“Don’t think of it,” she said. “I’m just home from the hospital, and really…today…well, I just can’t.”
“I know that,” I told my friend Lady. “Do you know, I hadn’t ever been hospitalized until last year? And then, the year began and ended with a hospitalization. And the curious thing is that both times, I had intended to pass the time with music. And both times I failed.”
It was true. The first time I was hospitalized was for a broken back: I had fallen and fractured two of my lumbar vertebrae. And so I had gone to the hospital, taking all of the electronics I owned with me (barring the flat screen and the speakers). I would, I thought, do some serious listening. Has anyone ever devoted himself to listening to the entire piano sonatas of Beethoven, followed by the entire string quartets? Undoubtedly I would be the first, and since it would take at least two or three days to complete each cycle…well, I’d have to be hospitalized for a week at least.
In fact, I wasn’t, though I wish I had been. I had been struggling with the broken back for at least two weeks, and very possibly a month before I had done all the tests, seen all the doctors, and been taken to the hospital. And in that month, my days had followed an invariable routine.
Let me see—where do we start?
Welcome to the world of pain. There were no days, simply because there was no night of uninterrupted sleep. I was just as likely to be up at 2 AM as 2 PM, and in both cases I was counting my breaths, since that was virtually all I could do. When I was utterly still, the pain was great but bearable…just. But turning in bed was agony, and everybody who has shared a bed with me reports the same: I am seriously in the same league as a whirling dervish.
The one semblance of a routine came in the morning, when I struggled out of bed and went to the café to eat breakfast. Even now, I have no idea how I did it, nor do I have any words for the pain it involved. I can only say that it was very much like the magician sawing the lady in half. Only the magic was gone, and the saw was very real.
I ate breakfast. I went to the store, next door, and got lunch. At this point, I threw monetary caution out the window, and often bought two packages of smoked salmon. Alternatively, I bought a pound of frozen shrimp, which I would cook. But on many days, I simply ate chocolate chip cookies. I bought wine and then, fatally…
…a bottle of scotch.
I then went home, and discovered, to my amazement, that the pain was actually slightly reduced when I went up the stairs. I pondered for a moment whether I should spend all day going up and down the stairs, when I realized that the pain increased when I went down. This sort of situation is the metaphor for my life.
I was taking nothing more than Advil and Tylenol for the pain. Well, wrong—remember that bottle of scotch?
And so the time passed.
I have always drunk a lot, and many in my family have as well. But I was lucky to have a job that occupied me, and that made walk for the most part on the rim of the volcano. But now, there was no time. And so what difference did it make if I was drinking at eight in the evening or eight in the morning? The point was that I was in agony, dammit, and if I could drink enough, and take twice the recommended dose of Benadryl…I could probably get two or three hours of sleep.
And when I woke up?
Any guess what I reached for?
By the time I finally reached the hospital, I was utterly exhausted. I had gone from lying on a stretcher in the state hospital to being seen in a private hospital. It was, in fact, literally the difference between night and day (the private hospital was twenty miles away from the state hospital—and we drove there just at dusk. I registered the astonishing beauty of the light falling and fading on the mountains in between each astonishing and horrific bump in the road).
“What are you taking for the pain?” asked the doctor, “morphine?”
“Tylenol and Advil,” I told him.
“I think we can do better,” he replied.
Better arrived soon after, in the form of two Percosets and two Klonopin. And it indeed was better, because I experienced it very much as I experienced anesthesia. There came the moment, some 40 minutes after I had taken the pills, when I felt that some wonderful, unknown and primitive force was pulling me down into the bed. And with that pull came sleep, blessed sleep. And the first sleep free of pain in nearly a month.
This magic was repeated three times a day, during which I got an astonishing amount done. Or rather, an astonishing amount was done to me: CT scans, MRIs, lab work, and even old-fashioned X-rays. And so I would be taken here and there, and this and that would be done to me. And then? A nurse would appear, holding salvation in her hand in the form of four pills.
You want the truth? I would go back there in an instant, that sleep was so pleasant!
I had been, in fact, utterly dishonest. Because it occurred to me, as I lay on a stretcher in the hallway of the state facility, that I wanted a drink quite badly. And then it further occurred to me: I was going through withdrawal.
Nobody had sent the email, it turned out, to my liver. You know, with the news that that daily bottle of scotch didn’t count, since there was a forest fire rage along my spine.
I used to be an RN: I knew the trouble I was in. Because there was the real possibility that I would be in the hospital, with a broken back, and then start to see giant black spiders on the wall. And who knew what would happen, as I attempted to bolt out of my bed in escape.
Having the DTs would almost have been better than the withdrawal symptoms that preceded them. Because alcohol withdrawal is a special form of hell, with its own special devil. And that devil sends anxiety to the point of panic, severe tremors, a dry mouth, nausea to the point of the dry heaves. None of this, as I write it, seems particularly bad. But in fact, the disconcerting thing about withdrawal is the realization: the devil has taken over you. You, your mind, your soul, and your body: they are now someone else’s, and that someone is both utterly evil and also utterly divine, because, you see…
…he has the key.
Yes, if you take a drink, you will feel a jolt. You may know, as I knew, that alcohol takes minutes to half an hour to enter the blood stream to the point where it makes a difference. But I can tell you, as both a drunk and an RN, that I got the equivalent of the email confirmation: your message has been sent. Yes, I would have to wait half an hour for the full effect, but it was a half hour that passed relatively quickly.
So I knew all that, and also knew that my chance of running to the grocery store to pick up the bottle of scotch, during that three day hospitalization, was zero. So I lied, and told the admitting doctor that I suffered anxiety (which was true, though I didn’t reveal the cause) and that I normally took 2 mg of Klonopin three times a day. Since I was also taking antidepressants, that seemed reasonable.
To be free of pain was wonderful; to be free of withdrawal was wonderful. And to have nothing to do, utterly nothing to do except give myself over to other persons’ care, that…
It was not to last. After three days, I was sent home, to rest in bed for two months. I had passed my first hospitalization sleeping for the first time in a month, and then being examined. And during that time?
There was no time for music.