My Hospital Phobia
My friend, Gail, just released a new episode on her podcast, Wildscape. This 5th episode is called “Where’s Beauty.” Gail’s podcasts often speak to me in some deeply personal way, and this one is no exception. She starts with her “hospital phobia,” and those words trigger a rush of affectionate kinship. Hospital phobia? Me too!
She moves beyond that and into the rest of her story pretty quickly, but the thought lingers with me and I find myself ruminating a bit on my own hospital trauma. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of hospitals, cringe at the thought of visiting someone there, although I do put in an appearance when needed. I used to say that I’d never been hospitalized myself, and that was true – as an adult, I never had been.
I was three when I was hospitalized. I don’t remember it at all, not consciously anyhow, and the stories I’ve heard don’t seem quite real. I had been – not really sick, but tired. My parents were worried; they took me to the doctor. I was still an only child at three, and I can imagine their worry.
The doctor explained that my iron level was low, I had anemia, they were afraid I might have leukemia. I would have to be hospitalized for more tests. Of course my parents agreed, what else would they have done in 1959?
So, the story goes, they took me out for ice cream and explained to me that I would have to go to the hospital. I don’t remember any of this. But I can imagine me enthusiastically eating my ice cream with no real idea of what they were talking about. I do love ice cream, so I guess there isn’t any lingering sense of betrayal connected with that.
Of course, in those days, parents weren’t allowed to stay with their children in the hospital. When they left me there, late that afternoon, my mother says she started to cry. I patted her cheek and told her not to cry, assured her I would be ok.
I guess I was ok. I don’t remember any of it. I was there for several days.- three or four anyhow. I can’t imagine why, when I think about it now. Why would it take that long to do tests? I don’t know. But I was there for several days. I don’t remember it at all, but when I think about being in the hospital, I feel my guts twist, my heart aches, I want to run away.
Parents were allowed to visit once a day. My mother tells me that she and my father were always the first ones in, rushing to my bed. That I was so happy to see them, and so sad when the time was up and they had to leave. I had never been away from them overnight before. She says the nurses would tell her how good I was, how brave. I wonder now what the hell that meant.
The story goes that one time, just as my parents got there, they saw one of my doctors. That was rare, and they stopped him to ask him some questions. Because they had stopped, the other parents had already arrived when mine entered the ward. They hurried to my bed, but instead of greeting them with joy, I was lying curled up on my side and didn’t even lift my head. When they tried to get me to sit up, I said, quietly, barely moving my lips, “I have to lie here.”
A nurse was passing by and saw me, saw them, and stopped. She patted me reassuringly, told me it was ok to get up. To my parents, she explained that when the other parents came in and they weren’t in that first rush, I had started to cry. Sobbing loudly. One of the doctors on his way out had stopped long enough to tell me I’d better be quiet and lie right there if I wanted my parents to come. Apparently, I had taken his words to heart.
I was three. I don’t remember any of that. I did not have leukemia, and whatever was wrong with me, I got better.
I think I had already become a therapist, immersed in trauma work, before it occurred to me that my extreme avoidance of hospitals might be connected to that experience. I could barely stand to visit family or friends, and was pretty sure that made me a terrible person. When I got pregnant, I was delighted that to be able to have a midwife and go to a birthing center, but didn’t quite realize that I was mostly relieved to avoid a hospital.
Listening to my friend Gail’s podcast was actually the first time it occurred to me that hospitals might be redeemable. That they were not necessarily places of terror, pain, and oppression. Ok, I might still think they are, but I can acknowledge that I might be wrong.
Somewhat ironically, a dear friend of mine recently invited me to join them for a meal at a hospital cafeteria, just like Gail’s grandparent. Maybe it would have been a transformative experience, but, unlike Gail, I could not be persuaded. Eat in a hospital??? Omg, no, that’s a hard no, absolutely not. Just no.
It’s interesting watching how the trauma sits with me now, or how I sit with it. My heart aches for that little girl that was me, and I can almost touch her sadness, her terror, feeling abandoned in a strange and scary place for some indefinite time. But when I think about that, I also think about children removed from their parents by Child Protective Services, immigrant children separated at the border, each individual child traumatized in so many ways. And how many of those children won’t be returned to their home, won’t be returned to their parents. Trying to hold all of that is too much, too heavy
So I back off a bit. I notice those feelings and remind myself that most of us have experienced those feelings. “Common humanity.” That’s what we call it in Mindful Self Compassion, knowing that we all have the same feelings, even if we don’t have the same experiences. I remind myself that some children are feeling this with all the intensity right now, and that I’m called – we are all called – to alleviate that suffering as best we can.
That’s at the heart of compassion – knowing that people are suffering, feeling the urge to end the suffering, and then acting on it. We recognize suffering in others because we have felt it ourselves. What each of us chooses to do with that knowing spins together like threads on a loom and creates the world.