Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Nightmare Inside My Head Cave

Codeine is an opioid.
That's what I found out after I took it.
After eye surgery I was in so much pain, I needed more than Tylenol could offer. The anesthesia wore off. My eye felt like it had been stabbed with a hot poker repetitively. And since my doctor prescribed codeine, I took one pill.
One pill.
One pill and one hour later I was the most paranoid and panicky I have ever been. I had this awful feeling of dread, like there was someone with bad intentions just down the street, who was looking for me and had just turned the corner and was headed my way. The fact that it was nighttime and I had a patch over my eye made it worse. I had just had surgery to remove a pterygium from my left eye early that morning. I really couldn't use my good eye either. To open or move the good one meant the bad one moved with it, so the only way I could be pain free was to keep both eyes closed. I was trapped inside my head cave. And it was DARK. I have never been afraid of the dark, but with the codeine kicking in, I absolutely HATED the dark. I told the dark to hurry up and go away and prayed that I could fall asleep and wake up and it would be light out. I would doze off briefly, my head propped up on two large pillows to reduce the swelling in my eye, and then a few minutes, an hour, I don't know--some time later, I would wake up again, in full panic mode over some awful thing that was out to get me that I couldn't quite explain. I didn't actually THINK someone or something was coming to get me (I wasn't delusional) but I FELT like it. I had this awful anxiety accompanied by clammy skin, racing heart, short, shallow breaths and dizziness. I would sit up in bed and dangle my legs over the edge and suck in deep breaths, telling myself I was OK, that nothing bad was going to happen, that it was all in my mind--or in the medication, in this case. I could only see out of the tiny slit of my swollen left eye which made it harder to calm myself down. I felt trapped inside my head, trapped in the dark, trapped in bed. And quite honestly it was terrifying. I repeated the cycle of panic--wakeup--sit up--try to talk myself out of the panic - lie down again and close my eyes. This happened over and over. Finally, I fell asleep and woke up and it was light out. The nightmare was over. I vowed to never take codeine again.
I also vowed to never take my sight for granted again.
I also vowed to be more compassionate to people who are blind and to people who live with chronic pain. And people who live alone. People with anxiety or mental illness. And maybe even skiers and hikers and mountain climbers. Anyone who could be trapped.
It wasn't just the codeine that was frightening. There was something very terrifying about being "trapped inside my head" unable to open my eyes. For days, I could not keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds. I spent hours on end just sitting with my eyes closed listening to the world go on around me. I did notice one good thing in all the darkness. Food tasted so much better with my eyes closed. I am not sure why. Maybe since my eyes were out of commission, my taste buds moved into the sensory driver's seat? Other than that benefit, I wanted out of my head cave and back into the land of the light. Finally, on about the 4th day, I could open my eyes and peek around the room without as much pain. I was grateful to be out of the cave.

A few years ago, COVID felt like another dark head cave. Lockdowns. isolation, paranoia, panic and worry ravaged our minds. I feel like I came through it pretty well, but I know lots of people who feel like they went to bed in 2019, took a codeine pill, and woke up in a dark cave in 2020. And those folks with depression, substance abuse, addiction and other struggles, often times went even deeper into the cave during the pandemic. Old habits became new again. And no amount of pills, alcohol, drugs or diversion could soothe the pain. Then the lockdowns where lifted and it was time to come out of the head cave and get back to the land of living. Get back to work. Get back to childcare. Get back to school, concerts, parties, college, airports and the doctor's office. But many folks were squinting in this new sun. They were still in pain. They struggled to re-connect. Some of them were children and because they could not articulate their pain, they came out of the dark cave screaming and flailing their little arms and legs. They lashed out toward others or took it out on themselves. Handling them an iPad wasn't going to soothe them. Teachers were on the front lines as these kids emerged. They still have classrooms full of youth showing the effects of being stuck in their head caves for so long. And these same teachers have their own struggles, but often put them aside or shove them deeper into the cave to focus on the kids.

And now that we are a few years out from the pandemic--"back to normal"--we still have folks in their head caves. Just like we did before the pandemic. Maybe it's your child? Mom? Partner? Boss?
Maybe it is you? It's dark and lonely in there and the words you say to yourself echo around until they can nearly drive you crazy. As I am typing this, a song by George Michael came on. He sings about "love setting him free" and "being saved from himself" but ultimately the darkness inside his head cave closed around and consumed him. The official coroner's report attributes his death in 2016 to "heart disease", but if you watched the documentary you know he died of heartbreak, alone inside his dark head cave of loneliness.

I want to stick to the vow I made after my eye surgery: To be more compassionate to those inside dark head caves of loneliness, addiction, depression and anxiety. I remember those few hours I spent sitting up in the night, both eyes closed, steeped in dread and fear. Some folks spend their WHOLE LIVES fighting back the darkness. How can I help? Sometimes just NOTICING they are in the room. Noticing their smile. Their hard work. Telling them they matter. Are appreciated. Will you join me? Sometimes it's the little glimmers of light we provide that help them step out into the sun. And the funny thing is, when you help someone step out of the head cave into the light, you can't help but get a little bit of sunshine on your face as well.

-Hope A. Horner
Copyright 2024. Contact author on g mail at h o p e h 1 1 22 for reprinting or reposting permission.

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