Note: I recently had to spend four night in hospital with a leg infection (cellulitis). I wrote this towards the end of my stay, when I was recovering, and it’s pretty much unedited from then. It seemed important to try and pin these feelings down, so I could learn from them in the future.
It is always darkest mentally in the hospital ward not just before dawn, but at 2.30 am, when several strangers are snoring or coughing within earshot. That is if they’re not plaintively asking for help, but not using the call bell. Or gasping in pain because the blood pressure monitor hurts them, or their foot with the broken bones has moved just the wrong way.
I’m writing this at 3.30 am in the ward, which is not a good time, but is at least an hour nearer the point when there are other people around to talk to and things happening that will distract you from the thoughts in your head.
It’s my fourth night in hospital with a bad case of cellulitis and it’s a reasonable night because I got some sleep early on and I’m well enough to regulate my mood and remind myself that a few days of poor sleep won’t harm me. My first two nights were the hardest – not with pain (I didn’t have much when not walking), but with the stress of unfamiliar surroundings. It wasn’t the kind of illness that left me lethargic and dozing. And even physical pain would have distracted me from mental pain.
Instead, especially the first night, I lay there with the ancient terror of depressives in my head. Things are never going to get better. This is how it will be for ever, or it will get worse. The first couple of days the women in the ward with me were aged 77, 89 and 99 (we had to give our dates of birth repeatedly to nurses). I’m 53: to my literally feverish mind, I was looking at forty years of pain and decline and aloneness. That was if I lived. I’d heard the phrase “signs of sepsis” used of my case when I was admitted and I knew that could kill. Was it better dying now, my only child aged sixteen, or end with dementia like the 89-year-old? And since I had only one child, would there be any family to visit me in hospital when I got old and ill again, or to provide care support at home so I wasn’t trapped in hospital?
Those weren’t my only thoughts, of course; even I’m not so morbid. But I’m not sure the doctors and nurses always understand that the swings in their statements from “you’ll be discharged tomorrow”, to “we’re keeping you in for at least two nights more” are the triggers of depressive thoughts for me. There might never be an end to this. And that’s compounded when you’re told that you can’t go home because your heart rate is too high. So you’re forcing yourself to try and stay calm when your vital signs are being taken (and I’m disappointed every time I “fail” the test), but since they don’t know what your normal heart rate is and neither do you, could you be trapped here for ever till it gets down to some supposedly ideal state where it’s never been?
I’ve mentally got through my long dark night of the hospital soul, I hope, but tonight someone else had it, at the nursing station at 2.30 am, unable to sleep, wanting to phone her son so she could leave. The nurses persuaded her to go back to bed. I prayed silently for her and later offered her some earplugs, as she’d offered me cough sweets when I’d needed some. This is not an intensive care ward for the desperately ill: all of us will probably get out safely and back to normal life. But some nights it’s hard to believe that.