Monday, March 5, 2012

Just Sound, Just Noise


While in ICU in February, I hallucinated pretty much nonstop, with a full soundtrack for the rich visual tapestry I wove, ostensibly to force a measure of sense into a nonsensical situation.  The problem actually began back in January, a few days after the first surgery in this series [of what I pray to be three!].

Initially, the issue was confined to my ears and my hearing;  There were no outside actors, no severe yellows or oranges, no vest-wearing flight attendants in lieu of breezy, unconcerned nurses.  Just sound, just noise.

The talented infectious disease folk determined then that Vancomycin was the culprit, given its reputation for ototoxicity.  Also, and I'd forgotten this, I'd had the same reaction before.

What is it like, auditory hallucination?  For me, the bizarre results stem from the meshing of tinnitus and distortion -- with the major push toward insanity coming from hyperacusis.  It translated into the sound of a Paul Revere copper-bottomed kettle in the early moments of its first, hesitant whistle.  It adopted the hushed wheeze of a pneumatic door, closing. [As a gimp in a wheelchair, I have intimate knowledge of AutomaticCautionDoors -- the name meant to be crowed without a breath, but with concupiscence, since I love AutomaticCautionDoors, and I wants me one.]

There was never any confusion about whether I heard things in the world [kettles and doors] or the utterances of people.  The weirdest detail of all this weirdness was that people never spoke with autonomy.  No, they echoed -- they echoed what I said or the verbiage spilling from the television.  When visible, they expressed themselves normally and I perceived them normally.

For example, nurse Juanda [a wonderful clinician, a delightful person] might stand at the foot of my bed, explaining the steps of giving a blood transfusion.  I see her as she is;  I hear what she says, and only what she says, except for the sonorous background of whish:whish and spiky-squeal:spiky-squeal.  The door to my room is closed, a state I try desperately to maintain, for it keeps out the subjects, and objects, too, of my auditory hyperacuity.

Juanda, unfortunately, is one of the worst when it comes to flying out the door and leaving it wide open, leaving my mouth in a Big-O of Oh-No, for now I am subject to the whims of noise in the hall and at the nursing station.

So, although now absent, Juanda's garbled talking to her colleagues mixes with whish:whish and spiky-squeal:spiky-squeal.  Alone in my room, sliding around in that ridiculous bed, I mutter, "Damn it, Juanda.  Why can't you manage to close my freaking door?"

And I promptly hear Juanda (sometimes also a chorus of cohorts) repeat, in singsong style, with laughter, "Damn it, Juanda.  Why can't you manage to close my freaking door?"

There was often another effect, one that is even more challenging to describe.  Maybe you will understand... a sound warp?  No?  How about the wah wah wah of Charlie Brown's teacher?  Better?  Okay, well, take that effect and imagine her wah wah wah as a small portion of my echo -- imagine "damn it, Juanda" in wah wah wah form, but really, really LOUD, and only on one side of your head.  It was confined to my right ear area... and I say "area" because, honest to God, it seemed to come mostly from my jaw.

[Why not be honest?  I sound like a total nut already!]

While it was reassuring to be told that I'd not descended into some snake pit of mental illness, I was scared by the warning that these changes might be permanent.  I became an instant introvert, sucking a bit on my lower lip, and humming.  The cure for Eerie Echos was to simply say nothing, a cure wholeheartedly supported by a weary Fred, who looked on the verge of collapse, and whose body visibly jerked whenever I barked, "Did you hear that?"

They switched antibiotics and the weirdness disappeared.

The experience in February? You, Dear Readers, will be the first to hear about it -- although I did offer a sanitized version to a couple of people.  As caretakers, doctors, and nurses have regaled me with stories of "how [I] almost died," I've been able to piece together the "real" events behind what I hallucinated, with the resultant conviction that reality does not matter.

Here's what happened [and you may debate "happened" within the familiar decor of your own brain]:

There were four angels trying to save my life.  Heavy blocks of concrete, each block bound with orange plastic ties, were attached to my arms and legs.  I was caught in a mesh of girders, spikes, construction-themed stuff, and by caught, I mean, impaled, conjoined, pierced, smushed.

There was, however, no pain.

After a day or so of struggle, the five of us concluded there was no good outcome available, that I would have to die.  It was imperative, however, that my body be set free of the blocks, the shards, the spikes, the nails and bolts and beams.

The four angels said I must be flailed, alive.  The four angels said that I must then be deboned, alive.  [Yes, I am aware of the easy resonances of these torturous words with the state of my health, with my orthopedic prospects, even -- I am warned about the possible outcome of a flail arm, for instance.]

They handled the flailing.
But I was in charge of my own deboning, my own disarticulation.

There was music, lovely music, and interludes during which we all slept.  They kept me comfortable, floating in the air, in fact, by the soft, soaring music that originated in those angel minds.

"Why do you insist on speaking?  Talk to us as we talk to you."

Every now and then, filtered through my hallucination, came the words of the doctors and nurses trying to help me:  "What are you doing?  What are you trying to do?"  Mostly I heard them during the many frazzled, failed attempts to remove the heavy weights from my arms and legs, to understand how they were strapped to me, so that, through some blueprint or other, I could unstrap them.  And throw them.  I remember wanting to throw them.

There was some incidental, ridiculous drama, involving a radioactive blast.  You know, the usual.

The thing was... I wouldn't die.  The four angels were distraught.  I must also have been pretty depleted, psychically, because the story devolved in stark fashion at this point.  That's right, there were firearms and my head was the designated target.

Wusses, the angels.  They said their goodbyes (promising me sight of the Face of God as a reward for the chutzpah displayed in all that flailing and dissection), passed the gun back and forth, talked a good bit about some soap opera, and then concluded that they couldn't do it.

Yes, the hallucination must have been breaking down at that point, because, in addition to hearing the woes of soap opera characters, I had this reported conversation with one of the "intensivists":

Intensivist:  Why are you waving your hand?
Me:  I'm trying to help.
Intensivist:  Help who?  Do what?
Me:  Help them.  Help them shoot me in the head.

My logic was impeccable.  The angels were seated, of course, out in the hall, in shabby collapsible chairs, looking for all the world like almost drunk fishermen in the muddy low water of a local lake.  Maybe the sun was in their eyes.  Maybe they were tired -- some of them had had to leave during the night to tend to other near calamities -- and their vision, as a result, was not so sharp.  So I put my hand behind my head and wiggled my fingers with joy and abandon, hoping that would relieve the angst of having to aim.  Just blow away the jittery appendage dancing behind my curly hair, and all would be well.

The next thing I knew, my eyes opened, and an intensive care cubicle emerged, neat as a pin, full of beeps and alarms, cream colors, and green, with a window looking out on a brick wall.

I said, out loud:  "I got to meet the angels, die, and live, too?  Wow."

I remained crazy for a few more hours, but it was a fun crazy.  One of the cooler angels had promised, should the Face of God thing not work out, some quiet and a pickleback.  That's right, a shot of Jameson's chased by a fine pickle juice, all wrapped up in a plush silence.



The various theories?  I had a raging infection -- a large pocket of infectious goo had gone undetected during January's surgery -- a high fever, dehydration, out of control CRPS, jerkjerkspasmspasm, all served up by two falls on the cold, hard bathroom floor.

My favorite part of the fairy tale?  Because the hospitalist could not be bothered with the list of meds in records dating from all of two weeks prior, because she didn't decipher the careful etching on my MedAlert necklace (particularly the notation of adrenal insufficiency), because no one consulted the medication list in my wallet (nor the CD-ROM of my medical history, one of the benefits of frequenting MDVIP), I went without stress dose corticosteroids, methadone, Cymbalta, and other pharmaceuticals whose abrupt withdrawal cause... hallucination.  Among other things.

I've spared you, and myself, Dear Reader, with this abridged account of the goings-on.  There was nary a mention of how I emerged from those flailing and deboning sessions convinced that I had but one eye, and no nose.  That my surgeon had shortened my feet.

When they transferred me to a regular room, I was convinced that we were rolling through scenes from a Cirque du Soleil performance.  Oil paintings of hospital founders and benefactors winked and nodded as we passed.  Workers clad in pink and blue scrubs did quick little dance steps, dipping their chins and eyes in the demure pleasure of movement.

And when the glass of water and leftover iced tea from a missed lunch turned out to be only water and tea, not Jameson's, and not pickle juice, I was able to smile.

It comes off as sounding like profundity, implying great meaning, these stupid little stories.  People worry to hear the strange details, not understanding that clues from the environment played as much a starring role as the weirdness of my psyche.  The way I choose to see it, my brain's job is to make sense of things.  Increasingly, the means by which to do this are in short supply.

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