Twelve years ago, when I was in hospital recovering from a radical prostatectomy (removal of prostate and accompanying cancer), I had a peculiar experience. More than one, actually – but one in particular.
I woke in the night, and I could see the clock clearly. Everything was wrong. For some reason, I was no longer in Norwich but in King’s Lynn, and this was quite frightening, because there was no reason for it. I tried to get back to where I knew I should be, but I couldn’t, because I was not connected. It was as if I had been shifted very slightly out of sync with reality.
A long sequence of bizarre events ensued, during which I seemed to wander round the ward, looking for a way back. The two nurses ignored me. At last, exhausted, I sank back into my Norwich bed, closed my eyes for a while and then opened them again. According to the clock, the whole tortuous episode had lasted no more than a minute – and that in itself was terrifying, because it was impossible.
I was reminded of this when I was in hospital again last week, on antibiotics for a problem with my gall bladder, and a stone stuck somewhere near my pancreas. Again, I woke in the night – one of many, many times – and had trouble recognising where I was. The curtains seemed familiar (or did they?), people moved backwards and forwards, and so did the room. I was struggling to connect. Was it real?
Eventually my brain slid into sync and I walked hesitantly to the toilet. But the impression I retain is one of confusion: was I slightly out of sync with reality again? What was going on?
The only other time I have felt anything like this was in the weeks following a serious car accident in which I broke my arm – less than a year ago. On at least one or two occasions while walking by the river afterwards I felt I was in some other reality. Had I died in the crash, or was I really here? Was the real me walking just behind me, catching me up?
OK – all this is weird. Most of the time, I think I have a fairly good grip on reality, as most people do. It is hard to express how frightening it is when this is called into question.
In hospital time itself distorts. Most of the time nothing happens, and happens very slowly. Without meaningful contact (especially in these coronavirus times) none of it seems to make much sense.
I’ve been here all day. How can it be 10am?
All I can say is that my wife’s daily visits just about kept me sane. Or did they? I’ll let you be the judge.