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I Watched My Husband Die and Come to Life in a Single Day
It had become normal to watch Cleve nod off. He was usually in the middle of doing something: smoking a cigarette, eating, assembling a model airplane. When he awoke, his body would quake back to life. His eyes would snap open and scan the room, pupils the size of moons, as he tried to remember where he was, when he was, what he was doing. He’d reach into his back pocket where he kept a small towel, bring it to his forehead and pat it dry. Often, he was not quite awake. His eyelids would sag and he’d mumble some nonsense: Don’t worry, I got you. I got you. Hey! I didn’t… please, stop.
“Baby, wake up. Baby,” I’d say, shaking him. He’d wake up for real and tell me so, his neck loose like a bobblehead’s.
There is no moment I can point to and say, That was when! That was when his addiction began! And that was the problem. He was on pain meds from the beginning. First, a morphine syrette to the leg on the battlefield, then Dilaudid hooked to his body once he was back in the states, then morphine in pill form after they had to amputate his leg, then a combination of Lortab and Percocet after they noticed signs of addiction and, finally, Oxycontin when he became addicted to that, too. Years of pain meds, every day, multiple times a day. Mumbles from doctors — and from wives whose husbands weren’t showing signs of addiction to their pain meds — suggested it was his fault somehow. He, a 21-year-old who’d been blown up at war, should know when enough is enough. But what about the doctors who prescribed the drugs in the first place? What about the doctors who continued to prescribe them despite signs of addiction?
Cleve sat in an oversized chair with a slice of pizza in his hand. As his eyelids grew heavier, his grip loosened and the slice fell face-down on the floor. Our dogs ran to get a bite, and Sophie almost made it, but Cleve had regained enough awareness to stop her.
“No, ma’am. Get outta here,” he said, almost incoherently, reaching his body over the armrest so far I thought he might fall out of the chair, his amputated leg lifting into the air, reminiscent of a wobbly three-legged downward dog. He picked up the pizza, casually looked it over with slits for eyes, and settled back into his seat. He took a bite. It must’ve been covered in dog hair.
I knew what I was witnessing wasn’t normal. I did worry about him. But still, I questioned myself. I’d never seen addiction before. And though his symptoms matched those I thought I knew to look for, Cleve already thought I worried too much, and I didn’t want to come off as melodramatic. The few times I mentioned possible addiction, he grew frustrated and told me to get off his back. I didn’t know what else to do so I convinced myself it was just drowsiness: a simple side-effect.
Cleve could no longer finish a cigarette without passing out. His body would go limp and, somehow, his hand always landed near his crotch, the cherry singeing through his pants. I told him I was afraid he would burn the house down. I said it like I was joking, but I really was afraid.
The other wounded guys made jokes about the holes.
Nobody loves you enough to buy you a new pair of pants, Kinsey?
Better be glad you’re missing a leg, you sloppy mother fucker.
You know that shit doesn’t fly in the Corps, devil dog.
His physical therapist at Walter Reed, Sunny, pointed it out once.
“What in the world is going on with your shorts, son?” she’d asked, handing him a kettlebell.
Eventually, I gave up and convinced myself I trusted the doctors to do what was necessary to keep him safe.
Cleve scooted to the end of the treatment table and began lifting the kettlebell with both hands, his legs spread, displaying three perfectly round burn holes. When he told her how the holes got there, he left out the part about being high on pills. He must have known it was a problem. As addicts do, he’d gotten good at hiding his addiction, at convincing people they had nothing to worry about. Sunny made a joke, too. We all laughed. His symptoms had become something people laughed at. But the small voice in the back of my head was insistent. He was not okay.
To lower the risk of addiction, the doctors swapped out his pain pills every few months. The wounded in the pharmacy line were like cattle, herded. It seemed mindless: Go to another pain management appointment, get a new pill prescription, pick up a new bottle of pills, repeat. It was just how things were done, and it was unsettling. It felt like we were alone in this battle against pills — but looking back, there were others experiencing the same thing all around us. When I finally got up the nerve to tell his doctors I was concerned that Cleve was addicted to his prescribed pain meds, they convinced me I was overreacting. They had it taken care of. He was experiencing common side-effects. He needed the pills for his pain. There was no other way.
Cleve wasn’t helpful, either. When I asked his doctor about the possibility of weaning Cleve off, of looking at other options — Acupuncture? Weed? Yoga? — he looked at me like I was insane.
“I can’t live with this pain if I don’t have meds, doc,” he asserted, gingerly rubbing the end of his nub. “I’m in a hell of a lot of pain still.”
Who could argue with that? Eventually, I gave up and convinced myself I trusted the doctors to do what was necessary to keep him safe.
I didn’t know at the time that it was common for people to use prescription drugs to cope with PTSD, which doctors diagnosed Cleve with after he was wounded. I didn’t know that the more someone takes opioids, the less their body can cope with pain, making them feel they need more opioids. I didn’t know the number of veterans addicted to their prescribed meds had tripled that year. I didn’t know veterans were much more likely to overdose than non-veterans.
The thing is, it wasn’t my job to know. It was the doctors’.
It was daylight when I found Cleve standing with his eyes closed, the bottom half of his body leaning against a back porch post, the top half folded completely over with his arms dangling to the ground, a cigarette burning between his index and middle finger. He’d passed out while standing. A first. When I tapped on his shoulder, he snapped awake and tried to take another drag as if nothing had happened, but only a filter and an inch of ash were left.
“Damn. Was I out?” he mumbled.
“Yeah. I think so.” I waited to see what he’d do next. He stared at nothing in the distance with glazed eyes, as if recalling a memory or trying to find the right word. “Babe, I’m worried about you,” I said.
“Aw, stop it. I’m just a little tired. Got a light?”
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket, stumbled a little, and steadied himself with the post.
“Alright, I guess,” I handed him a lighter. I smoked with him to make sure he didn’t pass out again.
First, I dreamed he was snoring. But even in my sleep, I sensed something wrong.
Later that day, I found him face down in a bowl of Cheerios. My scream startled him awake. For a moment, I thought he was dead. Imagine the headlines: “Local War Hero Drowns in Bowl of Cheerios.” He lifted his head, loose neck, milk dripping down his stubbly chin. He slurred, “I’m fine. God,” before getting up, irritated, and stumbling to his man-cave.
He sat on the floor to clean his guns, something he’d done neurotically since he got back from Iraq. It seemed almost meditative, a way to self-soothe. I could hear the clicks and chings of metal from the other room. When he went silent, I checked on him and found him cross-legged on the floor, folded in half over his AK-47, the back of his military green shirt reading I’ll Kill You. The shirt looked just like the military-issued T-shirts service members often wear, only this was a gift from one of the guys in his unit. They thought it was hilarious. I tapped him on the back, but he didn’t respond. I shook him and tried to pull him up by his shoulders, but he was too heavy.
“Cleve, I need to get you to the room where I can see you,” I said. “Do you hear me?”
He mumbled something about sleeping in his cave. It had no furniture, only random belongings of his — guns, military uniforms, car magazines, family photos. It wasn’t a comfortable place to sleep. I also knew it wouldn’t be safe to leave him there. I persisted until he reluctantly followed me to our bedroom. I laid him down and tucked him in. I crawled in bed next to him and turned out the lights.
First, I dreamed he was snoring. But even in my sleep, I sensed something wrong. A terrified sound, like a wounded animal — a guttural plea in the dark. A grunting, I realized when I finally woke up. I fumbled around for the light next to my bed. When it flickered on, I found him sitting up but limp, his back against the headboard. He’d moved at some point from where I put him which, for a second, made me think he was fine. But then, I noticed his skin was tinged purple, his eyes wide, bloodshot, and distant. Vomit dripped down his chin like thin peanut butter, and his chest convulsed as his body fought for air.
“Cleve?” I said, not yet convinced of what I was seeing, but then, “Cleve!”
I’d learned once that if someone was choking on vomit you should put them on their side. But our bed was so tall. I thought it would be easier to position him on the ground. Panicked, my entire body trembling, I tried to lift and lower his 225-pound body. Almost immediately, I dropped him. I grabbed at his boxers as he fell, accidentally pulling them to his ankles. He landed on his head. I was horrified. If he wasn’t dead already, I was going to kill him. I checked his neck to make sure it didn’t look broken. I scrambled to pull up his boxers so he wouldn’t be humiliated when the EMTs came. Then, I realized I hadn’t called 911 yet. I ran to the phone, hating myself for not thinking to call sooner. The operator coached me through CPR. There was so much vomit.
The paramedics arrived just as I realized Cleve could be dead. His body was as lifeless as a doll’s and I was sure he hadn’t breathed since before I found him. One man shoved me out of the room as another shoved a needle into Cleve’s chest. I screamed at the sight of the needle going into his limp body. I don’t know what I said, but I imagine it was something like Please don’t let him die! or God, why do you keep fucking with us?
The man wrapped his arms around me and pulled me through the living room and out the front door. He sat me on the old chest on our porch, put his hands on my shoulders, and looked me in the eyes. “I’ve got you,” he said. “I can’t promise you anything right now, but I’m here with you and I’m not going anywhere.”
I don’t know the man’s name, but I will never forget him and the comfort he brought me at that moment.
He opened a bottle of water and handed it to me. I closed my eyes and tried to control my breathing. A deep breath in, a long breath out, just like my therapist had taught me. I took a sip. When I opened my eyes, I noticed the sun had come up between the time I found Cleve and the time the paramedics arrived. Neighbors were heading to their cars, steaming mugs of coffee in their hands, kids with colorful backpacks trailing behind them. They’d take a moment to look toward our house, probably wondering why there was an ambulance in our driveway, before getting in their cars and driving off. I wondered how many times I’d gone about my day as people were dying on my street. One of the paramedics that had been working on Cleve appeared. Cleve was alive. They were stabilizing him. They would take him to the hospital. I could ride with them or follow behind.
I rode with the cop who’d given me the water. We sped through traffic behind red and white flashing lights and that fucking siren echoing, Weeoooweeoooweeooo. I tried to see into the tiny windows of the back door of the ambulance. No luck. I sank into my seat, imagined Cleve dying. I closed my eyes. I counted my breaths. 1, 2, 3, 4…
“You have any family in the area?” the cop asked.
“No. It’s just us.” I said, and every organ in my body trembled with loneliness and fear.
The cop looked at me and sighed. We rode the rest of the way in silence… 7, 8, 9, 10.
In a single day, I’d seen him die and come back to life.
When Cleve woke up, a doctor found me in the waiting room. I was disheveled. I’d flipped through all the magazines. I’d tried and failed to figure out Sudoku. I knew I needed to keep busy, but I was struggling to focus.
“He’s going to live, Ms. Fugett, but his brain wasn’t getting sufficient oxygen for an unknown amount of time and we don’t know how he’ll be affected. He’s awake now if you’d like to go see him.” He said he was disoriented, that it was normal, then told me to follow him.
When we got to Cleve’s room, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. Cleve in a hospital bed, wrapped in a sheet, shirtless, the heart monitor beeping in the background. Something was off, though. He wouldn’t look at me. I walked toward him to give him a kiss. He pushed me away.
“I can’t believe you fucking called the cops,” he said. “What the fuck were you thinking? Do you know how much trouble I’m gonna be in now?”
I was stunned. “Cleve, you overdosed. What was I…”
“Get out,” he hissed.
“Cleve, listen to…”
“Get the fuck out.”
I went to the nearest bathroom and cried in one of the stalls. I didn’t know what I’d done to upset him, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. Panic and lack of sleep had scrambled my mind — and now this. I felt like I was in a dream. This wasn’t real. None of this was really happening. I remembered getting the call when he was first wounded in Iraq, how I got so little information and then had to wait nearly a day before someone confirmed he would live. When they told me they were flying him to D.C., I was nervous to meet him there. A week before, he’d called to tell me he didn’t want to be married anymore. And then, a couple of days later, he called again, acting as if he’d never said it. He ended the call with “I love you, baby. I miss you,” like he always did, and I didn’t know what to make of any of it. He had become unpredictable. Maybe it was the war. Maybe it was something else. I couldn’t know. I went to be with him, anyway.
I headed back to the waiting room, curled into a chair, and tried to sleep. The doctor woke me after who knows how long. Cleve had asked for me. When I went back to his room, his face was softer. I stood in the doorway.
“They told me what happened,” he said. “I’m sorry I acted like that.”
I told him it was okay, but it wasn’t. I remembered his face full of hate, could still feel the venom of his words in my veins. In a single day, I’d seen him die and come back to life. I thought he’d be happy to see me. When he wasn’t, I’d never felt so disappointed and alone.
“Can I have a kiss?” He reached his arms toward me. I kissed him and sat on the side of his bed. “What happened, exactly? Your version,” he said. I told him and he shook his head back and forth. He buried his face in his sheet and sobbed.
The doctor told us later that he was clinically dead when they got there, that they revived him with a shot of adrenaline. It only takes three minutes of oxygen deprivation to cause permanent brain damage. I was pretty sure he’d been suffocating for longer.
To buy time, Cleve’s higher-ups kept him in the barracks across the street from the hospital where he’d been receiving treatment. That way, they could keep an eye on him to make sure he didn’t overdose again. I hated it. Though I knew they were just trying to keep him safe, I wanted him to be at home with me.
I do not remember dropping him off at the barracks. Most of the details are missing. What I do remember is foggy.
I remember nightmares. In the most vivid, Cleve sat on a crate in the middle of an orange desert. A clothesline ran behind him with the body parts of a baby pinned to it. He was in his desert camis, his face smeared with black paint and dirt, his hair overgrown and disheveled. He sat hunched over before reaching behind him and pulling a small leg from the line. He took a bite. Sandy wind whipped at his body, and a tear fell down his cheek.
Later, I would learn that secondary PTSD had other names. Caregiver PTSD. Compassion fatigue.
I remember being convinced death was still in our bedroom, as if death were a conscious being waiting for me. I was unable to sleep there, opting to sleep on the couch instead. I peeked into the room one day and saw the vomit stain on the floor. I slammed the door to trap whatever was inside, to keep it from getting me. I had to run outside to catch my breath. Who knows how long I left the stain. Months, maybe. I slept on the couch until Cleve came home.
I began to have panic attacks. If anyone mentioned the overdose, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I stripped to my underwear and lay on the floor, clawing for something to hold onto, gasping for air. Seemingly out of nowhere I would become hysterical. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, repeat.
Later, a nurse said she thought I had secondary PTSD. The term sounded made-up to me, so I blew it off. Really, I didn’t want people to think I was trying to take attention away from Cleve. He was the one who had gone to war. Anything I was going through, comparatively, was silly.
Eventually, my doctor prescribed meds for sleep, nightmares, and anxiety. I took them. I did my best to focus on taking care of him despite my own symptoms. Later, I would learn that secondary PTSD had other names. Caregiver PTSD. Compassion fatigue.
We spent Thanksgiving in the barracks. They served us turkey and ham and all the sides you’d expect. We made a plate, sat at a table in a white room with fluorescent lights. A freshwater fish tank stood behind him, dark with sad looking fish, though I was probably projecting. Other men and women sat around, alone.
“Have they said anything about when you’ll be released?” I asked. I was tired of being alone.
“They’re saying maybe rehab, but not sure when. They haven’t told me much, yet. They might let me go home with a pill dispenser. I fuckin’ hate it, though. I’m gonna be in pain.”
“Really, Cleve? I’m sorry you’re in pain, but I’d rather you be in pain and alive than dead,” I said. I was so exhausted.
“Easy for you to say,” he said before taking a bite of mashed potatoes.
“Easy for you to fucking say! You didn’t have to see you dying! This isn’t a joke!”
He threw his fork down. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”
We ate the rest of our food in silence.
Days later, Cleve called to tell me his friend who’d also been staying in the barracks had died. He hadn’t come down for breakfast and by lunchtime, Cleve went to his room and knocked on his door to no response. They had to break in. His body was on the floor, an obvious overdose. Cleve called me crying, admitting that he and some of the other guys, including the one that had died, had been sharing what pills they had with each other. He didn’t know if that was what caused it, but it didn’t stop him from feeling responsible.
“I fucked up,” he said. “It’s all so fucked up.”
I was devastated for him. I wanted to ask, Where were the doctors? Who the fuck is in charge? Why does this keep happening? Instead, I froze. I listened to his sobs, listened to him blame himself.
This piece was originally published in Entropy. It is an excerpt from my in-progress memoir about how the Iraq war and opioids left me widowed at the age of 24.