Most of us live the majority of our lives half in and half out of reality. Indeed, our versions of reality are so very different from those of others, as well as so very different depending upon the time period we live in, our age, the current version of ourselves, etc. Each of these realities is simultaneously delusion and truth—our truth. It exists because we believe it exists.
“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”Hamlet, William Shakespeare
2008: The Hospital
The morphine of the hospital made my imprisonment there more bearable. It fused the days together and gave to me vast, magical hallucinations where I could escape the excruciating pain of continuing to exist in a body that ached to die. One night, I was Kierra Knightly in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean, wearing a long gown with a full skirt, my hair curled and pulled up into an elegant chignon. I was attending a ball on the deck of an elaborate sailing ship.
Because I could not move from my actual hospital bed, my body was kept functioning through a series of tubes and catheters. A feeding tube up my nose. A PICC line feeding a catheter into my heart where medications and painkillers could be delivered as quickly and directly as possible; its insertion had been uncomfortable the first time, terribly painful the second. A urethral catheter and colostomy for waste. When this catheter had been inserted, I’d passed out from the pain of it. We forget that mucosal membranes line the entirety of the female reproductive system, as well as near the opening of the urethra. In addition to the discomfort that any catheter presents, this particular one was inserted through sloughing skin and open ulcerations. Then again, I’d also passed out from pain the first time I tried to use the bathroom on my own after being admitted to the hospital. The nurses found me out cold in a heap on the floor next the toilet, pants around my ankles. After that, the urethral catheter was a blessing.
I could fantasize myself far from most of the hospital. My hallucinations were strong under the morphine, and I could imagine away the tubes and the beeping noises, the constant stream of nurses and doctors, and the indignity of lying naked, wrapped in what looked like bubble wrap for nearly two weeks on a flat, uncomfortable bed in a hospital. But, I could never imagine away the colostomy bag. It leaked. So, in every hallucination my drugged brain created, I had to use the bathroom.
There I was, on the deck of a gloriously decorated ship in a harbor at night with lights twinkling on from the distant shoreline, and I had to take a shit. I remember the dizzy feeling of dancing while drinking rum punch (of course it was rum) and suddenly turning to another woman to ask for directions to the ladies’. Magically, there was a rather modern restroom here, complete with stalls and a line of sinks not unlike those you’d see in nearly any event space in the U.S. I gathered my giant skirts about me and took care of business. There was no toilet paper.
I believe this was my subconscious’s way of complaining about the leak in my colostomy tube. My dedicated nurse for the week that I had the colostomy found me a few days before I was released from the hospital to give me a small stuffed panda bear. She shared that during the week she was with me, I never stopped talking about all the things I saw and complaining about how much I hated that colostomy tube. I and my leaking poop were apparently the bane of her existence that entire week, but she somehow thought of me fondly. I had called her “panda” all week long, and so she’d brought me the bear. It was sweet. I wish now that I could remember her name and thank her for literally dealing with all my shit for an entire week.
Washing my hands in the sink at the Pirates ball, I happened to glance up at myself in the mirror. No matter the glitz and glamour, my face was as it probably looked in reality. The face staring back at me was gaunt, the eyes red, lips black with scabs. I screamed, and for a split second—or, more likely, several hours—the hallucination was gone. To soothe me, my morphine-addled brain took me back into the beautiful gold-green gown and deposited me in a lush room with a king-sized bed set in a tall, four-poster mahogany frame with a canopy. I remember lying down on that plush mattress and feeling so relaxed and safe—exactly what I needed.
My brain loved that bed the most over the next few weeks, though it would also conjure a few less ornate models. One that made me laugh was a full-sized racecar bed, not unlike those made for small children. In my hallucinations, I traveled to many distant places, including leaving Earth on a massive spaceship, and met with all sorts of people and other intelligent beings. In said spaceship, for example, we were preparing for battle with another ship captained and manned by Disney villains. My mother’s favorite hallucination of mine, one that she recorded as I was explaining it to her mid-delusion, was that of having tea with Darth Vader. The tea was all pleasantries, I told her, until he plunged his fist into my chest. Likely the first sign of what we would later discover to be a blood clot in my right lung.
Even the debridements eventually got their own hallucination. One of the final times I was wheeled down to the OR for a treatment, my brain decided that instead we were going to a spa. I had been trapped in a large plastic bubble upside-down because it was a spa on an alien planet, and I needed a higher level of oxygen than the planet provided. Why was I upside down? For this, I apparently blamed the inept nurse (poor “panda”). The entire ride, I remember complaining about being upside down, and why couldn’t I get a glass of water in my bubble?!
For the “spa” treatment, I was laid out on a conveyor belt in a gigantic colorful, shiny room that reminded me of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory or the salon in the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. My very own salon team set to work scrubbing my face and skin in my waking dream as in the operating room a trained team of medical professionals removed several layers of skin from large sections of my body. The scrubbing felt harsh, even rougher than an exfoliation treatment at a Korean day spa. Afterward, the conveyor belt revved up and carried me down a winding path toward the next station. This happened in stages until I finally reached the end where, as the nurses stapled pig skin grafts tightly around my limbs, the salon staff wrapped me up tightly for some fancy treatment. Bless the creators of Ativan and those who discovered the miraculous effects of morphine.
My parents would later describe me chattering on with invisible people nearly every day during my four-week stay. I distinctly remember talking with three older ladies on several occasions. I told my mother they’d come to visit me in the hospital every day, though I could not tell her who they were, just that I liked them and appreciated their visiting. No such visitations were recorded or witnessed by the hospital staff.
Which of these stories were my reality? My body lay motionless in a hospital bed for weeks, jabbed with needles and debrided of skin and literally stapled. My mind carried on wild fantasies that made me laugh and gave me joy and excitement. Cannot they both be true? Cannot they both be my reality?
When our bodies and minds experience trauma, our brains will sometimes create an alternate story or a compartment where we can shut that experience away from the rest of our consciousness. It’s a protective measure and one that is very, very necessary at times. Some of the traumas that people have experienced throughout human history are such that I hope they were compartmentalized and never thought of again. Torture, familial abuse, violation… human beings have found the most hideous ways to break one another—whether intentional or otherwise. Life, itself, has its ways of breaking us down, too, as in my experience with medical trauma. No one person made my immune system dysfunctional. No human being signaled my cells to ulcerate and die, leaving my epidermis to rot and slough off. But, humans did essentially flay me to keep me alive. They did cut and scar me to keep my heart beating and my lungs breathing, and I am grateful. I am also traumatized by the experience, and my brain kept that trauma tightly boxed away from me for many years so that I could survive. I am grateful.
As Dr. Van der Kolk points out in his so-named book, however, The Body Keeps the Score. The body remembers the trauma. The subconscious mind remembers the trauma. The conscious mind and body, in turn, suffer from those memories, even as they cannot retrieve them. The body seizes and shakes over seemingly nothing, imperceptible events triggering the body to produce extremely high levels of cortisol nonstop—because the next trauma could be just around the corner. The brain overworks and twists itself into spasms and contortions of anxiety, fearfully awaiting the next shock that must be nigh. The conscious mind cannot understand. It grasps at invisible straws and lashes out at any and everything near that may be the cause. “Is my partner making me anxious?” it asks. “Am I intuiting that something is wrong at work, and I’m about to be fired?”
Under this insensible stress, the mind begins, again, to break under the weight and confusion of it all. “Is something truly wrong right now, or am I going mad?” you wonder. Neither, and both.
Something is truly wrong. It’s just not something that is going wrong in this exact moment. It is something that went very wrong some time ago that is keeping the mind and body busy now. The deeper the trauma, the more often it occurred, and the less predictable it was, the greater effect it will continue to have on each and every moment of life—waking or sleeping—until that trauma is unearthed and faced.
One day, a nurse was checking my vitals and tidying a few things in my room, when she suddenly nodded over to my morphine button and asked, “When’s the last time you used that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “About three days?”
I was proud of that fact, and relieved. While the morphine felt good and having the button for it in my control felt comforting, I also felt good about the fact that I hadn’t needed it. I had decided that I’d rather be aware of my surroundings and present for the decisions being made about my body than to escape.
“We’ll get someone in to take it out, then,” she called into her clipboard as she left the room.
I was horrified. I hadn’t needed the morphine in three days, sure, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t need it at any moment. Did she not understand what I’d been through? Could she not see that I needed the button still? How could I get pain relief if that relief was in someone else’s control?
Despite my many protestations, they did remove the morphine button that day, and I never received morphine again. When my daily fevers came, they gave me Tylenol. When my chest pains started, due to what we’d later discover was a blood clot, they gave me Tylenol—and some dismissive eye rolls. I’d weaned myself off of freaking morphine, but some of them still thought I was asking for pain management out of a potential addition? I had a few eye rolls of my own, plus some choice words.
Reality has many truths, and even more versions and dimensions. It exists in the physical world, but also beyond it. It exists within our minds. It exists within our souls. Yet, there is one version that may be truest—that in which all versions and dimensions exist at once. In knowing all the dimensions of trauma and delusion that occurred as I suffered in the hospital, I am able to set that suffering free. Where once I knew of my hallucinations only, I could only pretend that’s all that happened. My mind could move forward, but never truly on. When I learned also of the physical pain my body endured, I could begin to match my current emotional suffering to the bodily suffering of my past, and I could let more of it go. Yet, when I fully connected the escape world of my hallucinations with my physical suffering to the emotional upheaval that constantly knocked my spirit adrift beginning in the moment I fell ill and was admitted to that hospital, I could finally see so clearly every facet of my painful reality. I could begin to do the work not only to move forward, but also to set myself free and finally move on.
When I talk about moments of Sudden Sight, this is what I mean. I mean that there are times in our lives when we can peel back all the layers of reality and come to view the multidimensional truth that is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual reality combined. We can see ourselves, our pasts, our potential, and the entirety of our world around us with perfect clarity. And in those rare, precious moments, we are truly free.