Saturday, March 9, 2013

What Fresh Hell?

I’ve pointed before that weekends here at the VA Hospital are really quiet.  The doctors still do their rounds, the nurses, medical techs, orderlies, and everyone else who makes this place hum are still busy doing their myriad chores to heal the likes of me, but the hallways are empty of the usual buzz and I see more of the colorful clothing of visitors over the starched white lab coats and scrubs. For whatever reason, I understand, that this is also inevitably the time that a more colorful patient may find his way here. Since it’s quiet out there, I hear it all: the dementia and disorientation, the edge of fear, the raspy voice of desperation. Yet the staff manages to keep smiling for me.

Despite having precious little sleep last night due to a constant barrage of infusions, transfusions, and vitals-checking, I feel better than I have in a week.  I ate solid food without feeling nauseous and I’m sitting away from the bed with the OK to take a walk outside my room. I’ll have to wear a mask, but I may even get to go – get this – without my IV pole! My buddy may have to hang back. Between that, a shower, brushing my teeth and clipping my nails, I feel downright human. Now, the guy next door…he clearly doesn’t feel human. It would be easy for me to be annoyed with the noise, to be put off by the disturbance while I’m just trying to rest or heal, and I dare say, every one of you, in my position, would feel totally justified in pushing the call button and saying, “What can we do to fix this, hmm?”

Now, this isn’t a problem of the veteran’s system. In fact, it tells me that there is a level of compassion that far exceeds what a commercial system could offer. His plaintive raspy, “Is there anybody out there? Please?” is grating, but the kind of hell he is going through far exceeds my discomfort. I don’t buy off into Dante’s version nor does the traditional evangelical model of hell make any sense at all, but without doubt, we’re capable of putting ourselves into hell on earth even when we’re not suffering. Let me say right now, this is not theological in nature, but I do use the word, ‘hell’ because it’s a place of torment, even if only in our minds.

I understand that these people sometimes make it to the acute medical ward when they should realistically go to a psych ward elsewhere because they clearly have issues that are not simply physiological. Then again, sometimes the wires in our heads are mis-routed by something physiological or chemical and we just don’t act like we should even though on the inside it feels like all cylinders are firing properly. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past 16 days, we are a well-oiled, finely tuned machine that requires an amazing balancing act to keep functioning at tip-top level.  We’re pretty resilient and can put up with abuse, but at some point without the right maintenance, something breaks. As I’ve pointed out, any cancer is simply a breakdown of the immune system at some point. Mental health has a number of facets, but it is still, at its core, something that can usually be well-managed with some medication and sometimes some guidance to keep the adjustment in balance.  Better life through chemistry! Shoot, even leukemia comes down to that where chemistry (albeit rather toxic chemistry) saves the day.

Suffice it to say, after spending a couple of nights in the la-la land of incoherence, metaphysics isn’t far behind – you can discuss it, break it down into bite-sized components for dissection, and even understand it to some extent, but at its essence, it’s all something that distills down to one person’s opinion and understanding, regardless of how many common touch points there are. The good thing about these forays to incoherence is that, despite how truly awkward they are, there are moments of insight and lucidity that you bring back with you because your mind just doesn’t live in those places, by design. It’s in ‘safe mode’ and you find that from that safe place of blankets, ice cream, and tucking in, other things that we think are so important just aren’t. Be assured, I’m not going to start a religion based on my metaphysical musings, despite how really special I’m sure they would be.

OK, I’m not going to spring anything profound on you and remember, I’m talking about my own version of post cards from the edge. My thesis, if you will, is that the hell we think we are living is likely nothing like the hell that others are unable to extricate themselves. They can both be as real, terrifying, and gripping, but as I’ve seen, the greatest ticket to my own Purgatory of sorts, is partially bought by attitude, a bit of compassion from someone else, and most of all, the willingness to forego the conclusion that “it is what it is.” The fatalistic, noncommittal shrugging of one’s shoulders will keep you in a land of confusion, mediocrity, or your own private hell.

Don’t fight a losing battle, but neither give up because you haven’t found a solution yet, even if your mental faculties are running on safe mode at 2:00 am and the guy next door is still asking, “Is anyone out there? Please?” There are a lot of things I’m dealing with that are downright hellish, but I’m not participating in some hell of my own construct. And I hope you aren’t either. Don’t wait to extricate yourself from a truly disagreeable situation. Find the solution…or better yet, be the solution for the person who is asking if anyone’s out there.

I hope my two cents for the day didn’t come across as preachy. It’s not my style, really, but after three weeks of different voices from patients with dementia, you wonder, hence my derailed train of thought.

Have a wonderful evening – be well, stay strong, much love to you all!