The theme of DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) this week is radical acceptance. I have to think of examples of things that have happened/are happening that I find difficult and carry out exercises to achieve acceptance. In part, this involves using particular postures and facial expressions, so it has the added bonus of making me look like a weirdo. At the very least, it’s a good way to get a seat to yourself on the bus. Anyway, one of the things I need to radically accept is an incident from a couple of years ago when my Father became critically ill. Therefore, this week, I am posting a piece I wrote shortly afterwards. Just so no one worries, by the way, my Father did survive.
My father is both alive and dead…
I am standing in my parent’s living room, but it doesn’t feel like my parent’s living room. Mostly this is because the light is too bright. In the evenings my parents always have lamps or dimmed lights, never the full, main lights. It seems odd. Like when you leave the cinema and find that it is still full daylight outside. Wrong. Incongruous. There are other things wrong with the room too. The sofa has a large wet stain on it – urine, I assume. The washing up bowl is on the dining table and has vomit in it. Kneeling on living room floor is a paramedic. I don’t know his name. His equipment is strewn across the floor. Lines, syringe barrels, wrappers, defibrillator – too many things to fully take in.
Jamais vû is the feeling of perceiving familiar surroundings as unfamiliar or unreal. That is what I am experiencing now. There is probably some link to traumatic experiences – the brain trying to protect itself – though I am not sure whether I have read that somewhere.
I’m not moving or doing anything – I probably should. I ask the paramedic if he requires any help. He replies in the negative. I put the washing up bowl back in the sink. My mother said she would deal with the vomit when she returned. Very considerate of her given that I am emetaphobic (scared of vomit). Even more so, given that her husband (my father) was at that moment being loaded into the back of an ambulance, very likely dead or dying.
The ambulance crew would only carry one passenger in addition to my Father. There is only one passenger seat in the front of an ambulance and they needed room to work on my Father in the back. My Mother wanted to go with him. I was mildly relieved that I wouldn’t be allowed in the ambulance. I wanted time to compose myself. Should I feel guilty about this? I’ll add that to the mental list for later consideration.
I help my Mother into the front of the ambulance and pass her a walking stick so that she will be able to manage at the hospital until I get there. I realise I ought to say something comforting. I search my brain for a suitable platitude, but none present themselves. In the end I tell her that I love her. Not a common thing in our family. I cannot bring myself to lie and say that my Father will be alright. I feel that my Mother needs to start preparing herself.
When I return to the house the paramedic is still tidying up his kit. I go to telephone a taxi, realising I am not fit to drive. I become aware of the adrenaline moving through my circulatory system. I can visualise the molecules travelling in my blood stream, reaching their target organs. Heart rate is increased; pupils dilate; perspiration increases. A useful response if you are being chased by a lion. Not useful if your Father has just suffered a triple A.
A triple A is an abdominal aortic aneurism. The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body. It runs from the heart’s left ventricle and then roughly centrally down the torso. In my Father, a short section had become distended and finally ruptured . While we waited for the ambulance, and unbeknownst to me, he was bleeding to death. As all the blood in his body (excepting that going to the lungs) flows through this blood vessel, the rate of blood loss from a rupture is very high. Most people die within minutes. For some reason my Father had lasted almost an hour. I know a lot about science, but not enough to save my Father.
The paramedic offers to drive me to the hospital. He needs to follow the ambulance anyway, as they have taken his bottle of oxygen and he needs to retrieve it. I let the paramedic out, turn out the lights, and close the front door of the house.
The air outside is pleasantly cool. I climb into the passenger seat of the paramedic’s car. Before setting off he winds down both windows. He apologises for the cold air, but explains that he is sweating so much that the car will steam up if he does not.
I feel a clash in my head every time a mundane subject competes for attention with the screaming voice that is telling me that my Father is dying.
The paramedic again apologises, this time for obeying the speed limit. I understand perfectly, we are not an emergency. Whatever I do now will have no effect on my Father’s chances of survival. I am in suspended animation.
I’ve always enjoyed being driven at night. Watching the lights and the people go by from the comfort of a car. Thinking time…………… The familiar sights are comforting. Knowing that the world continues to turn in spite of what is happening. I feel quite detached and calm. I thought I would be angry that the people we pass are indifferent to my plight, but I am not. I am surprised by how little I am changed by the events of the evening. I thought that, in the face of trauma and death, I would lose something of myself, but I have not. I thought I might become hysterical, or pray to a God I don’t believe in, but I do none of these things. I continue to be ruled by the God of logic, who tells me that my Father’s chances of survival stand at less than 5%. I am accepting of this fact.
The radio comes to life and asks the paramedic for his status. He quickly, hastily, responds that he is following the ambulance and has “the gentleman’s daughter in the car” with him. It is clear that he does not want the radio operator to convey information I should not hear.
It takes approximately 30 minutes to travel from my parents’ house to the nearest A and E department. 30 minutes in which I cannot know if my Father is alive or dead. For those 30 minutes, my Father is Schrödinger’s cat – I can think of him as being both alive and dead. I experiment with thinking about both. I feel nothing. I rehearse what I might say to my Mother. I want to stay in this car, in the dark, travelling for ever.
I realise that I have not spoken for some time. I make polite conversation with the paramedic. After all, for him, this is just a night at work. Why should he suffer? He possibly thinks I am insane. Or maybe everyone reacts like this. It doesn’t matter either way, in a few days he will have forgotten this job, I am sure.
The hospital draws inexorably closer. I don’t want to arrive, but this is irrelevant to the progress we make. I thank the paramedic and exit the car. I stand alone, in the dark of the car park and make a cigarette. I smoke it slowly. No one can see me. I could just turn around and walk away. It would make no difference. I realise that this is a fiction. The entrance of the hospital faces me. Lights, people, noise and somewhere inside my Father. I feel like it might swallow me whole. My legs start to move without conscious decision and I go into the light.