A broken arm leads to a hospital and a decision—pain medication or a spiritual path?
When I was in my mid twenties I visited the city, staying at a friend’s apartment on 13th Street in the Village. One morning I went out for a short run and fell when I tripped over a bag of laundry. I came to on the hard concrete. My two front teeth were knocked out of my mouth. At first, I was stunned. I didn’t think I could move. I lay on the sidewalk, waiting to see what would happen.
An incredible pain began coursing through my body. But, even worse was a throbbing in my right arm. When I tried to move it, I was overcome. I couldn’t. Apparently, I had broken my arm.
Lucky for me, I was a block from Saint Vincent’s Hospital. After recovering from shock, I began making my way to the emergency room, stopping, along the way, to clutch on to the telephone pole, the phone booth, the shimmering cars along on the street.
I decided I would rather live through the discomfort, regardless of how unbearable, rather than risk relapse.
I’d been sober for six years and had been attending meetings in the city. So, the next morning, I had a small cluster of visitors: a group of three women who I didn’t know. They stood in my hospital room with an enormous bouquet of flowers. The bouquet was so large, I couldn’t see the face of the woman carrying them. The women stood at my bedside for hours.
I am the kind of alcoholic who won’t touch an aspirin, who fears for my life when I have to be put under anesthesia. I have great respect for my disease; I understand it is always inside me, will always be waiting, patiently. So when I was in the hospital and in tremendous agony and the doctors and nurses kept telling me to take the pain medication, I refused. That didn’t stop them from pressuring me, though, and, at times, I felt like I was back in high school being egged on to try drugs when I didn’t want to. I didn’t give in, despite the pressure and, as a result, I learned to live with the incredible throbbing in my arm; the ache that bled, eventually, into the rest of my body.
The relentless throbbing was excruciating and only grew worse as the days passed. Physical pain taxes the body. I couldn’t sleep and was unable to concentrate. But I knew, I could see, that, regardless, I did not want to take anything. The risk for me was too great. I know that if one’s pain equals the exact amount of medication given, the only thing the medicine does is wipe out the pain. But there is also the chance of a brief overlap: if given a tiny bit more than needed, I would experience a high. And just a taste of that high was all I needed to wake the monster. I didn’t want to risk it. I decided I would rather live through the discomfort, regardless of how unbearable, rather than risk relapse.
It helped that the woman in the bed next me kept screaming for more Demerol. Hysterical, she screamed, in drugged desperation, night and day, in what can only be described as animal-like cries. Reduced to her lowest self, drunk on the meds, she served as a kind of alarm for me. Her screams reminded me where I could be if I gave in. I thanked my Higher Power for this reminder. I knew I’d made the best decision for myself.
But, after five days of this: five days of no sleep, five days of pulsing agony, my body was exhausted, my arm hurt so bad that it was like a wound coursing through my entire body. I could feel it in my bones, in my teeth. I didn’t know if I could go on. My entire body was stiff, wincing from the injury. And that’s when the miracle happened.
In the middle of the night on the fifth day, I heard the sound of a cart being pushed into my room. The lights were not on, so I couldn’t see anything. Then, as the cart and the figure pushing the cart moved nearer, I could see the bare outline of a man. Like a ghost, the night nurse dressed in white appeared to me.
He asked me why I was awake so late. When I told him, that I was afraid of taking the drugs, he stopped what he was doing. He looked at me, and he told me he was a friend of Bill’s.
We didn’t speak further on the issue. He may have told me how much time he had (seven years?), and his name. I seem also to recall that he took my hand in his, and told me it would be all right. But that might be my memory playing tricks on me. What I know is this: he appeared in the dark out of nowhere and, just as quickly, he disappeared. And I never saw him again.
He was my angel, proof that my Higher Power was, and is always, watching over me, taking care of me. I had reached a point where I did not think I could go on, I was in such agony, I felt as if I were disintegrating, as if I were being smudged out into the edges of the room. When the nurse arrived, out of nowhere, when he told me he was a Friend of Bill's, and I knew, then, that he understood, I saw that I was not alone. And this seemingly small gesture saved me.
Sometime after, I fell into a deep sleep, the first sleep in five days. When I woke, late the next morning, my sister was at my bedside. She had driven down from Massachusetts to bring me home with her. Finally, I was out of the darkness. She helped me pack my things. Soon after, I was released from the hospital.
I had made it for more than five days without any pain medication and now, like a dream, the pain receded to the shores of my memory.
Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. Her last piece was on working the steps instead of settling for hugs.