nurse

So. It’s been a while. When I wrote in my sidebar that posting was likely to be intermittent, I didn’t anticipate taking six months off.  But here we are.

I’m ready to make a stab at writing about the events of last summer. Not necessarily in chronological order, but in whatever format works for me.  Some of these experiences are hard to put into words, but I will try.

* * * * * * * * *

My most vivid memory of my month-long stay at the Tenon Hospital in Paris is of a nurse I met on August 29th.

I’d just spent the longest twelve hours of my life in the emergency room, after being deposited there by a charming fireman shortly after midnight.  (In France, for some reason, medical first responders are firemen. And often attractive in my – albeit limited – experience. I have on occasion seen them out and about jogging in short shorts, and it is invariably a pleasure.)

I can’t say I would recommend an overnight stay in the Tenon emergency room to anyone.

My memory is foggy, as I had ingested (then spontaneously expelled) a not inconsiderable quantity of sleeping pills and sloe gin, but I spent a great deal of time quietly sobbing in a foetal position. I had a pulsing headache, and the overhead lights were causing me physical pain. Parked in a large room on an uncomfortable trolley bed behind a waist-high partition, I wore nothing but a standard-issue paper gown which gaped open at the back. I wasn’t permitted access to my phone or the few possessions I’d grabbed on my way out.

One fellow patient shouted for hours: variations on the theme of “let me out, you can’t keep me here against my will”.  I jammed my fingers into my ears, but there was no way to effectively block out the ranting and I remember thinking that if I wasn’t already insane upon arrival, thanks to these various assaults on my nerves and senses I’d surely be certifiable on departure.  Another patient – or it may have been the same one – defecated all over the floor.  I didn’t see or smell it, and I am thankful for this small mercy, but I heard a nurse swearing copiously about having to hose him down and mop it up.

Salvation came in the form of the on-duty psychiatrist, who had examined me when I was admitted. She’d asked me to consider a voluntary stay on their small psychiatric ward, specialised in psycho-trauma and addictions. There were about thirty beds, in single or double rooms, and most patients, she explained, were suffering from depression, or under treatment for alcohol addiction. The majority were female.  It was a calm, non-threatening environment where I could rest, recover and get the help I needed. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest this was not.

I’m not sure what the outcome would have been had I declined this offer, but it didn’t occur to me to do so.

She returned after a few hours with good news: a bed would be ready for me at 2pm, about 6 hours later. I’d just have to hang in there for a few more interminable hours.  Once on the ward, she warned me that there would be a policy of zero contact with the outside world for the first 72 hours. No phone, and no visitors. Panicking, I managed to negotiate the temporary return of my phone for an hour (and the loan of a charger) so that I could text platitudes to my nearest and dearest, no doubt frantic with worry.  I was okay. I was going to be in good hands. I was sorry for the inconvenience.  (Apparently, I’d already sent some semi-coherent texts to them from the ambulance, but I have no memory of that).

My daughter’s father, the only adult in Paris at that time with keys to my apartment, was  duly tasked with packing a bag and dropping it off that evening, without being allowed to see me. No mean feat, given we had separated a decade ago and he didn’t really know his way around my apartment, let alone my underwear drawer. I think my daughter helped him pack. I can’t bear to imagine that scene.

I was escorted across the hospital in a wheelchair – across a carpark, down several long corridors, up a lift to the sixth floor – with a blanket for modesty. My belongings had been corralled into a regulation plastic bag.  The room – number 9,  Salle Janet – was spare and institutional.  A generic hospital bed and side table, in pastel blue, which reminded me of my daughter’s Playmobil hospital set. A numbered wardrobe that had to be kept locked at all times, in case of theft, and also – I think – to stop me putting on my clothes and shoes and absconding. An armchair for the visitors I’d eventually be allowed.  A table and chair I never used.  An ensuite room with toilet and sink.  The shower was down the hall and merits a post all of its own.

The windows didn’t open, aside from a vent at the top, and there were no hooks or handles, for obvious reasons.  I was briefly amused that 1) my plastic bag hadn’t been considered hazardous and taken away and 2) my inner voice was capable of a gallows humour of sorts, even at a time like this.

Alone in my room, once the nurses had taken my blood pressure, confiscated my phone and left me a jug of water, the reality of how I had come to be there hit me with devastating force.

I curled up, I sobbed, I drifted. It had been several weeks since I’d had more than 3 or 4 hours’ sleep, and I hadn’t been eating. I’d travelled to a mental space I can only describe as my idea of hell.

Enter the nurse.

I don’t remember her name: we only met twice in the month I was there, as she was on secondment from another ward, and they soon put me on meds which scrambled my short-term memory. So I can’t describe her in any conventional way. Mid-length, mousy-brown hair, I think, drawn back into a pony-tail. A slim build. A regulation uniform.

But I will never forget the way she drew the chair up to my bed, held my hand, smiled warmly and looked into my eyes.

“I wish I was dead, I wish I’d succeeded,” I confessed, sobbing, although it’s impossible to understand now, with hindsight, how I could have said these words, let alone meant them. It’s almost unbearable to admit to them today. But she looked at me with such a gentle kindness, such an absence of judgement, that somehow the invisible line between her eyes and mine became my lifeline.

I have no idea how long that nurse stayed beside me – my notion of time that day is unreliable – but I’ll always be grateful to her.

And while I have no memory of the colour of her eyes, the comfort I drew from her gaze I will never forget.