When dealing with pain, the nighttime forms the biggest challenge, since for some reason everything is multiplied: the pain, the isolation, the loneliness, the arising fears. The nights in the first week after major surgery for instance seem to last eternally.
I remember one such night about two years ago after a particularly extensive operation. I think it was the third night after the operation. By then, the pain is not only from operation wounds and fractures but every bone, joint, muscle and tissue hurt after lying in the same posture for days on end, because you cannot move and bedsores start to kick in. Any sense of time completely lost in the midst of the morphine haze from the two morphine drips, I spend the time subsequently by dozing off a little and then looking at the clock on the bedside table, hoping maybe it has advanced at least half an hour, but always to find that it is only a few minutes later than the previous time I checked. Time has become like a rubber band, every minute stretches and stretches and stretches, to infinity, making the dark night last forever. A little after 1:00 am, when the pressure on my spine from lying on my back for days has become terrible, I tried to shift, turn a little to one side, but impossible, I cannot move. I decide to call for the night nurse and see if I can perhaps manage with some help.
This human being
It takes a while before the nurse answers, it must be a busy night. When she finally comes, she enters the room only halfway, staying at a distance from the bed. Not a good sign. It’s dark in the room, out of the corner of my eye I can only see her silhouette against the light from the open door, I sense agitation emanating from her, something is not right at all. Throat bone dry and sore from the respiration tube my voice is a hoarse whisper. Trying to bridge the distance, I ask if she can help me to shift a little to one side. She snaps: “You are not allowed to turn!” This is not true, she knows it and I know it. She is flatly refusing to do something. I’ve been on this ward frequently due to the unending schedule of operations. Notwithstanding the understaffed situation that seems to be common for most healthcare institutions, usually, the staff here is friendly and helpful, including this nurse, but she has the tendency to become snappy when she is stressed. It is a big ward and there is only one nurse during the night, and a lot of patients recently operated on at the moment, so gathering from her reaction things must be rather tough tonight. But right now this nurse is the only human being in the whole universe that I’ve got to be there for me in some small way in this dark night, and yet she is not able to. She is very stressed and annoyed; her agitation fills the single-bed hospital room like a dark cloud, intensifying the shadows. I remain silent; I know I am in no position to argue the situation. She hesitates, not quite sure how to read my silence, she then turns abruptly and leaves the room.
I am alone in a hospital room 900 kilometres from home in a foreign country, everything and everyone familiar is far away. It is just over 1.30 am, the worst part of the endless night is still to come. A feeling of utter loneliness and abandonment engulfs me like a huge wave. My mind is trapped like a caged bird in this terrible now without escape. I focus to prevent it from being hurled into dark pits of desperation and existential fear opening up all around. The flat rejection of the nurse in a situation where I am most vulnerable and helpless is spiralling my mind into withdrawal, into isolation from sheer panic. I somehow need to find my way back. To reverse the withdrawal I use all the willpower I can summon to focus and to expand my awareness. First to the hospital bed: I feel its size, its robustness, how it supports my aching body together with all the many tubes coming in and out of it; I then expand to feel the space of the room — it is pleasant and spacious; expand to its walls and beyond, to the ward, the fellow patients — lots of them no doubt in pain and without sleep like me; to the whole hospital, the city, to my friends far away. When my awareness expands to include it all, I become suddenly aware of this stream of love and care coming towards me from all those thinking of me, wishing me well. They may be far away and at sleep now and yet this stream is still pouring forth from them like a river of light. The stream simply leaves no room for feelings of entrapment, despair, loneliness, abandonment, such powerful emotions a moment ago, and yet where did they go? They have simply evaporated in the light of the stream when I was able to reverse the isolation and reconnect. The darkness that fills the room, where does it go when you turn on the light switch? Like darkness, these feelings, despite their all-powerful and overwhelming appearance, don’t seem to have a real substance in the end.
Nothing has changed: the lonely hospital room, the excruciating pain, the endless night ahead, the terrible weariness and exhaustion, all still there. And yet my experience of it now is very different. There is a sense of being carried, being embraced, me and everything I am going through. It is all right to just be and endure without flinching or needing to escape.
Thanks to Anna, bows to you as always.