In the Bitter Darkness


Zero-dark-thirty. Awake, and I call for the nurse, ask for pain med. And I wait, and wait, and wait. Do they know how hard it is to stay awake? Am I going to wake myself up so far that I can’t go back to sleep? Should I go back to sleep and be re-awakened in ten minutes, half an hour, an hour? Hanging motionless in the bitter darkness.

A woman down the hall starts screaming. Screaming and screaming and screaming. It’s a hospital. You can’t always stay out in front of all the pain. Maybe she just got out of emergency surgery. Maybe she’s waiting for emergency surgery and can’t be medicated. Maybe she’s suffering from dementia and nobody anticipated that she’d wake up screaming. Confusion is a big reason why people in hospitals scream.

So I listen to her scream and wonder if I’d be better off if I’d learned to scream. Comforting requires two things. First, the person who feels bad needs to send a clear message and, second, the hearer must respond with comforting activity. I don’t even know what comforting activity is.

The woman down the hall stops screaming. The nurse comes in with my medicine. I am edgy and question her about why it took fifteen minutes to get one pill. She explains that it was because of the machine. She kept putting 7.5 into the machine but it kept registering 20. It wouldn’t release my pain medicine. The nurse couldn’t get my medicine because the machine wouldn’t let her.

I settle down and don’t go back to sleep. I think the bad thoughts one thinks in the dark—mostly that I am as terrible a person as some of my commenters say I am. Around and around and around. The medicine isn’t doing any good. And I am cold. And swirled in nausea.

I call the nurse again. It is Laurie, who annoys the hell out of me, but who, for some unknown reason, is the person I most want to see. She is tough and strong. Not a wimp or whimper from Laurie; no matter how bad things get, she will hang in there.

She comes in, exclaiming. What am I doing awake? She gets me more medicine. Pulls the quilt up. Hugs me. I burst into sobs. She says, “I knew it; I knew you needed a hug.”

My mother, in her nineties’, told me of watching her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. When the baby would cry then the baby’s mother would go to her, pick her up, pat her, walk with her. My mother said that when I was a baby and had been put to bed then I would start to cry—cry and cry and cry—and my father would not let her go to me in the bedroom. Bed was bed, he said, and she wasn’t to come to me again until morning.

I tell Laurie this story and she is quiet for a long time. She just keeps stroking my hair, then finally says, “You have such soft hair.”

And a lifetime of not knowing how to ask for comfort. I learned silence—and words. Everything must be shaped into coherent words, no blind cry for comfort. Always, rational verbiage to articulate a pain that has no words.

And so, no comfort. Not ever. I learned not to scream in the bitter darkness.

I never learned not to feel pain.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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