Oblivion, Part I: Lycanthropy and Me
by James L. Carey
This is a story I’ve been meaning to tell for a while, but I didn’t know where to start or how. It’s the story of when I was very ill, what it was like, and some other things that are hard to explain. It’s hard to tell it all in one go, so I’m breaking it up into two three parts. Here’s the first:
* * * * *
When you look back on your life, you think in terms of a highlight reel. Not necessarily great things, but the big things, the things that more than anything else make up who you are and how you see the world. The in-between things, the long spans of dullness or sameness are what get glossed over and forgotten until an old photo, a smell, or a dream bring them back to the surface, if only for a moment, before they sink back into oblivion.
It’s said that death is oblivion, but the dictionary defines oblivion as, “the state of forgetting or of being completely forgotten.” As thought all that’s required for you to die is simply to forget to live, like breathing were on the same to-do list as picking up toilet paper or walking the dog. Oopsies. Well the last big thing, I mean, real big thing, for me, was two years ago when I forgot that particular to-do list and, well…died, technically speaking, but I wasn’t really that close to being alive either.
Towards the end of 2007, I began to feel…strange, we’ll call it that. It’s almost impossible to explain it to another person. The only other possible way I can describe what it felt like is to refer to the 1981 horror classic, An American Werewolf in London. The scene I refer to specifically is the one in which the main character, David, first transforms into the titular creature of the night. My heart beat a staccato of near hummingbird speed and the blood was pumping through my veins at just under Mach 5. This, in turn, produced a constant skull-thumping, war drum rhythm in my head as well as giving me a body temperature roughly that of a freshly microwaved Hot Pocket. You could literally see my veins bulge and pulse with concussive force. I could stand outside that winter, barefoot, sweating away while a light steam rose from where my skin made contact with the snow. I had also begun to progressively lose weight for the first time in my life for reasons unbeknownst to me because if it wasn’t unhealthy, I probably wasn’t eating it. Last, but not least, was a growing sensation of vaguely homicidal rage. I saw red all the time. The smallest thing might set me off and I would lash out at anyone within screaming distance.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t he get this checked out sooner? I can give you three concrete reasons why: 1. It didn’t happen all at once, it was a gradual process and it’s amazing what you can get used to if you deal with it a little bit at a time, 2. I’m a guy and as such am blessed with a limitless amount of stubbornness and fear of all things medical, 3. I always wanted a superpower and if becoming a werewolf was all I was going to get, then Hell, sign me up. At the time I told myself that it was probably just the mass amounts of caffeine and nicotine not to mention a steady diet of McBreakfasts, McLunches and McDinners. I thought, I’ll recoup when I’m 35 or so, start reading Men’s Health and finally get that Bowflex body.
But on one day in early January, I started to feel extremely light-headed, I couldn’t get my heart to slow down even a little and worse, I couldn’t catch my breath. So I drove to an urgent care facility, an entirely useless form of medical service unless you’re in desperate need of a band-aid or an aspirin. Filling out the questionnaire, I paused. Symptoms?, Stage One Lycanthropy? I don’t think that’s covered under my health insurance. A male nurse checked my vitals and left me sitting in the examination room. Behind the closed door, I could hear the half-whispers of what was apparently a covert operation. “Did you do this twice?” “Yes” “The same?” Both times, yes, there’s nothing wrong with the gauge” “Did he run here?” “No, he says he drove.” The door swings open and a doctor enters followed by the nurse. “Mr. Carey, did you run here?” I laughed and shake my head. “It’s January! No I didn’t run here, but I have been thinking about buying a Bowflex, truth be told.” The doctor doesn’t laugh. “Okay, well your vitals are a bit odd and your heart is beating too fast, far too fast, you need to go to a real hospital and you need to go to the Emergency Room. I will print instructions for you to give them.”
So I drove myself to the Ingham Regional Medical Center in Lansing, Michigan. I walked casually into the E.R. and was surprised that one could walk casually into an E.R. There was practically no one there. Where were the gunshot victims and the frenzied activity of blood-soaked doctors? After a couple of forms and a few questions, they put me in a bed and hooked me up to machines that monitor your pulse, blood pressure, that sort of thing. They even inserted me with an IV drip, something I had never experienced before. I’ve had people check my blood pressure and my reflexes, but this was TV medicine, things were getting real…and unnerving. A doctor would come in the room and watch the monitor above me like it was the damned Superbowl or something. Then a nurse would come in and fiddle with leads, then another doctor would come in, then another nurse and suddenly everywhere I looked someone was reaching across me to adjust a screen or a wire or a tube. Stranger still, no one looked at me, they all looked at the screens and the print-outs and the wires. The invisible man was very ill indeed. Occasionally one of the doctors would ask me something strange that would make me laugh until I realized they weren’t laughing, although they still weren’t really looking at me. “Did you do any drugs today Mr. Carey?” “No, no drugs today.” “Cocaine? How about Cocaine? You’re not in trouble, I just need to know.” “No, no Cocaine today.” “Okay, well your heart is beating at around 190 beats per minute and you’re in V-Tach.” “Oh. Is that bad?” I was starting to get very…very nervous. “Anything above about 90 beats per minute is abnormal and your heart isn’t just beating extremely fast, it’s beating wrong, improperly. It’s going so fast and in such a way that we’re kind of surprised it’s still going. Just relax, we need to check some things.” “Okay, well please do,” I offered helpfully.
They did their checking and opted to give me a solution that was supposed to slow my heart down enough so that it wouldn’t explode or give out altogether within the next twenty minutes. The doctor held a syringe to the IV, the room must have contained 175 accumulated years of medical expertise and at least 3 million dollars in college loan debt. “This will feel like someone is sitting on your chest with their knees for a moment,“ a female doctor, the one in charge, tells me, “then your heart should start beating again, but a normal pace.” “Wait, this stops my heart?!” I say pointing to the yellowish liquid in the needle. “Yes, but only for a moment. It’s medicine that you need.” They’re talking to me like they’re from some advanced culture and I’m an ailing caveman who thinks they’re witches or something, I think to myself. I begin to hate doctors and the medical profession in general. “Well if it’s only for a moment, then what could go wrong?” I quip. “Will it work?” I say, but the nurse is already pushing the plunger on the syringe. The actual sensation that passes over you is not that a person is sitting on your chest with their knees, that’s uncomfortable and pretty irritating. The actual feeling that comes over you when they give you whatever the Hell they gave me was feral panic and fear. You feel like you’re drowning and you can’t get air, you can’t get air because you can’t breathe, your body just forgot how. Oopsies. You lose your breath and sink low into yourself and just about when you’re making mad looks of insane need to the doctors in your E.R. room, you begin to breathe again, on your own.
This miracle solution of modern medical science helped my condition approximately jack and shit after giving it to me a total of three consecutive times, a new hospital record for one patient. Somewhere a scoreboard lights up. But about half an hour after the third dose, my heart did slow down, if only for a bit, and started to beat at a semi-regular rhythm. Better than nothing. As the incessant beeping of the monitors broke off, doctors began to finally leave the room. No one had anything resembling a diagnosis so I stared at the black screen of a TV that I was too nervous to ask anyone to turn on, lest they miss some important piece of medical data that my body was broadcasting on the green and black monitor above my head. It was a few more hours before a doctor, a different one of course, they work in 15 minute intervals apparently, asked me if anyone in my family had any history of Thyroid Disease. Good question, I thought. I’ll explain it as it was explained to me, namely as though I was 10 years old. Your heart is like the engine of your body, that much is easy to understand, and the Thyroid is gland in your neck and it’s like the gas pedal. If you let off too much, the car crawls along, and you’re diagnosed as having Hypothyroidism. You’re tired all the time, you gain weight, that sort of thing. But if you’re in my shoes, well that batshit crazy driver just did a 5 hour energy/ Red Bull/ Jolt bomb and he’s late for his interview/wedding/son’s Bar Mitzvah and he’s on the autobahn in his dad’s Ferrari. That, boys and girls, is called Hyperthyroidism, or in the terms of the Ingham Regional Medical Center, “the most severe case we’ve ever seen or ever heard of.” It kind of sounds like a superpower I thought to myself. But the shitty kind that no one wants as it turns out, like the Wonder Twin who can only turn into water or steam. “Okay, got it. Hyperthyroidism. When can I leave?” “Oh not tonight, we need to keep an eye on you,” the lovely patronizing life-saver tells me.
Not tonight, as it turns out, is equal to one week in ailing caveman terms. Over the course of the week the doctors run more tests and give me more pills and always have me hooked up to a god awful IV. They give me pills to slow my heart rate and pills to slow my blood pressure, all good and lovely. The pills that might have really have been beneficial would have been the pills that put a red light up in front of that batshit crazy driver. It’s called a thyroid suppressant. Something that’s common, easy to get and something that I wasn’t prescribed as I was released from IRMC. “You need a primary care physician and you need to be put on a suppressant regimen,” is what I was told. I smiled and nodded. Whatever you say lady. Just let me go home.
The next few months became the period of the “if onlys.” If only I hadn’t been failing my college courses as Michigan State, if only I could get this girl to like me, if only my mother hadn’t passed away suddenly after a kidney transplant in Birmingham, Alabama. After my mom died, I really couldn’t give a fuck about primary care physicians or suppressant regimens. I still had all the symptoms of my disease, but I was on the heart rate reducing medications and hoped that would be enough to get me through to a time when I could think about things like my health with any amount of actual concern. The concept of self-preservation simply eluded me. I didn’t care.
In late May of that year, I was at a mental breaking point. I needed a break, a short vacation, a road trip, anything, I would have settled for anything to make me think there was a point to this whole “breathing thing.” Some friends were going camping and I thought, perfect, that’s exactly what I need. It was May and although the last tendrils of winter still gripped parts of Michigan, it was unseasonably warm. Right up until the point I hammered my first tent stake into the ground. Then it dropped to about 45 degrees and began to rain. It pissed rain the whole weekend of our camping trip. My tent floated on a pond of semi-freezing precipitation and as a result I slept it what amounted to a humid refrigerator made of nylon. I felt terrible. Really terrible. This wasn’t Stage One Lycanthropy, no. This was something far worse. A nauseous, disorienting feeling of vertigo even while simply laying down. Hot, cold, pouring with sweat one moment and feeling the world ice over the next.
When we returned home, the feeling didn’t go away but was accompanied by a mucousy cough and the actual sensation that someone was sitting on my chest with their knees. I couldn’t get a good breath, I lathered myself in Vick’s VapoRub, anything to get a good night’s sleep. After a week of feeling the absolute most miserable I have ever felt in my life, I finally gave in and had a friend drive me to the inviting accommodations of the E.R. at Ingham Regional. My joy was profound. Laying in the same bed, in the same room I had five months previous, the routine was familiar, except without the mad, panic-inducing frenzy of the hospital staff. They knew I had Thyroid Disease now, we could dispense with the pleasantries, they would give me whatever they neglected to give me the first time around and I could be home by McDinner.
After being there for only an hour or so, I started to feel the terrible, nauseating, hot/cold vertigo feeling again. I couldn’t lay still, I felt like my body was disintegrating under me. I got cold, frigid teeth-chattering cold. They covered me in heated pads to keep me as close to comfortable as was possible. “We’re moving you to the ICU, you need to stay here.” I sighed pitifully and nodded. Another week of this rapture I thought. I said goodbye to Jeff, the friend who had brought me to the E.R. as they wheeled me and my bed through the hallways and up the elevator to the ICU. Whenthey put me in my room and got all the wires situated, I asked politely if they could turn the hockey game on. The Red Wings were playing the last game of the Stanley Cup finals and all they had to do was keep Pittsburgh from scoring for thirty more seconds and they would win. I laid my head back on my pillow and watched the clock wind down. “The long pass is caught by Datsyuk. 20 to go. He’s got some room to step out with it now.” I started to drift. The bright lights of the ICU were weakening, as though someone were turning a dimmer switch. “Gonchar steals, play continues, 10 seconds to go!” I couldn’t focus on the TV anymore, it was just a box of colored light, only the audio still made any sense. “Gonchar flips one, it’s off the glove of Lidstrom, sent back out to center ice. Gonchar turns it around! Save Osgood! And that’s it!” Somewhere, someone turned the dimmer switch to zero, except this one controlled the whole world. And I sunk into oblivion.
© 2010 James L. Carey