Dec 23 2013
About this time last year, when I had just awakened from my coma and barely had enough strength to open my eyes, the nurses in the hospital where I was incarcerated put a remote control in my hand. “Use these buttons to control the television,” they said. “Use these buttons to control the lights. Use this button to call the nurses.”
They might as well have given me a sledgehammer, for all the good I could do with that remote control. It took all of my strength to not drop the remote on the floor, let alone push any of the buttons. So I lay there in the dark, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, unless a nurse turned on the television when he or she was in the room and then the television stayed on until someone else returned to the room and I was able to plead for the television to be turned off again. One time I just about lost my sanity during a Honey Boo-Boo marathon, but then Fluffy arrived and had the mercy to push the off button.
Some people would consider this a lonely existence. There is a word for these people. That word is “extraverts” (and yes, that is the spelling I prefer).
I, however, was perfectly happy lying in the dark and in the quiet. For one thing, I am an introvert. But for the purposes of this column, I was tuned into Planet Kathy’s own cable station — a station I didn’t even know existed until it was invented for my own viewing pleasure.
There is a phrase that has been invented for my television station, and it is not “Planet Kathy’s Own Cable Station,” no matter how pleasant the concept may be. No, it’s a medical phrase: ICU psychosis. What it means is that people who have been in critical care tend to go — how shall I put it? We tend to go out of our ever-loving minds.
I didn’t know I had fallen off the deep end, mind you. How many crazy people actually know they are crazy? And none of the medical professionals prepared Fluffy for the possibility (yea, the probability) that I would awaken from my coma with a full-blown legion of bats in my belfry.
Of course, they didn’t tell him I was in a coma, either. Medical personnel put Fluffy strictly on a need-to-know, basis, and they pretty much determined that he didn’t need to know anything. When they did tell him things, they used politically correct terms such as “induced sleep” rather than “coma.”
My first encounter with ICU psychosis was not identified for months and months, until I told Fluffy what I remembered of the lovely first hospital where I had stayed. I had glowing memories of that first hospital. It was a textbook of perfect intensive care unit design.
All the beds faced an open area that was painted the brightest, sunniest, cheeriest yellow you could imagine. Travel posters in bright colors graced the walls, allowing patients to fantasize about happy times in the future.
Hospital personnel wore jewel tone scrubs. I am a sucker for jewel tones, so even their clothing made me happy. Only one person marred the picture. One man insisted on wearing a bunny tail on his rear end. It wasn’t even centered, but it was there every day. I wanted to rip it off. He was not worthy of a bunny tail, but he never got close enough for me to tell him so. His hop was lopsided, too.
Imagine my dismay when I told Fluffy my fond memories, only to be told there were no bright yellow walls; there were no travel posters; there were no jewel tones. There was not even a lopsided bunny tail for me to be disgusted about. It was all in my mind, but I didn’t believe it until Fluffy trotted out the pictures and showed me the industrial paint job of the ICU. Not once, but several times. There was not a yellow wall or a bunny tail in sight.
The next fabrication was also a pleasant one. It occurred on Christmas Eve, when I had distinct memories of being taken out, plopped on the curb of a busy downtown street, and allowed to watch people going to and fro as they did their Christmas shopping. It got a little boring after a while, but I never got cold.
There were other patients who had been plopped down next to me, but it never occurred to me to talk to them. How could I? I couldn’t talk because of the tracheotomy in my throat. Besides, none of us had been introduced. So I listened to the Christmas music and speculated what was in the brightly-colored packages, having myself a gay old time.
Not all the hallucinations were happy ones. I was kidnapped and taken to a circus sideshow. I was kidnapped and taken to a Muslim wedding. Never mind that I’ve never been to a Muslim wedding, much less served as a caterer to one. But my coma brain had me hiding behind a Coke machine until after the festivities, when I knew I was going to be summarily dispatched.
I was not sure who was going to dispatch me, or for what reason. But I was convinced the doctors and nurses were in on it and were working in cahoots with the Muslims and circus people, and I was on their hit list. I think I knew too much.
Then I got kidnapped and taken to Alaska. I don’t remember flying there, but I remember being there. That hallucination went so far that I asked one of the hospital nurses which town I was in. She asked me which town I thought I was in. I told her I knew I was in Alaska, but I didn’t know which actual city had me.
When she told me I was in Washington, D.C., I was so surprised you could have smacked me with a salmon — except, of course, salmon were out of season in Alaska and were not available for smacking. Fluffy also confirmed that I was in D.C., but then, I was convinced he might be part of the conspiracy too.
Hotels played a big part in my hallucinations. Sometimes I was sitting on the floor of a hotel in Morocco in the 1930s. Sometimes I was in the back of a rooming house behind the same hotel. There was a hotel in present-day Naples, too. I spent a lot of time in that one, while the rest of the people in our tour group came and went. Often they stopped to tell me about their adventures. I liked that.
No matter where I was, I was placed on a pallet on the floor, and people came and went around me. I never went anywhere on my own, because I couldn’t move on my own. I never really spoke because I couldn’t speak without having my voice box manually inserted. I just sat there or lay there and life ebbed and flowed around me.
It was the ideal existence for a lazy person — except, of course, on those occasions when I thought I was about to be murdered. Then it was just a little bit frustrating to be unable to get away. But what can you do? Sometimes you’re the victim; sometimes you’re the axe-wielding murderer.
My most colorful hallucination occurred when I was just about ready to “graduate” from the second hospital. The nurses were determined I was going to stand up in that second hospital, even though I was not even close to being ready to stand.
In fact, I still can’t stand the way they wanted me to stand and it’s almost a whole year later than it was when I left that second hospital. I think they wanted the credit for progress I hadn’t really made, which is an all-too-human trait.
Anyway, the nurses told me that I was going to stand up tomorrow. My feet, meanwhile, were telling me I was not going to be standing up tomorrow. I decided the only way I was going to stand up was going to be if I infused myself with a whole litany of positive thinking.
I didn’t get much sleep that night. I kept chanting to myself, over and over, “You’re going to stand up tomorrow. You’re going to stand up tomorrow.”
Here’s where it gets weird. Every time I chanted to myself, the old rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival appeared off to my left and started singing, “And When I Die.” (If you don’t know the song, the words go, “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born and a world/to carry on/to carry on.”)
They really belted it out, and they belted it often. I was chanting my pep talk frequently, so there were often several Creedences singing “And When I Die” in different areas of the room. It got pretty noisy from time to time.
I had never been a Creedence fan, so my brain didn’t know how many people to visualize. When I saw them off in my peripheral vision it looked like there were four 1970s-era guys, but I didn’t know anything about them. There could have been six. There could have been a girl or two in there. Who knew?
So when I tried to sneak a look at them, they dissolved in front of me. I could only see them peripherally, but it didn’t stop them from singing their little hearts out. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
It was only several months later when I was telling a friend the story that he said to me, “I hate to tell you this, but ‘And When I Die’ was recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears.”
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. All I could say was, “It may not have been their song, but Creedence did a great job with it.”
Frankly, I’m glad it was Creedence who sang for me. There were nine guys in Blood, Sweat & Tears, and that would have crowded my hospital room something awful.
As fate would have it, I changed hospitals the next day and never saw those two nurses again. I never had to try to stand up. I lost a night of sleep for nothing, and Creedence sang in vain. But if you’re going to give a concert, sing your heart out. For the rest of my life, “And When I Die” and Creedence Clearwater Revival are going to have a fond place in my memories.
Compared to 2012, our holiday is going to be pretty quiet this year. There will be no trips to Alaska, or Muslim weddings, or concerts by vintage rock bands. It will probably just be Fluffy and I enjoying hot chocolate, Christmas music, and each other. And my Christmas wish for all of you is that your day will be just as nice as mine.