Yesterday my friend Mike visited and encouraged me to venture out of the hospital with him. My patio privileges extend only as far as the patio. But we walked into Westwood and got sushi. It felt so strange, after only 10 days, to be on the outside. Like I'd entered some lively alternate universe of co-eds and the homeless.
Otto Dix, "Downtown Westwood." Oil on canvas, 1927-28.
I'd been confined to my tiny room for so long that I'd apparently lost my ability to judge velocity, and I got struck by cars several times crossing the street. Fortunately, I am living in a hospital.
The sensation of freedom was disorienting. But still wonderful. The righteousness of breaking an unjust law swelled my heart with humanity. In barely over a week, the institution had crushed and enslaved my soul. And I had been complicit in my own bondage. But as Thomas Jefferson said, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God." "The Secret" is my god now (see "Even if You're Not a Christian" below), but tyranny is still my tyranny.
On liberty and the breaking of unjust laws, Jefferson wrote, "Fuck yeah!"
The excursion into Westwood felt like the fishing trip in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." But with less vomiting.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975). McMurphy and gang rejoice in their deliverance from the psychiatric hospital aboard a fishing boat. Yes, yes, they're not actually on a boat. Remember, they're crazy.
Mike played McMurphy to my cavalcade of character actors. An irrepressible rebel chipping away at my psychic constraints. And my literal constraints, the telly box.
I returned several hours later, and as I approached my room with a Starbucks iced white chocolate latte in my hand and a smile on my face, I met my Nurse Ratched.
Louise Fletcher as the oft-misunderstood Nurse Ratched.
While not an androgynous Southeast Asian, this nurse was Asian, and he was gay as the day is gay. He rolled his eyes, put his hand on his chest, and said, "You almost gave me a heart attack." Frankly, I'm not sure that's the most appropriate phrase for the cardiac floor. He probably should've said, "You almost gave me a myocardial infarction." Either way, he was none too happy with me.
He proceeded to lecture me about my absence, saying that I'm really only allowed to go to the patio for 15 minutes at a time. He asked where I'd gone, and I lied, claiming I'd simply been walking around the campus. Then he said, "You did two wrong things: you went away for too long; and you didn't bring me a coffee." I said he could only have one--either scolding me or getting a coffee.
Apparently they had been looking for me so they could set up a magnesium drip. The nurse warned me that the magnesium might burn, and I should call him if it did. "Or," he offered, "you could just bight a pillow." Then--completely innocently, I swear--I said, "Don't you have some leather I can bite?"
He smiled, "Ooh, you're a kinky one."
So now I was the incorrigible cad who flirts with male nurses. Great. And my quest for autonomy had been harshly suppressed. The whole thing was so devastating that, like Billy Bibbit in "Cuckoo's Nest," I promptly slit my throat.
But the revolution rages on, apparently. Today my friend John stopped by with his toddler, and we went to the patio (with the consent of the nurses' station). We sat at a picnic table and had a movie star sighting about which I may soon post. Within half an hour, though, I was accosted by the day nurse and her trainee in tow. She said I had to check back in at the nurses' station every half hour, or at least call her. I assented, and a short while later I did indeed call her and check in. So ridiculous, but I wanted her off my back.
John and I asked the person at the information desk if there was a children's playroom, and they directed us to the 5th floor. We innocently wandered into an enchanting little playroom with a floor-to-ceiling mural of Earth covering the walls and with toys and games and teeny little tables and chairs everywhere. John's daughter lit up, but a nurse in the room told us that everyone had to be out on the patio, so we walked out on the patio, which was replete with food and snacks and tables and chairs. And which was full of very sick kids and their parents.
I instantly felt ashamed to be there--as though I were stealing from the poor, crashing the sacred ceremony of a religion well beyond my grasp, spying on strangers' intrinsic truths I couldn't possibly behold. As though I had no right to complain about any of my maladies and medical misfortunes. As though mine were not maladies or misfortunes at all.
In my lifetime of dealing with serious health issues, I've witnessed a mindset in the healthy, a reflexive oppositional relief, that I call "the facile and unsophisticated gratitude of the non-handicapped." That term is pretty facile and unsophisticated itself, but it's an undeniable, instantly recognizable phenomenon that typically only presents as the subtlest of facial expressions when able-bodied people suffer upon the ill. "There but for the grace of God go I," and other such reassuring platitudes reverberate inside them. It's a weird mixture of genuine sympathy, utter horror, and the pitch unknowable.
This is exactly what I felt as I stepped out onto the balcony full of children who were far sicker than I'd ever been; children who wore their sicknesses externally, like calamitous Halloween costumes; children whose futures were not nearly as bright as mine. Children whose futures were doubtful, and no doubt full of pain.
I don't know how John felt. I didn't have time to find out, as a woman immediately approached us and asked if we were patients. I showed her my admission bracelet, though I somehow knew it was insufficent to grant safe passage through this dark kingdom. She said the event was only for pediatrics patients. Of course. She informed us that the playroom, too, was only for pediatrics patients. Of course. Wish the info desk lady had shared that little nugget. I unavoidably glanced at the pediatrics patients, their fiercely twisted baby bodies obliviously ambling along, smiles abounding.
So John and I spun right 'round on our heels and pushed the stroller off the patio and through the playroom. His poor daughter threw a fit at having been teased with all those wonderful toys, ignorant of the depth and acuteness of suffering so proximal to her. We returned to my floor, and as we approached my wing, the dynamic duo of nurse and trainee spotted me with jaundiced eyes.
Two nurses confront me. Under normal circumstances, outside the hospital setting, this is a welcome sight. Note their obsessive professionalism in always listening to each other's hearts. Note, too, that this has meanings beyond the merely medical.
The nurse said, "There he is." "You knew where I was. I called you." "Oh, that's right, you called me. Well, I don't smell any alcohol on your breath," she said. "Mouthwash," I said. "The problem with what you did yesterday," she went on, "is that no one knew where you were for a long time. Let me tell you what happened once when that happened. The hospital discharged the patient, and then they had to readmit him again. We don't want to do that to you, but we can't be responsible when we don't know where you are. We don't know what you're shooting in your IV."
That's right, she accused me of slamming junk into my IV.
Because after a shrimp tempura roll and an iced white chocolate latte, I always like to gravy me some Harry Jones!
"Why would I go outside to shoot up," I asked, "when I can do it in my room?"
(Update May 5: my girlfriend's friend is a surgical resident, and she says when patients go AWOL, doctors call it "eloping." I'm not sure how to break the news to Mike, though.)