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Exploring deep into the imaginings of an ICU psychotic

dr evil edit

By Simon Davies

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog on the Privacy Surgeon about my recent experiences during coma and clinical death. I thought at the time that this move was a little self-indulgent, but hey! This is – after all – a site dedicated to aspects of privacy, and that chapter of my life is about as private as one can get. Call it an exercise in testing the limits of disclosure.

I’m about to test those limits one more time. Friends and colleagues – and many readers who I do not personally know – have asked me to elaborate on that blog. Presumably they want the juicy missing bits.

OK, so I’ll do it. I have no intention of getting all heavy and serious on this page, but before I become lost in the world of my past-craziness and absurdity during that period, I should mention that this article is dedicated to the support of all those poor souls who have been through similar horrors. I speak of prolonged coma and internment in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The repercussions of this treatment regime need to be more widely understood, particularly amongst friends, family and the supporting medical staff. Millions of people each year have to find their way through the mental and physical turbulence of an ICU, and many never recover from the mental trauma.

I think I can now empathise with anyone out there who has experienced an alien abduction. It was surreal and overwhelming, but I tried to maintain a grasp on reality through light banter and humour.

Just as a quick recap, I was about to speak earlier this year at a conference when, annoyingly, I suffered a massive heart attack (the audience was unaware of this drama at the time and apparently just assumed I was playing cards in a pub, or something similar).

I have no memory of any of the events that followed, apart from one haunting dream sequence at the Crossroads (which I discussed in the first blog) and a period of intense delirium, which I’ll come to shortly. I have to rely on accounts given by the many friends who stayed with me, along with stories from the long-suffering medical staff.

So, I had the heart attack, caused damage to a burger bar in the throes of my collapse and then went into a five-week coma (I’ll skip details of the horrible stuff like contracting devastating afflictions such as the MRSA Super bug).

There I was, hooked up to banks of machinery and vast columns of drug containers that coursed through my system from every limb. Inscrutable medical things constantly went “bing” and “beep”. Then there was all the breathing apparatus, a ventilator in my throat and some machine behind my head that I later learned cost $5 Million. Impressive.

After a few weeks in this precarious situation, the doctors started to get worried. You can tell when doctors are worried when they gather in bunches of five in the corner and talk in hushed tones. If I was to be left in the coma they would have to perform a tracheotomy and god-knows what else. Not to mention the bladder catheter that had been wedged in me for far too long and might end up stuck there forever.

Urged by my friends to avoid the tracheotomy at any cost, they decided to try jump-starting me out of the coma. This involved pumping me with masses of high grade drugs like Dopamine. I cannot remember the name of all the substances that were lined up for me, but readers who recall Tom Lehrer’s “The Element Song” will get the picture. icu image

Apparently, I came to. Very slowly. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but I would still not recommend it to anyone. I think I can now empathise with anyone out there who has experienced an alien abduction. It was surreal and overwhelming, but I tried to maintain a grasp on reality through light banter and humour.

Are these my feet?” I croaked at a passing nurse.

That was the end of the good times. Immediately afterwards, the corrosive impact of coming down off thirty kilos of hard-core medical drugs kicked in and I started to go mad.

For the record, I am blessed with the most amazing and supportive friends. They are most likely what pulled me through. They travelled even from other countries to be with an inert body, singing and playing music and reading stories to reach my mind. However there are three in particular who stayed with me day after interminable day, living almost what I was living, but dealing with all the crap of which I was not aware. When I finally surfaced, I was the main piece of crap they had to deal with.

These Three Musketeers turned up as usual, overjoyed that I was alive and speaking. I motioned them to gather closely around me.

Look”, I whispered, “we’re all professionals here aren’t we?”

They nodded in agreement, and later told me about their glee that the old Simon had returned from the abyss.

You’re a professional – I’m a professional”, I continued.

the-twilight-zone 2They kept nodding and smiling, enthusiastically waiting for some lucid conversation from me.

OK, here’s what we have to do” I earnestly said. “We need to get some really wide stretchy pants to wear so we can hide all this machinery and sneak outside. No-one will notice”.

Their faces dropped in dismay.

Apparently I was in need of a whisky and cigarette, but the thoughtless medical staff were not supplying me with any. My friends did try to explain that I had Battlestar Galactica hooked up to me, but I was having none of that silly argument. I knew I could hide the machinery in those stretchy pants, if I could just find a pair. Of course, in the real world, I couldn’t even walk a step without falling over, but in my head I could run around Monaco, so all was fine.

ICU Psychosis is a severe delerium, and it is impossible to guess what hidden element of one’s psyche will emerge at any minute.

As dreams merged with psychotic fantasy I became more unstable. I am told that, for example, I was inclined to shout “don’t you DARE walk away from me” at any medical staff who refused to spend time with me (remember I had no idea I was in ICU and that these people might have more urgent tasks to perform). Another poor nurse had to cope with me calling her “crazy” and that she had lost it in the head. This is because she insisted it was evening, whereas I knew it was morning and the whole place had entered into a conspiracy to deceive me. I demanded to see a Member of Parliament.

Oh, I also threatened to complain to the Data Protection Authority about those hidden CCTV cameras that I discovered in my room (which, by the way, really do exist in all areas with vulnerable patients). I was wondering why it was that I couldn’t even grab my ceiling hanger without some peeved nurse barging into my room and demanding “What are you doing Mr Davies?” Call me stupid, but it took me three days to work out I was being bugged. Of course I should have been more sensitive about the sponge baths given by total strangers, but I knew I would wreak my revenge at some point when my elected representative arrived.

I was a terrible patient, but I was suffering severe delusions. At one point I ripped out all my monitors and tried to remove my catheter before demanding – in a small sea of blood – to be discharged. Again, my friends came swiftly to the rescue. “Get me to Amsterdam!” I demanded.

The dreams and visions escalated and became more frighteningly (and sometimes beautifully) real. At first they were all centered on the hospital environment. I was routinely invited to argue medical ethics with the doctors and at one point caused a rebellion over my views on Patient Autonomy versus Beneficence. “Don’t argue with me on that point”, I warned the Medical Director. “I was an adviser to the British Medical Association” (well, that last bit at least is true).

As with even the most ordinary dreams, there’s often a real-life catalyst – a true event or memory from recent times that directly triggers the dream (apologies to any Freud enthusiasts out there). In the case of ICU Psychosis, that catalyst can cause distress to patients and friends, chiefly because it appears to verify what otherwise would be dismissed as just a mad vision.

These dreams were terrifying. There I was in Monaco in 1961, trying desperately to return to my time, and that damned machine wouldn’t function. And where were my time-traveling friends when I needed them? Probably at a casino. I was stuck there in a hospital gown, with no money and glaring at this useless device that I recall had a plate stating “Patent Act, 1948”.

One such event was my real-life contact with a nurse who I shall name “Bobbie”, which turned into a long and torrid affair. I explained to my friends, in a tone of absolute sincerity, that Bobbie used to give me sponge baths and that we got intimate under a huge palm tree in the corner of a consulting room. The staff confirmed that indeed there was a Bobbie who gave sponge baths. Of course the validity of my affair was blown apart when it became clear that I was not able to even leave my bed during the period. Still, deep in a coma, I knew Bobbie was real. Spooky.

Some readers will be familiar with the Austin Powers spy spoof film series. Who could have imagined that I would be chosen as the next Doctor Evil. I was not happy with some of the press commentary though, given that Angelina Jolie had controversially refused to work with me, but that’s her problem. I had receptions to attend.

However, it was the time traveling saga that really brought me to the deepest point. The “beep beep beep” of a heart monitor had, in my head, become a time machine. Two of my closest friends were, ipso facto, time travelers. I knew they were time travelers because the evidence was around me all the time, going “beep beep beep”.

These dreams were terrifying. There I was in Monaco in 1961, trying desperately to return to my time, and that damned machine wouldn’t function. And where were my time-traveling friends when I needed them? Probably at a casino. I was stuck there in a hospital gown, with no money and glaring at this useless device that I recall had a plate stating “Patent Act, 1948”. Even now I can recall every smell and colour, down to the number of stairs leading to the apartment I was squatting. It wasn’t just one dream – it was a running sequence over days that seemed to stretch into years. I wouldn’t even describe them as dreams. They were more like alternative realities, each feeding off the power of the others.

Such horribly vivid visions are a frequent effect of this form of madness. So when the torture dreams inevitably began, they were anything but symbolic. I was tortured and tormented by medical staff to such an extent that my pain and fear were greater than anything in my life. On one occasion I was strapped into a dental chair with thumb clamps applied and my teeth ground to the gum without anaesthetic (such imaginings are a common factor among long-term ICU patients).

I actually did warn one doctor about the Quentin Tarantino scenes happening in the basement, but I think he just pumped me with more drugs and I then returned to that basement. Or to Monaco.

I had one friend. She was called “Bubbles”, and she was, in fact, a tray of bubbles. We talked a lot in her house about the time machine while having whisky. Well, I had the whisky. I recall every syllable of our conversations. One exchange went as follows:

Bubbles: “Why don’t you ask the doctors to help you with the time machine?”

Me: “It’s no use. They’re only good at digital stuff and that machine is Patent Act 1948 analogue”.

Still, I did invite Bubbles to be my guest at the Dr Evil reception.

After a while – for anyone – all this stuff becomes too much. Like Peter Sellers, it is then necessary to wear a metaphorical hat to keep going. I adopted a voice. It was (I thought) a pretty good impression of Marlin Brando in the Godfather. I could speak in a half articulate way by doing that. Otherwise, I just didn’t have the capacity to talk. To this day I wonder what passing visitors and staff thought when they heard the modern equivalent of “I’ll give him an offer he can’t refuse” drifting from an isolation room.

Things improved over the next two weeks, but not without a huge amount of effort from all sides. My partner still suffers the trauma of those events. My other two musketeers had to deal with my continuing insistence that they were time travelers, even after the psychosis had passed. All the while, there existed the threat of being pulled back into that labyrinth. There’s sometimes a fine line between normality and insanity, and for a while I certainly sensed the presence of that line.

Was there any support from the hospital? Sadly, no. ICU was concerned only with bringing me back to life. Cardiology was focused on my heart. Physiotherapy was fixated on bodily rehabilitation. That gap in medical services must be mended. If this issue is not addressed, Monaco in 1961 will soon be over-populated with people like me.