Is there any point to telling dreamers that they are dreaming?
I get the call around 2am and rush to put some clothes on, trying to bring myself to a sufficient wakefulness to drive through the unlit forest roads to the hospital. Car accident. Ambulance. We’re not sure. Hurry.
The redwoods are beautiful, any time of day. But I’m rarely out at this hour, and the animals seem different. The air feels different. I drive through the darkness with the window down, feeling my breath. It’s okay. Wait for me. I’m coming.
I emerge from the woods to the suburbs, streetlights. I try to remember where the hospital is, I know I’ve driven past it a million times. No reason to know before. I park and walk without hurrying, following the tragic lights to the ER. Inside, it’s a fluorescent inferno. The receptionist looks tense and blank, all at once. I sign in and take a seat under the giant tv screen mounted on the wall.
The screen is behind me, so I can’t see what’s on it. But my ER soundtrack is of an amazing pressure cooker. It can cook so many things. This thing, and that thing. You never knew. It can cook for a family of twelve. Who has a family of twelve? Who buys pressure cookers off the tv in the small hours? I’m listening, but looking around me now. There are two women, one older than the other. They are huddled together, one dressed as a lioness and the other as a leopard. The young leopard’s leg is hurt. Nearer is a young woman in very high stiletto heels. She has a lot of makeup on and is wearing a cherry red satin maid’s uniform. The skirt barely covers her. She is groaning and doubled over in terrible pain, calling out for help. No one pays any attention to her. Finally a nurse comes out and tells her she needs to wait and they can’t take her any sooner. She starts to cry.
It’s Sunday morning. I wonder what on earth these suburbanites get up to in these outfits. Then it dawns on me that this is Halloween weekend, which makes things a little less surreal.
Finally I am called in. I pause before entering his curtained alcove. It’s okay. I let the image form and fill my eyes. Blood. His broken body. His stunned, vacant gaze. His unbearable pain. I feel my breath. I’ve only ever seen him be strong. This proud and virile Aries boy, 30, in the prime of his life. He builds houses, mends fences, insists on stacking my firewood so I won’t hurt myself. He’s stripped to his boxers now, covered in blood, his whole body shaking uncontrollably from shock. He looks like an injured bird, panting. He looks like a little boy.
The doctor tells me his back is broken. That he’s in a lot of pain. That they won’t know until they do more tests. The doctor leaves for a while and I come closer. I touch him so carefully, I don’t want to add to his pain. I place one hand gently on the side of his head and another on his shoulder, no pressure, just warmth. I tell him he is not alone. And that I love him.
It’s morning now and the sun is up. He’s been moved from the ER to a room on the orthopedic surgery floor. They’ve cleaned him up a bit, and he seems a little more lucid, though he can barely speak through the pain. I meet with the neurologist and it’s possible that he might not need surgery. It’s too early to tell. The important thing is that he stays still and remains at a 45 degree angle.
I go home, feed my cat, take a hot bath, catch a few hours of sleep. Before heading back to the hospital, I take a minute to look up an acronym the nurses wrote on his whiteboard. I’m surprised. It means he is on watch for alcohol withdrawal. They must have made a mistake. I’ve never seen him drunk, never seen him even tipsy, and I’ve known him for years.
When I return to the hospital, things are better, and worse. The doctors think he won’t need surgery, and he’s not paralyzed. He’s broken four of his lumbar spine, and he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, so his his head went into the steering wheel and his nose is broken. Other than this, it’s all just minor cuts from the broken glass.
It’s imperative that he remains still. He is lucid and he understands this. When he looks at me and talks to me, it’s him, I can see him there. Twenty minutes later, he’s not there. His gaze is empty, yet focused. He keeps trying to get out of bed, and he’s become agitated and irrational. The nurses threaten to restrain him and he calms down a bit. He gets really quiet and docile and agrees to stay in bed. A few minutes later, he is getting up again.
If he keeps moving, he’s going to paralyze himself. The doctors show me the scans of his broken spine, and it’s clear that any movement could damage his spinal cord. I beg him to stop, I tell him all that is at stake. I try to reach him. I don’t understand why he’s acting this way. Why he keeps blanking out. I ask the nurse what they are giving him in his IV. One of the drugs is Atavan, and I don’t understand why they would be giving him this. I tell the nurses that maybe this is what is making him so disoriented and confused. I am told it is standard protocol when a patient is on withdrawal watch.
I can’t believe they think he is going through alcohol withdrawal. I’ve brought my computer and I start doing research. I learn what alcohol actually does to your brain, not just when you are drinking, but longer term if you drink too much or too often. I learn about delerium tremens. I still can’t believe it’s this.
It gets worse, and then it gets better. He’s there for 15 minutes, and then he goes blank and something else takes over. His blood pressure climbs. They move him to the ICU and watch him around the clock. I sit with him during meals and try to get him to eat something. He’s barely eating, but he likes the company. We talk and everything is normal. I go home to get some rest and he calls me, raving, out of his mind, paranoid. I call the nurses and they’ve had to restrain him. He ripped out his catheter and tried to leave.
This escalates for the next seven days. Sometimes he’s okay, and they don’t have to restrain him. But then it gets bad and all the male nurses on duty have to take him down. They are trying to keep him from paralyzing himself, and also keep him from dying from delerium tremens, which can cause the cardiovascular system to collapse. He’s hallucinating and in terrible pain. When I go home, I leave him a note telling him it’s okay and that I’ll be back in the morning, or later in the evening. I tell him everything is okay, and please listen to the nurses, they are only trying to help. I make videos of myself saying this, so the nurses can play it for him when he gets out of control.
It’s night now, his 7th night in ICU. I’ve come to keep him company while he eats dinner. I wonder how much of him will be present, and for how long. Before going into his room, I stop at the nurses’ station and ask how he’s been that afternoon. It’s been a very hard day for him, they report. I find the nurse that is assigned to him this shift and pull her aside. “Has anyone told him he is experiencing delerium tremens?” I ask. She says, no, so I continue, “Has anyone told him he is hallucinating?” Again, no. Seven days. I assumed his doctors or nurses would have explained this to him, as they explained his other injuries. I ask her if it is okay for me to explain it to him. I assume they had a reason for not telling him, but find out there is none. She says it’s fine for me to explain it to him, but warns me that he probably won’t be able to really understand that he’s hallucinating.
No one has told him he’s hallucinating. He thinks he has a broken back, and that all this is happening to him because of that.
I walk into his room. He’s not restrained, so he must be doing better, at the moment at least. He looks pale and wrung out. I bring him a warm wash cloth to rub the day off his face. I ask him how he is feeling and he tells me that it has been so terrible. That the hospital is run by a cult, staffed by doctors and nurses who are really a coven of witches. He tells me they tie him down in a wheelchair and take him on a special elevator that leads to a secret wing of the hospital where they do experiments on him. He looks so small now. He looks like I imagine he would as a child of 8, having terrible nightmares and not wanting to go back to sleep.
He describes the exact angles of light and the quality of the light in the secret corridors, and the masks that the nurses wear as they strap him down to a table and perform experiments on him. Tears are coming now. He tells me how frightened he is and all alone. That he’s tried to call me, but I never answer the phone, and then they take his phone away. He says he tries to scream, but no one can hear him and no one comes. He’s sobbing now. I listen, and let him get it all out. I wait until he has said everything and is quiet.
I pull my chair very close, put one hand on his heart and cup his face gently in the other. I lean in and tell him I have something important to say. I hold him with my eyes, I lock on to him, his essence, his light. I anchor a temporary safe space around us.
Beautiful Sleepwalkers Series
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