I thought I had solved FOMO. The reality was far more dangerous.
Two years ago, comedian Dave Maher woke from a monthlong coma. This is his story, told in ten installments.
By the end of my twenties, I was severely depressed and a decade deep into a habit of falling asleep at parties.
I didn’t do this because I was so intoxicated I couldn’t stay awake—or at least that wasn’t the only reason. And I didn’t fall asleep because I wanted to avoid people. Quite the opposite, in fact: I wanted to be around them.
I was lonely and miserable, and the only thing that made me feel even slightly better was being around my friends as much as possible. So I’d drink too much and drift off, knowing my kind friends wouldn’t wake me. In the morning, I’d wake up in Drennen’s or Gary’s or John’s apartment, and that was okay. It was more than okay; it was where I wanted to be.
My slumbering habit began in college. One night during my sophomore year, I went to a party and got so blackout drunk, I groped a young woman. I put my hand between her legs while we were dancing, and she had to slap me away several times before I gave up this charming little attempt at courtship.
Later, back in my dorm, I stripped down to my blindingly white boxer briefs and ran around the floor like a big, pale baby in a diaper. Then I flopped onto the common room couch and fell asleep in the fetal position, with no blankets for warmth.
When I woke the next morning, I remembered none of this. Then my RA came to my room to talk. He had heard about the groping incident, and I learned from him what I had done. My behavior was unacceptable, he said, and it could not continue.
I felt ashamed, humiliated?—?and terrified. This was my first blackout, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Who was this shadow self who came out when I imbibed one too many? What did the action of violating this young woman say about my character? Did drinking make me a different person, or did it simply unleash things that were already inside me? Was this who I really was?
One thing I assured my RA with all the sincerity my 19-year-old, deeply delusional brain could muster: My drinking was not a problem, and I would take precautions to make sure it did not become one.
Those precautions took the form of my body shutting down to avoid the possibility of my behaving in similarly horrifying ways. So, without much conscious work on my part, I began to fall asleep at parties.
The trend continued after college and well into my twenties. Weekend after weekend?—?at parties, casual social gatherings, even bars?—?after as many drinks as my body could handle, I would find a nice couch or bed or booth and nod off.
I started seeing a psychologist and a few different psychiatrists around this time. My therapist diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and a touch of dysthymia, aka persistent depressive disorder (like a hint of the plague, but for your emotions). I was prescribed medication, but I also drank to blackout and started smoking weed all day, every day.
Eventually, I became so infamous for falling asleep in social situations that my friends would comment and joke about it. They played games with my dozing husk. One of these was Party Jenga, which involved people taking turns placing objects on top of me until the objects fell off or I woke up. They took pictures of their exploits, which you can see here.
I felt guilty knowing this was my reputation, but I wanted both to get very drunk and to stay with my friends. Plus, at least when I slept I wasn’t causing trouble. In a dark corner of my mind, I feared that if I got blackout drunk at a party and stayed awake, I would be faced with the revelation of more horrible actions I did not remember. By zonking out, I could spare myself humiliation and someone else the possibility of serious trauma.
I was going to drink myself to sleep either alone or with people, and I wanted to be around people. So I slept at parties. I had solved FOMO.
Later in my drinking and sleeping career, while doing improv comedy in Chicago, I went through a particularly painful breakup that started one of the longest and deepest periods of depression in my life. It was all I could do to get out of the house. When I could muster the momentum to leave, I would go to the Upstairs Gallery, the now-defunct venue where I performed. Even if I didn’t have a show, I would go and just sit.
I remember sitting at those shows, not watching, just feeling the weight of my depressed body in the chair as my friends improvised scenes while my eyes stared into the middle distance. Or I’d sit on the couch in the green room, drinking and smoking, surrounded by people I could talk to, or not talk to, for hours. My friends and fellow performers provided the distraction I craved. When I was around them, my mind was on vacation from my problems. I thought if got high enough, I could escape myself.
I wanted to be around people because it meant not being at home with even fewer distractions from the pains of my anxiety, my depression, my breakup and my disappointment at being a struggling improviser whose ambition far outpaced his reality.
I blacked out regularly at the Upstairs Gallery, but my scariest incident there was not a result of falling asleep. Shows at Upstairs often engaged the audience, comprised mostly of performers, who were known to break into frequent chants. I loved the chants and often tried to start them. They provided opportunities to open up our jaws and unleash pure, primal id.
During this particular show in 2014, the chant brought the audience to its feet. We were all going wild. I had been drinking, of course, and was almost certainly very high. All the blacking out makes my memory hazy, but I believe it was August, which is the hottest and most humid month of the year in Chicago. The Upstairs Gallery was on the third floor of its building, and that heat was rising.
Once the audience had stood, hollering at the top of our lungs, I wanted to raise the stakes and place myself in the center of the action, so I climbed onto the seat of my folding chair and continued shouting. A moment later, the vibe in the room pivoted abruptly to one of concern, and people were asking me if I was okay. I was on the ground, on top of a pile of collapsed chairs. I had passed out.
As I came to, I assured everyone I was okay and that the show should continue. I had no idea that panic flashed through my friends’ minds as they watched me fall. I felt guilty for having scared them, but after a couple of them escorted me to the green room, I remained confused but not concerned. I felt fine enough to keep partying. I blamed excitement and laughed it off.
I thought the experience was an unremarkable blip on the Richter scale of my disappointing life. I had no idea it was a foreshock of the earthquake to come.