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Diary of a Hospitalization

«An unshared happiness is not happiness»

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Day 1

I have just finished drinking my steaming green tea at the canteen, and my chair has taken me back to the main pavilion of the hospital.

The hall is colossal: it could easily contain my entire small town including its tallest buildings and its surrounding hills covered by woods. Thousands and thousands of chairs like mine are moving feverishly along the kilometers of tracks carved into the floor of the whole building.

Some chairs are enclosed in transparent bubbles with the purpose, I guess, of preserving the asepsis of the environment around the patients.

Some patients are accompanied by a nurse, and especially children are accompanied by a nurse and by someone else I would guess is a parent or some other family member.

All the patients, men and women, children and adults alike, are wearing the same gown: a square of cyan cotton, which has evidently withstood repeated laundering cycles, with a couple of holes for the arms and a double set of twill tape ties to be fastened at the back.

The size of the robe assigned to each patient is barely large enough to cover their groins, which makes me feel quite uncomfortable.

However, this is just me: I have never felt at ease with many aspects of this society, such as the abolition of decency, the death of individualism, the lack of privacy.

We are just like ants: the interests of the colony always come before those of the individual.

This is definitely better than a society founded on consumerism, such as those I read about in my beloved dystopian speculative science-fiction books, where capitalism is in control and society is nothing but hollow hypocrisy.

I admit I spent most of my days so far in self-exile, locked in my self-forged golden cage that, at times, feels more like a rusty cocoon. I am a loner, not a misanthropist. I spent years as a recluse, until I almost died from social starvation. With time, I realized that you need to be a part of society if you want to survive. You must obey its rules to some extent to integrate yourself. You do not have to fully conform, but you have to come to terms with it. After all, any achievement of yours is only real if it is shared.

When I left my apartment this morning, I took a look at the view from the elevator's glass wall: kilometers of tracks carved into the roads' surface predetermine the paths of the electric trams, just like the tracks carved into the hospital's floor predetermine the paths of the electric chairs.

I do not even know on what storey my apartment is located: first, because, in order to reach it, the elevator must simply recognize my face; second, because I practically never leave it, being able to get whatever I need to survive, and more, delivered to my doorstep.

I had to change four trams to get to my destination, but with these new signs that provide custom directions based on face recognition, you cannot be mistaken.

I got to the hospital's reception in about one hour. A nurse was assigned to me for the check-in procedure. She was very accommodating and polite. We entered the immense hall where a chair was waiting for me with a folded gown on it.

The nurse was expecting me to undress and wear the gown as if it were the most natural thing to do under such a circumstance, and, most likely, for the ninety-nine percent of the population it would have been so indeed, but I was part of the remaining one percent.

Nonetheless, I satisfied the nurse's expectations and complied. She helped me fasten the twill tape ties and then helped me fold my clothes and store them in my bag, containing some spare underwear and some toiletry, and she placed my shoes and my bag in a compartment in the back of the chair.

Then she instructed me on how to operate the chair to go to the canteen, to the dormitory, to the toilet, and back to the main pavilion.

She told me I had maybe a couple of hours of free time I could spend at the canteen, but I was not allowed to assume any solid food, which I already knew very well: I had unpleasantly purged my intestines for the previous two days, during which I had also fasted.

So, I went to the canteen. You know the rest. Next step: collecting blood samples, urine samples, and, worst of all, internal organs' tissue samples.

By the way, I am here because I was diagnosed with liver cancer and I am supposed to undergo surgery with maximum urgency because the cancer is spreading fast and metastases are attacking other organs.

So, after some kind of tomography, they will decide from which organs they will pick samples with the purpose of performing histological tests.

Day 2

I woke up this morning very early in the dormitory. I had no memories of how I had gotten there. The last thing I remember was a nurse injecting me with anesthesia in preparation for the collection of tissue samples from my kidneys, lungs, stomach, and several sections of my intestines.

I was feeling a compelling need to use the toilet. I fumbled with the chair's controls, which was now reclined in sleeping mode – pretty cozy, I have to admit. I managed to let it switch back to its normal position and let it take me to the toilet.

To my discomfort, I realized that the so-called toilet was in fact a huge open space that could host maybe hundreds of chairs at once, the chairs being the actual toilets: the seat would split in two under your bottom allowing you to empty your bladder or intestines or both. When you were done, a very efficient sterilization mechanism, based on some chemical as well as mechanical technology I did not fully grasp, would leave both your body and the chair as clean and disinfected as possible.

Luckily, thanks to the early time of the day, only a handful of other chairs were scattered through the open space being so large that human shapes were barely recognizable.

I am at the canteen now, writing while sipping another steaming green tea – no solid food allowed of course. My nurse has just informed me that surgery will begin in a matter of hours, and she scared the hell out of me!

At this very moment what I crave most is probably the reason while I am here in the first place, the root source of the problem: alcohol. I have been an alcoholic for most of my adult life. Hopefully I will have the time to dig into my past and discuss the reasons why I started drinking and those why I did not stop (or I was not able to), but, for now, allow me to explain what being an alcoholic means to me.

During my working day, I would never allow myself to lose control. My sense of duty would prevent me from drinking because that would interfere with the product of my work. I have always been a control freak, which in my job is a gift.

During my working day, my mind is fully focused on the subject of my work. There is no room for interferences of any kind: neither extrinsic, such as a phone call from a friend I have not heard from in a while; nor intrinsic, such as an emotion rising from a memory, no matter how strong.

At the end of those twelve hours, sometimes more, I am drained, numb, weak. That is the time of the ghosts. And I have no more power left to contrast them, I am defenseless.

Ha, but I know very well how to get rid of that numbness: one martini, vodka martini, old fashioned, Negroni... you name it, as long as it is a classic. And be aware that it will never be only one! I guess psychiatrists call it craving: there is always one more, and then one more, and more, until that myself, who is never supposed to lose control during my working day, is lost for good.

So, this is how I used to drink, this is my way of being an alcoholic: no partying with friends, no drinks in the morning or in the afternoon; it is just me and my ghosts, at the end of my working day, in the loneliness of my apartment.

And when the nurse announced that surgery would begin in a matter of hours, the first thing I thought about was drinking because I was assailed by the ghost of fear, and I am unarmed against him. There is nothing I can do to contrast him. I feel my esophagus writhe in agony, my throat choking, dry, my increasing pulse throbbing in my temples, my body sweating while I am feeling cold. I know this is anxiety, I know this is a panic attack, and I know I desperately need a drink, right here, right now!

***

This surveillance system does a hell of a job (is it made by devices of some kind, or simply by people?): my nurse has just injected me with a tranquilizer so powerful I would not even care if they cut my belly open without anesthesia. And the wonderful thing is that I am perfectly lucid. I will then continue writing and close the circle I started: from ghosts to alcohol and back to ghosts.

Ghosts are very much real, and they become physical when you embody them. Like the ghost of fear, for instance: when it possesses you, you panic and lose control of your actions. It can be fatal.

This society teaches you to face your ghosts by being part of the collectivity, never left alone, always side by side with your peers: unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno.

However, you already know that I spent most of my days in self-exile, literally years as a recluse, refusing to conform to a society whose basic principles I still not completely share.

Therefore, in my darkest and loneliest times, I started drinking, but alcohol did not create the conditions for me to face my fears, it allowed me to elude them, to evade them instead. And the abuse of alcohol, together with the elusions and evasions, year after year, lustrum after lustrum, decade after decade, amassed in my liver where they developed in the form of a cancer.

Day 3

New day, early morning, dormitory, still no surgery. I am so frustrated!

Yesterday I was caught by surprise: my nurse reached me at the canteen to inform me that the Chief Surgeon had decided that more tissue samples had to be collected from my intestines, and then histologically analyzed, before proceeding with the operation. The last thing I remember is my chair taking me away and then me being anesthetized.

Actually, I also have a vague memory of what I thought were the operating rooms. Maybe the anesthesia had not kicked in yet, or maybe I was just dreaming.

I remember transparent bubbles, similar to the ones I had seen in the main pavilion, enclosing some of the patients, but these were much larger. In each bubble there was a chair in sleeping mode, with the patient lying on top of it, and what I could describe as a huge mechanical insect equipped with a number of limbs, some of which were connected to the patient, most likely operating on him or her. My best guess is that the teams of surgeons were supervising the operation of these giant insect-like robots from some remote location.

Anyway, the good news is that a needle inserted into a vein in my left arm is attached to a bag of some kind of saline solution: because green tea would not be enough to keep me alive, not even one more hour.

A quick stop at the so-called toilet, and then I headed for the canteen where I am once more writing while sipping my usual steaming green tea.

My nurse has already greeted me with a copious dose of tranquilizer – this surveillance system really works like a charm because I had not yet had the time to order my tea and she was already there.

Well, I guess now it is time for me to dig into my past and discuss the reasons why I started drinking and those why I did not stop, or I was not able to.

We had just completed the highest level of education and we both had just found the job of our dreams.

We were young, we were in love, and we wanted to be free.

We wanted to have a baby and raise it as a family. We did not want our baby to be taken away from us and raised as part of the collectivity.

We had my parents' support: they were as revolutionary as us, although at their time they could not even dream of secretly raising their children at home.

Times were changing, however, and insurgent movements were gaining strength.

My parents purchased the small apartment in their name, the one where I am still living, and gave it to us. Month after month, piece by piece, we bought the furniture. I cannot put down in words how happy we were!

Both working at home, it was pretty easy to remain unnoticed in a society that expects you to do your job and pay the taxes, and, as long as you do so, does not really care about you, unless you break the rules of course.

Unfortunately, to our liking, the rules were all wrong.

I have never tolerated people – and I do not mean just couples – making sex in public places! Of course, it must not be for procreative purposes: couples have to request a license to procreate from the government. And, by the way, we wanted to avoid that at all costs, because, otherwise, as soon as the baby was born, he or she would have been taken away from us and we could have only visited him or her on a scheduled basis.

I have often wondered if I were ready to sacrifice myself for society. Would I give my life in the attempt to save my Country? I guess it all comes down to love. Do I love my Country to such an extent? And by my Country I mean my people. Would I give my life for my people? I would give it for my parents, who never abandoned me, unlike many parents do with their children; for her, of course, and for our baby; but what about the rest? My answer is: I am not sure. Call me selfish. Call me a misanthropist. At least you cannot call me a hypocrite.

What about privacy? Theoretically, if you have nothing to hide, you should not care about someone listening to all your conversations, reading all your correspondence, knowing where you are, what your habits and tastes are. In my opinion, privacy is my undeniable right of secluding myself or information about myself, and thereby express myself selectively. I realize that the domain of privacy partially overlaps with security: well, if security were at stake, then I would definitely allow appropriate use of my personal information, but still within the limits of information protection principles.

It was late December when the news came. We were twenty-three. She whispered in my ear she would give me a daughter. I got so excited I cried about all day. I had to refrain from calling everyone I knew. We spent the rest of the day hugging each other in bed.

After a few weeks we invited my parents over to share the wonderful news and to ask for their support: we needed to organize periodical visits with a gynecologist, and, in the long term, we had to plan for the day of birth, involving a nurse and an obstetrician too, and everything had to be kept secret.

We had to plan for a lot of supplies too: clothes, diapers, wipes, creams and powders, food (sooner or later), toys... And no purchase could be made through any official channel.

Luckily, we could count on my parents' contacts in the dissidents' network.

I had to move carefully and keep my voice down, meet with several different people in several different locations, exchange bags using the most creative techniques. It may sound exciting, but it was annoying and very, very dangerous.

One summer night like many others, it was the fourth of July – I will never forget that night! – we were washing the dishes dreaming about our baby girl, when the Police broke into our apartment: four heavily armed agents wearing tactical vests and, behind them, her father.

I instinctively took a couple of steps toward them still holding a cloth in my hand when two of the officers pointed their guns at me and shouted in unison Freeze! I complied, and dropped the cloth.

The third officer was moving very slowly, he seemed to be the one in charge. He asked her father Is it her? And he nodded. The fourth officer remained outside, guarding the door. I turned toward her. It took her less than the time it took me to shout No! She slid her throat open from side to side with the cooking knife she was washing. She fell to the floor like a sack of grain suddenly emptied of its content. By the time I reached her, she was soaking in a pool of blood.

Once I realized nothing could be done for her, the ghost of rage and the ghost of vengeance possessed me: I turned against her father and, if the police officers had not held me, I would have let the ghosts wreak havoc on him.

An ambulance was immediately called. It was too late. An attempt was made to save the baby girl at the seventh month of gestation. It did not work.

So here is how I met the first two ghosts: rage and vengeance. Soon they were joined by desperation and need. All four were insatiable and therefore started feeding on me.

With time, the ghosts took the form of my two girls: at the end of my working day, my two missing girls started to haunt my body and mind creating a void I could not even start to fill: it would have been like attempting to refill the ocean one drop at a time.

Then they started to haunt my dreams and I could not sleep anymore.

I did not want to see a doctor because I was too stubborn to accept the principles this society is founded on.

And in my self-imposed confinement, I met my best friend: ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, C2H6O – ethanol among his closest friends, alcohol for the most!

In the beginning it did not matter what kind of liquid it was, as long as it contained alcohol; with time my taste matured and I started to explore the world of bourbons vs scotches vs Japanese blends, then it came the turn of gins, and then vodkas, and eventually I started experimenting with the subtle art of mixing.

Day 4

I am lying on my chair in sleeping mode. I have no idea where I am nor what time it is. I assume it is the day after the surgery. I cannot see farther than the bubble surrounding me and my chair. This bubble is not transparent, unlike any other I have seen before.

I feel numb, but I feel no pain. It must be the residue of the anesthesia.

A number of tubes come out of my bandaged torso and end up into bags hanging from the chair where liquids of different color and thickness are being collected.

A catheter comes out even from my exposed penis, draining a worryingly orange urine into a bag much larger than the others – it could be the color of a whiskey.

Well, by the way, I told how I started drinking, now it is time to explain why I did not or I could not stop.

Has anyone ever told you that alcohol causes physical addiction? Bullshit! I successfully tried being sober for weeks, even for months sometimes, and I have never experienced the slightest cold turkey symptoms.

Psychological addiction? Well, that is a different matter. Alcohol is a drug one can definitely, as well as very easily, become psychologically addicted to. And, on top of it, in my specific case, I guess I additionally developed an addiction to pleasure: I love valued spirits, I love passionately mixed cocktails.

Well, however, after the loss of my girls, I evidently entered a state of depression that got worse and worse every day, and I should have requested medical aid. Alcohol is not an antidepressant and as such it must not be employed. On the contrary, in the long term, it can severely worsen the depressive condition by inducing addiction.

I am forty-six now, and I quit drinking compulsively when I was about thirty-seven. That is when I found some peace with my girls and we began to get along with each other without any more pain caused by the four ghosts: rage, vengeance, desperation, and need. The scars remain, but time healed the wounds.

Maybe my drinking had nothing to do with my cancer, but for some sick reason I need to find cause-effect relationships between facts, and therefore I made up this connection: my abuse of alcohol, together with the four ghosts feeding on me, caused the development of the cancer in my liver, and then its spreading to other organs.

Over the past few years, I have also realized I had almost died from social starvation and I needed to be a part of society if I wanted to survive. I like to believe I had the chance to at least partially redeem myself as a citizen: I never fully conformed, but I progressively obeyed the rules more and more and reintegrated myself.

Writing is an act of sharing that makes me feel part of a whole: any event, even the least meaningful, if you are its only witness, just did not occur.

I suddenly have to pee.

Catheter.

Blood.

Alert.

Nurses.

Hemorrhage.

 

Fabio Scagliola,