"Wake Up, Darling." A short fiction story about recognising high-functioning alcoholism, written Gray Nomad
“Wake up, darling. It’s time.”
I looked up and saw Bill set the glass of wine on the bedside table next to the clock. Six-thirty p.m. I need to hurry. Grabbing the glass, I slurped the wine as I rushed to the bathroom.
Another gulp. Best finish it before I get into my white uniform. I’ve slopped red wine stains on my work clothes before.
Bill knew I needed to sleep late after the barbecue today.
“Here’s your things.” My husband handed me my bag, keys, and a navy cardigan as I ran for the front door.
“You’re a lifesaver. Love you,” I said and we leant forward and pecked each other on the cheek. Gosh, I love that man. He waved his glass at me, the red liquid swishing back and forth. I wished I could have stayed and enjoyed a drop more with him.
* * *
I walked into the ER, and Mary gave me the stink eye. I was a half hour late. Crap.
“Nice of you to show up, Nancy.” Mary strode past me toward the locker room.
All I could do is shrug at her back, and then the doors at the ambulance dock flew open. An older man on a stretcher was wheeled in between medics. A cop followed close behind.
I pointed down the hall. “Put him in area two. What happened?”
The officer stepped up next to me. “Found him unconscious at the Frankston Pier.”
He handed me a wallet. “Doug…seventy years old.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the help.” I pulled his I.D. card out of the wallet, wrote his identification details at the top of the chart, threw the wallet in the blue plastic bag labeled patient, brought it to cubicle two, and then hurried to check on the patient. He reeked of a familiar smell, but I couldn’t recall what it was.
The police stayed until I completed my triage on him and gave them a report. “My observations reveal that his fluids are low, so I’ll attach an intravenous drip, and that will also restore his electrolyte balance and flush his system. He’ll remain in the emergency department on observations overnight. Then, if he is still with us, they will perform some tests to see what damage he’s done.”
The police made their notes and left.
The doctor on call took a glance at him, read my chart notes, and moved to the next cubical.
With his observations and IV setup completed, I checked my other patients.
The phone rang and the supervisor answered. She talked awhile, hung up, and turned to me. “They need a staff member to cover for the meal breaks in ward five. Come back after awhile to complete the six a.m. observations before you go off duty,” she said.
Food and drink dispensers lined the hallway. Nothing there interested me. I checked my bag to see what Bill packed. You little devil. I grinned and pulled out a can of rum and coke, feeling several more clink off my nails. I sat on the bench outside the ward and drank one. Popping a peppermint in my mouth and a wake-me-up pill, I braced myself for whatever faced me in the psychiatric ward.
The burly guard arrived just after I rang the doorbell, unlocking the heavy metal door with a blank expression. He escorted me behind reinforced glass that separated the staff from the ward and patients.
I stood at the station and waited for the nursing supervisor (who was reading notes on the computer) to acknowledge me. She appeared to be in a trance, staring at the same patient record long after I had finished reading it.
After twenty minutes of feeling exhausted standing there in my reporting-for-duty pose, and feeling stupid, and her not glancing at me once, despite my positioning myself where her side vision had to see me, and making sounds as I moved my bag around, I interrupted her concentration. “What would you like me to do?”
She jerked upright, looked around hastily, blinked, and then glared at me.
Gosh, she startled me with her sudden reaction. She really was asleep—with her eyes open. Well I...
“We’ve had an S.O.B. admitted,” I said. “We might need an additional staff member if I have to run in there with the guards.” Not even a smile from her. She refreshed the page of notes on the screen and looked like she was reading the same patient’s notes.
S.O.B. in this ward wasn’t the medical abbreviation for short of breath.
I sat and waited, reading patient files from the computer in front of me and observing the staff. The supervisor went back into her stupor.
The guard blinked infrequently, and his pupils were dilated. I couldn’t preach; I was working with drug-assisted alertness myself.
Most of the night nurses looked like they took care of young families instead of sleeping during the daytime. Like me, they probably grabbed a few hours sleep when their partner got home before charging out the door to drive to work. I bet they sometimes forgo sleep to have a little taste of normal life, like the barbecue I’d been to that day. Sure, some of us popped uppers. Yes, I knew, I was full of excuses when I wanted them. People should try juggling what I did before they judge me.’
I watched the multiscreen the guard kept his eye on. Patients paced in rooms and hallways. One was playing the piano; only a few were asleep.
Gosh, by two a.m., I fancied another can of drink. That sitting there, doing nothing, got to me. “Please, can I do something?” I asked, fighting fatigue. I needed to keep busy—I was starting to nod off. I turned toward the computer screen and put a pill in my month and swallowed. I had to stay awake.
Go in there with the patients. Try to get them to settle. Julie Roswell, on the sofa, just arrived. I doubt she’s dangerous. The guard will be watching you.
I’d read Julie’s file on the computer screen. I went and stood at the door, and the guard came and unlocked it, giving me this “You’re-nuts-going-in-there” look, then shut and locked the door behind me.
I needed to walk past this extremely powerful looking man who had an aggressive manner. He was the S.O.B. I tried not to draw his attention by not meeting his stare as I moved toward Julie.
“Morrison.” The S.O.B. read my name badge. Then he looked smug as he continued to shift his eyes from my face to my name badge. He was attempting to intimidate me. I guessed he was implying he would always know my name, could find me on the outside, if he chose.
I hated that ward. Fancy putting Julie in with that lot. I guessed they were all in there for the same reason—substance abuse in one form or another. I couldn’t understand—at the time—why people did that to themselves.
“Would you like to have coffee with me, Julie?”
She looked up at me. Her eyes were red and her whole body trembled. There was more than drug addiction behind the pain.
My intuitiveness is at least ninety-nine percent of my success as a nurse. It isn’t all science. University didn’t teach me my best medical skills or how to connect with people like Julie.
“Yes, please. I am supposed to—increase—my fluid intake. I can’t—can’t make myself drink. I’ll try to drink some tea. Milk, two sugars, please.”
“I'll be right back.” I followed the corridor to the kitchen. It smelt of methylated spirits. They’d cleaned the stainless steel with it. That was the smell on the old man in the emergency. Why hadn’t I remembered while I was with him?
That’s when I woke up to the fact I was slipping, my brain wasn’t as sharp anymore, and my work was beginning to be affected.
I glanced at the half-dome cameras mounted on the ceiling, and I was glad the guard was watching and wondered what equipment the patients had access to in there. Surely they don’t have cutlery. I know where I trained they only had plastic spoons and forks, and not even a plastic knife.
I had never been in the patients’ area before in that ward, only the treatment room where a guard stands on either side of the patient, and there are always two trained nurses present. It felt weird the way the patients backed up against the wall and glared at me, like I was an outsider, the enemy, as I passed them while I began to wake up. I wasn’t all that much smarter than they were, unless I made a few life changes myself.
I returned with the drinks and sat beside Julie. She shook too much to hold the mug. I helped her and she was able to swallow half the tea. We talked. She sobbed into her hands, tried to speak but stuttered. “Let it out in words and tears,” I said. “It will help.”
I was called back to the emergency department. As I walked the corridor, I took another can of rum and coke from my bag. I wanted to drink it. Then I thought about Julie’s case history. She collapsed drunk on a footpath, a wine cask beside her. Short story—she lost custody of her children and went on a bender. Ended up in that, hellhole—psych ward. I pulled my hand away. Went to the water fountain and drank a glass of water. It tasted foul. I couldn’t remember when I last drank plain water.
Now Julie wants to get well and have a second chance. She wants her children. She’s grief stricken over what’s happened. Her marriage had disintegrated, and the drinking started because of untreated postpartum depression. Why couldn’t her family see she was ill before it got to that stage?
I reassured Julie that she would get well.
Back in the emergency, Doug had made an amazing recovery. He was sitting up, talking about his bicycle, concerned it might have been stolen. He remembered peddling to the pier, having a drink with his mates, nothing after that.
“Wouldn’t your mates look after your bike for you?” I asked.
“Nah.” He shook his head. “Same as I’d do. Sell it for more grog.”
“Not real mates then, are they?” I checked his observation chart.
“I reckon the doctor here’s my mate,” he said. “He can get me into rehab. What do you think?”
I observed him. Scrawny, yellow-skinned, with obvious liver complications, yet he was grinning and talkative. He must have the constitution of an ox. He doesn’t understand how close he came to never waking up. He’ll never be well.
I encouraged my recovering metho drinker to sip water from the glass I held. “You can do it. Question is, do you want to?” I put the glass down and looked straight at him.
“Yes,” he said with determination.
I believed him. “Then you will succeed.” I made sure his booking for rehabilitation had been organised before I went off-duty.
I enjoyed the scenery as I drove home. Never too tired to appreciate the cloud patterns in the sky. It felt good to play a part in two people starting to change their lives for the better.
I dozed off for a second. Jerked awake and found myself driving towards… Time slowed. My body stiffened as I stared into the fear in the driver's eyes. I slammed on the brakes and swerved back into my lane.
Swearing, I groped in my bag for a can of drink and a pill to refresh myself— then pulled my hand away in shock at my own instinctive behaviour to reach for a drink when under stress. If I’d taken one of those pills then, it would have been a repeat of the day before. I’d not get to sleep until the afternoon. Then I’d be falling asleep at the wheel again—I might not wake up, pull out, in time.
Somehow, I drove the rest of the way home and staggered in the door, heading for bed without saying a word to the family. Those twelve-hour night shifts, plus the driving time, were murder.
Continued in High Functioning Alcoholism an eBook by Cray Nomad in online bookstores.
Hey it's me, Ryn.
Copyright Short Stories by