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.
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“The mortality I never believed in was here now…
a room you come back to and know some stranger with bad
intent has been there and touched all that you love.” ~ Rick Campbell
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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 Matt, 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. When they 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.
* * * * *
I, or at least some part of what was me, the part that still remembered what it was to be me, floated on the sea of my unconscious mind. I was anchorless, adrift and buffeted by the waves of thickening memory, solidifying only briefly before being spun about over the next eddy of image and thought.
I found myself in a dimly lit basement, a lone incandescent light bulb swung slowly from the ceiling, casting grim shadows as it passed across my face. In the way you implicitly know where you are in the dreamstate, I knew this was the basement of a boyhood friend. A rather strange place to find myself I thought, considering we hadn’t been in contact for about fifteen years. We had spent many summer afternoons in that cool basement. Building box forts, trading insults, dares, digging for treasures and pawing through a few worn porno mags from the 70’s. But the something that was sort of me thought, “nothing odd here, a perfectly logical place to find oneself.” The something didn’t question the circumstances, it only recorded the details.
Where at first I stood, now I lay upon a hospital gurney, trapped among a web of cords and translucent tubes. At the end of the bed, a nurse garbed in dark scrubs toiled over a common basement laundry sink, washing something. I tried to force myself up into a sitting position, but felt the restraint of unseen hands. From nowhere, someone called my name in chastising, grandmotherly tone, “Jaaammmeeesss. Lay back. James! You need to lie down.” I looked around, but couldn’t find the source of the voice. It made me uncomfortable in a way I can’t fully describe. Made more so by the fact that no one calls me “James.” Who would call me James? Like sitting in a waiting room, patiently waiting for your name to be called when you realize it has been called, but it didn’t register because no one calls you by the name on your driver’s license. I kicked and clawed, but couldn’t get up, I was trapped.
The basement filled with diffused light came from everywhere and nowhere all at once. I was still laying on the inescapable hospital bed when I began to make out a semi-circle of seated people around me. One moment they didn’t exist, the next and I could have reached across the bedrail and touched them. They wore black suits and dresses that were darker than starless skies and I could see forever in their folds. They drank amber-colored liquors from short, ice-filled glasses and I knew that they were my family and friends and that this was a funeral wake for my mother…and for me. Somehow it was mine too and I knew it, I could feel it.
“I’m right here! Put the glasses down and get me the fuck out of here! I know you can see me, why aren’t you looking at me? I’m not dead!”
They wore somber faces and whispered to each other things that I couldn’t make out. They consoled each other as I screamed and writhed and they never looked in my direction and I was pulled out of the basement which became like a painting in a gallery. One-dimensional. Static.
* * * * *
We’re late! We’re going to miss it and then we’ll be stranded, the thought ran over and over in my mind and I was utterly panicked. The show had ended. I was in a huge, decaying old theater, done up in the grand playhouse style of a century ago. Billowing, moth-eaten velvet curtains of deep red hung across the stage. The crowd was filtering out of their seats and through the exits at nearly four times as the speed I could muster. Me and my…companion? Yes, there was someone else with me. A nameless, faceless, characterless body lacking any discernable identity, but it was there, I could see it, sense we were together. We didn’t want to be last, we would be locked in and we would miss it. I had no conscious idea of what we would miss, but I knew it would be a terrible thing to do so.
Dragging 1000 pound trunks behind us, our progress was a series of short, lumbering moves to the rearmost exit. Up, up, up the stairs we went. The higher we climbed, the narrower the stairs became until we finally came through the exit which was at first in front of us, now was a horizontal entryway above our heads like the doorway of an attic. By the time I had made it halfway through the opening, the portal had shrunk to barely the size of my luggage and I strained to pull it into the attic, but made it, somehow.
The trapped, needing-to-not-be-left-behind feeling permeated everything, every breath and thought. The attic, and it was an attic now, I could see the arched ceiling, the plank walls, was filled with the stage players from below. This was their home, their living quarters and they looked upon us with irritation. They weren’t people, no, they didn’t resemble people at all. They looked like…well to be perfectly honest…they looked like Muppets, people made of felt and wire. They didn’t have feet or legs, they just hung about in dark corners and peered over wooden crates and looked none-too-pleased with us. We missed it. Whatever it was, we had missed it and now we would have to stay here at least overnight, maybe forever. I felt utterly helpless and adrift as the scene became faded and translucent like a bit of cheesecloth and the little bit that was me pushed through one of those holes into somewhere else.
* * * * *
London, or something like it. An empty, colorless, dark reflection. Like a bad Xerox or looking into an oily puddle. It was fuzzy, the edges of the buildings, not as sharp as they should be, not quite solid. I’ve been to London a few times in the waking world, a grand old lady, one of my favorite places to get lost and be no one at all, but this wasn’t what I had remembered.
The streets were abandoned, empty except for a whistling breeze that blew debris up from the gutters. I wanted to get out of this place, a wrongness hung in the air and you could taste it. I went down. There were no stairs, no discernable mode of movement or egress. I simply pushed myself out. I wanted to be out of that place that wasn’t the London I knew and found myself in an underneath passage, a corridor that ran beneath and beside the streets.
The corridor was a long concrete hallway, dark on one side and lit on the other by dull light coming from opaque warehouse style windows, dirty and cheap. Ledges ran along both sides and atop these were laid bloodied shards of colored glass. Here and there, leaning against the gray concrete walls were what I can only describe as 1980’s punk rockers. 8 inch spiked mohawks and leather jackets framed their bodies and their faces held the malice and unfiltered hate they shot my way as I silently and slowly walked past.
I made my way to an underground canal. Man-made and perfectly straight, lined with the same gray concrete and surrounded on both shores with all manners of people. They all waited, milled about, never speaking, while a slow-moving procession of watercraft looking scrapped together from bits of refuse and building scrap moved along the water. Mine was waiting for me, a wooden raft, I had just made it. Dragging the heavy trunk onto the raft, I relaxed a little. We could be off now…somewhere.
On the raft stood two people, companions who had arranged for my rare opportunity to leave. A Hindu woman, short and wearing a dark red sarong wrapped tightly around her frame. The other was a friend, my oldest friend, Brett. But he was twisted and malformed. He stood nearly a foot taller than me, about 10 inches more than in real life and was thin, sickeningly thin. No, thin isn’t right. He was skeletal. A flesh-colored saran wrap stretched across bones and ribs. You could see straight through him. A long, translucent tube coiled around his body and up to his face where an oxygen mask covered his emaciated face. His eyes peered from deep within his skull and were only dark glints of black in the dim, underground canal.
We floated down the canal, only a little at a time, stopping at checkpoints and traffic jams. The raspy, ghastly breathing of Brett filled my ears and was only countered by the serene look of the nameless Hindu woman, calm was chiseled into her face. At places the water level would have to be lowered for us to continue, at others it was increased, the progress was slow. In front of us, a wall that towered from raft to 50 feet up, we would wait for the canal to lift us up and we would float on, slowly. We waited. We waited so very, very long. After a while, Brett’s flesh-painted skull wasn’t there anymore and in its place was a wobbling, rocking foil balloon. It was covered with a hundred band-aids. The balloon head man who was only half Brett now stood in silence. Gazing at me from behind all those band-aids and I grew very uneasy.
The light of the warehouse windows hurt my eyes now. What once was a slight glow began to burn into my retinas. It overtook the walls, it dripped across the floor and the stranded shorebound travelers. It filled my head and my breath and for the first time I realized I was breathing. It seemed like I hadn’t been before and had only just started to for real. The light was everywhere and made everything nothing, made everything exactly the same.
“James. Open your eyes. Wake up now. Come on.”
The light had form now, it was making things, making little shapes and lines out of itself. The lines flowed out and solidified into windows, walls, a floor, a nurse, a hospital bed and a thousand tubes and a person who was me. And I woke up.
© 2011 James L. Carey