I’ve never felt more alone than I did after my suicide attempt, which was ironic, considering that in the ICU, I was never physically alone. There was always someone coming in to check my vitals, change my IV bag, or collect another blood or urine sample. The doctors made their rounds twice a day, and in the meantime, the nurses kept a close eye on me. There was no such thing as privacy.
I felt like a prisoner, held captive in my hospital bed, hooked up to so many tubes and wires that I couldn’t get up and walk away, even if I wanted to – and I wasn’t sure I did. Despite how much I hated being in the hospital, I didn’t think I was ready to face the outside world and deal with what I’d done. Just facing the guys had been bad enough. I felt sick to my stomach every time I pictured Kevin looking anywhere but at me or heard AJ saying, “Your list can’t be any longer than mine,” as if he actually understood what I was going through. But how could he? The only people who could possibly understand the guilt and shame I felt were the ones I’d infected: Leigh and Nick. But neither of them had called or come to visit.
“Do you know if my wife’s called?” I asked my new nurse, Jenny, on that first full day in the hospital. It had been a few hours since my overnight nurse, Pauline, had finished her shift. After I’d sent AJ and Kevin home, I had allowed myself to take another nap, but now that I’d slept off the worst of my hangover, I was more alert and desperate for information. It was starting to sink in just how much I might have screwed up my life. I needed to know how bad it really was – and who else knew. Had the rest of my family been notified? Had the media or the fans gotten wind of it yet? How much damage control would we have to do?
“Not that I know of, but I can check,” offered Jenny. “While I’m doing that, there’s someone here who would like to talk to you.”
I hoped it was Nick. Nervous as I was to face him, I knew I needed to apologize – again – for what I’d put him through, but I hadn’t yet had the chance. My cell phone was nowhere to be found, and there was no phone by my hospital bed. Even though there were people popping in all the time, I felt isolated, cut off from all contact with the only ones who mattered to me.
The visitor was not Nick. Instead, Jenny sent in a woman to see me. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and a white coat, but I could tell right away she wasn’t a regular doctor. Maybe it was the nice blouse and slacks she wore underneath, or the pen and notepad I could see poking out of her pocket. Maybe it was the absence of a stethoscope around her neck or the presence of a rainbow pin on her lapel. Something about her just screamed “shrink.”
“Hi, Howie. I’m Dr. Zediar,” she said with a smile, reaching right through the web of tubes and wires to shake my hand.
Yep, I decided, definitely a shrink.
“I’m a psychiatrist here at the hospital,” added Dr. Zediar, confirming my suspicions. “Dr. Skinner asked me to consult on your case.”
“Look, I’m not clinically depressed or crazy,” I said quickly, “and this wasn’t a cry for help or some desperate attempt to get everyone’s attention.”
Dr. Zediar nodded. “I took a look at your chart before I came in,” she said in an off-handed way, as she pulled up a chair, turned it around, and sat on it backwards, with her legs straddling the back and her arms crossed over the top. I could tell she was trying to keep things light. Her off-handed comment, her casual way of sitting… they were all part of a practiced act, meant to put me at ease. Behind the thick lenses of her glasses, I knew those blue eyes were watching me closely, waiting for my guard to go down so she could get what she wanted out of me. Just as I was assessing her every move, she was studying me.
“You had some pretty high levels of drugs and alcohol in your system when you were brought in last night,” she added, raising her eyebrows. “Was that an accident, or did you know what you were doing?”
There was no point in playing dumb. Even if I thought I could pass off pretending to have misread the labels on my medications, pride kept me from trying. I wasn’t an idiot. Of course it had been intentional. “I knew what I was doing,” I admitted.
She nodded again. “Why did you do it?”
I had to hand it to her: her tone wasn’t accusing, as Kevin’s had been when he’d asked me the same question. It wasn’t judgmental. It wasn’t patronizing. It was simply curious, as if she really just wanted to know why. So I surprised myself by answering her honestly: “I wanted to die. I just thought it would make everything easier.”
“In what way?” she asked, maintaining the pretense of curiosity by cocking her head slightly to the side.
I sighed. “If you read my chart, you know I’m HIV-positive, right?” I said, and she nodded. “Well, what you may not know is that I got it from cheating on my wife and then gave it to her, and she passed it on to our baby. He’s got full-blown AIDS.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Dr. Zediar, pursing her lips sympathetically. “So you’ve had a lot to deal with lately, huh? An HIV diagnosis, on top of your son’s illness and, I would assume, some turmoil in your marriage?”
I let out a sarcastic laugh. “‘Some turmoil’ would be putting it lightly. My wife left me about a month ago. She took our two boys to her parents’ house in New Jersey, and I haven’t seen them since Thanksgiving.”
“That must have been hard for you. Do you think that on some level, maybe even subconsciously, you were hoping to get your family back by harming yourself?”
I shook my head. “I told you, I didn’t do it for attention. I didn’t do it to hurt Leigh, my wife, either. I actually thought she and the boys would be better off without me. They could live off the money from my estate, and eventually, they wouldn’t have to worry about being bothered by the media anymore…”
“Is that something they have to deal with often? Media attention?”
I shrugged. “Not a lot. Only when something big is happening.” Like a Backstreet Boy trying to off himself, I thought, and my heart began to pound. I knew if any paparazzi had been around when I was brought in the night before, there would be a media circus surrounding my family and friends that morning. I wished there was a TV within watching distance so I could check the entertainment news, but the walls of ICU were bare. I had no window to the outside world, figuratively or literally. “Hey, you haven’t heard anything about me on the news, have you? Or seen anything on the internet?” I asked the shrink.
She shook her head. “Cedars-Sinai is used to treating celebrities. Our staff takes every precaution to protect our patients’ privacy.”
I nodded, relaxing a little. “Good.” So it wasn’t out there yet. Still, I knew we would need to release some kind of statement eventually. I wanted to have the first word, before the press got wind of anything and went crazy with it. I just didn’t know what to say.
“Let’s go back to your family,” Dr. Zediar tried to redirect me. “Tell me some more about how the last few months have been at home.”
“There’s not much to tell. I had the perfect life, the perfect family, and I fucked it all up – pardon my French.”
Dr. Zediar didn’t seem fazed by my profanity. “No one’s life is really perfect, is it?” she asked, and I shook my head. When I didn’t say anything, she probed further. “You mentioned earlier that you had cheated on your wife. What led you to do that? You said yourself that your family was ‘perfect.’”
“My family is perfect,” I said and then sighed. “I’m the one with the imperfection.”
She gave me a searching look. “What do you mean by that?”
I felt like I had already said too much. I didn’t even know this woman; I wasn’t ready to tell her the secret I’d only recently revealed to my closest friends and family. “Can we finish this conversation later?” I asked, stalling for time. “I’m not feeling that well.” It wasn’t a lie; my head was still pounding, and my stomach hurt, too.
“Are you really not feeling well, or are you trying to avoid talking about your feelings?” countered Dr. Zediar, calling my bluff.
“I’m not feeling well, and I’m trying to avoid talking about my feelings,” I admitted, cracking a smile.
She smiled back, making me feel more relaxed. “Well, we don’t have to keep talking about your feelings, but sometimes talking helps to sort them out. I know it sounds cliché, but this is a safe place, Howie. You can say anything you want and know that it will never leave this room. Our conversation is completely confidential.”
I nodded. “Thanks, but I think I’d rather just be alone right now so I can sleep.”
Dr. Zediar pressed her lips together in a thin line. She seemed to be biting her tongue, clearly wanting to probe me some more, but I guess she could tell I was done talking. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll let you get some rest, but I’d like to check back with you later and see how you’re doing. If you change your mind and want to talk more, just let your nurse know. She’ll know how to reach me.”
“Thanks,” I said again and closed my eyes, hoping she would take the cue to leave. Even after I heard her walk away, I kept my eyes closed and tried to doze, but sleep wouldn’t come. There were a million thoughts running through my mind. I kept wondering what was going on outside the hospital and worrying about what would happen once I got out, too. It was almost a relief when my nurse, Jenny, came in to check on me. I was tired of being poked and prodded, but at least it would take my mind off my troubles for the time being.
“I hear you aren’t feeling so well,” said Jenny, as she stuck a thermometer in my ear to take my temperature. “Are you in any pain?”
It was a lot easier to talk about my physical feelings than my emotional ones. “My stomach sort of hurts,” I admitted, “and I have a headache, but I guess that’s to be expected, huh?”
She gave me a sympathetic smile as she waited for the thermometer to beep. “You shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable,” she said, taking it out of my ear. She checked the reading and wrote it down on my chart. “According to your chart, I’m not allowed to give you anything, but I’ll let the doctor know and see what he says.”
“Okay, thanks. Hey, did you ever find out if my wife has called? Her name’s Leigh… Leigh Dorough?”
“Oh – no, she hasn’t called here. Would you like me to call her?”
I felt a sinking feeling inside. Kevin had already called her, so she had to know what was going on. She just didn’t give a damn. “No,” I said, “that’s okay.”
“Well, if you change your mind, just let me know,” Jenny said brightly. “In the meantime, I’ll see if I can track down your doctor.”
There was a different doctor on call during the day. “Hi, I’m Dr. Stone,” he introduced himself. “Jenny said you’re experiencing some stomach pain?”
“Yeah, a little,” I replied, shifting in my bed. “Probably from having my stomach pumped last night, right?”
Dr. Stone frowned as he looked at my chart. “They didn’t ‘pump your stomach,’ Mr. Dorough. That’s hardly ever done these days. The NG tube was only put in place to give you activated charcoal, since you were unconscious.”
“Oh. Well, when can I get this taken out?” I asked, touching the tube in my nose.
The doctor ignored my question as he turned down the covers to examine me. “Let me know if this is tender,” he said, moving his fingers around my abdomen and pressing down in different places. It didn’t hurt until he hit a spot on the right side, just under my ribcage.
“Ow.” I winced. “Right there it is.”
I watched his face as he continued to palpate my side. I could tell something wasn’t right. “I think we’d better leave that tube in place for the time being,” he said after a few seconds. “We may need it to supply you with nutrients. I’m putting you on a strict NPO diet – that means nothing by mouth. This right upper quadrant tenderness you’re experiencing, along with the results of your latest set of labs, suggest there’s been some damage to your liver.”
My mouth went dry. “How much damage?” It seemed stupid to worry about liver damage when, less than a day ago, I had been ready to die, but since I was still alive, I guess I had a vested interest in how my liver was doing.
The doctor shook his head. “Only time will tell. We’ll need to run some more tests to get a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
He kept saying “we,” but really, he meant me. It was my problem to deal with. I had done this to myself.