Descent into Delirium

In coming alongside the depressed, we might recognize that some depressed folks are depressed because the world is too much with them.   Like those who are hypersensitive to the ‘buzzing, booming, confusion‘ of life and who withdraw or become agitated in its presence, some folks are depressed because they cannot NOT see the world as a house of horrors.

When I have suggested such to people I get a similar response, “Well, yes..there is a lot  of bad stuff in the world but there is a lot of good too.”     Sigh.   Yes, I know.  There is a lot of good stuff too.   Those of us who live in safe, affluent environments and are sheltered from the bad stuff in the world find it easy to say that sort of thing.  Those of us who have never been traumatized by some horror do too.

I am saying that there are some among us who see only the horrors of life.  Perhaps at some level, they see the flowers and birds and lamb-like clouds that float gently on the breath of God but even that is a horror to them because they feel so awful. 

The very audacity of Spring!

As T.S. Eliot wrote in the opening line of The Waste Land:

“April is the cruelest month…”   

Whatever that may have meant to Eliot, many have understood it to mean that the person who is depressed or despairing experiences the flower-bursting beauty of April as a mockery. 

Are they wrong to experience such beauty in that way?  No.  Given that they see most clearly the horrors of life,  April appears a contrast to their own experience. They are driven more deeply into the winter-darkness of the soul…and often prefer it. 

The idea that some people are depressed because they clearly see horror in the foreground of experience has a long history.   I have thought about it for a long time myself.  I have come alongside the depressed many times and sometimes, after hearing them speak of such things, I found myself thinking, “Well, you do have a point!”     But, often it was a point heard only in the abstract.  “Every schoolchild knows there is suffering in the world. 

However, it was not until I experienced deep delirium after my heart transplant in April 2019, that the idea took on flesh for me.

I am not going to go into detail here (I’m working on a book about it) but will tell you why it so transformed my thinking. 

The experience of delirium, which occurs in 70% of ICU patients, varies from person to person.  For some, it manifests in confusion, for others hallucinations, and for others something all but unnameable.  It can be temporary and it can last for a while.  It can even cause some degree of permanent damage to cognition and memory.

I experienced all three and, loosely speaking, in that order.   The first week of my stay, while I was on kidney dialysis and being pumped full of drugs, I became confused about where I was, why I was there, who other people were and what was happening to me.

Some time afterward, I began to experience hallucinations within my room.  Things floating in air.  I saw people who were not there and didn’t see people who were.  I watched the paint peel from the walls.  And, I figured out how to turn the hands of a clock back with my mind. 

That was all pre-transplant.  However, for two weeks following transplant, I utterly broke with reality and went somewhere completely other than where I was.  I don’t know if I was there 10 minutes or 10 days.  It felt like an eternity. 

It was not a dream.  And, it was not a hallucination.  It was something that approached a vision, though I hesitate to say that lest people think I’ve become more inflated than I am.   (I would call it a ‘visionoid, as something that resembles the real thing,‘ but that sounds like a medical condition.  I could call it vision-esque,  but that might be taken as a performance involving baggy pants and seltzer water  and that would minimize it. )  All I can tell you is that it was far more real than everyday reality: the colors were far more vivid, the sounds far more acute, and the emotions completely beyond the pale.  

Terror comes to mind.

I want to say ‘vision‘ not because I think I’m Ezekiel, or Jesus, or Paul, or the blessed John on the Isle of Patmos. I want to say vision because I was led somewhere and shown things that are the Reality within reality or as Tim Mackie put it in one of his lectures:  an experience in which you are taken into the deep heart of human experience. (c.f. his lecture on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in his Podcast “Exploring My Strange Bible.)

I was taken to a place that was filled with the most violent, disordered, disfigured people on earth.   And, I witnessed and was engaged with the most fearful things, things I couldn’t begin to describe.  Death.  Violence.  The continual threat of violence.  Hannibal Lectors lined the hallways.  Piles of bodies- men, women, and children stacked in coal cars that extended into the dark of a tunnel. Assassins.  Terrorists.  Beings half-human, half-animal.  People who seemed to be made from scrap metal.  All dangerous.  All vicious.  All on the edge.

There were people who were charged with caring for those people.  They were themselves corrupted and corruptible.

I was there for days or so it seemed.  When I tried to sleep I heard scratching on the walls, tapping at the windows, tiny feet running through the ceiling, racing across the roof.  I was told it was the sound of Trouble…Trouble scratching its way through the walls.

The threat of a terrorist attack loomed large. Some people hated the very existence of the place and had vowed to destroy it.  They had tried once before with well=placed bombs. 

Finally, I was beaten to the point of death by a gang of residents and as I lay dying the building caved in upon us.  (The sound of that is the sound you hear when you are defibrillated and are half-conscious.   Roar and clang.)

When I emerged out of it, I found myself tied to a bed.  Dark.  A woman sat with me and I was completely out of control   Somehow the terror of the place where I had been returned with me.  I flailed.  I screamed.  I swore.  Soon four nurses surrounded me and that only served to amp me up even more.  (They were wise to restrain me but I was so weak from the transplant I’m not sure what I could have done.)

My actions were perfectly reasonable within the bounds of that horrific experience.  I thought the building we were in was about to explode and I didn’t know where my family was so I could warn them. 

Now, I get that there are good medical explanations for what I experienced.  I get that the brain is a pattern maker and that we are all sense-makers and storytellers.  I understand that we are in the realm of subjective experience.  I agree that it’s an iffy proposition interpreting one’s own dreams and visions.   I know…I know…I know.

But, I don’t care. I know what I endured and it was more real than everyday reality.
And not one day passes that I do not think about it.  And because I am not one to ‘waste my miseries,’  I have tried to make sense of it.  Sometimes the horror of it is too much to dwell on though. 

I won’t say anything here about how I’ve explored it, but I will tell you this:  It was as if all of the suffering and pain and horror, all of the disfigurement, disorder, and destruction, all of the violence and evil of this world was compressed into one building and all at once.  And I was there to see it, suffer with it, and suffer because of it.  And, the experience was compounded by the fact that I was cut off from the world I know and from the supports that constitute my everyday life. 

Thankfully, I emerged from it relatively intact.  Traumatized, yes.  But only with small-letter ptsd.

As a pastor, I have lived my adult life coming alongside suffering people but I had no clue, no clue whatsoever, as to what suffering was until that experience.

Before this experience, I knew there was suffering in the world.  Heart failure had, at times, given me a  taste.  But, those hard moments were few and far between and usually managed by medicine. 

And, I have been right there with everyone else as we read online about some distant ethnic cleansing, some war, some mass shooting, some famine, some virulence stalking some country, some kidnapping, some rape, some child molested and left to die in some distant wood, another shooting, another theft.  

I know about the diseases that haunt us down.   The shortness of time.  Loneliness.  

And somehow I have managed along with everyone else to live with it, to shake my head at the tragedy of it, and then move on, maybe a little wounded by it, maybe a little scarred, but it’s all in a day. 

There is a lot of good stuff in the world, you know.

But I’m not sure that’s true for everyone.  Some people really have to strain to see the good stuff.   I am convinced there are those who know what I’m talking about and who cannot get past the horror that surrounds us, who cannot get beyond the trauma they experience (or have experienced) because of it and are left  wounded and often alone. 

I believe it is a calling to come alongside them and listen.

They may have something to say that we desperately need to hear.  

And, maybe there is something we have to add to the conversation too. 




3 thoughts on “Descent into Delirium

  1. First of all, thank you for allowing us to accompany you on that journey. One cannot imagine what that trip meant for you at the time. Over 60 plus years of ministry I’ve accompanied many on their journey; only recently to learn through deeply personal experience that I did not know the length,depth, breadth and height of their plight. Only the passing of my “other half” did I discover something of that hollow space where solace is illusive. I thank Jesus and Prozac that I’m as “sane” as I remain and I do not hesitate to share the fact that, at one time my beloved said to me, “What’s wrong — you are either weeping or angry.” I had seen it in others. I had to discover and describe it within myself. Once, when deliberately off medication, a beloved colleague in ministry said, “Take the damn pills – I’ll pay for them.!” and, I continue…the journey is not over…even in a fallen world the reality of the Biblical view of ultimate reality sustains me still to believe “the best is yet to be.”

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  2. We need to talk sometime… I have never heard or seen anyone describe parts of what I experienced while in my coma until now. In my feeble attempts to explain or describe the experiences, they are quickly watered down for lack of words to adequately explain. As I read through this, I was immediately taken back to the stench, fear, fire, disfigured people, and what I could only describe as the closest thing to hell that I could imagine. That was 10 years ago this month and it is still as fresh and clear as the time it happened.

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