15 Sep 2015

How I quit smoking

8:33 am on 15 September 2015

For years Jonny Potts couldn’t accept that he's going to die. He writes about the night that changed his mind.

Listen to the story as it was told at The Watercooler storytelling night or read on. 

Years ago in a second hand book shop I found a slim volume of poetry called Elegies Before Death. Inside the front cover, someone had written a verse which ended with the words "the real lesson of life / is to learn how to die".

Directly under this the same person had scribbled "Happy 21st birthday Peter".

I started to wonder what "learning" how to die was. I don't believe that there is such a thing as a good death. I could die in battle, in my sleep at 120 or on the right side of 9/11 and it wouldn't make any difference to me. If I wake up six feet under, it's a bad day, end of story. 

I came to the conclusion that learning to die was really just accepting you're going to die. You accept you're going to die, and then you wait for it to happen. Most of life is, as the poet said, waiting around to die. Death is the only certainty of life. They say it's death and taxes but I have enough friends in the arts to know that's not true.

It's taken me years to accept I'm going to die. I waited for it to happen. I wanted to wake up one day aware of my mortality and ok with it, instead of just mordantly aware of it. I thought talking about my keen fear of death would help, but all that got me was bored girlfriends.

But I think I've accepted it now.

So, a couple of months ago I go out for a drink. One drink. At a swanky bar, and I enjoy it slowly, maturely, like an adult man who doesn't have a massive, crippling fear of death. Then I go to pay.

I feel strange. But nothing is really happening yet. There's a pulsing in my head. Maybe this is just a head rush from getting up too quickly. I only had one beer, but I did have three cigarettes. Maybe they're hitting me like I'm 14.

No, it's more than that. This pulsing is getting stronger. It's thrumming in my ears, like huge wings flapping. Dragon wings. As I start walking home, it almost smothers the sound of Courtenay Place.

My right foot and calf begin to tingle. It's a sharp numbness, like pins and needles, but more aggressive, and somehow hollow. Something called 'pins and needles' shouldn't feel so sinister.

They say it's death and taxes but I have enough friends in the arts to know that's not true. 

Then my right knee goes, it snaps back too quickly whenever I put my foot down. I feel flushed and confused. The throbbing, or thrumming or pulsing sound in my head is intensifying. It feel like my brain is expanding and contracting inside my skull.

I am home. The tingling numbness moves up my leg. Healthline says to not move, but I'm afraid if I stop moving I'll lose the ability to walk. I stay still only when I notice my heart is racing. An ambulance is on the way. I will be still. I will wait.

The tingling stabs my abdomen on the right side and keeps moving up ... up my neck, across my face, causing a sherbet-like fizz to ripple over my lips and tongue. I see lightning bolts. I wait for the ambulance.

When the medics arrive I cannot talk. Sounds are coming out but they bear no relation to what I am trying to say. I am not able to produce words.

I am told to stop trying to speak and just wait until we get to the hospital. I wait. I see street lights through the window. I have no idea where we are.

Hey, how about this? The doctor at the emergency department saw me do stand-up last night.

He asks me if I can write. I scribble an arc of poorly rendered figure 8's. I do this with great determination. They take the pen away. I wait.

I have my head scanned. My blood is drawn. I'm put on a drip. Electrodes are attached. My blood pressure is checked. I'm given some injections. There seem to be a lot of people assigned to my case.

They tap up my notes on a keyboard to my left. It seems to me they are being more thorough than normal. These notes will be, I fear, 'coroner-friendly'. The hospital lights are bright.

The doctor stands with his arms crossed. It has been a couple of hours. He looks grim. He does not look like he is waiting, he looks like he's stuck.

I vomit blood. Every second I am stuck in panic. I think I am going to die.

I am like this for hours. I am aware not of my mortality, but my actual and imminent death. But I don't bargain with God, I don't even think about God. This is too important, why would I call a stranger?

I take in details of the room, and wait.

Sometime after 3am they wheel me to the High Dependency Unit. A nurse is stationed at the end of my bed. She checks my vital signs regularly, disrupting my already light, erratic sleep. I am told later that I do manage two words overnight. I repeat them from under the sheets: "Can't cope. Can't cope."

More speech returns when it gets light. A nurse takes my blood pressure, and tells me I cannot eat or drink anything. She uses the words "your stroke".

I am aware not of my mortality, but my actual and imminent death. But I don't bargain with God, I don't even think about God. This is too important, why would I call a stranger? 

My stroke. I had a stroke. Strokes are things that disable people, and kill people. My stroke.

I wait to hear more. A speech therapist sees me. I have more head scans. They look at my heart. They take more blood. They check my vital signs.

They say I threw up blood last night because they gave me thrombolysis. That is, they thinned my blood in case I was having an aneurysm, and this caused me to bleed into my stomach. (This treatment costs you, the taxpayer, about $2000.)

I wait. I wait for more information. I wait to be moved from the HDU to my own room. I wait for it to happen again and finish me off.

About 5am a neurological registrar tells me I am likely to make a full recovery. They can see no signs of damage. That is, they see no signs of brain death. I only now realise that I have been waiting to hear that I have no signs of brain death. Brain death.

I get my own room. Nurses come in all through the night, but I get my own room.

The next day I see a specialist. This is what I've really been waiting for. He has read my notes, seen the scans, the tests ... he will tell me about my stroke.

He says he does not believe I have had a stroke at all. There is no sign of any damage or any reason for whatever this was. It might have been a migraine. I don't get migraines. He does not know what happened. At one point he runs through some of my symptoms and says "This leaves us in a difficult position, diagnostically speaking."

He discharges me. It is a bright winter day, and I remember the obscure word used to describe the feeling of sun in winter: 'apricity'.

I'm tired when I get home. I go into my room. It feels like going back to a familiar holiday location. It feels like returning from a hallucinogenic excursion. It feels like waking up five minutes early and stretching.

I put on music. I see the sunlight coming through my window. I lie down on my bed and wait.

This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email thewatercoolernz@gmail.com or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: Phoebe Morris.

This content is brought to you with funding support from NZ On Air.