With patients, ‘that place’ can refer to the venue where they received their diagnosis and/or treatment, or ‘that place’ where they were when they first noticed the lump, or experienced the sudden pain that would change their lives utterly. For others, it can be more of an experience, ‘that place’ in memory that holds the childhood sadness’s, or that song that was playing on the radio right before they heard the bad news.
Sometimes the big life challenges bring trauma to our bodies, that can play out in our minds over and over again post trauma. Visual flashes or body flushes can come with the mental replays. Physical connections or reminders to ‘that place’ can be triggering mentally and physically.
Some years ago, I was struggling with the mental and physical ‘play outs’ of my own illness and misdiagnosis. Hospitals made me feel vulnerable, lost, hopeless and scared. I attended hospital check ups only because I had to have my progress monitored very closely, but I dreaded going through the hospital doors every time. In fact, if I could figure out how to work with my GP, or any alternative method of monitoring, I jumped on it.
But then one night when my daughter was about two, while I was busy running her bath, she got hold of a bottle of treatment oil nearby, and from what I could tell, drank some. When I rang a nurse line to figure out what I should do, she advised that as it could technically be regarded as a ‘toxic substance’ that I should take her to the nearest A+E straight away.
I had not been back to the local A+E since my own time there, a time of pain and fear, misdiagnosis and neglect, cardiac arrest and near death. I had always dreaded the prospect of ever having to return to that hospital. In fact, I purposely scheduled all my follow up cardiac appointments with a different hospital, the ones who had saved my life through surgery after a misdiagnosed spontaneous coronary artery dissection.
But on this night, my daughter needed to be seen fast, and so the nearest hospital was a must.
Having suffered there myself and being like a tiger mother with my cub, I was determined that my daughter would not receive the poor treatment I had.
Despite the reality that my daughter might have swallowed something toxic, the lady in admissions, without raising an eye, told me to take a seat in the room adjacent to the emergency room and wait. When I questioned the sanity of this strategy if in fact my daughter had ingested something toxic, and could thus need urgent treatment, she just ignored me. So when I saw the security doors into the emergency room open, I ran in through the open chink with my daughter in my arms.
Immediately a nurse came over asking what I was doing there. I explained, but she told me that hospital procedure meant I had to go back out to the waiting room and wait. Motherly panic and memories of patient neglect, both only barely under the surface to that point, started to bubble. The helplessness of my own experience was back, the vulnerability, the despair, the fear, the neglect, the beeping of monitors, and the call for resus pads, only this time it was playing out in my mind as being my daughter instead of me being neglected, and there was no way I was going to allow her to suffer like I had. And so I lost it.
Security was called to remove me from the emergency room. I pleaded on behalf of my daughter that I stay, that she needed their help! And so I was told she would be seen, but only if I would go out momentarily and calm down. My daughter was the priority, so if I had to trade silence and compliance from there on out, as a guarantee for her care, I would happily do so.
A medical exam revealed she seemed to be unaffected by what she had swallowed, but I was told that we needed to wait in A+E for a number of hours before we went home, so that they could observe her to see that nothing was slowly working in her system.
Being a toddler, my daughter was oblivious to the fact that we were now into the early hours of the next day. In fact, she was full of beans. She was enjoying playing games with mommy’s fingers while we waited and getting smiles from the other weary souls waiting in A+E. But the limited space we were waiting in meant that, after a while, she became restless and keen to wander, explore beyond the plastic chairs, and familiar faces in our area. And suddenly, when she got her chance, she took off.
Naturally, I sprang to follow her, but her little legs were flying and she was laughing too, thrilled that ‘the chase’ was on, with her in the lead, and mommy, rather pathetically trying to catch up. Suddenly after making it up one whole side of the emergency room, she stopped and turned around and smiled at me. I smiled back and was just about to swoop down and pick her up when I noticed that we were now both standing outside a room with the sign ‘Resus room’ on the door, the room where two years before I had been admitted on the verge of death.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I was face to face with the place I associated with the fear, the grief, the misery, the sense of being totally alone and facing the worst moment of my life.
But while the memories rose large in my mind, I was also now aware of the visual of my daughter standing there, looking up and smiling at me, as we both stood by the doors.
Her smile encouraged my own. Even in the face of being physically confronted by ‘that place’ I was smiling! I realised in that moment that though I was standing there it didn’t mean I was back there in that awful experience like I imagined was the inevitable consequence of getting anywhere close. This was a new time, I realised, a time where my beautiful daughter was playing and smiling and having fun and encouraging me to do the same, right there in the space of a previous horror, filling me with light, fun and the reassurance that all was well.
I went into that A+E that night scared and afraid because of both the scars of my past and the fear I had for my daughter’s wellbeing. I left feeling reassured and happy that my daughter was OK and that the experience of being ‘back there’ had actually been enormously healing. As I drove away, I felt reassured, confident, empowered. I had faced my fear, all be it because I had to, rather than because I chose to, but with my daughter’s help, I had achieved a victory over that same fear, and a great sense of healing.
We don’t always get to go back to ‘that place’ physically, or to re-introduce a physically positive experience in place of that trying time, but I have also had the benefit of much counselling over the years and have learned that with a good therapist we can do such similar work mentally, so as to release ourselves from the power that difficult memories might still have over our lives years later.
Wishing any of you struggling with ‘that place’ the strength and support to re-visit, if you think it might help you to move on, and to heal.
For more on psychological supports for healing post trauma, you may want to read some previous articles on this blog including The psychological impact of illness, or check out the resources and professional supports mentioned in Feeling blue?
© Pauline O’Shea
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