"Sickness will surely take your mind where minds can't usually go;."
Pete Townsend – Tommy (1969)
After protracted episodes with my gall bladder over several months, including a stay in hospital in January 2013, I elected, by recommendation of the surgical team, to have it removed. As I had a history of abdominal surgeries in the past, I was advised that open surgery may be necessary for the procedure, which carried a few, greater, risks than the preferred, laparoscopic or keyhole operation. This increased risk was certainly well-advised, as I developed a post-operative intra-abdominal leak, leading to a massive sepsis that necessitated several days in ITU to save my bacon. Happy to say, after the sterling work of the hospital teams, I have made a good recovery and I have been encouraged to set out below an account of the "amazing journey" I took through that week in ITU – as journey I shall never forget!
Mid-afternoon at a clandestine medical research location embedded in the concourse of Macclesfield Station in brilliant sunshine (it was always in brilliant sunshine – could it really have been Macclesfield – my doubts had been planted). I did know we were in a railway station though – I could often hear the express trains thundering through the station on the tracks beneath us. On this day, my wife and sister (Ahh! - real world element of story) had come to visit my bedside.
"Oh! that looks better" says my wife to my sister, seeing my eyes open and the lack of breathing support equipment – "How are you feeling? "she said, turning to me.
"Fine." I replied, "Do I look like a Lanchester Roadster to you?"
"No" says my sister, laughing out loudly.
I turned to my wife and whispered – "Get me out of here, – these people are evil. They're conducting the weirdest of experiments on me and I don't think they care if I die or survive – take me home – Please!"
"I'm sure nobody wants to hurt you, these people have been working wonders to save your life and they are doing a fantastic job." she replied – blissfully unaware of the great danger I was facing.
Just typical – my wife has been duped into believing their stories – it's like being in an episode of 'The Prisoner' and I don't even have an ally in my partner of 36 years against these wicked people.
I well remember buying the Who's Tommy album back in the early seventies – I probably listened more to the music than the lyrics then, but I always remembered that chorus to 'The Amazing Journey' and, although Pete Townsend was clearly talking of recreational drugs in his song, the first two lines provide a pretty succinct explanation of where I went for four days in ITU - "Sickness will surely take your mind where minds can't usually go come on the amazing journey and learn all you should know."
I now know that much of the fantasy world I visited and dreams I had were exactly that, but, at the time, they seemed so real that the real and fantasy worlds simply blended together. I was definitely aware of things going on around me, but, in the absence of knowledge as to my whereabouts, situation and circumstances, I was unable to rationalise or relate them with any reference points to the real world, so, presumably, made stuff up in a close-by parallel fantasy world, where you can make the rules up as you go along – no matter how daft or ridiculous the results were.
Not being 'in control' bugged me a lot and not being able to either communicate or be listened to heightened the elements of fear and paranoia built into my attempts at rationalisation – hence the constant pleas to my wife to "get me out of here." As time progressed, the amount of time spent in the fantasy world waned somewhat as the effects of drugs / illness / trauma / whatever wore off. These were the most difficult times as I knew I was coping (badly) with the real world and could begin to challenge the dream parts. Reading the ITU's informative booklet after my ordeal really helped me understand a lot of what happened, but some of it was just plain weird at the time!
I remember I was constantly having to 'check in' to the ITU – which, in my fantasy world, had a lobby area to challenge the glitziest Hollywood 5* hotel – marble floors, expensive carpets and wall coverings – the biz. I was worried that I did not remember where my bed was – but I was not in the same place as yesterday, so, finding myself on the outside I did the check in routine whenever it seemed needed. At every request, I was assured by the nurse that I was already in the ITU and being looked after. This I knew not to be true as I was in the lobby of the hotel and I learnt, very quickly, that the medical staff were not to be trusted.
Quite early on in the journey, the team took me to a special area, like a Gym, on about the 4th or 5th floor of the building (there were several floors in my world, I know that because I was constantly being moved from higher to lower levels and back). The nurses forced me to leave my bed to lie in a box of plastic balls – much like the set up you see in a child's crèche in IKEA or the like. All around me were other patients (prisoners?) who warned me not to let them leave me here as they had been there for weeks – in great discomfort, hot and uncomfortable and without food or drink. I fought my captors as hard as I could, but was unable to win the battle due to my real world weakness from the surgery.
I never found out how I escaped the ball bin, but, finding myself back at the Hotel lobby, checked in once again ("no need for that, you are already admitted to the ITU and we are here to look after you") Yeah, Right!
I don't know where the Lanchester story came from, except to say it links in, somehow with Macclesfield Station (you remember – the location of the bogus ITU) and links to my love of trains as well as an old work colleague who fired me from his company about ten years ago to save money (who I know spent a fair bit of money on vintage cars). We never went out together to Cornwall, neither had we ever raced trains in his vintage cars, but the dream was a pleasant one anyway. In the dream, which was set in the fifties, I was introduced to an old Devonian/Cornish custom, wherein two or three drivers would rev up their cars on the road, parallel to the railway, wait for the Liverpool to Penzance Express train to come along and, as it entered the tunnel in a cloud of smoke and steam, the cars would set of on this long straight road over the moor, to try to beat the train to the other end of the tunnel. On this day, it was a close run thing, but it didn't seem to matter who won as we ended up at a charming country pub, miles from anywhere, for a great lunch by the open fire and with fantastic views over the moors. Presumably, the express had travelled via Macclesfield?!
I woke up one night, in bed, in a steep-sided room, decorated to the gunnels with stuffed animals and Victoriana. I was laid next to a patient whose face bore the features of a 1930s racing Bugatti, whilst I looked like the Lanchester in which we had competed earlier. (btw, I have no idea if there ever was a Lanchester car as seen in the dream – I even referred to it as a Lancaster Bomber in retelling the tale to my early visitors). All I can remember is that I was forced (by whom I don't know) to blow soap bubbles all the time till my arms felt as if they would drop off. I had been told that it costs a lot of money to keep this facility going and we must all work at night to 'pay for our keep'. I asked if there was an alternative as this job of blowing bubbles laid on my back was making me very uncomfortable. I was told the only other choice was to help with engineering works.
I was not sure if I was strong enough to cope with 'engineering works', but, next night, I snook away from my bed and went to the engineering part of the building. It looked like the opening scene of 'Dirty Dancing' where our heroine is walking off shift from the Pittsburgh steelworks with cutting gear throwing sparks out for light and this enhanced by the blue burn of the welding torches. I laid on a big steel frame (too weak to sit up) and was approached by a man in a blue boiler suit who took my job ticket and left without a word. Next thing, a cutting torch cut a massive structure virtually in half and the whole was folded in on itself with me inside – I was very frightened.
A male nurse appeared in a white coat, carrying an expensive SLR camera. He removed his coat, positioned me on the edge of the enclosure that had been made, and started taking photos – of me, cushions and sheets laid out with cheap jewellery and a couple of nurses, scantily dressed, posing suggestively against this backdrop of bling. After a while, I became very uncomfortable (can you see a theme developing here!?) and asked if I could take a break to have a stretch. "You cannot" was the answer in strong Chinglish "I've paid for 6 hours and I will have my money's worth." After another half hour, I could stand the discomfort no more and pleaded with my oriental Daerid Bairey to stop. He finally agreed and, after a discussion with his colleagues in the filming team, they stopped the activity. "Do you know where you are?" asked my host "I have no idea" I replied. "You are in the ITU in hospital" he informed me and produced a blue tray with an assortment of injections that he administered to me. He had clearly got to cover his tracks and get me back on the ward before I was missed, but could I trust him not to screw up my treatment plan?
I was determined to remember his description and report him to the Doctors next morning and I did remember right through till the next day. As the next day was one of my more 'reality world' days, I thought better of relating the story. Not because I thought I would not be believed, but because I feared recriminations the following night if he found out I had snitched on him.
The next day, I was transferred from the facility (at Macclesfield, remember?!) back to closer to home – It seemed I had recovered enough to be reunited with my wife and would be able to go home. It was as much a surprise to me as it was for my two fellow prisoners on the train we took back south. It was that Liverpool – Penzance train (I presume change at Reading!) all in its LMS red Livery, steam hauled and with first class dining – things were really looking up. As we neared our destination, three male nurses entered the carriage – one attending each of us in our separate compartments. They clearly were out to have a bit of sadistic fun and we were told we – "just needed some final treatments to complete our programme". With that, the male nurse began cutting up plastic egg boxes and started sewing them into the back of my hands and arms – "Ooh! I'm sorry if that hurt a bit, I just need to get that right" "Ooh! sorry, did I hurt you, I just slipped a bit" and so it went on. There was no need to 'get it right' or 'slipping' – these guys were making cynical remarks whilst enjoying what was, effectively, torture. I was not sure whether to scream with pain – in the hope he would have his fill and stop – or grin and bear it in the hope he would stop because I would not satisfy his lust. In the end, I was the last to be finished with and, as the train stopped and we were taken to the visitor reception, I heard my two travel companions laughing and chatting with their families as they left for home. I could hear my wife in the reception area around the corner from where I lay and could vaguely hear another of the evil team counselling her "He's not ready yet" "We need a few more days" "He's doing fine" "You can see him tomorrow" and I began shouting for her - "Don't believe them, listen to me. They're lying to you" then "yes, he's a little delirious, don't take any notice" from the evil ones. I repeated my plea several times and I think my wife was really wavering, but then a nurse sedated me and I was unable to talk any more – another attempt at escape had been foiled.
I didn't need to check in next morning – I was beginning to come out of the La La land I had inhabited for the past days and recognised that I was, indeed, already 'checked in'. It was Friday and my Wife and Daughter were to visit. I could not see them, but they arrived mid-afternoon and it was lovely to hear their voices. I could not wait to see my wife and tell her about the egg box incident, but it seemed an age before we were allowed to talk. Apparently the Consultants have to meet with all families first and no-one gets a visit till this ritual is over. I lost Patience and repeatedly called out for my wife, but she did not respond. I knew she was there – I could hear her voice and I could not be mistaken. I was told categorically that she was NOT there and I had a major row with the staff over this. My wife was called on her mobile but did not answer (she was driving) but my daughter did pick up her call and confirmed to the nurse that my wife would be visiting that evening. I did not believe the nurse and continued my calling, till eventually they called her again and I was able to confirm directly with her that she had not yet visited – I had got to the stage where I knew none of the staff were to be trusted. One injection later I did calm down (the b**tards had got me again!) When my wife arrived that evening, I asked why she had left without saying goodbye that afternoon and she re-confirmed she had not been there – Strange!
I revisited my old boss in the Moorland car race story at the weekend and was surprised to find my wife's boss, at the house of his friends down there. Jacky's boss - an experienced mechanic and expert on vintage vehicles was obviously well-known there (he is well known wherever you go with him) and was discussing moving the racing vehicles up to his workshop to do some remedial works. When I woke from the dream, my wife was by my bedside telling me we were moving and we transferred to a new part of the ITU, which new part, appeared, back in the dream world, to be being physically driven across the countryside to a new location. Jacky's boss was at the wheel, vintage cars in tow and there were numerous technicians (clearly not medical staff) peering out of windows – assisting in guiding the unit wherever it was going. I was absolutely amazed that this had been organised and asked my wife how it had been done. Her answer was simply that we were being moved to another part of the ITU and my Mother and Sister were waiting outside to see me. "How can she get in to see me if we are moving" I asked. "We aren't moving." Was the answer – but I knew better!
On relating the story to family later, it transpired that Jacky's boss and his wife, whom I had clearly seen in the building removal scene, were not even in the area that weekend so could not have been with us – I was convinced I saw him organising moving the IT Unit along with the vintage cars on board, but it was not to be. There were no arguments, but his presence seemed so real in the dream, I did challenge it many times before being convinced I had been dreaming.
My wife had spent the whole of my last day in ITU by my bedside, whilst I had drifted in and out of sleep. The staff had explained that I had spent a couple of stressful nights and suggested she bring in some of my favourite foods to try to re-connect me with reality. The chicken supreme was really nice, but my appetite didn't permit a feast and I felt I'd let her down a bit. She left mid-evening shortly before my transfer back to ward 3 in the main hospital.
I vaguely remember finally leaving ITU – it was late at night and the hospital corridors were empty and cold. I didn't, however, remember this on the night when I arrived at, and laid in bed in, a country cottage – how I had got there was another complete mystery to me and I had been left in the charge of a Somali version of Florence Nightingale who appeared to own the place – was it a monastic retreat, nunnery – it certainly wasn't a hospital ward (or was it?). I lay there wondering how I was going to get back to the hospital in the morning before I was missed and this bothered me for most of the night. Come the morning, I had, miraculously, been transferred to a bed in ward 3 – much in the same position of the one in the remote cottage where I had finally fallen asleep.
By week 2, I was pretty much 80/20 back to normal, but I still had the odd dreams that were difficult to explain. I was able to relate the stories to family and visitors over the next days much to their amusement. I had the chance to challenge them myself and find explanations. Some were easy, others much more difficult – what was the most scary part and still amazes me is how real the dreams and escapades were. I can still taste the supper we had at the pub on the Devon/Cornwall moors, I can see the faces of characters in vivid detail. Much can be explained away – key for me were dealing with pain and discomfort – that featured heavily in a lot of fantasies – I guess I must have been close to consciousness in this area, similarly, not being in control made me terribly suspicious of those who WERE in control. Being moved around between bouts of consciousness was very disorientating and led to much confusion as to where I was at any time and being severely restricted in movement maybe accounts for the feelings of imprisonment/incarceration.
The story does not end with leaving ITU – and there were several further dreams that blended with reality. I remember one night, whilst back on the ward, being involved in a WW2 dogfight and being shot down over the centre of High Wycombe – in an old toy shop (or a shop with old toys anyway). I got out of the plane, ripped off my flying jacket (removing a hospital cannula in the process) and rushing to the loo for so desperate a visit that I had no time to answer the ward nurses questions as to my intended destination and purpose. Whilst enthroned in the ward loo, I noticed all my operation wounds had disappeared – a real healing bonus! – but I realised this might blow my cover what with all the time travel I had been doing – I would be severely reprimanded maybe? By the time I returned to my bed, the plane wreckage had been mysteriously cleared away and all was well – worst thing being that my operation wounds and dressings had returned – pity!
Another night, I went flying again – shooting small mammals in the trees of Burnham Beeches whilst being chased by oversized mice in bi-planes. I could go on!
I have not had any dreams since returning home (yet!) so I think the journey may finally be over now.
A number of questions remain in my mind:
- Why did I not trust my wife and those nearest and dearest to me (did I think they had all been elaborately duped?)
- Why Macclesfield?
- Why did I see the building with the correct architecture, but totally wrong dimensions?
- Why did my old boss turn up in a vintage car to race me (he had recently requested a link on a social media website which I thought was the height of cheek after firing me!)
- How did I mistake staff for my own family members
And there are many more.
I just ask you to re-read the lyrics from Pete Townsend at the beginning of my cathartic dissertation – Sickness will surely take your mind where minds can't usually go – it certainly did and it was an Amazing Journey. I'm glad to be back from the journey, but I'm glad I made it – it taught me a lot about myself and suggested some things I might like to change about myself and my ways.. It's not a journey I'd do again in a hurry!