A Long Night
A few years ago I was diagnosed with, a rather mild form, of post traumatic stress disorder. My PTSD is related to hospitals, treatments, tests and all the gazillion forms of “torture” one can be forced to endure as a patient through the years. I worked with a psychologist to deal with this mild PTSD. I went to therapy once a week religiously for the past few years. I listened, learned, did the work and was able to go to hospital, see doctors and have tests without experiencing flashbacks, panic or feeling trapped. All that changed recently as, because of my little one, I’ve had to recount my medical history in more detail than I would have liked to more medical professionals than I would have liked in a very short amount of time.
Trying to explain the mental torment of PTSD is very difficult. By all accounts I’ve been through quite a lot medically, endured a multitude of painful, debilitating treatments and tests and have come out the other side. While that may be true, it is also true that survival always comes at a cost.
Yesterday morning I started experiencing back and tummy pain that came and went in waves. I was practically in tears by the pain’s severity and couldn’t find the strength to get up from bed, a most unusual scenario. I needed to go to hospital and I knew it. And yet I preferred to spend twelve hours curled into a ball of tears and pain on the floor in a desperate effort to escape a short trip to the emergency room. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t enjoy pain nor do I wish it on anyone. But for me the experience of going to hospital is loaded with years of pain, despair and torment all of which come screaming back to me the minute I lay eyes on a doctor or set foot in a hospital building. The flashbacks permeate my being. The sensation of being trapped becomes overwhelming. I begin to think they won’t let me leave, that I’ll have to stay as an inpatient and go through endless treatments and tests again. The only thing I want is to go home or find a cupboard to hide in. I don’t care if the thought process is dangerous, illogical and deeply rooted in the past; the feeling is as real as it can be and the panic feels inescapable in the moment. I’ve frequently put myself in varying levels of danger by not going to hospital when I should have just to avoid that feeling being triggered. In fact I was ready and willing to do the same yesterday too.
Only at some point, after a day of pain and tears, I started having contractions. And it stopped being about me and what I was ready and willing to endure. I steeled myself, got up and went to the emergency room. I was taken to a delivery suite immediately and given opiods to take the edge of the pain. Doctors and midwives made sure the little one was doing ok. We waited. The drugs dulled the pain almost immediately and stopped the contractions. The diagnosis was a possible kidney stone. A pretty painful, but not a serious adventure after all. I asked to talk to a consultant, explained I would go back to hospital if I felt the same level of pain or anything else that might be dangerous for the little one or myself but conveyed that I wanted to go home for the night if possible. They gave me an ample supply of strong painkillers and sent me on my way. I came home, had dinner with my mum and slept in my own bed.
You may be wondering why I’m even bothering to recount this rather insignificant adventure here… The truth is because I felt my little adventure came with a few realizations and I wanted to share those with you. After we understood my PTSD had its triggers in hospitals and hospital environments, I did my best to steer clear of anything that even remotely reminded me of doctors, hospitals, imaging centers, nurses, clinics et cetera et cetera as much as possible (and you can understand how with a number of immune system disorders dodging doctors, tests and hospitals wasn’t always possible). While that was helpful in allowing us to form a long-term plan to deal with the anxiety that stemmed from my past medical experiences, it also created a high degree of anticipatory anxiety.
Anticipatory anxiety is a strange form of worry in that it involves a build up of stress and anxiety that arises when thinking about a situation that may occur in the future. It’s the kind of anxiety young children feel before having a shot. The mental torment of thinking about the shot is, frequently (but not always!) worse than the shot itself. This is not always the case of course and I, in no way, wish to minimize the horrors some PTSD sufferers have lived through and are forced to relive every single day. What I mean is that anticipatory anxiety can be paralyzing and all consuming and that, after years of psychotherapy, yesterday for the first time in what felt like a long time I was able to look one of my fears in the face and deal with it. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that one gains “strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face”. Or that quite simply “You must do the thing you think you cannot do”. All I’m trying to say is that I think she may have had a point after all!
My little one isn’t here yet. I hope she will be soon, but I know with absolute certainty that were it not for her I would have never found the mental strength to go to hospital yesterday. I’ve often heard people say they are willing to stretch themselves, get over fears, go over any limits they think they may have and do what they previously thought to be impossible, all for the sake of their children. My little one isn’t here yet and yet I feel that yesterday I acted like her mother for the first time. For a few hours I consciously put her life and safety before my fears and limits and I stretched myself beyond what I believed was possible all because this immense gift that is my child deserves nothing less. My little one isn’t here yet. I hope she will be soon, but even if that day never comes I will spend the rest of my existence thankful to have experienced motherhood, however briefly.