Luckily (for me) I’ve not experienced much trauma in my life, so far.
My grandfather suffered a heart attack while I was with him when I was about 6 or 7 but I truthfully don’t remember much about it. My mother slammed her finger in a car door (which I had unlock by climbing through the sliding rear window in a pickup…), but I never went to the hospital with her. In my teens, my father suffered a series of symptoms similar to a heart attack, however, it turned out he was simply having a panic attack (which of course only increased the panic attack…). Again, I wasn’t there with him at the hospital and so couldn’t really assess the traumatic experience…
I’m not a fan of hospitals. I don’t think anyone really is. They usually mean something is wrong, horribly wrong. They make me nervous. I think they generally look and feel dirty. I get anxious and feel like crying all the time. I hate being there.
I broke my ankle when I was about 19 years old. It wasn’t a traumatic break or situation, but I ended up in the ER to have a cast applied. It was uncomfortable and I was less than pleasant (according to my ex-husband-then-boyfriend and parents). However, it wasn’t anything too extraordinary.
I watched my aunt waste away in a hospital from Leukemia. It took years of fighting and struggling until it finally got her. I saw her in those final days. I’d never seen anyone gravely, deathly ill in a hospital before her. I visited her in the days before she finally lost her battle. Saw how the cancer had ravished her body, saw how she looked in the sterile hospital bed. I brought her cool cloths from her adjoining washroom. I sat on the sterile, uncomfortable chairs in the room and ate stale sushi in the hospital cafeteria with my mother.
My grandmother passed away in a hospital bed in an ICU ward. She’d contracted some cold or another, and at 90-something years old was unable to fight anymore. Dementia had set in and she refused to eat let alone fight the sickness taking over her frail, cold body. There were never enough blankets to keep her warm.
The day she passed away, I visited her with my mother. She didn’t always recognize who was there, was barely opening her eyes at that point. But that day, she grabbed my hand, desperate in her grip. Her words were garbled, slurring due to her mouth’s inability to move quite right from weakness and a fading mind. I managed to make out one word: “Owen.”
At the time he was about to turn 1 year old. He was pulling himself up on furniture and cruising around. I told her so. She smiled. It was the first time I’d seen her smile in weeks. It was a small smile, but it was there. And as she sunk further into her pillow, closing her eyes and releasing her tight grip on my hand she whispered, “That’s lovely.”
That night we received a call around 4am that she’d passed away in her sleep.
The only good thing to come out of a hospital in recent years has been Owen’s birth. And even that wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. I’ll save the details of that one for another post, but it was just as anxiety-inducing and stressful as any other hospital visit. Full of uncertainties and questions, concerns and worries. Of course, the joy of a new baby takes most of it away, but as a mother birthing a child trust me the worry and nerves are there. Always. Here’s a little person you’ve carried around and nurtured for 9 months, and you’re about to evict them in a rather unceremonious way into a world that’s cold and cruel (sometimes) and harsh for anyone, let alone a newborn. It was a lot.
I hate hospitals.
They test relationships. They push boundaries.
During the inevitable breakdown of our marriage, my ex-husband and I spoke often about the fact that we never supported one another, were never really there for each other. It was, unfortunately true. Over the course of 13 years, rarely did we stand behind the other 100%. Until our son was born. In those hours we were a team. We were together. He supported me, he was there for me, and I wanted to support him and be there for him as a good mother a good wife in those moments when we birthed our child.
Of course, all that support when out the window almost as quickly as my desire to wear anything but jogging pants did after giving birth (don’t judge me).
Colin and I never really travelled well together, either. He was always nervous, I always chastised him for it. I always got annoyed with him losing his documents. I was nervous, I didn’t want things to go wrong. I desperately wanted us to have a good time. I forced too much. And he was indifferent.
Almost two years ago now my body decided the kidney stone it had been storing had to be evicted. As pain started in the middle of the night, I had to drive myself to the ER as Owen snoozed and Colin stayed home with him. However, once Owen was at daycare and I still had hours and hours of agonizing pain and hospital time ahead of me; Colin didn’t even offer to come and see me or sit with me while I waited for the pain and time to pass. My father did. He skipped work and spent the day with me. I’ll be forever grateful.
Like my birthing story, the kidney stone story is one for another blog post. However, Colin’s unwillingness to support me in that moment of need, anxst and agony proved to me that our marriage really was over. If we’d been travelling, he’d have just abandoned me in the ghettos of Nairobi with nothing.
Hospitals are a bit like travelling when it comes to relationships. They test expectations, boundaries, limits, emotions. How does one handle the other; how does one respond to the other; is there trust; is there tenderness; is there hate; is there disdain?
This past weekend I spent more time than I wanted to in a hospital, sitting bedside. I was not the one being cared for, but someone I care deeply for was. As I watched him lay there, sedated and still bleeding, I could do nothing more than sob. Uncontrollably.
It was an accident: a missed stair, a tumble, and a skull that met an iron railing much too severely. Blood was everywhere almost immediately, and the anxiety and worry set in almost as quickly. I knew a trip to the hospital was in order, there was no way he was getting away without stitches.
An hour or so of arguing and general displeasure between the patient and various nurses and orderlies where I’d tried to calm the situation and him, and I was exhausted. When the nurse finally gave him something to stop him trying to take out his IV and remove his neck brace and keep him in bed, all I could do was collapse.
Emotionally I was spent. Physically I was sore. Mentally I was a wreck.
Sitting in the ER “room” being shared by a dozen or so other beds with patients in various states of disrepair and discomfort, I cried. Deep, heaving sobs. The woman sitting bedside next to me brought me a roll of toilet paper. I thanked her between breaths as best I could. In those moments we understood one another.
I could have gone to the washroom, and in fact at first I did. Standing there over the toilet holding myself up on the wall I heaved deep breaths trying to calm myself down. Trying to get a grip. Trying to be OK because I needed to be. I needed to be the OK one here because he wasn’t. I needed to be the one to answer questions in case he couldn’t.
When he finally woke up a few hours later, I’d not slept a wink. I was too wired, too anxious, and too aware of every movement, twitch and sound he made as he lay there, still bleeding from wounds that had not yet been stitched up.
He told me I should have left. Told me I didn’t need to be there. Told me countless times how sorry he was, but also how grateful he was that I was there.
No chains held me. I was not obliged to sit there for hours while he slept. In fact, I didn’t even have to get in the ambulance with him in the first place. I could have gone home. He’s a grown man, he didn’t need babysitting, despite an inability to walk down stairs properly…
Hospitals test relationships.
I’m still considering if the test was passed or not. There were good moments and not-so-good moments, but then I guess that’s what life is all about. Regardless, we walked out of the hospital hand-in-hand (and him still in the hospital gown… but I think that’s a story for another blog, too).
Traumatic experiences, like travelling, only exemplify those good and bad situations. It’s all in how you handle them, all in how you support one another, all in how you get through and come out the other side as a unit not opposing teams.
When we finally clambered into bed after close to eight hours at the hospital, despite being unbelievably sore and recently stitched up, he made every effort to roll on his side in all his discomfort.
“I just want to cuddle, I just want to have you near.”
Trauma is like travelling; and getting home is almost as important as being out on the adventure.