Junkie protocol.

[From February 28, 2018: There’s no way to honestly convey the depths of all we’ve experienced without including the events of a particular weekend in February 2018. Even a number of years later, though, I’m hesitant to pick at its scab, knowing full well that we’ve yet to fully recover from it. As I sit here writing this intro, I’m holding my breath, immediately transported back to the frenzied mind-fuckery of those three long days. So, I remind myself: we survived, we survived.]

The first night I didn’t sleep at all, fueled by equal parts adrenaline and despair, until I finally nodded off a little before noon on Saturday morning. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep — twenty minutes, maybe — when the phone finally rang. Press 5 to accept the call, 1 to confirm, and then I heard her voice, “Baby?!” It was a nickname I’d accepted years ago after admittedly half-hearted objections. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she continued, “They’re making me take Librium.” That was the last complete thought I’d hear from her until 7 or 8 hours later, when the next call from the jail would come.

We’ve been trying to manage Chelli’s manic episode for the last couple weeks. When she had several procedures at OSU Medical a month or so ago, I was concerned about the anesthesia as much as anything, because she’s so frail and plagued by a history of adverse reactions to medication. The anesthesiologist was aware of our concerns and decided to use Propofol, something she’d never had before. My frame of reference for the drug was that it was the cause of Michael Jackson’s demise, but the anesthesiologist assured us that in the right hands with constant monitoring, it was our best option. Initially, we were thrilled with the results. She woke up from it easily, something that wasn’t usually the case, and without the normal memory-wipe and days of cognitive fog that often haunted her after other procedures. In the immediate hours and days following, she said she felt great, something that hadn’t been true for the better part of a few years. Eventually, a couple days in, her pain would return in all its brutal glory, but the sleeplessness never abated. I don’t think she’s slept more than an hour at a time, often not more than an hour in a night, for the last month. I know, because I’ve tried to keep the same (insane) schedule. She’s had manic episodes before, but they usually would last a few days, maybe a week tops, before we could get them under control and before she’d finally hit the proverbial wall and sleep. This particular episode, though, was having none of it.

When your loved one is seriously ill, withering before your eyes, the natural impulse (or, at least, my natural impulse) is to step in and try to “manage” her body’s disintegration. That’s ridiculous, of course, not to mention impossible, but micromanaging is often a caretaker’s greatest coping mechanism. I’m well aware that it’s been a way for me to avoid acknowledging the fact that I’m losing her, bit by bit. I’ve also been very aware of something my friend Beth said about her husband in the years before he died. She told me that as Pete’s MS progressed, his life had become “small,” something that had been hard for her to watch. As a result, I’ve tried to not speed that process for Chelli, instead looking for ways to support little moments of independence when they materialize. It always feels like a search followed by a compromise, but I know it’s important. One of the things that first attracted me to her all those years ago was her blindingly fierce, give-no-fucks independence. I know she mourns the loss of it more than she ever lets on.

Last Friday, instead of taking her to her reflexology massage, she wanted to drive herself. It was just a few miles down the road and she desperately wanted to do something independently. The decision came after a prolonged negotiation between the two of us, me being more concerned about her being “safe” and her just wanting to feel “normal for once.” We decided that she would incessantly check in with me via text and I would do my best to pretend not to worry. It would be our marital compromise. After her massage, she sent a text to let me know she was feeling really good, the massage had seemed to help some, and it was nice to feel “almost human.” Her joy at this almost-humanity broke my heart. If I didn’t care, she said, she thought she’d “walk through Home Goods for a few minutes” before she came home. She wouldn’t be long, she assured me. Three or four times, I annoyingly asked some version of, “Are you SURE you’re up to this?!” Yes, she was sure; reluctantly, I agreed.

It would probably be an hour and a half or more before I heard from her again and I could immediately tell even in her text that something was off. “Are you okay? I can come get you,” I texted, followed by an increasingly urgent back & forth. Eventually she stopped returning my text messages; my calls unanswered, straight to voicemail. I grabbed my keys and headed out the door. What would follow was a blur of panic and fear. For the next several hours, I physically searched for her. I drove to where I thought she had been, or at least where she told me she had been. I searched parking lots and then stores. I accosted strangers, “Has an ambulance been here? Did anyone have to be taken to the hospital?” Nobody was helpful. Eventually, it occurred to me that I could track her car on my “BMW Connected” app. The app lead me to her car, parked & locked, at the next strip mall over from the original Home Goods location. So I frantically searched that area, too. “Has an ambulance been here? Have you seen this woman? I think she’s in trouble.” All the while, I continued to call her phone, hitting redial as a nervous tick, but it always went directly to voicemail, until I’d filled her voicemail with my despondent pleas. Exhausted, I gave in and started calling area hospitals from my car.

It would take yet another hour or two of that madness before I finally received a call. “Jeffrey, Jeffrey Ward?,” the unidentified man asked. “I have someone here who wants to talk to you.” When he put her on the phone, she was sobbing, clearly distraught and confused. Through her indiscernible cries, she told me that she’d been arrested, that she was a criminal now, and that she was probably going to die in jail. And then her sob-soaked apologies took over. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I desperately tried to get more information from her — where she was, what’s the address, what on earth happened, was she okay, was she hurt, had she been drinking, did she have her medication — but could only get scattered fragments of nonsense from her tearful pleas. Finally, the man was back on the phone, he spat out an address, then hung up. I immediately drove to the address — County Jail, according to a ham-fisted Google search — but when I got there, was turned away by yet another unidentified man behind the intercom at the jail’s entrance. It was nearly 11PM.

Through the intercom, I told him, “Look, I don’t know what has happened, but she has a serious medical condition. She needs meds. She desperately needs a doctor.” And then, before I could stop myself, “Sir, she’s dying. She WILL die. Please.” Intercom Man replied dispassionately, “Yeah, we’re aware. She won’t stop telling us about all of her health problems. Go home and get her meds. You can’t do anything now anyway. Wait there for her to call you once she’s been booked. Go. Home.”

In the next hour, I would hire an attorney, tell him our life story, cry, have the attorney call the jail to find out what the fuck was going on, hit a pothole, drive home to find and gather her meds, and then finally, just after midnight, receive her post-booking call. What I know now, but didn’t fully understand then, was that she’d had some sort of manic break or meltdown at a Kohl’s, of all places, where she’d locked herself in a dressing room for over an hour. Management had been watching her on their security cameras, the “erratic” woman who was clearly up to something. When she finally emerged, for reasons I don’t think will ever make sense to someone not in the throes of a breakdown, she had decided to put on all of the clothing items in the dressing room, some she brought in with her and some that were there before, layer after layer after layer after layer, before deciding that she just needed to get to the safety of her car. Store security stopped her as soon as she walked out the door. Given the appearance of her disease-riddled frame — notably, the fact that she’s lost 20 pounds and is covered with skin lesions that are the result of her latest diagnosis, Porphyria — they assumed, like I am sure they’d encountered many times before, that Chelli was merely another filthy junkie, stealing for a fix. They treated her accordingly.

The people at the jail then followed suit, where they initiated some sort of junkie protocol and put her on high doses of Librium, a move meant to keep an addict from going through messy heroin withdrawal on their watch. When I met with the overnight “nurse” at the jail later that first night/morning to drop off Chelli’s meds, I tried to explain that while I understood how this all must look, my wife wasn’t a drug addict and instead was seriously, seriously ill. She needed immediate care, I argued, not jail. “Honey, everyone thinks they’re too sick to be in jail,” the nurse snarled, as she walked away with the bag of Chelli’s medication in hand.

Chelli would end up spending the entire weekend in that place, but never was given any of her medications. Eventually, they did stop giving her Librium, not because they finally believed me or tested her for the presence of the drugs they assumed she was on, but because the Librium was causing her blood pressure to fall to dangerously low levels. Despite my pleas, she never saw a doctor and they never drug-tested her. They didn’t need to because, for them, the situation was “obvious.”

A lot happened to her during that weekend in jail, more than I can or will say here, but almost all of it would be traumatizing for any of us. Stripped naked, with only some sort of oversized vest to wear, they left her on full display in the jail’s booking area. She was taunted and laughed at by the guards, who found her neurotic concern over “germs” to be highly entertaining. They didn’t take care to whisper when they referred to her as a junkie, nor did they take seriously any of the medical professionals I mobilized to call the jail on her behalf. When I finally was allowed to see her on Sunday, separated by bulletproof glass, she’d been able to shower and put on normal inmate wear for the first time, but they switched her back to the vest that barely covered her nakedness once I was gone. The reality is that Chelli’s not a junkie, she hadn’t done any illegal drugs, so the treatment she received was especially horrific, even without taking her dire medical situation into account. But I’m also left wondering, what if she actually were a suicidal “junkie,” what if all of the assumptions they made had been correct? Is this how we treat addicts now?

Monday morning came with its own truly unbelievable and frustrating challenges, setbacks, mistaken identities, and general disappointments, but I was eventually able to pick her up and bring her home a little before noon. The female sergeant at the jail on Monday hadn’t been there over the weekend. She was the first person who seemed to understand that what had taken place might not have been okay. When I met with the sergeant before they would bring Chelli to me, she wanted to explain to me that jails have “limitations” when it comes to what they can do or what sort of care they can provide. Maybe she was trying to apologize without admitting any fault, but it was more clear that she was trying to cover their asses. I just wanted my wife back. When they finally brought Chelli to me twenty minutes later, some 65 long hours after her arrival at the jail, she collapsed in my arms and sobbed.

We’re still picking up the pieces and will be, I’m sure, for a while. I don’t know what lies ahead, exactly, but our first order of business is trying to resume medical and psychological care for Chelli, then preparing for her court date next week. As we try to regain our footing, tenuous as it is, I am both amazed by Chelli’s resilience in the face of the truly unthinkable, but also frightened of the damage done by this latest trauma, wounds yet to reveal themselves. I’m also trying to be aware of my own need to acknowledge the very different trauma I experienced, too, while being cognizant of my caretaker’s instinct to ignore my own wounds as somehow less important than the damage inflicted on the one I love. This is a dance we’ve done before.

We are more broken than bulletproof.
She is okay; she is not okay.
I am okay; I am not okay.

This can not be the end of our story.

2 thoughts on “Junkie protocol.

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