Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not exclusively a wartime condition. There are innumerable events that can cause the disorder. Personality traits and emotional leanings also contribute to the likelihood of developing PTSD. For centuries, trauma was treated as a momentary cut instead of a deep scar. Today, we realize that lifelong mental distress can be caused by even a single traumatic event.
It may seem counterintuitive to claim that medical spaces and hospitals in particular can cause PTSD. Unfortunately, it is true. The process of recovering from a hospital visit is lengthy and multifaceted. Being out of control, having your physical autonomy taken away, being chastised for your decisions, taking new drugs, authority figures talking about you, being treated as a number, and being subjected to invasive tests all factor in to being traumatized.
Most of the time, visiting a doctor is a planned event. From a check-up to a chest infection or a broken bone, there is a point in time when you decide to go see someone who you know will be providing treatment. With a chronic illness, those visits are more frequent and you learn to accept a certain level of routine frustration. However, routine visits can also cause acute distress. Certain tests as well as the overwhelming distress of not feeling better can leave a chronically ill patient meeting all of the criteria for PTSD. Hospital visits are an even more traumatic experience.
I’ve been hospitalized a few times. A few daylong trips, some overnights, two weeklong visits, and one 14-day stay (fingers crossed there are no more on the horizon). It did not matter which hospitals I was in, my experiences were traumatic. First of all, my body was falling apart. It takes quite a bit to be hospitalized (especially in America) so no one is going in happy. Second, most of my stays were not planned. They were the result of emergency room visits and tests gone awry.
When I was placed in the hospital, I felt lost. I didn’t want to be there but I knew that I had been admitted because I couldn’t handle my body on my own. That lack of control, in combination with not knowing what would happen next, left me quietly spinning. Being in a hospital is a colossal waiting game. I would spend the day waiting to see the doctors, waiting for the nurse, waiting for a blood draw, waiting to be taken to a test, waiting for the test to begin, waiting to be taken back to my room, waiting to do anything. I even had to wait to use the bathroom since they wouldn’t let me out of bed. Even when a facility is proactive and “friendly”, there are no sufficient distractions or timetables. Every visit from a nurse would inevitably end with me asking two questions, “When will the doctor be here?” and “Can I leave?” There was never a definitive answer.
Because of my condition at admission, I wasn’t able to make decisions about my day or have enough clarity to direct my care. Whilst I was admitted, I had to follow what they thought was in my best interest. That level of helplessness is terrifying. There aren’t many things you can do to ease your mind. You can’t do all those weird daily mannerisms and tricks that are so individually soothing to each of us.
I felt guilty when people visited. I would ask them to leave after a few short minutes. Then I was desperately lonely when they weren’t there. I felt physically better, then worse, then better again. At a certain point, I thought I would go insane if I had to spend one more hour in my hospital room. I would have rather died the moment I walked in my house than be in that sterile impersonal hive for another moment.
Nighttime was the worst. Symptoms always flare at night anyways, but laying alone in a mildly lit room and being poked for blood every two hours while monitors beep and trill… your adrenaline is up while the seconds crawl by. At the end of my hospital stays, the doctors’ sentiments were always the same, “We still aren’t sure what exactly is wrong. Here are the medicines we want you to use. Make follow up appointments in a week. Avoid stress. Good luck.” I am always exhausted when I leave. Ecstatic to get out of the monotony but nervous for the steep emotional and physical climb to get back to my normal.
It took about five months after my second hospitalization before I figured out that I had a lot of fear around going to a regular doctor’s appointment and the emergency room. I wasn’t scared of the people or even the onslaught of needles. I was petrified that I would be hospitalized again. I had nightmares about it. I avoided needed tests. My heart would race with every visit to a medical office and I would assume every whispered conversation between professionals was about calling an ambulance, for me. When I needed to visit the emergency room, I pushed myself past the point of reason before going. I would beg my medical advocate to not let them take me to the hospital. I feigned feeling better to avoid more time in the E.R. and possible admission.
I know that fear isn’t logical. I have too much experience with doctors, tests, and treatments to be frightened of a hospital. But the truth is, ALL that experience is what fuels my medical PTSD. I have chronic and rare illnesses that are cloaked in mystery. Every single time I see a medical professional, I am reminded of the pain, frustration, and suffering I deal with daily. I am reminded of every test that came back inconclusive and every treatment that yielded negative or inconsequential results. I am reminded of every doctor who dismissed me and every face that didn’t understand. But even with that fear and absolute mental exhaustion, I still look for symptom relief and disease management. I still have ridiculous hope for a cure. I still go to the hospital.
Some people have much longer hospital stays, and other very luck souls have never slept on one of those metal gurneys. The experience of trauma is so very individual. No person’s journey into and through Post Traumatic Stress Disorders should be taken lightly. Suffering is suffering.