Account of suicide attempt in 1996, when still hadn’t realised that had a genuine illness (M.E.)
by V P
I wasn’t 100% sure, but sure enough - today was a good day to do it. I’d dragged myself through most of another day just like the others, a day of no pleasure, no motivation, no confidence, no hope, no money. I had woken as usual with galloping diarrhoea and had sporadic, unpredictable attacks of retching and vomiting. For three months I had been having to face up to losing my dream home due to poverty, and the dream had in any case faded into a reality of cold, damp and dirt. Life had had little meaning for two years since my greatest love, my cat Bruce, disappeared. I had given up trying to find work as I was now too unwell, and as I no longer had a car I couldn’t get to a job anyway, living as I did in a small village serviced by just two buses a day. Nothing the doctor gave me, nor my own dietary adjustments and herbal remedies, made any impact on the irritable bowel syndrome that caused me pain and restricted my lifestyle - lifestyle? what lifestyle? It didn’t help to think about the multitudes who were worse off; however comparatively fortunate I knew myself to be it didn’t stop me from feeling desperately unhappy. Bearing in mind that I had hardly ever been happy and could see no likelihood of a change for the better (and I’ve tried so hard, so many ways) I decided to set myself free from the misery. I still loved my three cats, but had sunk so low in spirits that even paying them attention was an effort, and they were going short of play and affection. They’d be better off with new owners.
I’d really meant to wait until I’d got another bottle of Valium, and had been trying to hang on and see whether the move to another house would help. My planned new abode was within walking distance of the local small town, and the rooms were smaller - it would be easier to keep warm. Maybe the mould in my ‘ideal home’ was causing the nausea; maybe the proliferation of electric cables around the house was to blame.
But I couldn’t wait any longer. I went upstairs and picked up the suicide letter to my friend V, written a week or two before to ensure that it would be coherent and thorough, leaving no loose ends.
Unappreciated sunshine warmed me as I walked out of the front door and made my way to the post box in the wall at the end of the unmade road, thinking, “This is the last time that I’ll see the green, the trees, the flowers, the dry-stone walls...” I felt slightly sad, and hesitated by the post box, temporarily unable to decide. After mentally reviewing the situation again, I posted the letter and walked back home. I felt quite strange, but was relieved to have made the decision, relieved that oblivion would soon blank out the suffering.
Back in the kitchen I put two large piles of dried cat food on the feeding mats, then put down another pile in the lounge for my oldest cat. I checked that the water bowls were full. Preparations completed, I stood by the kitchen worktop and started systematically swallowing tablets, washing them down with water. I think that the paracetamols were first. About 65 of them went down; I’d intended to take the entire packet of 100 but must have reached a point where I couldn’t take any more - perhaps I was afraid of making myself sick and wasting everything. At times I thought, “Am I really doing this?”; at others it was, “I am really doing this.” Even now there was a glimmer of doubt as to whether I should be doing it - whether I was sure that I wanted to. But the doubt was slight; I had already gone over all the possible alternatives, and none was acceptable. So doubt was illogical. Suicide was the best option, and I therefore had to get on with it. I continued, quickly but methodically. Fifteen Valium and half a bottle of Temazepam elixir completed the deadly repast. Just the thought makes me gag now. I was obviously completely determined.
Then (I discovered a month later) I commenced writing in my health notebook about what I’d done and how I felt, including how I loved the cats, referring to them all by name. In time I couldn’t see clearly enough to write - the entry is mostly illegible at the end - and I went upstairs and lay down. It was about five o’clock in the evening.
I awoke in daylight with a need to be sick. I may have been sick in the bed - I was definitely sick in the bedroom. I tried to get to somewhere suitable to be sick: the bedroom washbasin perhaps. I was unable to stand up. Somehow I got down the stairs, sliding and falling, banging my head, struggling for coordination. The phone rang. I managed to get to it - I don’t know how - and told the caller what I’d done and that I needed an ambulance. He apparently called one. Ironically he was ringing in connection with my concern that my health might have been affected by an organophosphate-based flea spray. Having pulled the phone onto the floor (I was knocking furniture over everywhere) I keyed 999 with a sluggish, leaden finger and was told that an ambulance was on the way. It seems extraordinary now that I was able to do these things, that I was able to think clearly enough to know what to do. I suppose I was actually dying, albeit slowly. I was doubly incontinent and aware of the fact, wanting to keep/get clean but unable to do so.
There was a slight sense of fear in my mind, moderated by the soporific effect of the drugs. This wasn’t how I wanted to die. It seemed that I might well not die. If I was going to live I needed help quickly to prevent disability. I heard the ambulance arrive. The front door wasn’t lockable, so the staff were able to bring a stretcher straight in. A feeling of relief came over me; now I could let go and the professionals would take care of me.
V turned up as I was being loaded into the ambulance. One of the staff asked me if I had been beaten up, as I was badly bruised, especially on the face. My negation did not satisfy them: they asked V the same question. She confirmed my answer.
It was the day after a large overdose; the cocktail of drugs had been in my body for nearly 24 hours without killing me.
Lying in the ambulance, I asked anxiously whether I would have to have my stomach pumped. A friend, who had overdosed twice, had told me that it was very painful. Death was faceable; pain, however, did not appeal. I believe the answer was, “Probably not,” because I had been sick. On the way to hospital I think that I felt quite contented, probably because of the drugs, combined with the knowledge that I was being looked after. I remember seeing sunlit hedgerows from where I lay, and I have a faint memory of arriving at D Hospital in P. From there it’s a blank until my second ambulance journey - to K Hospital in south London the next day. Liver specialists were needed.
Two ambulancepersons/nurses accompanied me on this second trip - one male and one female. I was in cheerful spirits, being still rather stoned, and chatted away to my companions from my recumbent position, probably much like an amiable drunk. I recall needing to urinate, and the ambulance stopping at services. The staff were trying to figure out how to get me into the conveniences; I must have been unable to walk. I spotted a couple of cardboard sick-bowls, conveniently potty-shaped, and offered to use one of those. After asking, “Are you sure?” a few times, my guardians agreed to let me. I had lost all sense of modesty and have no idea whether I was allowed to ‘perform’ in private or whether my ability to balance was of greater concern than my dignity. A successful outcome (output?) imbued me with pride.
I remember arriving at K. My next memory is of being on a bed or trolley in the Liver Failure Unit and seeing, somewhat fuzzily, my stepmother, her second husband (my step-stepfather?) and my half-brother, D. My pleasure at seeing them was mixed with other emotions - sorrow that my actions had put them to all this trouble, gratitude, and a feeling that can best be described as ‘moved’ or simply ‘emotional’. I cried, as happened frequently during the ensuing weeks including every time I remembered the suicide attempt. We had some kind of conversation, but I can’t recall the gist.
A doctor asked me if I knew who my relatives were and where I was. I was OK on the first question but unsure of the name of the hospital, calling it Kingston University, I believe. I suppose that I must have had spells of delirium, which would at least partly account for the gaps in my memory.
My memories of the first few days at K are mostly hazy, although there are clear recollections of short periods. Apparently my liver failed, then recovered, then my kidneys failed, or maybe they failed before the recovery of the liver. At some point I began to be given dialysis, soon learning just what that entailed, i.e. having tubes inserted into veins in the groin or neck. I was like a rag doll for those first days, feeling little or no pain, fear or embarrassment, but I did rail and weep with apprehension when it was proposed that I should have a urinary catheter. Having suffered frequent and sometimes severe cystitis in my twenties and having had a particularly nasty bout (passing blood) following cystoscopy during that time, I was terrified at the thought. The nurses and doctors were very patient, explaining that the catheter didn’t go in very far, that I wouldn’t feel it once it was in, and that the inserted section was very thin - they showed it to me. Eventually I gave in. Insertion was unpleasant but not excruciating, and the discomfort was, as claimed, mercifully brief. For the next week or so I took my ‘wee bag’ with me everywhere, gradually mastering the delicate art of hooking it correctly onto the edge of the bed when getting in or out, and onto a pipe or chair when having a wash.
F Liver Ward was my new temporary home - an open, single-sex (thank goodness) ward full of seriously ill women with a range of liver disorders: cancer, auto-immune deficiency (?), transplant rejection, etc. I felt ashamed to be taking up a preciously needed bed as a result of something that I had done to myself, but the (to me) much more deserving patients were overwhelmingly sympathetic when they learned the reason for my admission. They were also astonishingly stoical about their own predicaments - even B, who had been told that her cancer had spread to her aorta and was therefore inoperable. I wept when she told me her bad news, and said, sincerely, that I’d gladly give her my remaining years. After all, she wanted to live - she had things to live for. But B didn’t cry.
“I’ve had a good innings,” she said, smiling. She was much more concerned about how her husband was going to cope without her. They were a close couple, B being clearly the stronger of the two both practically and emotionally, but that and the prognosis didn’t prevent her from enthusing about the charms of her undeniably dishy consultant.
I was confined to bed at first, apart from the dialysis sessions, with the indignities that such confinement entails: bed-pans and ‘blanket
baths’. Still lacking my usual self-consciousness, I felt sorry for the nurses more than for myself, especially when I found that I’d been soiling myself for days while thinking that I was just passing wind! An incontinence pad was produced. It was a little worrying - was I going to regain control of my bowels? (I did.)
I knew that my right thigh was a uniform purple all the way down - a result, I believe, of my falling at home, unless it was connected with the internal bleeding which I suffered for a time after the overdose. It was a shock, however, to see my battered and puffy face for the first time when I was able to walk to the washroom. “Oh, my god,” I involuntarily gasped out loud, observing to myself, “No wonder they thought I’d been beaten up.” If I looked like this after about a week, what on earth had I looked like before? I had noticed that people seemed to look at me rather intently. Later I discovered that during my attempts to vomit or defecate in the right place after the suicide bid I’d somehow managed to break the toilet lid clean in half. I wondered now whether I’d done it with my head, and realised how lucky I was not to have broken all my teeth, or my nose, or damaged an eye. I have vague memories of my head falling violently forward, probably more than once. What a sight I now presented - apart from the facial bruising I had rather comical-looking springy tubes, capped with brightly coloured plugs, emerging from a bandage around my neck. The tubes bounced merrily with my slightest movement. On returning to bed I confided in B that I now knew what I looked like.
“And I thought everyone was staring at me because I was so gorgeous,” I commented, mock-ruefully.
A routine had by now established itself. About every other day I was wheeled into the Liver Failure Unit for dialysis (and sometimes a small blood transfusion) and every few days the dialysis tubes had to be changed. The Liver Failure Unit was a smallish, rather dingy but usually bustling ward containing about five emergency beds. The staff wore light blue tunics and trousers. I had to sit more or less immobile for three to four hours in a horrendously uncomfortable wheelchair while connected by tubes to the dialysis machine. If I moved my head more than a millimetre an alarm went off on the machine and a nurse had to rush over to reposition my connections. After the first hour I was in so much discomfort that I had to keep moving my pillows, sitting up or back a bit and bending or unbending my legs, which were propped up by a footstool. However careful I was the alarm beeped into life with depressing and embarrassing frequency. I asked if I could lie on a bed but there was none free. Despite all my fidgetings I always ended up in such pain (mainly backache) that I had to beg for pain-killers on returning to the main ward. My requests for a more comfortable chair were rejected - there were no other types, I was told. Eventually I wrote to complain to the Patient Liaison Officer - it seemed ridiculous to have to take unwanted medication (usually the now loathed paracetamol) because of inappropriate hospital equipment.
One day a nurse discovered that the chair had a foot-rest tucked away underneath it. I had asked before if there was one but the response had been negative. With the foot-rest pulled out I could now sit comfortably. No more pain! They do say that the simplest solutions are often the best. Whoever they are.
Dialysis often cut through mealtimes, and on a number of occasions nothing was put by for me, with the result that I became extremely hungry, now that my appetite was returning. My vegan diet predictably caused headaches for the catering staff (or was it that the catering staff caused me headaches? I certainly became very angry with them at times). According to the notice-board in the ward I was a ‘Vigan’. A nutritionist came to chat with me, stressing how important it was to have adequate nutrition, particularly protein, and arranged for some flavoured soya drinks to be put in the ward fridge. I tried one and couldn’t finish it - it was absolutely foul. I marvelled at the awfulness of it; having drunk some delicious soya drinks in the world outside I could only conclude that it was part of the tradition of hospital food being appalling (although I have to admit that some of the food at K was pretty good). In contradiction of the nutritionist - I soon became accustomed to contradictory opinions among hospital personnel - the doctors considered that it didn’t matter if I missed meals as long as my fluid intake was adequate. Well, it mattered to me, and I got quite weepy when, returning from dialysis stiff and exhausted, I was greeted with the news that the caterers wouldn’t save me anything. An unrelenting stream of outraged whingeing from my bed ensured that I was always given something eventually, even if it was just cold soup.
My step-parents visited about every other day, and D made the trek about twice a week. Their visits usually coincided with dialysis, which meant that until the discovery of the foot-rest my contribution to the conversation was extremely stilted due to the pain. I was touched and impressed by the efforts made by my step-parents to take over the talking and to try to entertain me.
Friends had formed themselves into a highly-efficient task force to clean up the house (including laundering my fouled sheets - ugh!), feed and cuddle my cats, forward the mail and other things beyond the call of duty. More guilt. It wasn’t meant to be like this. The two cat-feeders and cuddlers already had enough on their plates: V was frenetically busy and J was not at all well herself; nor was her husband. My hospital visitors were making quite long and often unpleasant journeys. I really appreciated their efforts, and in my helpless, pathetic emotional state started to think that a good relationship was developing between myself and my step-parents at last - that I was getting to know them and they me. Having fled the nest under pressure (but relieved to do so) at seventeen, following a miserable childhood, I had become quite estranged from my family. D averred that Mum (his mother, my stepmother) was a much happier and kinder person since her remarriage, but I had never re-established close links. As I regained strength in hospital, and after being discharged, I came to realise that I still have absolutely nothing in common with my stepmother and virtually nothing with her husband.
I valued the ‘get well’ cards and letters, some from unexpected sources, which brought the so-easily-summoned tears to my eyes. I felt undeserving of the kind words, and couldn’t, still can’t, actually believe that anyone loves me.
Occasionally someone - a patient, a nurse, a visitor - would ask me how I felt now, and whether I regretted what I’d done. I replied that I didn’t regret it because I considered that it had been inevitable. As for how I felt, I think that I said, “Well, nothing’s really changed.” Sometimes I thought that things had changed, notably with regard to my relationship with my step-parents, but it seems that I was deluding myself. Wishful thinking. When asked whether I was glad or sorry that the suicide attempt had failed, I think that my answer was that I was sorry, at least in the first couple of weeks. After all, I pointed out, smiling slightly apologetically for expressing such thoughts, if it had succeeded I wouldn’t be suffering in any way now.
My step-parents brought me magazines, a personal stereo (on loan), my mail, which had been forwarded to them, and soya milk, yogurts and fruit. D sent me, on request, a bundle of ‘Viz’ magazines, which I strained my way through eagerly with the magnifying glass that Mum had lent me to serve until my glasses arrived.
F Ward had a friendly atmosphere. Patients left and new ones arrived; some were there when I was admitted and still there when I departed. They were a very mixed bunch - various races, ages and types, but, as might be expected in view of my ‘alternative’ ways, there was no one to whom I could relate closely.
Days began with the taking of blood pressure and temperature and the giving out of presents from the drugs trolley, then back to sleep until breakfast. On a normal day I would hardly leave my bed, being very tired most of the time and suffering from oedema in my ankles and feet, a result of kidney failure. Strangely, although an intensely private person at home, regarding my bedroom as strictly forbidden territory for all but the invited, I felt quite at ease in this open ward, and slept better than I had done for a long time. This might, of course, have been due to my weakened physical state.
The newspaper trolley was trundled in, the cleaners did their stuff, the mid-morning drinks trolley was wheeled round, and we were visited by ‘Dracula’ as I, with admirable originality (hmm) dubbed the jovial young Afro-Caribbean haematologist with his ‘pain-free needles’ - not quite true, but he was quite skilled and gentle.
Visitors seemed to be allowed at any time, but the main shift tended to arrive around mid-afternoon. The ward became animated with comings and goings, and beds were transformed into little islands of conversation. Well-behaved children hugged their bed-bound mothers or made bee-lines for the day room, unable to resist the lure of the television. Some visitors clearly wished that they were somewhere else, making only half-hearted attempts to cheer up their ailing kin. Poor M, in the bed to my left, was a victim of such lack of affection, having hidden her own severe depression for most of her life while devoting all her energy to bringing up a family and caring for a sick, now deceased husband. Her grown-up offspring seemed wholly unwilling to return the compliment. Self-sacrifice, by my observations, does not appear to pay - not in this life, anyway. Unfortunately I don’t believe in karma or an afterlife. Wouldn’t it be nice?
Blood pressure and temperature were taken again in the evening and more drugs were doled out. As darkness fell, strange moans and incomprehensible high-pitched chatterings would start up from the ‘medical’ (apparently geriatric) ward at the other end of the large room. I walked past one of the perpetrators: a stick-thin, hairless creature, possibly Chinese but so wizened that it was hard to tell, waving her arms about imploringly, staring and shouting. I could not believe that such a life was worth living, and hoped that I would be humanely despatched before reaching such a stage.
Late-night drinks were brought round by a night nurse at about eleven o’clock, and I usually made myself a snack with the vegan paté and pitta bread generously bought for me by W, a vivacious young ‘transplant failure’, on one of her many expeditions out of the hospital. She often overestimated her capabilities, and on her return would collapse, exhausted, her legs stiff with oedema. W fascinated me: her line of work appeared to be fashion sales, and she sported a designer tan, long, blonde hair with expensive-looking highlighting, and skimpy silk nightdresses. I found her rather over-the-top at first and was further put off by her uncompromising approach to work: “If a firm doesn’t answer the phone within three rings, that’s it. I assume that they don’t want my business,” she proclaimed. I was gradually won over by the realisation that she also applied her energy and enthusiasm (and obvious intelligence) to helping people: answering the phone when the nurses were busy, collecting other patients’ meals for them from the trolley, sharing her brought-in food and bringing the shy, subdued patient in the next bed out of her shell. Impressed, I tried to emulate her, but realised that I wasn’t outgoing or confident enough (or fond enough of fellow human beings) to match her impact.
The worst experience which I had to endure in hospital was having new dialysis tubes put in my neck. I knew that other patients had to suffer angiograms (involving a wire inserted into the heart via the groin, I believe), bone marrow and liver biopsies (chunks punched out of the respective organs) and huge dialysis tubes permanently embedded in arm veins, but I still found my own cross hard to bear. It did not help that the doctor performing the procedure appeared to be a beginner; he was guided through it step by step by another doctor. Firstly, strong pressure was applied to the neck vein (to prevent gushing, I think) and local anaesthetic pricked into the area. That was the most painful bit, but it was fear rather than pain which made the experience such an ordeal. An incision was made and a guide wire poked down through the vein.
“If you feel any resistance, withdraw and go in again,” advised the senior doctor, blithely. My hands lay open at my sides; I tried to stay ‘relaxed’ and not let them turn into fists. Sometimes there was resistance - the wire wasn’t in the vein properly. Then where the hell was it? I panicked silently. Sometimes I could feel that it was in the wrong place, and told the doctor.
“There’s a sharp feeling in the middle of my chest.”
Please get it right, I prayed. Don’t injure me.
Once the wire was correctly positioned, the tube was pushed in around it. I could hear it going through - a soft grating sound like a mouse gnawing wood. Then a stitch was inserted and a bandage wrapped round my neck to keep the tubes in place.
After this I had to be wheeled off for an X-ray to make sure that everything was in order before dialysis. There was usually a generous patch of blood on my sheets (often freshly laundered) and/or my nightdress by now. At least they were hospital nightdresses - I had next to no clothes of my own with me. But, oh! Why can’t hospitals supply some nightdresses which do not have a slit down the back? Were they designed by a voyeuristic sadist? A woman-hater? Thank goodness someone had sent me some knickers.
One day the tube-insertion went particularly badly. The senior doctor eventually told his underling to give up temporarily, and I was left to ‘rest’ for half an hour before they tried again on the other side. Some rest, knowing what was going to be done. Would they get it right next time? Would they do me irreversible damage?
They did get it right the second time, and I was carted off to X-ray, where the radiologist informed me that ‘Ms’, my chosen title, was a ridiculous term.
I got back to F Ward very late that day - after evening dinner. There was no food for me. It was recorded in my notes that I had had a stressful day.
Some of the patients were mobile enough to walk around the hospital - to the bank, the shops, the canteen; some, like Wendy, went out on shopping trips or for meals with visitors or fellow-patients. Even when I could walk far enough (oedema prevented it at first), slight agoraphobia meant that I still had to be accompanied by another patient the first time that I ventured out of the ward. This was nothing new - I’d been nervous about leaving the house before my overdose. Soon, however, I was taking the lifts and going to the shop on my own, no doubt alarming many people with my dangling neck-tubes. An attempt to use the cash machine was bungled and it ate my card. I knew that my step-parents would help out until I got a replacement, but felt so incompetent (which I was).
A couple of letters needed answering. At first I couldn’t write legibly - I kept repeating characters, and the whole effort was a spidery mess, so I had to dictate the letters to relatives. Later a tube was installed in a vein in my right arm, making writing impossible again. The tube was for the easy administration of antibiotics - I think that I had difficulty keeping anything down in the early days. In subsequent weeks I was presented with a small feast from the drugs trolley twice a day: tablets, capsules, liquids...There was an anti-nausea liquid which was very effective at making patients vomit. Laxatives were persistently thrust upon me; I kept telling the nurses that I already had the runs, but perhaps the laxatives were prescribed after I mistakenly told a doctor that I hadn’t ‘been’ for a week, unaware that I was messing myself, and perhaps the truth, when discovered, wasn’t relayed.
On one occasion a male nurse decided that I should not lie in bed all day. He insisted on my getting up at breakfast time, calling me a ‘lazy cow’ (humorously, but he expected to be obeyed). I explained that I needed to keep my feet raised to relieve the oedema, so he told me to sit in my chair and put my feet on the bed. I tried. It was a bit like trying to sit upright whilst rotated through 45 degrees. Exceedingly uncomfortable. I tried with legs bent, then with them straight. No good. Eventually I gave up and put my feet on the floor, wishing that the bastard would go off duty so that I could obey my body’s commands instead of his. Lunch-time came. My calves and feet were beginning to feel as if they didn’t belong to me. I tried walking about a bit, but knew what I really needed to do. After lunch I asked a fellow-patient whether she thought that my tormentor would let me have a post-prandial nap. She said that he’d indicated so to her, so I dragged myself, with difficulty, back onto the bed. My legs had swollen so much that they were hard to the touch. The skin on my calves was stretched tight and smooth, like an inflated balloon, and they shone as if polished, while my feet were disfigured with stretch marks. My fluid-filled limbs were unusable for hours. I was furious. I stuck to the lazy cow routine after that.
My fringe and nails were growing inconveniently fast. Having lank, greasy hair was highly unpleasant, but washing it was impossible at first and then difficult due to having to avoid getting my neck bandage wet. All I could do was to wipe a soapy flannel over the hair, followed by a non-soapy one. Ugly, irritating ‘rats’ tails’ hung straight and twig-like before my eyes. The nurses were too busy for me to want to bother them with the need for a haircut. My nails, which I like short, were turning into talons and getting in the way. At last my stepmother brought in some nail-clippers. Relief!
After a couple of weeks my abused body was showing signs of improvement. The catheter came out (almost painlessly, despite a horrible second-hand anecdote confided by another patient). Then my fluid output started to increase. I was having to record all fluid intake and output to monitor how my kidneys were performing. This meant taking a measuring jug to the loo and urinating into it. That was easy - except when one also had to defecate; then it became rather a skilled operation. Anyway, I knew that if I started ‘putting out’ enough fluid I could come off dialysis. I reported each increase proudly to the doctors, and at last the magic words were spoken. No more dialysis! (No more terrifying tube-insertions! No more bored clock-watching in the Liver Failure Unit! No more meals eaten with a stationary head - they’d now begun to bring food into the Unit for me, I should explain.)
Then came the bad news: I had to drink as much as I was putting out. This puzzled me - I thought that much of the increased output must be excess fluid which had built up, e.g. that causing the oedema. After all, I had put on nearly a stone since the overdose, which was obviously all fluid. But the doctors insisted that I still had to match input to output - the kidneys had to be exercised - ‘challenged’ was the word used. If I couldn’t drink enough I would have to have a drip-feed. I’d had enough of needles and tubes, so tried exceedingly hard to meet the targets orally.
There was a short period of no neck-tubes and no arm-tubes, when I could actually bath, shower and wash my hair properly. I hadn’t enjoyed a bath or shower so much for a long time. How long a time? Months, definitely. The capacity to feel pleasure was returning! I hoped, tentatively, that this heralded a retreat from depression, and that recovery would continue. I think that it did, but progress was limited by still-poor physical health.
One night I was so bloated that I had to sit up till past midnight for my latest ‘input’ to go down. Inevitably I was in and out of the loo all day and night. Misery. One morning I conceded defeat. Dr S’s water-torture had overcome my resistance. Ouch! In with the damned drip, and hello to ‘Rover’, my drip-stand which now had to go everywhere with me. Great! Picture it - urgent need to pass water (about every half-hour now). Climb out of bed carefully - don’t fall over drip-tube. Manoeuvre base of drip-stand around obstacles; wheel to toilet area. Proceed to room at far end. Find jug; rinse, using mostly left hand as right arm has drip in it, being careful not to get dressing wet or to pull drip-tube. Wheel Rover into cubicle; position about midway between door and WC. Tie nightdress in knot around waist, out of the way. Remove knickers with left hand; hold jug with same; urinate into jug. If appropriate, resist defecating until finished urinating, then sit on loo. Bliss! Note level in jug; empty. Make self clean and respectable; wheel Rover back into end room; rinse jug and put in sink. Back to bed after manoeuvring around obstacles again; put light on if dark, fill in output sheet and calculate sub-total.
FORTY-EIGHT TIMES A DAY.
Still thinking of taking an overdose?
I should have been grateful that I could pass water. A fellow-patient, B, who was waiting for a liver and kidney transplant and who would die if she didn’t get one, couldn’t. She had a maximum permitted fluid intake of a litre a day, including the water content of soup, gravy and fruit. Only twice-weekly dialysis kept her alive. But would you believe it - she sympathised with me! Unlike myself, B had an incredibly positive way of viewing things, and saw her inability to urinate as a benefit - she didn’t have the bother of having to find toilets at inconvenient times! Like some other patients, she had an abdomen so distended that she appeared to be heavily pregnant. It looked horrendously uncomfortable.
As I was now polyuric (a prolific urinator - urinatress? - I think that my record was five and a half litres in one day my kidneys were clearly on the mend and, on step-parental prompting, I rather nervously asked the doctor when I could be transferred back to P. Homesickness was beginning to set in and I was at last missing the cats - a good sign: I was starting to feel love, to care again. To my delight the answer was: “In a few days” - depending on how quickly a bed could be found.
Discharge day arrived and Rover and I were separated. However, my traumatic relationship with things lavatorial was not over. Whilst attempting the usual tricky morning operation with the jug...well, I won’t go into details but after cleaning up as best I could I locked the cubicle from the outside and urged the nurse on duty to get a cleaner in there as quickly as possible. I had picked up a bowel infection - quite common in London hospitals, I later discovered. A sample was required - oh dear. Don’t worry - I’ll spare you. D Hospital was advised of the problem. The transferral would go ahead, but I would have to be kept in isolation there for ‘a few days’.
My ‘minders’ in the ambulance were both male. They had been told of my polyuria. I noticed that the vehicle had a built-in toilet and wondered whether I would be given privacy to use it; the men were very un-nurse-like - in fact it was easier to imagine them swilling excessive quantities of lager and bawling at football teams. There was no need to worry. When told of my need for the loo, the men checked their map and puled in at the nearest hospital, where we got out and I was shown to the necessary facilities. Most civilised. I did a veritable loo-crawl from south London to P, sometimes using hospitals and sometimes service stations. What must people have thought at the latter when confronted with a strange, small woman in a dressing gown (I had no coat or jacket), a plug sticking out of her wrist? At one stop I dropped my ‘healthy living’ regime and treated myself to a can of cola and a packet of tortilla chips.
I chose to sit in a chair throughout the journey despite fatigue - three weeks’ incarceration made me determined to take in all the scenery that I could. Sometimes I had to rest my eyes, and I tried unsuccessfully to doze. There were some very corn-circle-like depressions in fields. I kept wanting to ask my companions where we were, but they seemed rather taciturn. Maybe they were just tired. I scanned the trees for anti-road protestors around H but couldn’t see any. I wondered what the ambulancemen would have said if there had been a demonstration in progress, and judged them (perhaps wrongly) as probably being of the ‘why don’t they get a job?’ mentality. I decided not to raise the subject: there were two of them, each twice my size. I observed a high level of yawning as we neared our destination, or should I say ‘my destination’; it transpired that the men had to drive all the way back to London as soon as they’d delivered me safe and sound. I didn’t envy them.
The plushness of D Hospital amazed me. The receptionist advised us that I had been allocated to ‘H’ ward, which I perceived as being not a very comforting name, and commented uneasily, “I’m more of a cat person myself.”
“Perhaps it’s a reference to the nurses,” suggested one of the drivers.
The ambulancemen took me up in the lift to the 9th floor - only three floors up from the reception area, which we had entered from the road. I was presented to the duty nurse, a bizarre individual (male) with a high voice, whose light-hearted turns of phrase often made it hard to understand what he meant. I’m still at a loss over his comments regarding my admission three weeks earlier, when apparently I ‘caused a riot’. As I can’t remember a thing about my previous visit, I found the remark quite disturbing. What did I do? Take my clothes off? Swear at people? Make a pass? Best not to think about it. I never asked him to elaborate.
I walked unsuspectingly into my prison cell. It was pleasant enough: although the view was less than five-star - buildings and a road, and a definite nine-storey drop from the window - the room had a washbasin, a television and an en-suite WC. I had promised to phone V to tell her that I had arrived safely, but soon found that I was not going to be allowed to make or receive any phone calls. I might pass my ‘bug’ to people using the phone after me.
Exhausted from the long journey, I lay on the bed and thought about my cats, now only thirty or so miles away. I spoke to them silently one by one, telling them that I wasn’t far away and was coming home soon. It seems that one of them, at least, heard me.
I was expected to wash at the basin in the room, but there was a men’s ward on the opposite side of the corridor, whose occupants I could see clearly on the innumerable occasions when my door was thrust open. If I could see them...I decided to do my washing at night, although when a new drip had been put in a vein on the inside of my left elbow there were serious limitations as to what bits I could wash. The right armpit was out for a start. Humiliatingly I had to ask a nurse to do that for me. The drip also made it impossible to take off or put on any clothes above the waist. I soon became really fed up and frustrated.
My pleasure at having my own loo was short-lived. I had to use not the loo itself but a collection of cardboard potties which were now stacked in a corner. Front-end output had to be provided separately from rear-end output. I soon perfected the art, but absolutely detested the procedure and the accumulation of used bowls which I had to keep asking nurses to take away.
“I bet this is your favourite job,” (or similar) I said to the nurse on occasions, feeling guilty for inflicting such revolting specimens upon them.
“Don’t you worry; we’re used to it,” came the reply once. “It’s worse for you than it is for us.”
Some of the nurses were like that - kind and helpful, obviously overworked. At least no one tried to convert me to religion as did two nurses at K. I am still amused by the memory of the young Irish nurse who came and chatted supportively to me about vegetarianism, asserting that whilst she too was a vegetarian she never preached about it. A moment later she was trying to ram religion down my throat while I, a captive and vulnerable audience (I’ve always been wary of upsetting those who have power over me), made supreme efforts to politely change the subject.
Less amusing to recall was a disgraceful incident in the Liver Failure Unit at K. An elderly woman was clearly dying, her bed surrounded by subdued relatives. A nun had already paid a visit, sitting beside the patient and reading out some text - probably prayers. Now what appeared to be a hospital cleric, a number of books under his arm, was shown to the bed by two nurses who then drew the curtains around the sad scene. As the words of what were obviously the last rites began to issue, only slightly muffled, from inside the curtains, the nurses burst into loud laughter where they were sitting, just outside the curtains. No doubt nurses have to face death on a regular basis, and have to harden themselves in order to cope with it, but I found the behaviour of those two inexcusable, and only hope that it didn’t add significantly to the distress of the bereaved.
I began to vegetate badly in D. The newspaper vendor kept passing me by. The food was ghastly, usually alternating between some sort of mush with rice and an identical-tasting mush with pasta, although everything was so overcooked it was hard to tell rice from pasta. I was pleased, however, to discover cashew nuts in the mush, but the thrill wore off after the third or fourth time in succession. I was ravenous by the time meals arrived, having no snack food in my locker at first. Unfortunately my stomach had shrunk so much that I could barely get half the food down. Half an hour later I was ravenous again, with hours to go before the next meal. Intense hunger often veered over the borderline into nausea, which I had to fight in order to eat when the food came. The caterers did get me some soya milk and vegan margarine, but slipped up on the meals quite often. Sometimes I was so hungry that I just ate the cheese-smothered dish which I was given. At K each patient was given a menu every evening with a range of choices to tick. There were no choices for vegans at D. OK, K often got it wrong; one day I was presented with a vile-smelling goat curry! That I didn’t eat.
Many of the staff at D appeared to have something of an intelligence or competence deficit. I will never know how a nurse who regularly took my blood pressure with a loose tourniquet obtained a believable reading. A young junior doctor (“You’re my first patient,” he confided, cheerfully) wanted to know where my liver transplant scar was. I was so baffled by the question that witticisms (“Oh, bother! Now where did I put it?”) eluded me.
A female doctor, after taking a blood sample without having brought any cotton wool or dressings with her, went to mop the wound with a tissue with which I had just blown my nose. I stopped her in time, and had to fumble one-armed in my locker to find a clean one for her to use.
“I’ve got to get out of here before they kill me!” I told my visitors, only half-joking. Friends came to enliven my stay, bringing food, magazines, clothes and photos of my cats, which I gratefully pinned up.
“Why the hell didn’t you phone us?” demanded J, reproachfully.
“You would have tried to talk me out of it,” I replied. “I didn’t want to be talked out of it. Nothing you said would have made any difference. I just wanted to...go.”
I learned the details of a three-week drama which had recently had a happy ending, but which had been kept from me until now for obvious reasons. A day or so after my admission to hospital my 14-year-old cat, I, having earlier sat by the front door apparently anxiously awaiting my return, had disappeared. My friends had been worried out of their minds, largely for my sake, knowing how upset I had been over the disappearance of two of my pets in the past two years. They had scoured the village, calling I, talking to neighbours and putting up ‘Missing’ notices. They’d more or less given up hope when she reappeared - the day that I’d arrived back in P. She must have heard me! I hadn’t realised that she was so attached to me, and vowed not to abandon her again.
V presented me with a cuddly little toy tortoiseshell cat of similar colouring to I’s. She had fallen for the toy while I was still missing, and had resisted buying it until the miraculous return. ‘I 2’ immediately became my ‘teddy bear’, giving me much childlike comfort as she lay next to me on the bed constantly, often in the crook of my arm or pressed against my chest. I didn’t care what anybody thought.
Like the staff, my poor guests had to wear plastic pinafores, which covered so little that they seemed pointless, and plastic gloves. It got hot in that room when the sun shone in, so they often surreptitiously removed the gloves, peering anxiously towards the door in case they were caught.
It was good to have the television for the long periods of solitude, although I only watched (as is my wont) the occasional documentary or comedy programme. I was having a lot of difficulty seeing clearly, and sometimes had to wear reading glasses to watch TV. In K I’d had to wear them to see my visitors properly on one occasion. It worried me. Was I going blind? This was one of the many things that had contributed to my taking an overdose.
The confinement, the lack of communication, the tiredness and the dependence on others conspired to instil in me a sense of unreality and disconnectedness. The television actually accentuated it at times, advertisements in particular assuming sinister significance. Despite the bright sunshine that poured into my room for several hours a day, I felt as though I was in a kind of twilight world. My mood was regressing, sinking back towards the dark, hopeless pre-overdose level. I was afraid that I might become so institutionalised as to be unable to resume independent life without difficulty. Illogically, I didn’t like my door being left open, as it often was; people always seemed to be looking in, as if I was an object of curiosity on account of being in a room on my own. Most of the time I just wanted to sleep, which I did in a somewhat foetal position, cuddling I 2 and almost reverting to sucking my thumb. Isolation only lasted for about a week, but it was one of the longest weeks that I’ve known.
My weight dropped to seven stone soon after I arrived at D; my appetite, which had been fairly good at K, had deteriorated. I was startled to see how thin my legs had become; the familiar ‘bonsai tree-trunks’ were no more. I joked with my visitors about looking like a famine victim. Whilst it was quite pleasant to have slim thighs for a change, I was anxious not to become anorexic, and forced myself to drink sweet, flavoured soya drinks (palatable ones brought in from the ‘real’ world) and snack mid-morning on toast and margarine. The caterers had an infuriating habit of taking my toast away (which I had to eat in stages) during my many visits to the loo-room.
I was still being urged to drink a lot of fluid, and was still having to record my intake. Both intake and output were low early in the day, rising dramatically later and staying high throughout the night, but a stupid nurse considered it appropriate to comment, “That’s rubbish!” when I reported my early ‘scores’. Superbly calculated to improve the confidence of an attempted suicide. I didn’t let it get to me too much. If I was rubbish I was better quality rubbish than her.
I was asked if I wanted to see a psychiatrist; attempted suicides are given the option as a matter of course. Having decided to give everything a chance I said yes, but I wasn’t impressed by either the psychiatrist or the social worker. The former wanted me to try some different anti-depressants and suggested a spell as a psychiatric in-patient. She said that the anti-depressants might help me to ‘open up’ which would enable counselling to be more effective. Being one of the most open and frank people I know, I couldn’t see any such need, and in any case had no desire to take any drugs whatsoever, not even my previous prop, cannabis. (It seemed to have stopped having the required effect in the months before my admission.) As for being an in-patient - hell, I wanted to go home! What’s more, I had once visited a friend in a psychiatric ward and been horrified; I’d urged him to discharge himself as soon as possible. I may have problems, but I’m sure that I’d only get worse if put in with really serious cases. The psychiatrist asked if I thought that I might attempt suicide again. I replied in the negative.
“I don’t want to go through all this again!” was my given, and genuine, reason, although there were others.
The social worker had a brief letter to my bank typed up, referring to the loss of my cash card in L. The letter omitted the name of my bank, the name of the bank and hospital where the card was lost, called me ‘Mrs’ and had incorrect post codes for both myself and the bank. I wonder how much she’s paid? Do they have any vacancies?
Days still consisted largely of sleeping interspersed with shortish bouts of reading (which I couldn’t do for long as my eyes became too tired), eating and TV-watching. At times I sweated profusely, often with accompanying trembling and nausea. Night sweats soaked my bedclothes. I hoped that these symptoms were due to the infection, but they were all too reminiscent of my pre-overdose condition. Perhaps giving up alcohol and other drugs would not effect a cure after all. Was I going to come out of hospital as physically and mentally ill as before? It didn’t bear thinking about.
My shit samples finally tested negative. I could leave the room and use the phone! No longer would I have to depend on the nurses remembering to tell me that someone had phoned. Granted they were busy, but it makes such a difference, when you’re cut off from everything, to know that someone out there is asking after you and wishing you well. I was under the impression that my step-parents had been phoning at most every other day, as that was the frequency of the “your mum sends her love” messages. I later found that they’d phoned every day.
I could also use the loo! Having to carefully position myself, squatting, over two cardboard potties is probably bad enough for someone with normal bowel function. With the added complications of irritable bowel syndrome (necessitating several ‘visits’ per morning, some before one is fully awake) and an infection, it was murder.
Around the same time my drip, which had been left in the same vein for much to long (a week) had been functioning poorly for days and was causing me pain, was removed. I was now free from pain and free to bath and shower again, which I did with relish. I know - I should have used soap, but I like to be different.
The option to be transferred to the main ward was offered. The wards were smaller and more enclosed than at K. Somehow the surroundings seemed too intimate for comfortable cohabitation with strangers - what if I didn’t like any of them? I stayed put. I’d be out soon.
Yet again I found myself the object of sympathy when I should have been the sympathiser. A pleasant elderly patient started a conversation as she passed my open door, and enquired what my ailment was. When I told her (I always felt so apologetic when I had to answer such questions from patients) she was exceedingly (excessively?) understanding, saying that she had considered it herself sometimes. It turned out that she had good reason to consider it: she had Crohn’s disease, a serious bowel disorder, and had not only submitted to the investigative procedures which I am much too frightened to permit but had had a large section of her bowel removed. Why am I so terrified of invasive examinations that multitudes of other people undergo so meekly? Or should the question be: why do other people so trustingly allow medical personnel to insert instruments into the depths of their bodies? I’m not generally a coward. Perhaps it’s to do with my learned lack of respect for ‘authority’ and ‘experts’, my awareness of the fallibility of health workers. Or is it a symptom of an overall lack of submissiveness? Since I have been discharged I have read of a survey which shows that 8% of people in hospital are killed or injured by the staff! The leaflet quoting this survey does not say how many of the victims are patients.
As I remember, through writing this account, the brave and unselfish people at K and at D who, through no fault of their own, had life-threatening illnesses and had to undergo extremely unpleasant tests and treatment, I remind myself to be grateful for my apparent total recovery from self-inflicted damage that should have been the end of me. Yes, I had intended to give myself a peaceful, painless death, for the cats to be quickly given good new homes (the suicide note and my will should have ensured that) and for my assets to be disposed of with the minimum degree of trauma (see above), and I didn’t get my wish, but I’m extremely lucky not to have ended up disabled.* I mustn’t forget that sobering fact.
*(Added in 2016 - I hadn’t yet realised that I was in fact disabled, albeit not by the overdose, and destined to stay disabled, deteriorating further as time went on.)
The doctors were pleasantly surprised by the rate of my recovery. One in the eye for critics of the vegan diet, I thought, smugly.
Although still feeling a good deal less than 100% fit, I was by now dying to go home - no, that’s not right: I was dying to come into hospital. Yes, folks - a poor joke and a sick one. My whole being was rebelling against the confinement, the food, the excessive presence of people, the absence of cats and wildlife, the dependence.
It was midweek when Dr A said that I could be discharged between Friday and Sunday, and I gained the impression that the day was up to me. Strictly speaking, it was: as the doctor reluctantly conceded during the ensuing battle of wills, they couldn’t force me to stay. It appeared that V, still horrendously busy, could collect me on Saturday. The doctor wanted me to stay with her for at least the first night. I didn’t; her house is busy and bustling, she has people dropping in frequently and the radio or television are on more than I could cope with. I also did not relish sharing a bathroom with several other people - irritable bowels wait for no person! No - I wanted silence, and solitude apart from my cats. They’d had a lonely month, and I did not wish to prolong the situation. I craved privacy, and needed time to get the house in some sort of order before my step-parents saw it; they were planning to drive to Cornwall to see that I was all right and to sort out the paperwork for my house sale. They are very clean and tidy. Not only am I not, but due to my depression I’d let the house get into an even more disgusting condition than usual. I also wanted to clear the hurdles - in the presence of someone sympathetic and non-judgemental - of walking into the house for the first time since the suicide attempt and meeting the cats again, greeting them without feeling inhibited (my step-parents don’t like cats). Sooner or later I would have to deal with going to sleep in my own bed while not expecting it to be the last time: expecting to wake up again. Sooner struck me as the preferable alternative - why put it off? I was ready.
The thought of leaving D filled me with delight, and I had no idea of the struggle that was about to commence. I phoned another friend, T, who agreed to collect me on Friday. Just one extra day in that place was more than I was prepared to conremplate. I called V’s number to let her know that she didn’t need to come on Saturday, but I think that I burbled away to her answerphone without pressing the ‘speak’ button on the pay-phone, not realising that there was such a thing. Then, restless with anticipation, I returned to my room and lay down, picturing the house, the cats, the outside world...
Another member of the psychiatric team came to see me on Friday as arranged - Dr A had wanted me to have a final chat before leaving. All seemed to be in order.
Then things became confused, and I can’t remember the sequence of events.
Friends, family and hospital staff were busily phoning each other, organising my life as they thought best for me. My step-parents wanted me to remain in hospital until Sunday, when they would collect me. As a second choice they would accept my leaving on Saturday and then staying with V. Dr J seemed to think that the psychiatric team wanted me to stay till Monday, and he (perhaps due to the influence of my stepfather) wished me to stay with V for at least the first night. Then I was informed that the psychiatric consultant was happy for me to go on Friday. All this conflict started to get to me - I felt trapped, imprisoned, not in control of my own life. I frantically phoned my stepfather to try to sway him, and to tell him that I was leaving today. He was very opposed to the idea. My money ran out. He phoned back, and I took the call in the sister’s office. His manner was quietly commanding. “I’d rather you didn’t,” was his response to my expressed intention. His voice was hard and carried a hint of menace which translated his words into: “You’d better not.” I was - I am - somewhat nervous of incurring my step-parents’ displeasure, due to my current partial financial dependence (yes, it’s the ‘d’ word again’ on them. I keep wishing that I’d bought a mobile home, as I’d been on the brink of doing, instead of accepting their admittedly generous offer of help towards buying another house. Then I wouldn’t feel so beholden to them, and they wouldn’t have such power, real or imagined, over me.
Tears flowed readily as I battled for control with my step-father and Dr A. I finally agreed to as compromise - I would stay another day, although goodness knows why that made any difference to anyone. Maybe people thought that if V took me home I was more likely to give in to pressure to spend the night at her house. No chance!
The thought that I might really be escaping seemed a little unreal until I physically walked out of the ward with V. Her presence was reassuring - she’d take my side if someone chased after us and told me to come back - wouldn’t she? I felt a bit like Patrick McGoohan’s character in ‘The Prisoner’ TV series, who almost escaped from ‘The Village’ in every episode but was always caught at the last minute.
It was a blazing hot August evening when we carried my bags to the hospital car park. I had been an in-patient for exactly a month. Now, after costing the taxpayers an inordinate amount of money and being treated and sustained by numerous hard-working health care workers, some of whom probably resented giving time to an attempted suicide when others needed them, and now sporting a series of red polka dots on my neck as embarrassing souvenirs, I was returning to the normal world. Statistically I should have been dead, carried from the hospital in a coffin a month ago. My funeral would have taken place by now; people would be coming to terms with it to varying degrees. Friends and, I think, some family members had told me that they were glad that I had failed; I suppose I believe them. But they couldn’t very well say otherwise, could they?
The task ahead was to try again to make the best of things, and clearly I would have to live differently from before. The previous way hadn’t worked. Another suicide attempt was out of the question for the foreseeable future: at least one of my cats was evidently extremely dependent on me; I had no wish to put so many people to so much trouble again, and nor did I fancy repeating my experiences of the past month. It would also seem like a betrayal - of friends, family, hospital staff and those fellow-patients with their touching kindness.
I was glad that I would be re-entering my house with V and not with my step-parents, with whom I feel very ill at ease; they palpably exude criticism and disapproval over almost everything that I have, say or do. But would my lovely cats remember me straight away? There have been instances when I have returned home after a week or two’s absence and they have appeared uncertain of me at first.
Not this time. The house seemed rather strange and unfamiliar to me as we entered and climbed the short flight of dark wooden stairs to the kitchen - that kitchen where a month ago I had tried to depart from the world. That kitchen now contained M, my pretty but overweight tortoiseshell and white girl, sister of the much-missed Bruce. She miaowed enthusiastically and came straight over to be stroked. I went out onto the cluttered ‘patio’ and unsteadily mounted the breeze-block steps into the garden, which I’d been using for years although it was not legally mine. S, my tabby, was in his favourite sunbathing spot on the flat roof over the kitchen. I called him and I. I (the cat!) appeared, miaowing loudly, greeting me warmly. S clambered down the grey willow beside the kitchen wall and trotted up to me cheerfully. They all seemed really pleased to see me, and were acting as though everything was normal. Things were normal then. I was much reassured. I was also weak and shaky, but alive.
Time to try again. To live, not to die.
Not the last day
Blog entry posted by MeSci, Mar 10, 2017.