I read somewhere that the dreams you have while being in the hospital are more vivid than standard dreams. Supposedly, all the drugs you’re taking cause this effect.
I don’t know. More vivid in what way? Are they more intense, more lively, more memorable, more strongly colored, more unrestrained?
I’ve never noticed much change myself, and I’ve just had a stay in the hospital and I soon have to go in again, so I’m thinking ahead. I do remember once, many years ago (after the removal of an “arterial-veinous fistula” that had my doctors completely baffled), I had a dream that was drowned in color. I was walking in a dark maze where the walls simmered in bright green, edged with thick purple or blue, all against a background of black with glows of deep red.
But the colors were straight out of the Rich Corben comics of the time that appeared in Creepy, Eerie, and Heavy Metal, and the dream just reminded me that I read weird comics then. Corben was famous for achieving brilliant color effects because of the method he used. He colored four different versions of each comics page: one shaded with only black ink and grey tones, and each of the three others tinted in one of the primary colors used in printing: cyan, magenta, and yellow. These then were combined in the printing process and thus produced an unpredictable, and vivid, full-color result. But the process took so long to complete (four times the investment of normal coloring), and left no single “original” copy, that he eventually had to abandon the technique.
Maybe the hospital drugs deconstruct our coloring mechanism in the same way and then recombines them? I doubt that, but our eyes are also sensitive to three distinct primary colors that our brain then combines—additively, and not subtractively as colors are in printing, so the colors are different for the eye: red, green, and blue. I’m reminded of this phenomena every time I hold a book face-down on my scanner and see a corner of the light-bar slide by. If I move my eyes while it’s passing, the small segment of light is broken into three separate images, one red, one green, one blue. Still, I don’t think the drugs would have such an effect, and I’ve never had any other dream in the hospital that was so memorable for its color.
Frankly, I didn’t find my dreams very different at all. Besides, the last time I was in the hospital I had double vision, which made for a more psychedelic waking experience than I had while dreaming. I got used to the dual images inside my room, but when I went out into the hallway everything became almost phantasmagoric—I had to be careful I didn’t blunder into obstacles. And I became most depressed when I looked out a window at the end of the hallway, since the greater the distance the more extreme was the phenomena. I felt the way a person with dementia must feel when looking at a page of sentences in a book and not being able to decipher them. In a similar way, I was unable to decipher the visual field, to make sense of what I was seeing.
All these notions are examples of that peculiar state of mind one has when being in a hospital, especially after surgery. That sense of helplessness, of being adrift, dissociated from your decision-making active self, of being in a situation where seeing and even dreaming might be affected. You’re mostly in bed, in pajamas or hospital gowns (which are so humiliatingly exposing)—not your normal self at all. And instead of you doing things, things are being done to you. You’re living in the passive case, so to speak, in the subjective case.
In a few small ways, you don’t mind. For that brief period while being there, it helps to relax by putting yourself in the hands of the doctors and nurses, who are more knowledgeable of realms that sometimes you don’t even want to know about. I remember being immensely grateful to the nurse on duty the night after my first big surgery: I never met her again, but I always wanted to thank her for her simple actions that I’m sure were quite standard for her but were like miracles to me: being told that, yes, you can sleep on your side (oh, the pleasure of hearing that!), propping the pillows in just the right way so that I could be comfortable (oh, thank you!), being carefully wrapped in blankets so that I didn’t have to exert myself (I’m so grateful!).
All this suggests that the best times in the hospital came during the nights. When the visitors have left, when the lights are turned down in the corridors, when the traffic outside doesn’t stop but does become less, when the voices get lower, when you know, at last, you’re done for the day and no more tests will be required, no more incisions, no more shots, no more blood drawn—no more needles. I remember, my first time in the hospital, of wanting to write a short story whose first line would be, “There in the hospital the nights were always best.” I only had that line and no story to follow, so it didn’t get much further than that, but the first few paragraphs would have been just a description of the mood.
For example, it’s common to struggle to fall asleep at nights, given the physical pain or worries you might have. But maybe you took a sleeping pill or a pain killer and you’re just waiting for the effects to reach you, to creep up on you and whisk you gently away into sleep. There’s a pleasure in knowing it will come, that it’s on the way, just around the corner, that no matter how miserable you are, you know that in just a few more minutes you’ll be resting, fully removed, and in your own personal dream world.
Or maybe you didn’t take a pill, wanting to be on “your own recognizance,” and instead you think of as many good thoughts as you can. You make a mental list and check them off as you try to lull yourself into sleep. You think of going home, or doing something you can’t do now, walking, biking, reading a book and enjoying it, sitting on a porch, taking a trip, talking and laughing with an old friend, watching a TV show you really want to see. All the simple and normally assumed and taken-for-granted incidents of normality, but which now seem utterly special and attractive because so out of reach, which makes them also like small miracles. Not daydreams, but the waking night-dreams of expectation, scenes from the edge.
So, all in all, a stay in the hospital is full of “otherliness,” especially at night. The feelings of the day are sometimes too strong—the scares, the mysteries, with the doctors in droves and the technology sharp-edged, where even the vocabulary has its bite (“you have a thoracic lesion with possible hemorrhaging”), when you’re often wheeled here and there and left in hallways for test after test. But at night, at the moment when you’re trying to fall asleep and you know that, yes, you’ll get there soon, when you’re tired enough or you’ve taken a pill, when you think pleasant restorative thoughts in order to detract you, when the noise diminishes and you’re feeling the premonition of wayward dreams, or just the escape from the activities of day, when the floor of the hospital takes on a Midsummer Night’s Dream feel (I’m quoting St. Elsewhere in that last reference) . . .
Then you realize, yes, this moment right now—it’s not that bad. You’re in the hospital but, hey, it does have its moments.
And you think of writing a story that begins: There in the hospital the nights were always best.