Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dark Thoughts In Dark Places

After a day or two in the ICU, the pain might be called under control. The pain is not really gone, but through long acting meds or IV drips, a new baseline is established. At this time different types of pain become distinguishable. Instead of a singular feeling, there are now sensations of burning, freezing, shocking, sharp, cramping, and aching pains. These come from nerve pain, physical damage, and muscular contraction. Each requiring a different type of medication. Each of these having an allowable dose and a different number of hours between doses. As a result, the pain is under control only until a particular medication begins to wear off, and one of these types of pain rears its head. At first I ignore it. Next I work to deal with it. Controlled breathing helps calm the mind and smooth out the instinctual reactions to pain. After that comes an attitude shift. We grow up avoiding pain, trying to get rid of it any time that happens. We learn to be miserable when we are in pain. Do we really have to be miserable? Only if we feel that pain is a miserable experience. If we take away all the connotations that we pile on to pain, it becomes more bearable. In effect, the belief that pain is a negative experience helps to make it one.

I have a limit. Some level of pain at which I ask the nurse for more meds. Inevitably it's too soon. Enough time has not passed to give them to me. She tells me they don't want to put me too far under. The voice in my head screams Do it! Do it! Anything but this, but the look of regret in her eyes is plain to see. I nod my head and go back to trying to accept the pain. I get much better at it over a few days, but for now it's just not enough. When the time does come, the transition is mercifully fast. Drugs administered by IV act quickly, releasing me from the pain.

Narcotic pain meds come with a price. The reality is, you are not all there. The higher the dose, the higher the loss. In most cases this is not a big deal. The drugs wear off and everything returns to normal. This was not one of those cases. Immediately after a dose, I was too far gone to contemplate my injury. Inevitably, the drugs slowly recede. The curtain draws open and the show starts. I find myself a head cemented to a lead anchor in the shape of my body. I stand naked before the reality. My defenses are gone, stripped away by the same medications that protect me from the physical pain. Had my mind been clear it would have been different. As it was, I had no future. We all think about our futures every day. It is only natural, but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined myself to be in this condition. How could I have? So there I was. The man with no future. If I could even be called a man. If I could even be called Craig. A thing with scant identity, stumbling forward deaf, dumb, and blind.

As the meds peeled back further, it only got worse. I began to remember my past, but the future was still in the dark. The thoughts that tumbled through my mind had a certain rhythm, a dark cadence kept by the bass drum, each blow driving the breath of life from me. What is left?... we are not meant to live like this... why did they save me?... I wish they had let me slip away... how cruel, to save someone so that they could live like I am, not even able to kill myself, not yet anyway...

Ironically, knowing that you can kill yourself later, brings about a certain peace. Having a solution, you can put it out of your mind to a certain degree. A common tactic used by suicide hotline operators is to extract a promise. The caller promises not to kill themselves until a specific amount of time has past. Having made a decision the individual has less anxiety, and has time in which they can be talked out of it.

The cycle repeated itself as the pain meds were administered and then wore off. In the beginning they were mostly a repeat of the initial revelation. I just would not remember having gone through it only a few hours prior. It is a common thing for people waking up in the ICU to not remember someone telling them what happened. In those initial cycles, the return of the physical pain as the meds wore off was almost a mercy. Eventually I started to recognize and remember the people around me. Friends and family became the life preserver keeping my head above water. Even if I could not see myself in the future yet, I knew that those people would be there. I recall thinking that if anything could save me, if anything could make life worth living, it would be people. Nothing more specific. Just "people."

The dark thoughts, and the emotions that come with them, never really go away, but they become less frequent. As the physical pain reduced, and the medications were in turn reduced, the fog in my brain went on its way. I started to see not just what I had lost, but also what still remained. My family was still there. My friends were still there. I still had my mind. As I thought more about these things, I thought less about being broken. It was as if the darkness was just filling in the empty space.

We play an active role in how long we feel a particular emotion, but we have little control over their arrival. It is as if we constantly have strange visitors in our house. If we are mindful we notice them right away and know them for what they are. If we feed them they will grow and become more a part of our home. And so I name them and make a choice. Hello anger. Hello fear. Out you go. Hello love. Hello compassion. Make yourselves comfortable. Stay a while.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

the litany against fear from Frank Herbert's Dune


  1. You continue to amaze me, son.

  2. Craig,
    I taught with your Mom a couple of years ago and we go to Christ Community. I have been praying for you and think of you often as I have a 12 year old active boy. You have made me realize how precious yet fragile our life is. I continue to ask God for healing in miraculous ways and hope each day for you. I hope you feel loved beyond words and know that so many are with you in your journey.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences and courage so lucidly. I am a nurse and my first job 29 years ago was in neurosurgery intensive care. I have known your mother since she was a little girl--I used to babysit her. Though we have never met, I send you all kinds of loving thoughts for this transition in your life.

  4. Craig, we are not going to let you go. Your "people" care, but even more importantly, God cares. Keep writing.
    Uncle RJ

  5. Powerful, honest words, Craig. You are a gifted writer, and you are giving us a great gift by sharing your journey with friends, family, and readers. I'm one of your mom's friends from the Writing Academy. You and your family remain in my thoughts and prayers.

  6. Amazing, heartfelt words, Craig. Thank you for taking us through your journey by baring your soul as you are. This can't be an easy thing for you to do. I pray that through your writing you will find healing. You and your mom and dad remain in my prayers. Much love to you all.
    Aunt Vicki

  7. If I didn't know you and read your writings, I'd want to know you. Keep writing-- not just for yourself, but also for others. The intricacy of your ideas and thoughts but the directness of your words is something amazing to be appreciated by so many.


  8. Craig,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your feelings and thoughts through your writing. You probably have no idea how you are touching and/or affecting ALL of our lives in return, in one way or another. Since your accident, I have often wondered what you are really thinking and through this BLOG I am only beginning to understand. You have all of our love and support now and forever. We, Deane and I, are so very happy to be two of the “people” in your life.

    Your Aunt Lori and Uncle Deane

  9. Dear Craig,

    Apropos our conversation, I would like to suggest to you, and to all of your readers, this letter, issued in conjunction with the 1950th anniversary of the Redemption, by Pope John Paul II with the title of "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering":

    I know (or at least am pretty sure) that neither you nor most of your readers have or are familiar with the "theology of suffering," but I think you (and your readers) might find this interesting, and possibly useful.

    In the mean time, keep writing!


  10. Amazing writing. Thank you for sharing your journey with such naked openness. I don't know you, but heard about you through one of your friends in the Hash House Harriers. We look forward to when you can Hash with us and share a beer. I'm glad you have such wonderful "people" whom you know--but there are a lot of us "people" unseen who are on your side too. xo