When I woke up on Tuesday, there were three cooked veggie patties sitting next to the stove, waiting to be eaten. I had no idea how they got there. There was also a bowl of stale and broken Corn Chex, topped with potato chips. Remnants of a sandwich were also left on the cutting board.
Something strange is afoot at the Circle K, I thought. But that's when I discovered the four inch burn on my arm and an empty bottle of wine.
Next month, it'll be four years since I died. I flat lined twice during emergency surgery and was resuscitated. I coded again the next day in ICU and it took nearly twenty-four hours to stabilize my heart rate and blood pressure. The two things I remember from that night in 2010 are hearing a nurse shout "Forty over twenty!" and me throwing up blood into an oxygen mask before blacking out entirely.
This past Sunday, though, I drank three bottles of wine, took five Xanax, and smoked a couple bowls of pot. On Monday, it was a bottle of wine, four Xanax, and pot. What set this off? I forgot to take my medication on Saturday because I was too busy thinking about the impending anniversary of my trauma and how stuck I am in life. However, missing even one day of medication when you have PTSD, severe clinical depression, and a major panic disorder can turn into a tailspin in record-breaking time.
I don't remember any of what I did Sunday or Monday. I also don't remember the fight I apparently had with my husband over my drinking, or the part where he stormed out of the house because he couldn't deal with me drunk. I didn't remember that I made an entire pizza and a grilled cheese sandwich, but still walked drunk to the liquor store and diner to order more food and wine. I mean, I remember walking down the street, but I don't remember getting home, who I talked to, or what I did when I got home. I don't remember talking to anyone at all. I remember a bland weekend, nothing special.
Monday night, my husband told me a completely different version of what happened and that he couldn't watch me continue to self-destruct. I want to say it was disorienting to have my partner recount a completely different version of the events I was apparently present for but not entirely conscious of. I remember getting food, but I don't remember leaving not ten minutes after he told me not to leave the house because I was too drunk. I don't remember anything we argued about or that I apparently cooked very elaborate food through it all. So I want to say it was merely puzzling having two different versions of Sunday, but actually, it was fucking terrifying.
"That's not who I am! YOU KNOW THAT! I would never do that!" I was shaking and staring at my husband, confused and horrified that he would say such awful things about me and what I said to him. How could I have shoved him? This was my best friend. I flipped my middle finger at Death, just so I could come back and be with him, and now something as stupid as my drinking was threatening to separate us.
He just looked at me sadly, tears beginning to roll. "But you did, honey. You did."
Most people do not believe I have an addictive personality. It isn't the alcohol I drink, or the cigarettes I used to smoke, or the mixtures of drugs I got when I was in the ICU, like Dilaudid. It's a sheer, crushing loneliness, a hole in my brain that feels like a piece of my life is just…missing. I would do anything to get away from this black hole that lives inside me and sucks the joy out of my life.
Luckily for me, Dilaudid was a hell of a drug. I loved it – it helped me sleep, allowed me to watch most movies and television without having terrible flashbacks. It made me feel like life wasn't so bad. It didn't matter that I didn't have enough strength to walk up stairs or cook for myself. It let me hide by sleeping, watching mindless TV, and counting the hours until I could take more pills.
I cried when they wouldn't prescribe it to me anymore. I was still in intense pain and I couldn't imagine living without it. They switched me to Norco, then Norco and Fentanyl patches. Then came the sympathetic nerve blocks – I began to look forward to being put under anesthetic, because then I wouldn't have to be conscious of the all encompassing pain, panic, depression, and raw visceral fear that never seemed to leave my waking hours.
About a month before my wedding in 2011, my mother caught me stealing Norco pills out of her cabinet. That was the first time I tried to quit all substances, because I was embarrassed that I was caught. I even managed to get through the reception with only one Norco and half a glass of champagne.
After a month of strictly controlled pill taking (I was no longer allowed free access to any of my medications after the pill stealing incident; they were kept in a lock box), I became so depressed that I deliberately hid, then overdosed on my sleeping pills in an attempt to outrun my pain. It didn't work. When I finally woke up, I was still consumed with an overbearing depression and extreme guilt about surviving my illness. It was a constant nightmare from which I could not wake.
My new pain management doctor in late 2011 would prescribe me Norco, Oxycodone, Suboxone, Fentanyl, Lyrica, and Klonopin, each prescription for hundreds of pills at a time. I took every single one according to his schedule and I never questioned him, even though I should have. My family insisted I wasn't myself, but I thought they were overreacting. I was happy being numb and thought I was recovering normally, just in pain. I was high all the time and could barely form a sentence.* I finally ended up back in the hospital where the nurses and doctors started cutting my doses and weaning me off so many opiates. Mostly, I remember crying and begging my nurses for anything to make me sleep, but gradually, I started to appreciate thinking more clearly, without all the drugs in my system.
My husband was thrilled when I got out of the hospital and declared I would be getting rid of the bulk of my medications. But reality crept back in, little by little, as the constant highs began slipping away. Living clearly wasn't something I was ready to face. I was too afraid to deal with the fallout of my trauma, racing back to Norco and Klonopin time and time again. I needed to get away from this feeling that I was missing part of my life and couldn't get it back; that I would never fully remember the night I almost died.
I have deliberately blacked myself out just so I don't have to think about that fear. Over the past four years, I've complained about chronic pain to some degree or another, but have never acknowledged how deeply the emotional pain runs. I thoroughly enjoy helping and talking to people, but still push everyone away. I still can't think about my trauma without shutting down completely. My husband has gone through every minute of this with me, went to every doctor appointment, written out pill schedules, hid the keys to the lock box of medications in different places every day, and held me every time I started screaming in my sleep. He did anything he could to keep me from medicating my black hole away. Then came my prescription for Tinzanidine, in August, 2012.
Tinzanidine is a muscle relaxant, a powerful one. Of course, I took it at the same time as the Norco, Klonopin, and Trazadone. It was okay for a few weeks, until my husband showed me a recording of me slurring my speech and falling asleep in the middle of a sentence. I was embarrassed — but not enough to stop. Then came the hallucinations. I was convinced there were people in my apartment, trashing the kitchen, throwing parties without inviting me, and filming me with cameras. I saw them sitting in the courtyard, laughing at me while I shouted at them to go away. I could see their camera phones in the bushes, silently filming my every move. They broke the lock to my screen door. I called my father and brother to come get me because I was so frightened that these people were going to hurt me.
When my family arrived, the people had gone. They didn't believe there was anyone ever there. I showed them how the kitchen was spray painted and trashed, but they didn't see what I saw. I told them that I watched them do it; they were in the house! WHY WOULD I LIE? They sat with me until my husband came home, but I never slept that night. I knew they were watching.
The next night, I ran outside into busy traffic chasing one of the people I believed was filming me and my husband came after me, managing to grab me out of the street and haul me back into the apartment. He convinced me to stop screaming and stay inside while he promised to go find the people that were after me. It was a long time before I knew that what he really did was go out behind our apartment building to cry.
I don't even remember when I started drinking again regularly. I had gone three years without drinking, but sometime around the 2013 holidays, I started up again to deal with the stress of my job, my loss of weekly therapy, applying to grad school, and the continued fertility problems we were experiencing. The first time a break happened, it was around the end of January. I blacked out and swore at my husband, then broke the special champagne flute I had made him for our wedding. When I sobered up the next morning I was mortified, and swore to not drink anymore, to not keep alcohol in the house at all.
That lasted one week.
I started to hide the bottles. My favorite place was an oversized purse that can hold two full bottles of wine. I kept corkscrews in my jewelry drawer. I mostly drank when my husband wasn't there and I was alone in the house. I rationalized that it was okay to get drunk as long as I didn't do anything dangerous. I stayed home, ordered food in, watched movies and surfed the Internet.
But increasingly, I'd drink when I got home every night. I'd drink whenever I was stressed. I'd drink an entire bottle in every single sitting because I simply did not understand how to have one glass. You know, I still fantasize about Norco and being put under anesthetic. I long for the days when those substances would take me away from the pull of that black hole of non-memory, promising a blissful, all-too-short respite from dealing with my panic disorder, severe clinical depression, and PTSD.
I've never admitted to anyone that I have a problem. Most days I don't think I do; after all, I don't take Norco or any other kind of painkiller or muscle relaxant anymore, even though I want to. Everything else, though? I'm careful to not let it show in public. I never drink during the day, especially if I'm working, but it's on my mind all the time. I only smoke pot at home, in the bathroom, with the door closed. I take 50 milligrams of Trazadone and two Zzquil every night just to fall asleep without having a panic attack. I live in fear of people finding out how broken I am. I've learned to become an excellent liar.
Last night, I took my comfort in fast food. As I slowly slurped the chemical comfort of fake mashed potatoes, I had a sudden moment of blissful nostalgia. That's when I realized what that taste reminded me of: the hospital, when I was learning how to eat again. With a crushing blow to my heart, it hit me: I missed being there. I felt safe in the hospital. I was able to relive my childhood, but this time, I felt totally loved and not a burden. I was not alone to deal with myself.
Oh yes, I miss the hospital. Sometimes I rage at the fact that I have physically recovered enough to lose that visible marker that I need to be cared for and loved. I miss that period of my life where I trusted everyone to protect me.
Where do I go from here? I don't know, honestly. I know I don't want to live in this constant overload of panic and adrenaline 24 hours a day. But I don't know how to live sober. I'm terrified of not having anything to take me away from the anger, sadness, horror, and frustration of living with my physical and mental illnesses every day. I don't know what to do to stop replaying the flashbacks of nearly dying or to stop panicking about losing consciousness every time I go to sleep.
I don't want to miss the hospital. It's crazy and sad and pathetic and masochistic to want to be back in a place where I almost died. But I have never felt that cocoon of safety and trust as I did when I lay dying, not knowing that what I was feeling was death. I don't know how I am supposed to live my day-to-day life when I wasn't even supposed to live past that first night in the ER. The probability of me surviving this trauma was so fucking tiny that no one spoke in "ifs" regarding my death, only "whens." Knowing that frightens and paralyzes me most days.
It has now been four years since my death. Four years of living with the knowledge, in the dark recesses of my mind, that as scared as I am of it, I want to feel that close to death again, because it was the first time I ever felt so loved. But now I know there's going to be a fifth year from death, a tenth and twentieth year of survival and beyond. Not many people are given a chance to start completely over like that. I've been so scared that I'm going to screw up my second chance at life, but a therapist of mine once told me that the only way to conquer fear is to face it. This is the first time where I think I'm finally ready to face my real fear sober: that I have loved the comfort of death so much I have kept myself from learning how to live.
I don't know why I didn't die that night. But I think I'm ready to find out why I need to live.
* This particular doctor was repeatedly reported to both the California Medical Association and AMA for unethical treatment of patients, and the last I heard his license was revoked.
Photo Credit: Amanda Sidwell Smith, @Smithwellette