Let me put that another way.
OC spray will either make you cry or make you angry. Or both! In other words, chill for a moment while I wax philosophical about pepper spray, of all things.
As I see it, the real measure is when you cry and when you get angry. Need to take down the assailant? Need to take down a padded suit man (conveniently provided for you to project your feelings towards the instructor who sprayed you)? Need to smash the crap out of something with a baton?
All of that requires anger. You better believe I was angry. It was all very Star Warsy. Much as I hate to quote the prequels, “I feel your anger. It gives you focus.” You have two options: you can be reduced to a blind, blubbering mess on the spot, or you can concentrate and take it out on something. Wallup some volunteers holding bags. Simulate breaking the legs of the redman. Continue doing your job effectively even though you are in debilitating agony because some day your life or someone else’s life might depend on it.
My point is that you have to find something to focus on. Once you lose focus, you’re done. I don’t want to say I didn’t notice the pain because I was concentrating too hard on finishing the course (because whoa nelly was I feeling it), but the combination of adrenaline and concentration kept the pain at bay. The main thought on my mind was, “Get through the course and think about the pain later.” If your brain shuts down, all you’ll have left is the pain; it’s infinitely easier. It’s hard to focus on anything else, because you know sooner or later that it’s going to catch up with you. Besides, focusing on anything else is exhausting. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just let go?
I’ve already described the moment when the OC leaked into my eyes as feeling like a knife. My face was on fire, and someone decided to shove knives in my eyes. It left me staggered. I could barely move; the only thing I had was the pain. Then suddenly, the baton was in my hand; it gave me something to focus on. Once I registered the baton and took the first swing at the bag, I could concentrate on the feeling of striking the bag.
“Just keep swinging,” I told myself. “Focus on the baton, focus on the physical sensation of each strike.” You better believe it still hurt, but I didn’t notice it as much (by the slimmest of margins, I’m sure). I stopped thinking about the pain. When they moved me from strikes to blocks, I was able to open my eyes enough to see the attacks coming, and I had the wherewithal to respond correctly. By the time I got to jabs, I was already thinking about how to take down the redman.
Speaking of the redman, he gave an entirely new distraction from the pain. I started fencing in college; I’m used to “fighting” people who are better than me. I know the feeling of trying to think through a strategy when I’m at an obvious disadvantage. It’s uncomfortable at best. I was in pain, and a giant red padding monster kept trying to hit me in the head (c’mon, look at this thing. When you have concentrated Texas Pete in your eyes and are tap dancing the fine line between sanity and panic, it looks like something from Halo). If that’s not distracting, I don’t know what is. Sure, you’re distracted enough from the pain, but the “I have no idea how to take this guy down” thought process makes it a lot hard to, y’know, take the guy down. I vaguely remembered I was supposed to kick and hit him, but I was too frustrated to think through it logically and form a strategy.
All that went out the window when he pushed me down. That’s when it went from “What’s up with the giant red monster?” to “Hey! This guy just pushed me down! Am I going to sit here and take that?” That’s when it all came together. I was angry, I was focused, and I had a strategy. (Note: It wasn’t necessarily a strategy to take the guy down; it was a strategy to make the instructor end the exercise. My attacks were useless against the redman but would have been very effective in real life. I was mimicking specific actions the instructor told us would make the exercise stop and was able to think logically enough to add a knee kick to the pattern to keep my assailant off balance.)
About now is where you accuse me of over thinking, and I probably am. Humor me for one step further in my theory that focus can hold back the pain. As soon as the instructor stepped in and started the real life equivalent of the cutscene coup-de-grâce (recover a baton from a grab, then complete a baton take down), I started to lose steam. There was nothing left to focus on. By the time I had him on the ground and the instructor told me to secure my baton (tuck it behind your knees while you cuff the guy), I couldn’t figure out how to untangle it from the redman’s shoulder or how to secure it. I was thinking the words “behind the kness,” but I really struggled to actually find my knees. The adrenaline was gone; the focus was gone. By the time they led me to the hose, I was sobbing. The pain caught up with me, plus the exhaustion of refusing to deal with the pain for roughly five minutes.
It didn’t last long; I was done by the time they finished flushing my eyes. Sure, everything else was on fire, but at least the searing pain was out of my eyes. Eyes on fire–overpowering. Face on fire–really, really annoying. Really, really annoying I can deal with. Maybe I can’t deal with much else at the same time (no really–I was mentally in control, but I could neither walk nor talk. I could vocalize, but it was like something out of Act 1 of 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Now let’s pretend that either the mental collapse when my eyes caught fire or the loss of physical functionality afterwards had kicked in while I was still on the course. It does happen. People panic. People spazz. People fall to the ground screaming and sobbing. People start flailing and have to be restrained. People try to run away and have to be tackled.
Now pretend that it happens in the middle of a riot instead of on a controlled obstacle course. That’s the feeling pepper spray is designed to incite. Panic and helplessness. You can’t let it overpower you. If you can stay in control long enough to get somewhere safe and apply first aid (flush the eyes), you’ll be okay. It will never be as bad as that first moment. It’s a little dramatic to say it will totally ruin your day; my morning was shot, but within 45 minutes I was functional, within 2 hours I could drive, and within 6 hours I was fully decontaminated and out of pain.
Please note that all of the above applies to OC contamination in a carefully controlled environment. I am not going to even try to speak to an OC assault in the real world; there is no way for my experience to mirror that.
Notice to the frat boys filming themselves getting sprayed just for kicks and putting it on Youtube: You are all stupid.
Also, see this page of an article unpleasantly titled “How Fear Works” that talks about fight-or-flight. Because that’s totes what we were playing with last week.