Imagine, for a moment, that you wake in the pleasant fog a warm bed induces, but with an urgent call from your nether regions telling you you must get up. You try to ignore it, but the bladder alarm only gets louder with time. Trying to cede as little of your warm and fuzzy coma as you can, you finally roll out, heading for the bathroom, only to stub your toe on some sharp-cornered inanimate object.

There are two problems with this: First, an acute pain in your toes definitively drives away the warm fuzzy you hoped would lull you back to sleep. Second, there shouldn’t be any sharp-cornered objects at the foot of your bed.

Your eyes pop fully open and you stare at all the gray shapes around you, trying to force everything into its proper place and your psyche into its comfortable orientation.

No luck.

Your metaphoric world spins around for a few milliseconds until you finally remember – You’re not at home. You’re in a hotel room in…what city was it?

By the time you’ve figured it all out, your toe is still throbbing, there’s adrenaline still pumping through your body, and any hope of getting back to sleep will have to wait a while. Perhaps a long while.

I suspect this is something close to a universal experience for any of us who have had to fumble for the bathroom in a strange place. For a few moments there is a total sense of disorientation. But let me take it one step further.

Once upon a time I ended up in a hospital. There are many good things about a hospital; lots of attention, a vacation from work, pain meds (eventually) on request, and enough forms to fill out to paper a medium-sized house. However, there are lots of other strange aspects such as unregulated (by you) temperatures, eternal voices outside, strangers (often armed with needles) wandering in with only the most perfunctory of knocks, and odd folks who wake you up at all hours to check your “vitals.” Nowadays, you also get to share your room with lots of electronic gadgets that add their own pings, bells, clicks, and the occasional loud alarms to the ambiance.

And since they are likely to show you the door (in a wheelchair) in a surprisingly few days to complete your recuperation (and annoy your relatives) at home, you are likely to spend most of your actual stay in a somewhat addled state, whether from antibiotics, sleep aids, pain medications, or the latest alchemical brews from the medical arsenal.

Point here is that now, when you wake up to the call of your bladder, the obstacles to figuring out exactly where you might have wandered are multiplied. Your bed probably has raised slats on the sides that want to trap you. It is highly probable that you have an IV drip attached to your arm that runs up to a whirring and clicking device that will (trust me) start to scream loudly if you do not treat it gently enough. Given even half a chance, the drip tube will wrap itself around you and the IV unit will start to tip over, screaming “Mayday, Mayday” at the top of its galvanic voice. This will bring the night nurse and an amazingly condescending look.

But that, of course, is later, when you’ve built up enough visceral understanding that you can catch a tipping IV unit without simultaneously ripping the IV out of your arm. That takes experience.

But the first few times it happens, the disorientation is nearly total. You’re in a strange place, surrounded by strange noises and smells, wrapped in cotton “blankets” and a garment God himself would probably have been embarrassed to inflict on serious sinners.

But here is the part I found most fascinating. Have you ever had it happen that you were having one of those vivid, just-before-you-wake-up dreams? They are surreal, but you can feel the brain striving to make sense of it all. A bird chirps outside your bedroom window. All of a sudden a bird magically appears in your dream. A car races loudly by. For some reason, in your dream, you are suddenly driving…with your bird. Kids scream as they play a game outside. They, too become fodder for the dream. Your brain absolutely insists that all must somehow go together.

Okay, now imagine you are waking up in your hospital bed, groggy and disoriented. In your dream, you’ve been sitting, having an elliptical conversation with someone in scrubs. But as you try to turn, you realize you’re tangled up in hot, dry wrappings and strange plastic tubes. Your dream starts to shift, trying to find some explanation for these entanglements. Then you hear some conversation out in the hall and suddenly you’re at a cocktail party. Are you naked? No, but your butt is hanging out. But is it really a party? You suddenly notice that all the walls have little flashing digital displays on them. Is this an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Nobody has specially long fangs, but you unaccountably seem to have lots of bits of adhesive tape stuck to improbable bits of your anatomy. Your brain tries desperately to integrate it all, creating a chimeric pastiche that somehow always contains a full bladder.

Finally you wake up enough to stumble to the bathroom, dragging your IV along, stubbing your toes on various bits of medical miracles (that helps things snap into some sort of focus). But when you get back into bed, the process begins again. As sleep rises, you can almost feel your brain trying to make some sense of it all. Where was I? Oh yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No, didn’t it have something to do with gangsters and mummies? Or was it maybe…?

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