Somehow, somewhere, I picked up the notion that an extended stay in the hospital is some sort of luxurious indulgence, like an all-expense-paid vacation at a particularly sterile Ramada Inn.
I mean, on the surface of it, it sounds pretty cool. First there's that comfortable bed you can swivel into all sorts of positions at the touch of a button. You get to leisurely mark your menu for your three full meals for the following day, perhaps deciding against the cream of wheat and cinnamon roll, and opting instead for the cheese omelet with sausage and sourdough toast. You get to watch all the daytime television you want without feeling guilty about it. You're surrounded by fresh flowers you could never otherwise afford. The ringing of a buzzer will send nurses rushing in to give you Pepsis or crushed ice or Vicodin; and all of your friends and family have to come visit and feel sorry for you and bring you things like crossword puzzle books, chocolate shakes and National Enquirers.
It's only when you're actually in the hospital that the illusion comes crashing down in a heap. In my case, it first happened when I was 11 years old with a ravaged throat after a tonsillectomy. With more alarming frequency, lately, it has occurred during hospitalizations for things like sepsis, pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
My first hospitalization that occurred because of HIV was about four years ago, when I had a life-threatening reaction to the last of my otherwise successful nine-month chemotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of the liver. With tubes attached to every conceivable (and inconceivable) part of my body, trying to get into a comfortable enough position to sleep was always the trickiest problem. One misjudged movement, and alarms would sound, lights would flash, and irritable nurses would rush into my room to reattach the plastic ropes that bound me, immobile, to my bed.
I also discovered that it's not the pain I remember, really, but the sheer ugliness of everything and everyone around me. I remember sitting with my friend Vincent watching a videotape of an episode of the old Loretta Young TV series. She was playing some insanely devout Mexican peasant, sporting a black wig, a heavy makeup job and that all-purpose accent she used to fool everyone at the time into thinking she was a great actress. As a connoisseur of kitsch, this was something I normally would have enjoyed enormously -- but to this day I remember it as being one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen, and that includes Night of the Living Dead.
Even the solace of sleep was denied me, because as soon as I would begin to drift off, my mind would almost immediately plunge into the most gruesomely violent Wes Craven-ish nightmares I have ever experienced.
At first, I even dreaded having visitors because then I would have to gather up all my energy, sit up straight, and make a pretense of being gracious and brave and feeling ever so much better. In reality, however, I was mortified at having to be seen in such a reduced and animalistic state of disrepair, like some corrupt, deteriorated creature straight out of Edgar Allan Poe, drooling, gagging and gulping for air. Pretending to be better than you really feel during that initial process of simply trying to survive another day can be utterly exhausting.
There's always the possibility that the mask can suddenly drop, and you find yourself turning into someone unrecognizable, even to yourself. "I didn't even know you knew the 'f' word," my sweet, Midwestern mother said to me one day, after I had suffered a bout of delirium brought on by some particularly noxious medication.
Then, of course, there were the interminable lab tests. Hospital attendants would wheel me into the hospital dungeon for experiments in torture remarkably similar to those inflicted on Linda Blair in The Exorcist when they were first trying to figure out the possible medical reasons she was peeing on the carpet and masturbating with crucifixes. First the jaded and sullen white-jacketed assistants would leave me parked in my gurney in the hallway, where I would study the delightful intricacies of the cottage cheese ceilings for what seemed like small eternities. At last they would push me into some room where technicians would proceed to slowly inject me into a coffin-like tube, then ask me to do things like hold my breath until I thought my head would explode. "We'll have to start all over again," a Nurse Ratched type scolded me at one point. "You breathed."
So why is it that there remains, against every rational thought in my head, a vague remnant of nostalgia for those miserable days in the hospital? I read somewhere that our bodies can't really "remember" pain in the strictest sense -- the mind represses the actual sense memory of it as a sort of protection device. And I think all of us end up using our sense of humor to try to make past miseries, if not pleasant, then at least endurable. "One day you'll look back on this and laugh," we've all been told at one time or another. And amazingly, time after time, we do. Still, it just seems markedly unfair to me that the one time in your life that you get to be the center of attention is the one time when it's absolutely the last thing you want.
Gary Oberst, a member of AIDS Project Los Angeles' Writers Workshop, is a popular past guest at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. After a 10-year casting director stint -- one that allowed him to place Ginger Rogers, Johnny Depp and Tippi Hedren all in the same episode of "Hotel" -- he began Cards on the Table, a successful greeting card company.