This, the final act, I have found the hardest to write. It leaves a radical openness, and it ends in a painful yet remarkable recovery. A recovery into a world of flesh, bone, stress, bills, home, relationships, bureaucracy, social decay and death. Throughout the two weeks before I fell so ill that I knew I had to call emergency services, I had suicidal thoughts. Where is my life going? What am I doing at 33? Who am I? Erik Erikson, renowned scholar, development psychologist and psychoanalyst famously divided life into nine stages. The first four focus on life between birth and about 12. They are dialectical, in the sense that two options are available, and that certain requirements are needed to progress to the next stage of development. For example, in stage five, roughly 12-18 (although it widely agreed that this stage can continue into one’s early to mid 20s), a person grapples with identity vs role confusion. Growing up in a religious cult, one that emphasized the imminent, wrathful destruction of nearly all of Earth’s human inhabitants, the early stages of development never felt quite complete, so when I reached ‘stage five’ I had to find an identity contra cult. However, the Jehovah’s Witness futility of ‘now’ – of ‘this world’ – the fatalism, amplified my already tenuous, depressive and mentally unstable relationship with myself and others. A sort suicidality runs through the Jehovah Witness cult, and it is no wonder that many people who leave the cult find themselves lost, a life abridged by total familial and community rejection, a life without their erstwhile certainty, albeit an irrational and archaic certainty. So when I took in those life-saving bags of blood, heretical by the cult’s standards, I felt a sense of liberation. For without my break from the cult, this final act could not have been written. In fact, nothing I have written could have been written. For there is an often deadly deadening of the soul wherever Jehovah’s Witnesses go.
. . .
As I lay recovering, varied roommates came and went. An angry, shouting 70-something Sicilian man; followed by a calm, quiet reader; and, of course, my first roommate who worked for Palermo’s Mayoral Culture division. Kind, thoughtful and helpful, he negotiated with nurses in Italian for me, making sure that I was bathed. By the second day after the Festival of Blood, I smelt rotten. The smells of piss, sweat and whatever else came out of my body lingered in the hot room. The staff washed me the first day, and my assistant and friend, Cetty, brought me clothing, a toothbrush and other necessary items. After another bed-scrub, I had a new shirt; still in diapers, I lay, not caring what I looked like, letting the breeze from the large open window caress me. Sleeping, listening to music, fasting for an endoscopy and colonoscopy, more blood came. Bags of blood. The hallucinations stopped. My vision slowly returned to normal (I would not recover my normal vision fully for some two weeks).
After several days, I managed to hobble to the bathroom, take a quick shower, and brush my teeth. A nurse stood by at the door. The staff in University Hospital Policlinico’s Internal Medicine department is largely exceptional. My colonoscopy and endoscopy took place without general anesthetic; a light dose of relaxation medication and local anesthetic helped ease the process. Awake, I viewed the inside of my body. The caverns of my entrails. Nothing. Except the enlarged veins in my rectum. Whatever ‘vascular anomaly’ lived inside my guts (found during the fMRI) could not be found with the scopes. I was then scheduled to have an optic pill examine my insides. Taken across the hospital’s campus, I met an attractive young doctor; he looked like a painting from the Venetian or Tuscan Renaissance. Soft, dark and thick straight hair formed a sort of cap on his head. We joked about the ‘robot pill;’ I asked if he had to watch the entire video. He strapped a belt around me; on the belt a receiver collected the optic data from the pill. He opened a box that looked like a container for Apple ear-pods. A blinking ovoid pill awaited my mouth. I swallowed. Beauty relieves stress.
The pill revealed no internal problems. I knew my rectal veins were the problem; although I am grateful that the physicians ruled out any other causes. A hemorrhoidectomy was needed. After stabilizing my hemoglobin levels to 7.4, I was taken – on day eight or nine – to emergency surgery. Between the scopes, the pill and waiting for surgery, I had fasted for more than four days. I ate a banana. Surprisingly, the surgeon, one of the best for this type of operation in the nation, wanted to perform the operation the same day. As the clock ticked on past 3pm, past 5pm, I assumed, it being a Friday, the surgery would be delayed. Apparently the good doctor had been in on a twelve-hour surgical marathon with a single patient. I waited. Then around 6pm, I was called. Gown, gurney, go. Enter the alien room.
Yes, the room, the surgical theater – with the overhead bright circular lights sitting in mobile, suspended disks, fish tank looking glass enclosures containing liquids unknown, and a table of cutting tools brought the reality of surgery closer; this Real would get even closer. Legs strapped up, butt pointing out, local anesthetic, some ‘sleepy medicine,’ which did not put me to sleep but made most of the trip hazy, and we began. Well the surgeon did. Two-thirds into the surgery, I could feel the scalpel cutting into the fleshy mass protruding from my rectum. I typically like a bit of (medical) pain; I am the type of person who gets excited going to the dentist. But this was different. Imagine pulling teeth out of your anus. A chisel seemed to be banging out bits of flesh; the scalpel sculpted out two large veins from my rectum. Sting. Sting. Sting. Slice. Slice. Legs strapped up, I squirmed, twisted, contorted and gasped. I felt and heard flesh fall into a receptacle underneath my bottom. A huge wad of gauze was shoved up my anus after an iodine bath. Finished.
Taken back to my room on the Emergency Surgery unit, I writhed with pain from head to toe. The nursing staff here were less compassionate than those in Internal Medicine. And I waited for over two hours for IV paracetamol, a mild pain medication. I tried to pee, but I could not. When I stood, my forehead burned as though it was wrapped in hot metal. Dizzy, hot and tired, questioning why I went through with this, I lay thinking I was in trouble. I looked up not being able to pee after a hemorrhoidectomy, only to find that serious nerve damage could block the brain-bladder connection. A rare but possible effect of this type of operation. Nervously, I put on some classical music. I couldn’t listen to music. I turned it off. Pain relief came. I slept. Around 5:30 in the morning I woke with an erection – hallelujah! – and I stood up and peed. I immediately called one of my closest friends; as she lives in San Francisco, I knew she’d likely be awake, and told her about my ability to piss and get an erection. “Well, that’s something, isn’t it?” she said tittering.
That’s 2020, ain’t it?
. . .
This short piece is dedicated to Alexander Verney-Elliott, LB Johnson, Allena Gabosch, who has taught me a great deal about death while helping me survive in life, my anonymous blood donors, the nurses, doctors, surgeons and other staff at the University Hospital Policlinico Paolo Giaccone, and especially those in Internal Medicine and Emergency Surgery. They saved my life.
Consider a one-time $10 donation towards this and other writing: science fiction, novels, interviews with artists, poems and more. Thank you.