In the intensive care unit, lighting is harsh, the food and privacy terrible, the rooms loud – like a prison made for solitary confinement. There was no comfort in this penitentiary where I felt such bleak, sustained nothing. Months of agony, slipping breaths, a burning fever, the invisible worm, hands severed and bent, bowels turning with the clotted guilt inside; after these months, I wanted nothing more than to wash away the rotten motivation – an escape from the busy apparatus of care. Watching my imperfections and insecurities trickle down the drain, the shower running was the soundtrack of my only privacy. I was able to finally shed with resolve the sob I could never release. And each time, I felt my tension sever with that wet knife, and the drum in my chest begin to ease. Beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat.
But it was the afternoons that were the most difficult to cope with. That terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know that you've had all the showers you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o'clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.
It was in these long nights that I would look up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and see no help or pity in the speckled magnitude. But it was then that I laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world and realised what life is about – getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you're just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something. Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point, you realise that there are more flavours of pain than soft drink. There's the little empty pain of leaving something behind – graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There's the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There are the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn't give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life as they grow and learn. There's the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens. And if you're very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realise that you are standing in a moment of perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last – and yet will remain with you for life.
I used to reflect on the times I spent in the ICU as ones of mortality, vulnerability, mutability and pain – a kind of pain and heartbreak that I thought were unprecedented in the history of the world. But it was this pain that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who are alive, who had ever been alive. And in realising so, I was at peace; at peace with where I had been, at peace with what I had been through, and at peace with where I was headed.
Alex wanted to share the poem by Dylan Thomas titled “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Due to copyright we can not publish the poem in full on the My Life After ICU site, but suggest those reading Alex's story who are interested in reading the poem might find a copy of it at their local library or online.
This story first appeared in the Survive and Thrive Newsletter Issue #1, May 2020. We thank Alex for giving us permission to share this story on the My Life After ICU website.