Emotions in the Emergency Ward
Hold back your emotions, patience is a skill.
I stood to the left side at the foot of my mother’s hospital bed in the emergency ward. I was motionless and speechless. A pure, furious rage boiled at the top of my throat, consuming me. One doctor and one nurse were present. They had the hospital bed tilted at an almost forty-five-degree angle so that my mother’s head tilted towards the floor. They had tried for an hour to stick a needle in her each of her arms to take a blood sample. They failed. Her veins were deteriorated and weak from fifteen years of severe alcohol abuse. So, with her blood flowing towards her head, they stuck a needle in her neck. She winced and moaned in pain; the only kind of scream she could manage. She was weak, tired, and dying, but could still express her pain. The suffering on her face nearly broke me; tears and rage thrashed inside until I thought my skin would burst. A mixture of hatred and compassion pulsed in my veins.
Over the last fifteen years I have visited my mother in one hospital or another over fifty times, all for complications from alcohol abuse. I wondered how her life could have gone so wrong.
As the hospital staff continued to take blood from her, an image ran through my mind: I put a gun to my right temple and pulled the trigger. A simulated suicide in my imagination. Not because I desired suicide, but because I felt worn to the bone and fully spent.
I was familiar with that image; it still lives with me every day. Some days the image is passive. Some days, when the psychological pain is high, the image is aggressive and demanding. End it as your DNA dad did, and end the pain like a coward.
I have never attempted suicide, but the image of pulling the trigger of gun at my temple haunts me. A man, a father of sorts, that I have never known took that route when I was a small child.
In the emergency ward that day, I tried to understand something of my mother’s condition and put my own thoughts and emotions aside. I have studied some psychology in University, and a few ideas came to mind.
Sensation and perception are two fundamental principles in psychology. Sensation is the stimulation of sense organs from external stimuli. Perception is the organization and interpretation of those stimuli. The pluck of a guitar string creates a sound wave. Sound waves are vibrating molecules in a medium such as air. They are characterized by their amplitude (wave height and loudness), frequency (wavelength and pitch), and purity (a combination of simultaneous sound waves and timbre). Vibrating molecules impinge on the organs in the ear, causing sensations. Sound is then perceived in the brain; it is an interpretation of vibrating molecules.
Emotions are also perceptions, that is, subjective interpretations of external stimuli. Events in the world stimulate the senses, causing the release of hormones and neurochemicals: the biological basis of emotion and drive. The thoughts and emotions that bubble up from those sensations are the perceptions and interpretations of events. People then act in the world based on those perceptions. If the events and sensations in a person’s life are perceived as causing them torturous emotional pain, then who is to say that those emotions are not torturous? Sound, color, taste, smell, touch, and emotion are perceptions derived from external stimuli and are thereby subjective.
Pain and anguish marked my mother’s life. Much of the grim mistakes early on in her life were not her fault, yet they haunted her. She perceived the sensations of her life events as torturous. She perceived herself as worthless and her emotions as debilitating, so she existed, subjectively, as worthless and in pain. That subjective existence became an objective reality over time. She could not forgive herself or others and tortured herself with alcohol, starvation, and prescription medication. That torture only caused further destruction to her life by adding more mistakes and failures. Perhaps, the worst kind of suicide is one of self-deception and slow self-torture.
“Self-deception is perhaps the cruelest motive of all.”
- Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works, p. 424, 1997)
My mother had been drinking heavily for fifteen years. She destroyed all of her relationships, blaming everyone else for her failures and the unfair circumstances that ruled her life. As an addict, she rarely admitted her faults, even though in her heart, she knew the truth. The worst of it was that before the addiction set in, she was one of the most honest, beautiful, funny, and radiant people. I idolized her before everything fell apart.
I share a few of her stronger personality traits. Such as the fiery grasp on life that can lead to deep relationships and meaningful accomplishments. That same fiery demeanor, when misdirected, can lead to overwhelming depression and resentment.
Watching my mother with a needle in her neck, I felt my sanity leaning over the edge of a cliff. I could almost see something in the mist of my thoughts. How much of all this is her fault? How much is from the tragedies in her past? My mother became a shadow of herself, consumed by a demon. No wonder people believe in demons. She crafted her demons over decades: one drink, one pill, and one hateful moment at a time. I thought of the pain of her past, her mistakes and those of others around her, and her inability to forgive.
Demons are crafted in the mind over time, and it is there that they consume a person. Part of me tried desperately to understand. Part me wished that she would just die. I knew that in time, after her death, the pain would recede and time would move on. Perhaps that frightened me the most.
“It seemed to him that the most horrible fact of human existence was that broken hearts mended.”
— Stephen King (Wizard and Glass, 1997)
The depth of it still resided outside of my grasp. Music is one thing I could grasp. The flow and language of music spoke clearer than my thoughts could.
I had a coffee while my mother slept in the hospital. A melody ran through my mind, offering me comfort. I looked at my younger sister, who had been there in the emergency ward with me the entire day, and I remembered why suicide was not the answer. I held myself together for her sake and my own. My sister felt the tension behind my eyes, but we stayed together and talked while our mother withered away down the hallway. The melody I imagined grew and flowed.
Later at home, I picked up my guitar and brought life to that melody. “This While Under,” was the title I gave that melody. It was something, but my heart still felt as though it was being torn in two by a fundamental set of questions. Should I forgive her and reopen my heart? I can see her pain and why she destroyed herself. Or, should I keep my heart closed off from her? Her contagious misery is like a poison in my veins. Stay close and be poisoned because you love her, or stay away because the poison could ruin you. I remained under the strain of chaos and heartache.
Through music and patience I was able to confront my emotions later rather than spilling them all over the hospital floor. My silence in the hospital was not helpful to my sister, but at least I didn’t lash out at anyone that day. Patience is a skill, and mine almost fell apart that day.
When chaos and heartache reign, be steadfast and keep your heart open. Your heart will mend, and you will be able to avoid the grip of your demons.
Visit my website at jamesdillonr.com. There you can hear my song and part of the above story read aloud over “This While Under” (written and performed by me).
Dillon James R.