It happened right in the middle of sex, the most terrifying event of my life. It started like an ache at the back of my mouth that stopped me in what I was doing. I’d never felt a pain like it in my life. And then my tongue contracted and in only a few seconds I couldn’t talk.
I sat up fast. The pain moving down my neck. I struggled into my clothes.
“Something’s wrong,” I gasped, managing somehow to get words past my cramped up tongue.
My fiance looked at me, not unjustly confused, “What is it?” An honest note of concern in his voice. He looked me over, “What is it?” He repeated.
“It. Hurts. I don’t. Know.” But this time when I spoke it came out garbled and unintelligible. It had barely been two minutes and already I couldn’t open my jaw. Then my neck contracted in what was close to the worst pain I’d ever felt. My head seemingly pulled back like an arrow on a bow, only no release, just mounting pain.
My joints all suddenly felt strung together by tight twine with no give. My muscles had turned to rocks.
I remember slowly arranging myself with my neck resting on the edge of our mattress. Attempting in a feeble way to prop my neck up to relieve the pain.
Then it rushed through my body, my hands curled up burning paper and my legs, bent at the knees, wouldn’t be unbent.
Time seemed to come apart, dissolving like salt in the intensity of my own fear. Was I having a stroke? I qualmed at the thought, surely I was too young to have a stroke. But I thought for sure I was going to die. Right on the wooden floor of my first apartment, curled inside of myself, a rigid skeleton. I hadn’t said goodbye to anyone. On my obituary, all it would say was: her death was certainly unexpected.
I think I waited like that for about an hour. And for that hour I was in the worst pain I’d ever experienced. Sweat gathering on my brow, fear like gauze wrapped around my ribcage. Breath coming too fast, and heart beating too quickly. Every part of my body, all my bones, and muscles and tendons, and vertebrae and hips, my feet and even the tongue my mouth and the brain in my skull, ached so terribly it made my eyes hot and I cried. I was going to die. Holy shit, I thought, this is it. And had I died right there, with my fiance crying in the other room afraid to show how scared he was too. With his mom speeding down the main road too fast trying to reach us. With my body exploding in protest to my immobility, I would’ve been thankful. That’s’ how horrible the pain was.
It’s crazy to think this traumatic event was all to blame on a doctor. One doctor in the emergency room who did a half-assed job and later wouldn’t take responsibility for it. The hardest lesson I ever learned was if the doctor had to give you Haloperidol, you’d better make damn sure they’re giving you a side of Cogentin to go with it.
When his mom showed up with his brother in tow I was whisked up from the floor and put in the front seat of her old green truck.
It was the fastest twelve miles I’d ever traveled. When we arrived at the emergency department she took me up in her own arms and carried me through the double sliding doors. Then she yelled something like, “We need some help here!”
I was so hot from all the pain I remember how nice the air felt on my face. I remember thinking I was happy that it would be one of the last things I ever got to feel. The cool autumn-in-Maine air, laced with distant wood-smoke and water.
They raced me to an examination room. Doctors poked and prodded me. Trying to figure out what was wrong. Then, then you’ll never guess what happened. In walks the same irresponsible doctor from the previous night. The guy who treated my psychotic episode with one huge shot of Haldol and had sent me home just hours later.
He said matter of factly, “She’s catatonic. Schizophrenic. Get her an antipsychotic and some Ativan. IV nurse.” Then he turned to me and said, a little too close,”If you keep coming back here we’re gonna have to hospitalize you. Do you want to go back to the hospital?”
I shook my head no. I was beyond frightened. My tongue at this point protruding from my mouth. And my limbs pulled completely, and involuntarily, inward. I was not unlike Gregor from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, transformed into some huge bug. All my limbs turned in and dead-like, just the same as a bug with its insect appendages pulled across its chest.
Then the doctor left the room and my fiance and his brother finally met up with us. We waited for hours for me to come down from what was actually a dystonic reaction to Haldol. Something that patients experience when not given a Central Muscarinic Antagonist at the time of admission. My psychiatrist apologized later, even though it wasn’t her fault. I still have nightmares about that night and now fill out Haldol on my list of allergies. I’ve actually been too scared to go back to any ER for psychiatric emergencies. Which is a shame because if doctors treated people with chronic and mental illnesses like they treated everyone else, maybe they’d find us worth paying attention to.
Days spin into nights and into days again. Summer dragging on and on. A hot beast by August every year, a threatening season despite its spring relation. By the end of summer, the ground is cracked and dry like the heels of my mother and her mother’s mother’s dry pale skin. Even the birds are tired by the end of August and all the people are angry and hot. But then the days get cooler and the fist of fall hits me on the chest, breaking me open at my breastbone to reinstill my winter bone ache. The blow forcing my lungs to expel very last breath of summer air. The leaves fall from the trees until they are thin skeletons, standing like a relic of another year gone by. Then it’s winter and the tight-lipped holiday season passes by. The ice moves in and we in Maine are buried by seasonal Nor’Easters until we are up to our throats in snow. My skin grows cold and my pale sinew is stretched over the bones of early nights. Wintertime depression moves on me like a ghost.
And before I knew it another year in sickness passes me by.
I think back on it. All my exhaling between my doctor’s appointments. I offer up my white arms for blood tests and I’m poked, prodded and rearranged until I feel unlike myself. Grilled with the same monotonous questions again and again. How are the voices? The pain? The sadness? Do you still hurt all the time? Have your migraines changed? Are you still sleeping too much? Eating too much? How’s your lower back? Do those terrible cluster headaches still wake you in the early morning, covered with sweat? Is your pulse still tachycardic? And that wakes you too when it races at night? How are the hallucinations? Are they still trying to read your mind?
The answers grow in the back the of my throat and are forced up from my stomach, rattling around my mouth like bitter candy in a plastic bag, “I’m fine,” I say and make my next appointments.
Then six months of winter lapses.
Then summer comes again.
Then fall, winter, and spring.
Being chronically ill means being ill forever.
I lined up all my pills as I poured them from the bottle. I straightened them out like moon phases. Waxing and waning green caps of Gabapentin all the way across the brown dorm room desk. There were a lot. I finished the note, signing shakily at the bottom. I folded it up and pressed it into the corner of the desk. And then I gathered all my courage and put one pill in my mouth. I swallowed it. So every pill became easier than the previous. At first a few and then more and more. I found myself shoving them into the corners of my mouth and crying out and swallowing too may gulps of water until I had spilled it all over myself. I was sobbing by the end. I took almost my entire bottle of Gabapentin and then, I began to shake. I tried very had to stay quiet. Hands pressed to my hot face, trying to hold the crying back. Thinking over and over that I was undeserving of this spectacle, of this life. I wondered how well this would work if I couldn’t manage to stay still? How long would it be until my liver began to metabolize the toxic dose I’d taken? I focused on my breathing. In and out and in and out and in and out. A cell phone clutched in my right hand now, knuckles white. My left hand on my chest, below my heart. An inconsistent madness settling at the back of my throat.
I tried to wait for death but I was too scared, too impatient for the silence.
“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
“I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.”
I recall A Game of Chess. Next comes, The Fire Sermon. The Burial of the Dead. “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire,/stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”
My brain is twitching now, spasms at the bottom of my brain stem. My entire frame begins to tingle and it is then that I call for an ambulance. I don’t want this. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. I fucked up. I started having a hard time breathing. The next part happened in pieces. Police appeared. Flinging back the door. Only to see me now, my left hand still near my heart my other now wrapped around a crinkled suicide note. My eyes, I imagine, filled with tremendous pupils.
“I don’t-” was all I could manage before falling to the ground like a sack of laundry.
Then it was the paramedic’s turn to arrive.
At some point, I pissed my pants.
After that, I don’t remember much.
I do I remember all the kids in the dorm looking at me as they carried me away. I should’ve thought about this part, even in my incoherence there is a sense of embarrassment. That nervous hot air pressed close to my face. My chest hurt. And I remember the bright insides of the ambulance. Tubes and wires and needles and cuffs and lots of nitrite gloves all bathed in argent light. Red, blue, and white flashes on my pale skin.
Then the hospital.
And then a nurse, “This could do some damage,” she said.
She seemed huge and looming. Like a taciturn giant at the foot of my bed. Her hands wrinkled and she wrung them together as if trying to squeeze water from them. Was she too a hallucination? Was nothing real anymore? Even the nurses were fake and huge like cartoon characters. Between the drug overdose and Schizophrenia, I knew very well that I couldn’t be sure of anything.
Then she checked my IV and was gone.
I lapsed into a deep sleep. And every second sleeping there was a sense of regret. I had strange dreams. Dreams of Christmas lights. Of dog-eared thrift store books, of dust settling in sunlight. Of my childhood cat somehow there with me, in the hospital, I could hear her purring but I couldn’t see her. I dreamt about hot coffee on cold mornings. Of second-hand baggy sweaters and used tennis shoes. I dreamt of silent snowfall and of deafening summer thunderstorms. I dreamt of cold and warm air colliding in the upper atmosphere. Of autumn and carving out the slippery insides of jack o’lanterns. Of pulling weeds and growing things. I dreamt of two incandescent bodies, one mine, after sex. I dreamt of street lights, and skeleton bones, and copper cups. I dreamt of cold river water and sharp river stones on the soles of my feet.
All the while a sense of urgency grew inside my stomach, pressing at me from the inside.
Why didn’t they pump my stomach?
I could feel my mistake growing at the back of my brain like a warm blanket pulled over my body. Sleep. Stay. Stay. I can see my cat now, stretching her way up my legs and midsection. Purring onto my chest and then collapsing into a sleepy heap of nighttime fur. Her gray body and white chin pressed to my face. I hadn’t seen her since I buried her under the lilac bush. I dreamt of lilacs, of pine trees, of sunflowers and of pinwheels spinning in the sun.
And then I woke up to a terrible pain in my head. I had an IV in my arm and oxygen pumping into my nose. I was wearing a hospital gown and no longer the pants I had ruined.
Everything was quiet and clear.
And all I could think of was my old cat, sleeping bony and ancient under that lilac tree. Some day we’d be fossils together, but for now, I just pulled on the restraints at my wrists and sighed quietly. I think about how she died, curled up under the window in our bathroom, and how my mother grabbed me by my shoulder to turn me away. I’ve been an Atheist since then, knowing now that the only things we see at death are the memories we made while living.
I want to dedicate this post to my cat, Peanut, who taught me about dying and about living. I want to thank her for saving me from myself.