I want to preface this post by saying that this will be an important write-up, but it may not be an easy read. There will be a slight mention of PTSD, triggers, as well as symptoms.
If you are a survivor of medical trauma I want you to take a few minutes out of your day to read this; and if you have a loved one that has overcome difficult, sometimes life and death situations, I need you to read this so that you can support them to the best of your abilities.
I have lived almost thirty years with Cerebral Palsy and Hydrocephalus, and in that time I have suffered and healed from more than I thought was possible, or fair at times. Until recently, I was very dismissive of the situations my medical diagnosis’s have subjected me to.
I’ve lived with this reality my entire life.
It is what it is.
Thank you, but it could be worse, I suppose.
These are some examples of the very dismissive responses I have replied with in the past when someone expressed sympathy for what I have been through. While I am someone who has never been too keen to discuss those things too close to my heart, (ironic, given that I run a blog) a lot of the time I do not want to burden someone I love with the heaviness of my experiences. I know first hand what carrying these experiences can do and I do not want to put that on another; it wasn’t until recently that I realized how problematic that was for my well-being, however. I was recently speaking with my brother over the phone, and I was reminded that trauma cannot be healed from unless and until it is addressed.
Beep. Beep. Beep. I could hear the steady, melodic signaling of a heart monitor in the background. It took me moments to decipher that it was specifically a monitor that is used in an Emergency Department. I was triggered (and I don’t use that word lightly because of how society and social media has abused it). Unfortunately, I had to tell my brother that I loved him, but in that moment I was uncomfortable and I had to go. It was time for me to go ground and self-soothe.
I was triggered because I suffer from medical PTSD. When a counselor first discussed this with me I was shocked and dismissive. I was not a veteran. There is no way I could be experiencing PTSD, right? Well, I was wrong, and so much of that was wrapped up in what was my understanding and not recognizing that it can impact anyone!
Hall & Hall, both university professors, wrote an article titled When Treatment Becomes Trauma: Defining, Preventing, and Transforming Medical Trauma and it has been a resource I have relied on greatly. They explain that “Medical trauma, while not a common term in the lexicon of the health professions, is a phenomenon that deserves the attention of mental and physical healthcare providers. Trauma experienced as a result of medical procedures, illnesses, and hospital stays can have lasting effects. Those who experience medical trauma can develop clinically significant reactions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, complicated grief, and somatic complaints.” (Hall & Hall, 2013) https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/when-treatment-becomes-trauma-defining-preventing-.pdf
They continue by explaining that “Posttraumatic stress disorder that develops as a result of a medical diagnosis, procedure, or error has been the focus of several studies that seek to understand the longer-term impact of medical traumas. It can be challenging to isolate this reaction to the specific antecedent, which in this case is the medical procedure or diagnosis. Pre-existing mental health conditions, specifically from past traumas, can confound the results making it difficult to isolate the medical trauma as the source of the reaction.”
When I understood that there were reasons for my hypersensitivity, anxiety, and nightmares, I began to forgive my past and show compassion for my trauma responses. Over the years I have used a variety of coping mechanisms and those that work best for me are the ones I want to share with you today. This is not an all-encompassing list and again, these work for me. They may not be what is most beneficial for you. I encourage you to be patient on your journey to healing.
- Counseling- Counseling has been one of the most effective tools and I believe that is because it goes against my nature and instincts. I have tried to carry my burdens alone. I have tried not speaking about them and eventually they began to eat me up internally. I was not giving myself the space or permission to validate or express them, and it showed. Whether it was in my anxiety or nightmares, the reality was these experiences were going to get out however they could. Instead of locking them up in a corner of my mind, I began to voice them. I began to slowly articulate how they made me feel. When I learned how to safely express them, the trauma responses lessened.
- Grounding- Grounding is a series of techniques that a person uses to process trauma, especially during the heights of a sudden onset. For example, after speaking with my brother I immediately went upstairs to take a shower. As the hot water was flowing down my body, I asked myself to identify something I could see, what two things I could hear at that moment, and what I could feel. This exercise helps me to identify that I am in a specific location, identifying very particular things. It helps me to process that I am not in the hospital, which is what my mind felt in that moment.
- Writing- As you may have guessed by now, words are a safe place for me; during moments of immense stress writing (whether that is a poem or a few sentences) is how I would prefer to process the world. It helps me to organize my thoughts, and after that is done I can more easily process them.
If you have experienced trauma I want to dedicate this post to you. You are so strong. You are a survivor, and I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but you have everything you need to keep going. Let me know if any of these suggestions have been helpful!