Suicide and the
Emergency Room
I shuffled into the emergency room behind Armand. He consulted with a burly triage nurse who planted herself in my path.

"What happened to you, sir?"

"I had an accident."

She wrapped a meaty hand around my arm and said, "Come with me," and I learned what happens when you tell a no-nonsense, night shift, emergency room triage nurse to go fuck herself.


Within seconds I was spread-eagled on a gurney, with off duty police officers pinning my arms, while the triage nurse slathered one of my nostrils with Vaseline. A nurse's aide applied Vaseline to the end of a tube, five feet long, with the circumference --- from my point of view, at least --- of a garden hose.

"What's that for?"

"We pump liquid charcoal into your stomach. It sucks up the poison. Then we pump it out. Then we do it again."

I was flummoxed by the geography. "But the tube goes ... ?"

"Up your nose, down your throat, and into your stomach."

"Over the river and through the woods." I made her smile. The aide unbuttoned my shirt and the triage nurse lost her smile, gaping at my chest, where I had carved a J and then tried to revise it into a T with the serrated edge of a fish-scaling knife.

"You're having an interesting evening," the nurse said.

A resident arrived, and Armand showed him the empty prescription bottles he had collected from my floor. The resident was Hispanic, stocky, with a shaved head and an earring. He snapped his gum and rocked on his heels, as if he had overdosed on caffeine. Coldly, he studied my body carvings. He glanced at a chart and mispronounced my name. He grilled me concerning the number of pills I'd swallowed and the amount of alcohol I'd consumed. I felt people at my feet, tugging off my shoes. I felt other hands pricking me with needles. I saw I.V. tubes dangling from translucent sacks on metal poles. I kept my eye on the greased tube as another aide attached it to something that looked like a microwave oven, on a cart with wheels. I felt faint. The lights burned brighter, the faces of the people surrounding me dimmed, and I began to lose the ability to connect voices to faces. The resident jammed the tube up my nose, and I cursed him until the tube entered my throat and gagging rendered cursing impossible.

After some hours in the emergency room, ingesting and regurgitating liquid charcoal, courtesy of the belching compressor, I was admitted to a regular room.

My arms were strapped to the bed rails to prevent me from dislodging the I.V. lines. Although the stomach pump had been disconnected, the tube remained, dangling from my nose. When the day shift nurse came on duty I told her my name was Babar.

"Well, my name is Larene. You let me know if there's anything you need."

Larene's skin was coal-black, and she wore her hair in cornrows studded with beads that clicked.

"Can you take this tube out of my nose?"

Larene checked my chart. "I don't see any orders to have it removed."

My head ached, with my sinuses adhering to the tube. "I don't see the point of keeping it in. If you've pumped my stomach. If it's been pumped..."

Larene patted my hand. "Maybe they're planning to pump it some more. Maybe you put so much poison into your system they're just going to pump and pump for Lord knows how much longer."

My roommate was large and ashen; his hospital gown couldn't contain the wads of gray flesh. With his hand poised on the controls of the single television that hung between our beds, he asked in a weary voice, "Do you object to professional wrestling?" "Philosophically, no. Maybe on an aesthetic level."

He never spoke to me again.

Just as I had second thoughts about killing myself, I was suffering second (third?) thoughts about not killing myself. My interior soliloquies were circular, self-pitying, and exasperating, along the lines of: I don't deserve to live, but I don't have the courage to kill myself, which makes me even less worthy to live. These reflections intensified as the hours passed, with my mind becoming hyperalert thanks to the professional vacuuming my system had received. This mental clarity was not welcome; I yearned for stupor. But the doctors denied my requests for painkillers, even aspirin.

"I don't see any orders for medication," Larene trilled in a singsong voice I came to identify as faux-sympathetic. "I guess they figure you already took enough drugs."

Despite my revived mental acuity --- and nothing to do but lie on my back and think --- I collected no epiphanies, only emptiness and doubt.

Larene followed me the few steps to the bathroom, guiding the wheeled stand that supported the bags of fluids and tangles of tubes that were attached to my arms. She revealed, in the first hours of our relationship, that she was a deaconess of her church and a sometimes substitute preacher. She was proud of a particular sermon her flock clamored to hear.

"It is about fear." She spelled it out. "F. E.A.R. Do you know what that stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real. Like you have evidence that God does not love you. Like you have evidence that life is not worth living. But this evidence is not real. It is in your mind." Apparently, when Larene fell into her preaching mode, she stopped using contractions. "But your mind has the ability to make these false things appear to you to be real." She drew out the last, key words of each sentence, "fear, "mind," "real," adding breath to her voice, propelling her words through the air to me, her captive audience.

I suffered a lecture from the resident who had been on duty when I arrived in the emergency room. Apparently, I had skated close to mortality, as forty Benadryl are sufficient to cause death.

"Your heart might have stopped at any moment." He snapped his fingers for emphasis. "Or you might have slipped into unconsciousness before getting help. Or you might have fallen and bumped your head, knocking yourself out. Or you might have fallen into a deep sleep and choked on your own vomit. Or..."

He reminded me of a waiter at a restaurant with too many specials on the menu. I cut him off. "It was an accident. I didn't want to die."

"I'm thinking of sending you to the psych unit. Have you ever seen a psychiatrist?"

I attempted my most reasonable-sounding voice. "Only for research. A couple of years ago I was working on a script for Jodie Foster about schizophrenia." The resident's eyes widened. I realized I might be sounding delusional. "It's true. I'm a Hollywood screenwriter. I know everyone claims to be a screenwriter these days. I bet you're working on a screenplay. "

The resident ran his hands over the lacerations on my arms and poked at the letters carved into my chest, checking, he said, for infection. He refused to discharge me or remove the tube from my nose. In fact, he prescribed another dose of liquid charcoal. A compressor was wheeled into the room and I endured another stomach-pumping session. My roommate sat on the edge of his bed facing me, taking in the procedure, eating potato chips.

I planned to leave, with or without a doctor's discharge.

"What about those I.V. lines?" Larene was skeptical. "You expect me to follow you down the street, pushing that stand?"

"I'll pull them out."

"You gonna pull out that tube?"

I wrapped both hands around it and tugged. Immediately I began to gag and surrendered. Larene left the room laughing.

Armand stopped by to assure me that my dogs were being fed and walked.

"Would you pull this tube out of my nose? I can't do it. I just want to go home."

Armand answered "No" and left.

My jumbo roommate's copious wife gaped at me in horror.

"Just pull out this tube. The doctors don't care. They're not using it. They're just leaving it in to make some kind of statement."

She waddled to her husband's side of the room and yanked the privacy curtain closed. I never saw her leave. She must have crept past after I fell asleep. I confronted a young woman in green scrubs. "They've finished pumping my stomach. just grab hold and pull."

"Mister," she pleaded, "I'm not a doctor. I'm maintenance. I clean."

"For God's sake, you don't need a medical degree. Please!"

I never saw her again.

Larene entered my room at the beginning of her shift at 5:30 A.M. She stood as a silhouette in the doorway, holding something in her hands. It might have been my chart or it might have been a Bible.

Suicide is a sin," she proclaimed. "Do you want to know why?"

"A..." I launched into an alphabetical list of complaints. "I might have been asleep. And B... "

"Suicide is a sin because it is selfish."

"It's against the law for you to preach religion to me."

"The law?" She lobbed the word across the darkened room.

"What're you gonna do? Have me arrested?"

On the third morning of my hospital stay, I plucked the I.V. lines from my arms. My hands had been freed from the bed rails within hours of my being admitted, by Larene, muttering something about "patients' rights."

It was early morning. My roommate was snoring. The television lit the room with flickering images, and the sound played, tinny and remote, from a speaker built into his bed. The hospital corridor was quiet, with the midnight shift waiting for relief I intended to leave the hospital, hail a cab on the street, and find my way home. It was not too late to go to Hungary with Ethan and Johann, but I wasn't sure I could bear it. I yearned to sink into my own bed and pull the covers over my head.

I peeled away tape and gripped the exposed section of a catheter, easing the submerged needle from vein and skin. A drop of blood appeared at the site of removal. For some reason I dabbed this blood onto my finger and tasted it.

I yanked the I.V. lines from my other arm. I anticipated dressing, skulking out of the hospital, and dealing with the tube hanging from my nose in due course. I believed I could manage it. After all, I had wrapped myself in barbed wire.

Beneath my mental plans for heading home, retreating to my bed, and sinking to sleep beneath an heirloom quilt, another plan took shape. In this second plan, I would take a taxi to Poughkeepsie, to a cop spot, locate a dealer, buy crack or powdered cocaine (this plan required a detour to an ATM), return home with the drugs and "party." The self-destructive quality of this plan was so evident that my stomach flipped; still, I couldn't banish it from my thoughts. As if embarrassed, I held this plan submerged beneath the first, like a set of transparencies used by teachers for classroom presentations, with images from each plan alternating in my mind's eye: my bed, my grandmother's quilt, my dogs, the familiar cop spot, a line of coke splayed across my glass-topped nightstand.

It seemed as if two people were using the same brain and one of them had the louder, public voice and declaimed unreliable --- but sincere --- intentions, while the other spoke in a whisper, but always the truth. It was my intention --- really --- to go home to sleep. Yet I knew the chances of going directly home, without a rerouting to Poughkeepsie to cop drugs, were small, since the idea had presented itself. I may struggle to cling to my original intentions, to blot out the second plan with the first, but the outcome remained murky, a toss-up. From the moment the idea of copping and using drugs entered my mind I was beholden to it.

Afraid to venture from the hospital, to test this theory, I lay on my bed gaping at the muted television. The I.V. lines hung useless past my bed, catheters pointing to the floor, and remained so for several hours, with staff coming and going, delivering and reclaiming a breakfast tray, checking my temperature, and inquiring about my insurance plan.

--- From Blue Days, Black Nights
Ron Nyswaner
©2004, Alyson Books
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