I’m sitting in the ER again today. I guess I’m grateful it’s not for mental health reasons, but I’ve had serious physical health issues lately. Obviously this makes my usual anxiety much worse.
I’ve always been afraid of the doctor’s, ever since I was a kid. It was weird and unfair that my little sister had a nice pediatrician, but I had a different one who was mean and scared me. I honestly don’t know why she even chose to work with kids. I was always jealous of my sister for having a nice doctor. I have vague memories of being terrified to go to appointments because I thought I was bad, and although other parts held the abuse memories, we were collectively terrified that she’d figure out we were bad (because we blamed ourselves for the abuse, and we were ashamed). Sometimes I’d cry and beg not to go, but my pediatrician never really checked me, so she didn’t know what was happening to me.
As a teen, my experiences in ERs were bad. I had to go many times to be screened for psychiatric hospitalization due to my severe suicidal ideation and self harm. That’s when I learned that the doctors and nurses treated me differently when I was there for mental health reasons. They made comments that made me feel bad about myself, like it was my choice to be depressed and suicidal, and that I was wrong for cutting. When I needed stitches, the doctor was really angry with me. When I overdosed, the nurses told me I was going to die, and that I should think about others in my life and not be so selfish. They said I wasted their time when they could’ve been treating others who are sick, since I inflicted those injuries on myself by choice. It wasn’t really a choice, I had parts that were suicidal and self harmed, and I didn’t know what was happening. And obviously I didn’t choose to be abused and suffer from mental illnesses. They made me have a catheter once in the ER, and I begged them not to because it would scare me. They basically forced me to, and it caused a part to come out and have a severe flashback. Then they put me in restraints because of the flashback, since I was having a seizure. The restraints caused an angry part to come out, and he was screaming, so they shot me with Haldol, a nasty drug to sedate me. They stood there confused because it wasn’t working, so they gave me another shot until I passed out. There are lots more bad stories about my ER visits and the lack of trauma informed care.
Now that I’m older, going to the ER is still difficult because I’ve had bad experiences as an adult too. When I broke my leg, they were nice to me. But when I went there after I was raped, a nurse made anti-LGBT comments. They didn’t follow the sexual assault protocol they were supposed to. When I talked to a rape crisis counselor later that week, she said they should’ve called the rape crisis center to send someone to sit with me and advocate for me. They didn’t even do a rape kit. This was because I was gay. They saw evidence of injuries and didn’t take pictures. They made me feel even worse when I was already ashamed and in pain.
Since the pandemic, I’ve been in the ER multiple times because I had covid-19. I had atelectasis, a collapse of the alveoli in the lungs, which was scary because not being able to breathe is triggering for me. Today I need ultrasounds and cat scans to make sure I don’t have cancer. I’m scared. I’m sure I’m fine, but just the trauma from ER visits in the past makes this one more difficult. At least the nurses are being very nice today. As I said, they’re usually nicer when I’m here for a physical issue. It doesn’t help my anxiety that the doctor said they’re scanning for tumors, but I’m going to think positively.
Parts are scared even though they know we’re not here to get locked up in the psych ward. The smells, sounds, lights, etc remind them of all those bad experiences. I try to tell them it’s ok, they won’t be shaming us or putting us in restraints, and that we probably don’t have a tumor. My therapist empathized with the fact that it’s hard for us to be here. She suggested that we visualize the ocean, maybe see a whale come to the surface and flap its tail. She said use all your senses to imagine it: hear the waves, smell the ocean air, feel the sand, and listen to the sea birds. It helps a little. I’ve also been watching the live webcam for the local aquarium which has a huge ocean tank. Watching the tropical fish, rays, sea turtles, and small sharks swim by is very calming. Writing is also helpful. I can’t wait for them to tell me that everything is ok, and then I can go home and rest.
I know a lot of other trauma survivors have a hard time with medical appointments and hospitals. All I can say is self care is important. With dissociation, I don’t always notice my body or feel like I’m in my body, but I’m learning to listen to what it’s trying to tell me. Preventative care is very important. My ex wife’s close friend has cervical cancer that moved to her stomach because she didn’t get routine pap smears. I feel so bad for her, and I understand why she avoided pap smears. Every woman knows they suck, and they’re especially hard for trauma survivors. I’m lucky to have a trauma informed ObGyn who helps me through those exams. I’m in pain a lot, but I’m generally healthy, so I’m very grateful. I don’t like that I’m being scanned for tumors, but I’m sure I’ll be fine, and then I’ll be relieved.
The other day my daughter said she wasn’t brave because she was scared. I said being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. Everyone gets scared sometimes. Being brave is doing something, facing something, or talking about something even if you are scared. I gave her examples of her bravery, like when she was afraid to use the potty, but she overcame her fear and learned. Or when she was afraid to climb up on the jungle gym, but she tried anyway and succeeded. So today I am trying to be brave, and I’m going to use my coping tools to get through this ER visit. I empathize with others who fear these same things, but I urge people to push through that fear to get routine check ups and help if you need it. You are worth it. Always advocate for yourself and tell medical professionals that you have trauma and what makes you uncomfortable. Most will listen, and doctors and nurses are slowly getting better at helping and understanding trauma patients.