like honor and is almost definitely dignity. He has respect for his friend, still, even though his friend used the gun. He says that: even though he used the gun. He tells the story for a long time. He coughs while he tells it. He does not raise his voice. He speaks with the flatness of a thick, wooden board. I don’t know how much hurt this man holds in his body and in his heart. He says that sometimes it is the only decision to be made. I want to cry, hearing the story. I have been separated from someone I love. I am alone in this room with the soft light that I want to get softer, and with a body that feels not quite mine, and I don’t know what to do with this story. I think: There is loss and there is only loss, which means that life is what we make of loss, which is an impossible task, to make something of loss, so life must simply be how we live, and continue to live, amidst the unthinkably unmakeable. It is, every day, so deeply humbling to take each and every breath. If I don’t hold onto that, I know I will let it go. 

I think: There is loss and there is only loss, which means that life is what we make of loss, which is an impossible task, to make something of loss, so life must simply be how we live, and continue to live, amidst the unthinkably unmakeable.


Around the time of my parent’s divorce, I felt — for months — a gnawing pain in my chest. I was 10, 11 years old when it started. The pain would manifest as a short, sometimes intense sensation. I would feel it, frown, rub my chest, and get scared. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t tell anyone about it for a very long time. I remember sitting in Mr. G’s fifth grade English class, laughing too loud at the word bosom in Shakespeare, and thinking to myself — each time the pain shocked me out of nowhere — that I wouldn’t live to see the next day, or the day after that. I did that for a long time, this silent planning for a non-future, coming to terms with how my refusal to ask for help would probably lead to the end of my life. It felt grown up at the time, like I was handling a grown-up problem in a grown-up way. Now, thinking back on it, it seems so lonely, and sad. I think of that younger me, sitting in the midst of so many other young people, trying to become okay with dying and not telling anybody. I want to reach back into that past, and hold that child. Hold him tight. I want to say you can open your mouth. I want to say you can admit it. And then listen. Listen and hold. Hold and listen.

It took me almost a year to spit out my anxiety and worry and pain to my dad in a long, speedily spoken sentence. I remember how calm he seemed. We were in the car. He told me it would be okay, and a few days later he sat next to me in a room somewhere off a highway as a man rubbed a gooey, cool liquid all over my chest and my heart lit up — all electric — on a screen. The diagnosis had nothing to do with my heart. I was young; I was growing; these things happen. I would be okay. 

Help us fund our next story

We’ve published hundreds of original stories, all funded by you — including personal essays, reported features, and reading lists.

There is something about the heart I cannot shake. I don’t mean about feeling. There will always be something about feeling I cannot shake, or even begin to describe. But there is something about the heart — my heart, and maybe yours — that looms over me each day. I think this is because I cannot control it. Right now, as I type this, I am breathing slowly, breathing deeply through my nose, and I feel my heart beat less frequently as a result. But even here, I am not controlling the actual beating of my heart, just its frequency. No. There is something about the heart. It beats until it doesn’t. I don’t give or withhold permission. To live my life is to accept — in this one, life-giving ongoingness that occurs right at the heart of me — that I am not the center of this story.


You can use the word heart in a myriad of ways. You can speak of the heart and its four chambers. You can speak of the heart as a muscle. You can say the heart is the size of a fist. You can talk about the fairyfly, only .2 millimeters long, and you can say you need a microscope to see its heart. You can say he doesn’t have any heart, which doesn’t literally mean that the person doesn’t have a heart, only that whoever you are speaking of lacks some sort of courage or resilience. You can be heartened. You can be disheartened. You can cross your heart. You can have a change of heart. You can have a heart of gold. You can believe in someone, and even love someone. You can do this with your whole heart. You can do something for that someone in a heartbeat. You can — always, and sadly — break their heart. Your heart has a bottom. You can speak from this place, the same way that you can bare your soul. Your heart has strings, too. They can be pulled. They can be tugged. I don’t know if they can be tied. I imagine they can. It sounds lighthearted, I know, but you can also have a heavy heart. I think of this often. How heavy is your heart? Do you wear your heart on your sleeve? Would you like help carrying it? I know you carry it every day.


In the daylight, a nurse takes my blood for the fourth time in my hospital stay. I watch soccer. I get lonely until my fiance comes. I don’t know what to do with my worry. I don’t know what to do with the time in between not knowing and knowing, which seems to be an entire lifetime, where I am left next to the coughing man whose friend put a gun to his head. I think a hospital is a hard place to get better, even if it is filled with people who do the job of helping you get better. I think a hospital is a terrible place to worry. My worry becomes a balloon filled; it takes up the whole room. It occupies a place next to the window and blocks out the light. My worry becomes my whole self, scared to tell a soul what is happening out of fear that it will make what is happening a reality. My worry becomes a silent thing. I put it somewhere in my body and let it fester. I close the door to that room. I wish that there were plants. I wish there was something other than the steady hum of machinery and the electric rhythm of my heart filtered through a monitor, which I turn to sometimes to make sure I am alive.

In the early afternoon, two nurses come to wheel me to a different floor, where, for the second time in my life, I sit in a room as a man rubs a cold and gooey liquid over my chest and takes a recording of my heart. We are so close, the two of us, in that elongated moment. We are so close in that dark room. It feels intimate; it doesn’t feel intimate; I want it to feel intimate. I want the man to talk to me about this moment, to acknowledge the two of us in this room together, to ask me about my body, to let me tell him what happened, to share something — a story, a kindness — in this room together while we are together. I want us to be unlike men. I want to lean into intimacy. I would kiss his hand if he offered it to me, the way people do in old novels upon arriving at the other’s door. Instead, there is just the cold feeling against my chest and the sound that sometimes erupts from the monitor as something — a frequency, perhaps — switches, and I hear my heart as if my heart were alien to me, this blooping thing that fills the room.

I am okay. I am diagnosed with vasovagal syncope — a fairly common syndrome brought on by various triggers, in my case, the dehydration most likely caused by the stomach virus manifesting itself in my gut — and I leave the hospital with a heart rate monitor glued to my shaved chest. It feels odd, standing in the hospital’s lobby, trying to rethink the 30-something hours, as if I had existed somewhere else. But I hadn’t. I sat in my body in a bed, and was moved around — from floor to floor — and attended to. There is a lump underneath my hoodie where the monitor sticks out. I feel as if I failed somehow — at life, at dignity, at anything of worth. I know that’s not true. You can tell me that’s not true. It doesn’t change the feeling.


In medicine, the term syncope refers to a loss of consciousness brought upon by a reduction of blood flow to the brain. Causes can be serious or benign. It can be related to a condition of the heart. In linguistics, the term syncope refers to a moment when a letter — typically a vowel — is omitted in the pronunciation of a word. This happens all the time in common speech. You say op’ra instead of opera, cam’ra instead of camera. A letter is devalued, made to seem empty, and is left out of the spoken word. When you experience syncope, you feel yourself left out of the language of common life. You come to, and the world has spoken a word and the very letter of you has been omitted. The word has been spoken; there is no going back. D’vin. D’in. D’n. D’. ‘’. If you say it aloud, only the emptiness echoes.

When you experience syncope, you feel yourself left out of the language of common life. You come to, and the world has spoken a word and the very letter of you has been omitted.

In music, the term syncopated refers to a moment when the offbeats of a song are stressed or accented. When you are listening to a song that is heavily syncopated, it disrupts your expectations of normal rhythms and patterns, and, though you are listening in that state of disruption, the hope is that such disruption makes you keep listening. My favorite example of this is the song “Fake Empire,” by The National, which introduces a piano melody that occurs in 3/4 time while the song is sung in 4/4 time. This is conflict, yes, but I enjoy this conflict. Your heart, however, should not beat consistently in a syncopated fashion. This is called an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. You could have tachycardia, your heart beating too fast. You could have bradycardia, your heart beating too slow. Too fast. Too slow. It’s hard to know that something has to be just right. 

What to make of this disruption? This staggering anxiety in the everydayness of life? That fear of omittance, of a disrupted rhythm, of coming-to and not knowing? The desire to be just right? The worry of being left out? The longing for safety? The longing to be moved? The beauty of the painting? The letdown of the city? The  hand reaching out in that moment just before falling? And if there’s no hand? And if you can’t reach? What to make of this? Of life? Of what you can choose and what you can’t? Of wishing it were the other way around? Of giving over control? Of holding on too tight? Of the hurt we hold in the body and the heart? And of the heart — there it is, on the monitor, liquid blue and electric, like something underwater, do you see it, and can you see the scarring; it’s there, it’s there, I didn’t know it could be there, but it’s there, what we’ve caused to one another, what we hold and keep holding, not knowing any other way until we don’t know any longer — yes, of the heart, what of it?


I have tricks now for when I feel faint. I can cross my legs, push them out against each other. I can place my hands together and press them real hard. For weeks now, walking through the city, going to work, taking the subway — I think to myself: What would be the worst place to pass out? I worry about it constantly, find myself pressing each hand to the other in a preventative way, stemming off even the possibility of something happening. I see it all the time: my life moving ahead of me in small, missed moments. I see a glitch in the future. I am running with a child in a stroller, and then the child disappears, and there is only an empty stroller. I finish a book and immediately forget everyone’s name. I am holding out flowers; I am saying here, these flowers are for you, and in that moment right before I give them, the flowers disappear, and I only have an empty hand. 

I think that, in these moments, what I am really saying to myself is what would be the worst place to be left out? I don’t want to be elided. I don’t want to be omitted. I don’t want my heart to skip a beat, to beat too slow, to beat too fast. I think that what I am really saying to myself is that I am scared — terrified, actually — of frailty and its limits, of knowing that there is something about presentness — about being here, in that space where nothing can be left out, because it is happening now, and now, and now — that I am still learning.

And so I speak in the present tense. And so I press my hands together each day and tell myself that it is like prayer. Please let me be here; let me stay. And so I count the yellow windows in the black night from the moving train. And so I lose count and start again. And so I tell the one I love that the river from my childhood reminds me of the river in Joni Mitchell’s song. And so I run my hands along things: chain link fences, triple-painted gates, countertops, and bars. And so I anthropomorphize the animals, call the fly inside the apartment my little guy and click my tongue and wish him well. And so I order the sage-butter tortellini one day, chicken fingers the next. And so I say so what, it’s date night at the diner. And so I remember to laugh. And so I do: I laugh even when it’s hard. And so I remember that it’s this moment I want, before it becomes the next, where anything could happen and anything could not. I don’t remember that, the not. When I awoke, I remember I saw your face. 


Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.


Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands