by Rachael Z. Ikins
We sometimes traveled short trips, for instance to several doll and teddy bear shows New York City or Pennsylvania. Nestle’s condition relapsed often when the weather became cooler. So I would leave her with the veterinarian to board. I was not willing to trust her to a neighbor.
After one such trip when I went in to pick her up, the techinician, after telling me what a love Nestle was, asked me to wait to speak to the vet. The vet explained to me that because of the human eye-level of cage she had been staying in, one of the girls noticed a shadow in her left eye and brought it to the attention of the doctors.
They led me into the exam room to show me. Sure enough when the penlight was shined into her eye I could see a network of fine blood vessels behind the cornea. Nobody knew
why they were growing there, only that it would take her sight.
Thus began a seemingly endless series of visits, medications and procedures to save her eye. Nothing worked. Eventually, she developed a cataract there as well. Theory had it her eye was susceptible due to the damage from the old URI. We ended up driving her to Cornell to see a reknowned feline opthamologist. One trip down, I could not stand to have her shut up in the carrier. She laid on the dashboard basking in the heat from the defroster. She smiled at me.
He told me that cats’ eyes are very unforgiving to injury. A horse, on the other hand, can get a scratch that heals in just a few days. Cats' eyes develop endless complications.
I had to leave her at teh Veterinary School Clinic for surgery. They
sewed her eye-lid shut, left it open on each end for inserting ointments from various tubes several times a day. Their thinking was if they used the eye’s own lid as a natural bandage to protect and lubricate it, the cornea would heal better.
Well, I don’t remember how long she had her eye shut this way. I remember her riding on the dashboard of the car down to Cornell basking in the heat like a little princess..I remember the veterinarian at Cornell and his students being absolutely capitivated by her..she played “pounce and chase the twistem” in the darkened radiology lab.
Her eye never recovered fully. In the proper light it was possible to see the film over her bright green left eye the rest of her life. The cataract did not worsen and at least the abraded cornea healed over.
Her sight was compromised but she wasn’t blind.
In summer of 1998 my therapist retired. At that time, I was still being given multiple doses of mind-numbing drugs for everything from bipolar disorder to OCD, psychosis, to anxiety and on and on. A tossed-salad of diagnoses and prescriptions and malpractice.
The psychiatrist who had first begun writing prescriptions at the request of my therapist moved away. He referred me to a new man, just finished with his residency. This was a time period in mental health treatment history when medication was seen as the new frontier. Talk therapy was considered old-fashioned.
This new psychiatrist and I had formed kind of a bond. He was a cat lover, too. He also was a gardener and a lover of poetry. He developed and offered some negative opinions
about a therapist who would treat a patient as mine had me. As soon as I mentioned her retirement and that once again, whatever the newest drug was “it
was not helping” he suggested maybe I would like to stop taking meds...none them seemed to have made any difference over time. Maybe medication just was not for me.
Immediately, I concurred! I was very excited.
Over Labor Day weekend the week of the big”Labor Day Storm” of ’98, as it was called in our area, when we were without power in a large city for 8 days, I stopped all my meds. except one. I had not asked anyone how to reduce dosages. I did not know that with some of them abrupt withdrawal was extremely dangerous. I was simply ecstatic to be free of the chemicals that had so altered my life.
I descended into deep depression.. I was very irritable and anxious. I’d believed my feelings were a result of the power outage. Now, I know it was drug withdrawal symptoms.
I had also believed that my massive weight gain over that decade was due solely to drug side effects, not behavior. Many of the medications contained appetite stimulants as side/effects and others caused weight gain. In combinations, lots created fluid retention and swelling. I decided that September to go on a weight reduction diet too, to accelerate the weight loss as the drugs were removed. I chose the Slimfast plan..
I had long since forgotten that I had once enjoyed biking and walking along the Canal. So, for exercise to help speed the weight loss, I walked the halls of the area’s largest Mall.
It seemed the size of two football fields, one on top of the other. I’d stop in Borders Books to have a raspberry mocha latte with skim milk, my one daily a reward for all the discomfort.
Each day, as we drove home and neared our neighborhood, I became very anxious as to where in the house Nestle was. If she was ok. If she was safe. I would end up running
from the car to unlock the door. Through the rooms of the house. As soon as I saw her my fear disappeared as if it had never been..
Meantime the last drug I was taking along with a bunch of varied herbal preparations was Klonopin. It is a relative of Valium. They are both derived from the family of drugs descended from the Valerian root. Way back in ‘91, I had been sure to tell the original prescribing psychiatrist that I wanted no Valium. Nothing addictive. He assured me he would not give it. It was only after months of swallowing the largest dose of Klonopin considered safe, that I looked it up one sleepless night in the PDR and realized I had been lied to.
I asked him next day. He said “Oh, it doesn’t matter really. Don’t worry about it. “
My new psychiatrist was alarmed at the Klonopin level. He decided the only safe plan was to plot a chart on a 12 month calendar of gradual reductions by half a pill at a time. One reduction on one end of a week, then half at the other end of the next week.
Another negative effect of all the medications had been to put my young body in false menopause. Periods stopped. Sexual desire disappeared or became impossible. Bone density decreased dramatically. Arthritis had set in. I was in constant pain. Nerve damage occurred throughout my body. Plagued by bladder infections, incontinence, and lack of coordination. My memories were erased.
One particularly strange adverse event involved gynechomastia or abnormal breast growth. As a young woman, before medications I had had large breasts. Enough so that I was self-concious about them. But then, everybody has issues about their own body—this too small, that too big, that not enough. Its human.
As the early drugs took hold, I began to “out-grow” my bras. I was so confused. I did not understand. Years went by and no longer was I able to find any bra on the rack that I could squeeze into. I developed severe neck and shoulder pain.
With one tiny thread of rational thought, I decided to seek breast reduction surgery.
My husband suggested we try a colleague of his. That turned out to be a mistake. The man was clearly bigoted toward those with mental health issues. He was also offended by my weight. He promised me he would “contact my therapist” to make sure my desire for the surgery wasn’t a whim. He never called me back. In the mean time, my breasts grew yet larger and while hurt from the humiliation of that experience, I tried another plastic surgeon whose office was near my house.
He had experienced his own hardships in life. He was a man of faith. He was kind. Five pounds of tissue were removed. In recovery, I almost bled to death. The nursing staff waited to call the doctor until I had been bleeding all day.
When he examined me at 10:30 that night and wheeled me into emergency surgery, I said to him “I don’t want to die.”
He replied “Oh, dying isn’t so awful.”
I understand now how very close to death I was. His gentle words were to prepare me if that was my fate.
I survived the surgery without anesthesia. Only a paralytic and a cover over my face ebcause my hematocrit or oxygen part of the blood was so low, the life-saving blood transfusion and two days later was home. It was the only time during her life that Nestle and I could not sleep together. The incisions on my chest were raw and painful. I went to recuperate in the spare bedroom. Night after night, she sat outside the door, often until dawn, meowing and calling to me. How I missed her!
She was such a funny little girl. She was no longer able to use her sense of smell as a legacy of her illnesses. Apparently this opened her palate to the world of vegetables. Her favorites included asparagus—she’d have her own spear on her own small plate, corn on the corn, and fruits, cantaloupe, and her absolute all-time favorite, bananas.
I ate a banana each morning at breakfast. She sat in my night gown extending a paw to bat at the fruit until I shared a piece with her. The vet and I figured her peculiar tastes might’ve arisen from her body’s need for nutrients in its compromised state.
Cats tend to find their food and eat it because they can smell it. Nestle had a small pot belly. Unable to smell anything, she ate by sight.. A miracle all by itself.
She and I had both experienced near-death more than once. Our time together was precious to us. For my part, I would recite that children’s rhyme in my head with my own variation on the familiar words “I’m rocking my Nestle and Nestle’s don’t keep.”
I am so grateful to my common sense and awareness, bittersweet though it turned out, that whenever she came to me and asked to be picked up or petted or to climb down my clothing, I stopped what I was doing. I would set down the vacuum, stop typing, put the phone down, come inside when she called from the window, open my shirt…to the best of my recollection I was not once in to much of a hurry or too self-absorbed to respond to her. Looking back, I know I did not realize how few her days with me would turn out to be. I had thought I was simply mature enough to value the precious gift she was and the understanding that such gifts are rare. To savor them to their fullest.
It is good not to have regrets about this aspect of my life.
One of the first things the internist who was watching over my drug-reduction and weight loss suggested was estrogen replacement therapy. It was just when Prem-pro had come on the market. I tried it. Periods returned. Weight fell off me in spite of the remaining meds. Months passed. The other drug level went slowly down.
In 1998 after 3 heart attacks and two failed stents, my husband had quadruple by-pass surgery. In June of ‘99 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer that did not respond to treatment. I was in a very fragile mental and physical state from the combination of drug reduction process and the fear of his death. I was also recovering a few memories in bits and pieces.
I had not spoken to my mother in three years nor my closest cousin in 9. In August of ‘99, my psychiatrist decided I should take Neurotin for anxiety, and Ambien because I
could not sleep. By end of September, I stopped the Neurontin. Ambien did not work. I was on a very low dose of the Klonopin by this time and very, very uncomfortable-- skin tingling, pulsations, numbnesses, anxiety through the roof, shortness of breath, racing heart; many episodes of paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, a rhythm disorder, headaches, nausea, flu-like symptoms, sleeplessness..its hard to remember them all.
My body had also started to swell again with fluid retention. All the friends from my former life had drifted away. I was isolated. I was constantly angry and confused..stumbled through the days as lost as before. My house was a chaotic mess.
By the end of October, my physical discomfort was unbearable. My psychiatrist felt confident that after week or so when I was off the stuff completely, I would feel quite normal again. And most importantly, be able to sleep.
One Sunday night cold and rainy in November, I flushed the last of the Klonopin down the toilet and took a photograph of it . I assembled a photograph-collage with of a Barbie
doll, empty champagne bottles, pill containers and string, an anatomical model of a heart.and shot that composition for posterity with my Nikon F4.. Titled it “Nervous Breakdown”.
I began to have seizure-like activity those last days. Vomiting.
We went to bed that Sunday night. Nestle parked down by my left hip. In the wee hours around 2 a.m. I became unconscious. My husband woke up. He took my pulse. My heart beat was weak, irregular and thready. He made a decision not to telephone the ambulance. He said he figured my body would find its own way or not.
I came to at one point, drenched in sweat, covers thrown off. Fevered. I was paralyzed. I could not speak. Unconscious again.
Where I “was” all was black and stormy. I was as if in free-fall. I had no bearings, no self awareness. I was lost and hurtling toward death. And then, then… a warm pink light began to glow. In my altered state I conceptualized it as to my “left”. The ball of light grew bigger, more solid and clear. I ”clung to it”. The storm raged. I focused on that light. The light was all there was. Nothing else but darkness. I turned from the darkness. Hours passed. Nestle was there physically in bed next to my heart as it stuttered toward silence. She was the pink light. She lit that backness with the lamp of her soul, that I had an anchor to stay in this life. And so, because of her, I stayed.
When watery dawn light entered the bedroom windows at 5 a.m., I finally regained consciousness. I laid there a moment, disoriented. My husband spoke to me. I don’t recall what he said. I decided to go to the bathroom. I swung my legs over the side of the bed. Nestle was sound asleep next to my thigh. She opened one green eye and chirped at me. I touched her fur. My body was trembling. I stood up. I went to take one step and collapsed in a heap on the floor. The nerves to my legs did not work. I could not walk. I could not swallow. I could not urinate . But, I was alive. Most amazing of all, I was in my “right mind” intact for the first time in ten long years.
to be continued....