When my son Aran was diagnosed with autism at age three, I stopped writing for two weeks. The third week, I went back to it. I had to. Aran's play therapy was expensive, necessary, and not covered by insurance back then. Writing was the only way to find money to pay for it.
When we went to Ukraine for a month and a half to adopt Sasha and Maksim, I took my laptop with me to write between orphanage visits and adoption appointments. Life become difficult and complicated in both bad and good ways. I stopped writing for two weeks. Then I got out my laptop in our flat in Kyiv and went back to it.
When I got divorced and moved nearer to my job in Wherever, I found myself a single father of three special-needs kids who needed help dealing with their own pain. I stopped writing for two weeks. Then, like a thrown cowboy turning back to his horse, I got back on my computer.
On September 10, 2017, I went into the hospital. The pain became so intense, I became partially delirious and lost track of who and where I was. It took an inexcusably long time for anyone to give me medication, and later, when the medication wore off and the pain roared back, it took another inexcusably long time of me screaming on the gurney before they authorized more. After that, it was tests and invasive procedures and drugs with side effects and still more pain, pain, pain.
Now, four weeks later, I get a steady stream of random anxiety attacks. Images of the hospital flash through my mind. My heart speeds up, my breathing goes crazy, I feel tight and frightened inside. Writing about it here, in fact, makes my hands shake and my heart pound.
I've barely written fiction since I went into the hospital. I've managed a couple pages, that's all.
I'm seeing a counselor. His name is Lenny, and I've had three sessions with him so far. During our first session, I gave him the short version of what had brought me to his office, and he said three words:
"You've been raped."
At those words, I broke down. Completely lost it. I was crying so hard, I felt like a child who just watched someone die. I had known, but hadn't been able to say, that being raped, however unwittingly, was the core of my trouble. Hearing it from someone else dragged it into the light, in all its slimy ugliness, and made me admit it.
When I was 21 and living in Germany as a college student, I became a survivor of sexual assault. After I got away from my attacker, I went home to my dorm, took a shower, lay on my bed and shook, then went to sleep. In the morning, I was fine. I wasn't afraid, I wasn't unhappy. The assault was just something that had happened, like missing a train or getting stuck in a long line at the grocery store. But years later, I was taking a class in human sexuality for my health degree and I freaked out during the unit on sexual assault. Apparently all I'd done was bury the trauma, and it was pushing its way back out. I went down to the campus health center and saw a counselor for a few months until we were both satisfied that I worked through it.
In my late thirties, I was assaulted again. This time, I didn't see a counselor; I used the techniques and information I'd gotten the first time around and took myself through it. Neither incident bothers me now. Or so I thought.
In early September for three days, the hospital performed a number of invasive procedures on me. They were designed to solve my kidney stone problem, but the procedures caused me almost as much pain as the initial stones, though it was spread out over weeks instead of hitting me all at once over minutes. When I woke up from the first awful operation and the doctor told me she had not removed the stones as she said she'd do before they administered the anesthesia and my world went dark. Instead, she had inserted a stent which would cause me considerable pain over the next few weeks.
The entire series of events leading up to that moment punched the big red ASSAULT button hidden away in a mental sub-basement.
Things got worse. Another procedure, this time to actually remove the stones. More anesthesia, and then the shock when I awoke and learned that the doctor had pulled the stones out with a scope (scraping up my insides) instead of breaking them into pieces as she said she'd planned to do, and then she'd installed another painful stent. I'd been thinking the pain was over and I'd be fine when I woke up. No. The problems were just getting started.
More procedures, more pain. Pain every time I went to the bathroom that made me flinch in advance--and reminded me that I'd been assaulted. Medications put constant, relentless side effects on my genito-urinary system--and reminded me I'd been assaulted. Fatigue from being in constant pain sapped my energy--and reminded me I'd been assaulted. Ten days later, the doctor pulled the second stent out in yet another humiliating and pain-filled procedure--and reminded me I'd been assaulted.
I still have more tests. At this moment, I'm in the middle of a 24-hour urine collection procedure. It's gross and nasty and even though everything happens in private, I find it humiliating--and it reminds me I've been assaulted.
The most private parts of my body are constantly put on display for an entire team of grinning strangers to yank at, shove tubes into, poke, prod, and send into gut-wrenching pain. Sometimes it happens when I'm sedated, with yet more tubes thrust down my unconscious throat without my knowledge or active consent and taking away my own ability to breathe while I'm draped in cloth and splayed open with a hole cut between my legs so the grinning team can expose me and yank, insert, pull, and shove.
I know the doctor and the nurses and med techs are there to help me. I know that they see dozens of patients like me every month, that I'm nothing special to them, that they've seen so many body parts, both private and public, that they've long stopped caring what they look like or whose they are.
But while my head knows all this, my heart does not. My emotions shout at me that I've been betrayed, that someone is doing something horrible to me, and I'm helpless to stop them. I have no choice but to lay back and let them in. It's that or the pain.
And then came the news, stated with absolute surety by my urologist, that none of it should have happened.
"You're on Topamax?" the urologist asked at one point. "Why? Do you get seizures?"
"No," I said. "Migraines. Topamax is an anti-seizure med that also lessens the length and severity of my headaches. My GP put me on it a few years ago."
"Topamax causes kidney stones," she said flatly, "especially in people who are prone to them. You should stop taking it immediately and have your GP find something else."
I was floored. Every day I'd been taking a little pill that was quietly causing stones to grow in my kidneys, and I'd had no idea. My GP absolutely KNEW I'm prone to kidney stones, but he prescribed Topamax for me anyway. I can't describe how angry this knowledge made me.
Later, I had an appointment with my GP, and I pointedly asked him about it. "Oh, yeah," he said with a shrug. "I guess you should stop taking Topamax and maybe see a neurologist about another medication. Well, if that's all we have . . . " He shook my hand and left.
I was so tired from the pain from the stent that I (uncharacteristically) didn't press the matter, or even raise my voice at him. I'm wondering if I have a malpractice case. Regardless, I'm never setting foot in his office again.
All this has smashed my writing flat.
I've long maintained my subconscious is a better writer than I am. I find themes and symbols and images only after I've written most of the book. (This annoys my critique group, because I often don't know what I'm writing about until I'm almost done, and they see only the drafts from when I'm still wandering all over the landscape.) My subconscious creates the deeper parts of the work and feeds it to me in pieces. I used to fight this and bring my work more into my conscious, but these attempts only resulted in pages of awful words. I've learned to accept this is the way I write, and to let it happen.
However, these days my subconscious is filled with images of rape, fear, helplessness, more rape, and pain, pain, pain. (There goes my heart rate again.) It's too busy processing this to give me much else. Being aware of this problem unfortunately doesn't make it go away.
Lenny told me psychologists are reluctant to diagnose PTSD until at least six weeks after the traumatic event or events, but he said we'd progress as if that were the diagnosis.
He gave me some exercises and activities. He said to draw and doodle. He said to watch movies I know well and call out the dialogue along with the characters. He said to listen to music loud and sing with it. This is partly to soothe and partly to drown out the pain with ear worms. I've been trying these, but I don't know if they help yet.
It's a drawn-out process, Lenny tells me. It will take time to work through this.
During the weeks I had the stents in my side, everyone kept telling me, "Don't worry. It'll get better. The pain will end. You'll be fine." I knew that. But when you're in pain and you're exhausted from it and the medications are making you feel awful and every moment crawls by slower than a half-frozen worm, you know deep inside that it'll NEVER get better, that this is your condition for the rest of your life. You build your life around pain. You work to minimize it, scan for tricks, look for little remedies. You stop just sitting, and instead lower yourself carefully into a chair. You put off going to the bathroom as long as possible because it's going to tear your insides up, damn it, though you hope that this time it won't hurt, and then it does anyway. You look for ways to avoid walking. You look at the pain medications and wonder much longer you'll need to take these and how long before addiction sets in? And you think to yourself this is never going to stop.
That's how I feel about the emotional fallout. The pain follows me around, a bulldog that sinks its fangs into my thigh whenever it feels like it, and I'm powerless against it. All I can do is ride out the anxiety attacks. They'll never end. I glance behind, and the bulldog is still there, grinning through his chops. "Gonna bite you, motherfucker," it growls. "Bite you GOOD, and what the fuck you gonna do about it? Nothing, you helpless fuck." He licks a little slobber from his red jowls and adds, "I'm you, and you've fucked yourself up good."
And I'm still not able to write.
I feel a terrible sense of loss. An entire month was stolen from me. Writing fiction is central to my identity, and I lost weeks and weeks of it, with no end in sight. I'll never get that time back. The hospital stole it from me even while they assaulted my body.
I try to tell myself none of this was my choice, and that all the procedures were necessary. It doesn't help.
Lenny said the above thinking is counter-productive and doesn't make PTSD any better. I'm trying to use logic against an emotional problem, a useless endeavor. I need to use other methods to defeat the bulldog, and time is my biggest weapon. Lenny joins the chorus of people who chant, "It gets better."
That doesn't help me NOW. Pain is always NOW.
I'm a person who confronts. When I have a conflict or a problem, I want to solve it NOW. I want to examine it, talk about it, find a solution. (This is a continual challenge in my marriage to Darwin, who prefers to chew over problems privately for days at a time before actually discussing it. This drives me bananas because to me he's avoiding the confrontation I need. Of course to him, I'm pushing too hard to talk about things he isn't ready to discuss, and we're continually searching for a middle ground.) The movies/music/doodling feels like avoidance behavior to me. I want to stare the bulldog down. The problem is, every time I try it, I get an anxiety attack, which makes things worse instead of helping.
When I told Lenny I wasn't sure the movies/music/doodling were a big help, he asked me about my writing. (I think he figured I was an amateur, writing journals and poetry that never saw daylight. He took it more seriously when I mentioned I had an agent.)
"You should try writing about it," he said. "In as many ways as possible. Write it over and over."
And so we have this blog entry, which repeats some earlier information. I'm writing it all down again.
The helpless sense of loss continues. I want to write fiction. I want to finish the book I have half-completed. ("What if something happens to me and I die and I don't finish the book ever?" I ask the bulldog. "Your family will delete it from you computer before they sell it, dipshit," the dog says. "Nobody cares.") I want to work on it NOW.
But when I call up the manuscript, the words die and the bulldog snaps them off the sidewalk before I even see them.
"Write something else," Lenny urges. "Write crap. Write a short story that'll go nowhere. Do writing exercises. You're an athlete who's been injured, and you can't expect to leap straight back into competition. You need to rest and re-train first."
I'm trying to believe him. When Juliet learns her cousin is dead and Romeo banished, she says, "Yet let me weep for such a feeling loss./ . . . Feeling so the loss/Cannot choose but ever weep the friend." I need to let myself feel the loss, even as it grows greater with each passing day.