If it weren't for this beep
“We left on a Thursday. The machine always kept us up-to-date on the date. The passage of time was important; not to us, sure as hell, but to him … it … AM. Thursday. Thanks.”
In Harlan Ellison’s 1967 short story, ‘I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream’, AM, the artificial intelligence that has taken over the planet and destroyed mankind, has kept the protagonist and four others alive to torture for eternity.
One of AM’s primary methods of torment is announcing the date every day, so his, its, AM’s, prisoners can know exactly how long they have been there.
The story begins in the 109th year of imprisonment.
Blood was gushing out of my broken face, filling up my insides.
They were asking for a down payment.
The Intensive Care Unit is a cruel place for unlucky patients cursed with clocks or a view of the one at the nurse’s station through their glass doors.
A place already out of time, out of place. You don’t know when you would ever leave. Even if parting with the unit arrives when death does.
Sometimes it can hold you indefinitely, usually due to a malfunction, a miscalculation, a bureaucratic mishap, or your inability to pay the full fee. The Intensive care unit is a liminal spaces with a built-in, unclear, and endless transitory period.
What happens when the ICU unit is in Lebanon? What happens when the health insurance provider denies coverage? What happens when they find out you’re Palestinian? What happens when payments are demanded from worried family and friends on a daily basis? Before and after each procedure? What happens when the hospital informs the authorities?
The view of the clock can turn into a game. A game of not looking. Do not look at the clock! How long can you go on without looking? Try not to look at the thermostat. Try not to make eye contact with the passing nurses. Try not to look at how much saline water is left in the bag above. Try not to look at anything that indicates the excruciatingly slow passage of time.
The conditioned temperature is never right. Shivers or sweats. Too cold or too hot for no apparent reason. There is no climate here, just temperature. Temperature changes but no changes in climate. No climate change. There is no space. No agency. No real change. “There is no time here, not anymore.”
Oftentimes, there isn’t even any pain. Where has the pain gone? The sedatives in the IV drip take care of that. The nurse takes care of you. Care is given here, not shared. Care is not optional, it is imposed.
“One foot stuck in the tar pit of my ways”
(Solace by Earl Sweatshirt)
If you manage not to die at the hospital door, or once inside, you are here until further notice, akin to forever. Care is enforced here. Time is absent. Space is meaningless.
During the day, time moves at a slightly faster pace. The place functions like any (semi-)public institution. Running, talking, ringing, beeping, waiting. Visits, gift bags, flowers.
The staff is running out of time. Time is always running out for the staff. Never passing for the patients. During the day, life is bustling in this place so close to death. At night, however, the hospital turns into a deserted house of terrors.
Multiple visits from the nun for rushed blessings
after multiple scheduled and rescheduled surgeries.
I guess my rate covered heavenly comfort.
At nighttime, the ICU takes a whole other dimension. Dead silence. Except for the dim beeping of machines and the lonely nurses falling asleep at their station. Checking your vital signs and changing the saline bag a couple of times throughout the night. Swinging you in and out of dazed grogginess.
But sometimes even those are absent. Especially when the sedatives dim your senses to their bare minimum. A lot of sleep, but also, a lot of transitory moments between wakefulness and sleep.
During this state, it's common to experience visual, auditory and olfactory hallucinations, as well as other forms of delirium. Things happen at night in these out of place, out of time, halls. And the rooms of the ICU are now aggressively enclosed spaces where rarely anyone or anything enters or exits, but simply, bursts into existence.
Shapes, sounds, flashes, figures, entities, paint, emotions, smells. Ping pong balls, emanciated bodies, blood stains, anorexic cats. The sensation of a presence in your solitary room. Another world beyond this one trying to manifest itself.
One of the friendlier nurses asks me if I’m rooting for France in the world cup finale
I can’t speak, nor do I give a shit about the world cup
But I nod out of politeness and appreciation for his attempt to remind me that I still exist in the world outside of this chamber
A couple of years after, I read some study. It said that anywhere from a third to more than 80 percent of ICU patients suffer from delirium during their hospital stay. And one-quarter of all ICU patients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder once they leave, a rate that’s comparable to PTSD diagnoses among combat veterans and rape victims.
Nothing ever enters or let alone leaves the ICU at night but things do appear and disappear. Often they linger until dawn, sometimes they remain during the day, hiding behind and in between the running, talking, ringing, beeping, visits, gifts, flowers. Flashbacks.
It took me a while to organize which parts of my stay were real, or rather from the outside of the ICU, and which burst into existence and died there
This episode is produced in collaboration with Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Middle East Office, Beirut.