There’s a great scene in a Charlie Chaplin movie where the Little Tramp finds himself in the bathroom of his doctor’s office and he is peeing into a cup. But he has a tremor in his hands, and when the cup is filled, he starts shaking like a paint-can mixer. The stuff starts sloshing everywhere — on the floor, the walls, the mirror, his own hair.
Not really. Chaplin never produced such a scene. But I did just a few weeks ago, and it was one of my finest comic performances ever, even if no one else saw it.
Background: One day recently, in a conversation with a friend, I was having difficulty finding the words I wanted to say, or even expressing entirely coherent thoughts. It was not a subtle problem. This is close to verbatim:
“I need to find that thing.”
“You know, the thing. It’s long. It’s food.”
It turns out I meant my eyeglasses.
We left for the hospital. During the ride, the tremors began. And by the time I was asked to surrender some urine, I was Charlie Chaplin. I don’t know if doctors wondered why I emerged from the bathroom after a full 10 minutes, and without a urine specimen, and with a freshly laundered wet head, but no one asked.
Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “stroke,” which was, of course, what I was thinking, except had I tried to say it out loud, it would have come out something like “You know, like a brontosaurus toilet.”
I did not have a stroke. The diagnosis is still not certain, but I appear to have suffered a toxic mix of things: more beer than usual, potentiated by virtually seven days of no sleep, owing to stress over an impending book deadline, the impending sale of my house and other personal matters, further potentiated by too much Benadryl taken to combat the insomnia, compounded by having absent-mindedly run out of my blood pressure meds for four days, leading to hypertension and extreme dehydration, leading to Chaplin. In other words, this could have happened to anyone.
The admitting nurse had to determine just how bonkers I was. The test was something the average 4-year-old would ace: “What is your name?” “Where are you?” I nailed both of those. Then she asked what year it was. I clutched. The stress of this brutal interrogation, with its high stakes, got to me. It took me a full 10 seconds to come up with the answer. The nurse’s eyes narrowed. “Who is the president of the United States?” she asked. I said, “I refuse to dignify that question with an answer.” She smiled and said, “Understood,” and we were done.
As soon as I got into the ER, a message went over the PA: “Brain Attack in Emergency Room!” My friend and I looked at the gurney I was on, and it was clearly labeled “Brain Attack.” This almost triggered a brain attack. But it turns out any suspected cerebral problem gets that label. And the doctors ran to a different gurney — someone, I guess, in worse shape than I was, though it’s hard to imagine what that would be. Zombie brain-eating episode?
I will go to my grave convinced I was not hallucinating, but my eyes were being a little careless. At one point I informed my friend that in the distance, there were “doll people made of nooses.” I also saw Star Wars stormtroopers and Frankenstein’s monster.
Anyway, I am just fine now with no permanent damage and exerting a little more control over my anxieties and what I ingest. When I told my editor, Tom the Butcher, that I was going to write this humiliating thing, and that if he wanted to dissuade me I would fight him, he assured me he would let me write anything I wanted. I thanked him for his trust in me.
“I don’t trust you,” he said. “It’s just that if I give you any stress you’ll go full nutcake again.”
So here we are. You can thank Porcupine Spatula. Oh wait, I mean Tom.