Blood and gore create a swirling feeling in senior Meghan Mohn’s chest. When she hears groans and screams her legs feel like they are stuffed and puffy because her blood vessels are swollen. She can’t move them. Her head feels like it’s floating and her vision gets taken over by growing black spots. Next thing she knows, she’s on the ground.
In seventh grade, Meghan was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, also known as vasovagal syncope. It’s a condition in which blood pressure plummets after encountering sights, sounds or emotions that trigger symptoms that include fainting. For Meghan, excessive amounts of blood and gore, disturbing noises or descriptions, dehydration and nervousness all act as triggers.
A “CSI” episode in fourth grade was Meghan’s first severe experience with vasovagal. Three seconds of a dead body onscreen created major shock that controlled her brain for two weeks. Three seconds caused Meghan’s heart beat to slow down to almost zero and her body to collapse.
Vasovagal has been following Meghan ever since she was born, but her episodes didn’t become severe until fourth grade. Meghan’s fainting episodes last anywhere from two seconds to two hours.
It followed her in sixth grade at the Prairie Elementary School Carnival when she dropped to the ground in a hysterical fit. It followed her when she had to sit out in the hall as the rest of her class dissected cow eyes. It still follows her when she can’t go to scary movies with her friends on Friday nights because the images and sounds will stay in her mind.
“That can be really annoying,” Meghan said. “I’ll be trying to take a test and then it will be like, ‘Remember that one time when that horrible thing happened?’”
When those thoughts creep back into her head and Meghan is triggered, her legs feel puffy. She feels cold. Her blood stops moving through her and then she drops, down to the floor.
There’s a set routine Meghan follows when she knows she’s encountered a trigger. She takes a drink from the fluorescent pink water bottle that never leaves her side. She puts on music to distract herself from the commotion swirling through her body. Meghan wraps herself up like a burrito with 10 of the fuzzy blue blankets from around her room to stay warm and comforted. She does anything she can to make the all-too-familiar feeling of fainting go away.
After she recovers, Meghan feels fine. All she has to do is breathe and relax for a bit and then go back to what she was doing, whether that be class or writing in her room.
Vasovagal affects about 22 percent of the world’s population. It is also hereditary and Meghan’s grandma, dad and sister all have the condition. According to her dad, Andy Mohn, Meghan’s case is the most severe in the family. While Andy has only had one severe fit in his adult life, Meghan has had several throughout her entire life.
After Meghan first started to show symptoms, her parents took her to several psychologists and her problem was given a name tag with “OCD” written on it. Finally, after several appointments of sitting on a big brown couch answering questions about her emotions, a psychologist asked the Mohn family if they had ever taken her to a physician. To Meghan’s parents, the fainting episodes were now starting to make sense.
“[Finding out what it was] was just a relief,” Lindsay Mohn, Meghan’s mom, said. “So much of a relief.”
Middle school with vasovagal was tough for Meghan. She was just diagnosed, and still didn’t understand how to steer her train of thought away from the triggers. She hadn’t yet learned how to explain the cold her body felt before she fainted. She encountered teachers that didn’t understand. Teachers wouldn’t let her go to the nurse when she needed to lie down or wouldn’t let her take a drink from her water bottle because food and drink were not allowed in the classroom.
Awkwardly stumbling her way through an explanation of vasovagal was and still is Meghan’s least favorite part of the condition. She feels embarrassed asking people if a show is safe for her to watch or fainting in front of a friend who doesn’t know about it.
But even through the embarrassment, Meghan has learned to not let her episodes or triggers get in the way of her life. She’s learned to surround herself with happiness in order to cope with her condition. Eating chocolate-covered peanuts and dancing in her room to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” help Meghan feel relief if a trigger is trying to take control of her body.
“Lots of times people are like, ‘Oh Meghan you have this condition, you’re so innocent and I have to keep you so safe!’” Meghan said. “But it’s like if I get a paper cut it’s not a big deal.”
Another form of relief for Meghan is writing. She writes any chance she gets about anything she wants. She writes about her life, her specific experiences. Her light brown notebook with birds sewn into the front and her Google Drive account act as two sanctuaries for her thoughts and inspiration.
“When she gives me something [she has written] to read I always know it’s for a reason,” Lindsay said. “I think she’s got a very good insight into human nature and I think she’s got a very big heart. She is able to see a lot of beauty in the world that maybe other people don’t see.”
Meghan doesn’t want to shelter herself from the world just because she’s triggered by parts of it. She still curls up on her vintage blue arm chair and plays the scary video games she loves. She controls her body and tells it not to faint when she navigates through the zombie-infested mental ward of Nightmare House, her favorite game.
Meghan knows vasovagal is always going to be a part of her life, but she also knows it will never control her. Triggers used to barge into her mind every day, and now Meghan just has episodes about every two months. She still maintains a complicated relationship with her condition, hating it at times, but overall she knows life will go on. She has learned how to coexist with vasovagal.
““[Living with vasovagal is] mostly inconvenient and awkward, which really describes me,” Meghan said. “So maybe it suits me.”