(cw: mentions of suicide; blood; illness; hallucination)
You may be wondering how those of us in the ‘high-risk’ categories are doing these days. I, a high-risk person, am also wondering this. The truth is I don’t know, and am having a hard time corraling and parsing the laundry-list of my feelings. But I do want everyone to practice and enforce social distancing. Isn’t that terrible? I’m going around saying “I want you all to be as alone as I am, at all times.”
At the worst moments of my life, in my greatest physical and existential danger, I’ve always been alone; or the people who might have witnessed it, voluntarily or involuntarily, looked away at exactly the wrong moment. (Or, on one memorable occasion, the security cameras pointing at the railroad tracks were down for maintenance.)
Back then I thought: Good. Who’s earned the right to see me in this kind of distress? Now I think: I have arranged my entire life to be as alone as possible. I did this. That means something. In time and space I live by myself, shop by myself, commute by myself, work alone in a cubicle (on a floor of like-minded hermits who rarely leave theirs), and rarely see friends or family. Is that a good thing, necessarily? If it isn’t, why did I spend so long thinking it was? Why was that idea so entrenched in my particular brain?
Listen. A few years ago, just after my asthma diagnosis while I was still figuring out its daily management, I had perhaps my worst yet asthma attack at work and soon realized I had left my rescue inhaler at home. My boss, hearing me wheeze, asked if there was anything he could do. “I can go home and get my puffer,” I said, “and come right back.”
He gave me a dubious look. “But what if something happens?”
I groused, whined, called him a hardass for not letting me leave (in my head: I’m not like that at work), and self-treated with an injudicious amount of coffee. It took about two hours for the wheezing to subside (and three days for the heart palpitations). When I finally got home and took myself aside for some Private Puffer Time, I realized what was obvious to my boss, or what he had not felt needed explaining beyond his single, baffled sentence, thinking I was an apparently sapient adult: If something happens here, there is a floor full of people to call 911 and try to keep you breathing. If something happens in your spinster’s lair, well. Well. How could I be responsible for that? Imagine.
I have a nametag on my bedroom door, stolen when I left a summer job in 1999. It seems to say: This is my office, my private space, even my kingdom, and here you see the flag bearing my crest. Don’t just barge in, or I suppose I mean to say, don’t just invade and start raiding monasteries or whatever. Knock first.
Remember: I live alone. I’ll never not live alone. The only person who reads that nametag is me.
Eighteen years ago, nearly to the day (March 14), I tried to kill myself in public. This is not a secret. I’ve blogged about it before, tweeted about it even. My family and friends know what happened and when. Some of them know where, too. But virtually no one is aware that I wasn’t by myself.
There it is, stated bald-faced: I wasn’t alone.
All the same: I wanted to be alone; and if I had been thinking more clearly, instead of having had what a psychologist about twenty hours later deemed a ‘psychotic break,’ or I mean to say, if I had performed a more rational suicide attempt instead of a half-assed effort with the materials I had on hand in my backpack, I would have planned ahead, and been alone (and left a note: a subject for another day). As alone as I always wanted to be. Instead, in the study carrel literally across from me, separated by the wall of particleboard dividing the rows, someone was studying in silence. A boy, I figured, though I never saw a face or hands; a large boy, long legs folded awkwardly between the constrictive legs of library furniture, light blue jeans, blue-and-white athletic sneakers the size of kayaks. Literally inches from what I was doing.
He heard nothing, or if he did he never reacted, as I lost consciousness. When I came to, it was the wee hours of the following morning, and I was alone at last, as alone as ever, in the dark, glued to a desk in a puddle of congealed blood. Days later when I could think again I thought: Almost, dammit. Almost. So close. And also: That wasn’t bad, was it? Well done, you sneaky thing. He never noticed anything, and he left, and nobody else noticed, and everybody else left, and locked up behind them. How deliciously sly of me. I’ll have to remember this for next time. Harvest useful aspects of this for next time. Remember, I thought, it doesn’t matter how alone you really are; what matters is how alone people make you. So even though I technically had company that night, in every other sense I might as well have been stranded on an iceberg, adrift and spinning in perfect solitude on some slaty-horizoned polar sea.
Years later, when I was living in Calgary (the second tour of duty, I suppose) I left my job, and, unrelatedly, I think, also came down with pneumonia about three months later. I was unemployed and had all the time in the world to be sick (and alone: remember this). I remember, vaguely, the nights of burning and delirium, I remember being confused by the couch (how does this work? why is it so complicated?) and writhing on the floor next to it, I remember struggling to open my balcony door to get the cold air on my face. I didn’t have a thermometer and didn’t know how high my fever was; I did know, vaguely, that my chest hurt on the upward rise of every inhalation, that breathing was very hard (but that was all right, wasn’t it? because life was expected to be hard, in fact if you fucked up and quit your job, it was supposed to be hard, it was a clear case of sucking it up and not being such a princess, so now you have made your bed, in which you must lie, and in which, in the other sense, you must lie, as you tell your worried mother, hundreds of kilometers away, that you’re fine, it’s just a spring cold, am I really okay? i must be okay i must be okay i must be okay when was the last time i ate).
After two weeks of this the disease, perhaps distracted by something, permitted me a rare window of lucidity around ten minutes long, and I realized that, in general, or as an overarching rule, you weren’t really supposed to be coughing up colours. I used the remaining eight minutes after my resulting horrified (though slightly admiring, as if examining an impressionist painting at arm’s length) paralysis to put on my boots and, still in pajamas, drag myself to the medical center two blocks away, where I was diagnosed with bilateral bacterial pneumonia and near-complete pneumothorax of both lungs, sent for X-rays and blood tests (luckily in the same building, the nurse blessedly shoving people out of the way as she hauled me behind her: a big white woman with that sort of I’d Like To See The Manager haircut).
I flat-out refused hospitalization, and they relented after my deep-fried brain managed to produce the phrase ‘nosocomial infection rates,’ so a few hours later they let me go home, accompanied by a thermometer, a lung capacity test machine (flimsy yellow and clear plastic, with two little rattling red balls the size of blueberries), and the most powerful oral antibiotics that you could take outside of a supervised intravenous drip.
These, incidentally, caused an absolute shedload of side effects, including hallucinations; and so another two weeks passed as I thrashed and shouted at invisible strangers, took phonecalls that never happened, tried to attend a job interview (that didn’t exist) in a dress shirt and blazer (and no pants) (I made it halfway down the hall before I realized what was happening). Every three days I waited for a window where I wasn’t seeing more than a dozen things crawling the walls, and went back to get another X-ray to see if my lungs had fixed themselves or whether they’d have to stick a steel tube through my chest wall and do it manually (“resufflation”).
“It looks as if there were already adhesions here,” the doctor said on my third or fourth trip, while we were discussing the pros and cons of continually irradiating my boobs. “Has this happened before?”
“Yeah. Uh. Should I have mentioned that?”
He frowned. The X-rays looked familiar by that point, and I no longer had to beg the tech to let me see the image: one lung visibly clearing up, the other a used teabag in every respect—shape, size, apparent density, the hurt-looking crenellated edges. A Tetley teabag, actually. One of the round ones. Earl Grey. Not the folded-up little oblong bags with the tagged string and the staple, which I didn’t trust; what if the staple came off in your cup and you drank it and it perforated your intestines and you died? What would people say at your funeral?
“Well, you’re well past the point where we’d be able to, say, do laser ablation,” he said while I was staring at the X-ray and thinking about tea.
“What? Laser my…what?”
“The scar tissue,” he said patiently. “It may revascularize and heal. Sometimes ablation can re-stimulate the growth where it’s not permanent. But a lot of this does look permanent.”
“This,” I said.
“The sides of the lungs stick together, you see, when it collapses, that’s what causes that. Adhere. Adhesions.”
“Like plastic wrap. Clinging to itself.”
It was too late, as I asked my family doctor about when I moved back to Edmonton about four months later. No probably about it. I would forever have lowered lung capacity. About one lung and a teabag, I thought; it had a nice rhythm to it, like a vaudeville song, something you’d repurpose for the Muppet Show. Shave-and-a-haircut… one lung! No. Lung-and-a-teabag… two bits!
All this to say… listen to me for a minute. I know I’m rambling. All this to say: I’m the only one who remembers this. I’m the only one who can remember this. I was alone. All those weeks burning and whispering, alone, I’m the only one who remembers that. Up there on the thirty-third floor in the clean air with mountains soft and blue in the distance, and me inside far from everything both in height and width, breathing the dirty smell of burning neurons. No one else remembers this but me.
And that’s where my fear is coming from, if this is fear I feel; it’s coming across to my glands and my memories and my muscles and my nerves as something more like serene resignation. I, who once worked in a level-4 virology lab (three types of hepatitis), may be taken down by a coronavirus like the ones we learned about in our earliest microbiology classes. These cause colds, we were told. Rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. And now this.
I pull myself aside, as if I am trying to talk to someone entirely other, and say: Do you understand that you could die from this? You, with your asthma, with your HFpEF, with your lung-and-a-teabag full of adhesions, with your beta-thalassemia, you who are like that one Simpsons scene where they’re demonstrating that the reason Mr. Burns hasn’t died is that all of his diseases are so frenziedly competing with each other that they’re too busy for any one individual to kill him off.
Ha ha, says the other me. Good one. I’m as tough as fuckin’ nails, my good sir. I play two to five hours of tennis a day. I can leap nets in a single bound. Well, one net, if it’s sagging a little in the center. I can run up and down stairs with nary a squeak from my lungs which, by the way, are as huge and robust as those of a sperm whale. I lifted the back end of a Dodge Neon the other day.
Okay, well. That was then. This is now. You’re not that girl any more. And you had three people helping you with the Neon, also.
You’re not that girl any more and you could die.
Well, she says. Well. (Meet my eyes, damn you. Don’t look at the floor.) Well. It’s probably okay to not be alive, though. Isn’t it? I mean, we already tried. We’re living on borrowed time. We should have succeeded when we tried back in the day, and when we tried again, and that other time we tried. We wanted to die alone. Do we not want that now?
All this to say: No. I fucking want to live. Everybody stay the fuck indoors and wash your hands or I’ll die by myself in my bedroom and liquefy and all that will be found of me is bones. Or I’ll mummify. It’ll depend on whether I have my humidifier running, I guess, because my building is forced-air heating. I’m good to self-isolate; I’m even happy to self-isolate. I spend all my time alone at home anyway. But I need the rest of you to do it too, even if you don’t think I deserve one more shot after trying to die. What does it mean to say that I know I could die in this pandemic and for a while I didn’t care and now I care? Maybe there is an answer. Something about preventability, inevitability.
All this to say: Don’t let me die alone. I want to live. Let me live the necessary days until we can all gather together again, and I can thank the world at large for letting me survive, and I can hug my friends again, and nuzzle my nose against the side of their heads, and sniff the warm napes of their necks as I like to do, being part Komodo dragon and part beetle and apparently part mosquito.
Let me survive being part of a high-risk group and get back to my normal everyday risk.
Let that day come.
(Title from ‘I Sing A Hatred of the Black Machine,’ by Mervyn Peake)