Why I'm Terrified of Hospitals
I was 13 the first time I spent any real time in a hospital. My mother drove me two and a half hours to the Keene State Hospital, which had a teen psych ward that was pretty much what you might imagine a teen psych ward at a state hospital would be like. "That place is a shithole," someone who'd spent time there as well, whom I met years later, would say. The fluorescent lights creeped in under the door of the cold, sterile room I shared with a girl named Tammy who'd swallowed a bottle of Advil. The bright lights and Tammy's chatter and my anxiety kept me up nights before our 6:00 a.m. daily stretch and breakfast. A nurse had to observe me eating every bite of the meals designed to make me gain weight. They counted my steps with a ticker. I wasn't allowed to go outside for the afternoon walk. I spent sleepless nights listening to Everclear and Pink on my Disc Man, didn't say much in group, made a lot of ugly bracelets in Art Therapy. I wasn't allowed to shave my legs - no razor blades - and they confiscated my loofah because it had a string on it that could be used to hang myself, so my downy skin covered in lanugo was ashy and rough. Pretty soon, I learned what I needed to tell the parade of doctors and therapists with whom I met daily in order to get the hell out of there. My goal wasn't to gain weight, or start eating again, or to actually try to heal and live some semblance of a normal life; it was to never go back to a place like that again.
The summer after my stint on the psych ward, I volunteered as a candy striper at the hospital where I'd been born. I needed community service and I thought maybe I could make a difference there. Still skinny, though on a meal plan designed to make me gain weight, I had to wrap the string of the pink-and-white striped apron around my waist twice. I filled up water pitchers, took away trays of half-eaten turkey slices and Jell-o cups, brought fresh sheets. Sometimes I sat with the mostly-elderly patients I visited and listened to their stories. When I was there, I did my work, but I didn't like hanging out in the hospital. I never ate there and would wait outside the doors to the main lobby, waiting for my parents to take me home.
It would be twelve years before I spent more than a two-hour shift in a hospital again. My office was less than 10 miles away from the state's largest hospital, yet I barely noticed it on my daily drive to work. Until I got a phone call from my dad that would change everything. My mom, only 57, had fallen down the stairs and sustained many injuries, contusions and severe bruising, and a traumatic brain injury. As the family member who lived closest to the hospital, I visited two or three times a day, saving time and money on parking by riding my bike across town and locking it up at the base of the concrete stairs that led up to the lobby.
I'd go past the front desk and down a long hall way with brightly colored paintings to the ICU. The first week was hard, when she was mostly asleep and didn't remember much, was still on an IV and feeding tube. I had to help nurses lift her onto a commode several times a day. Then, she spent a week in a regular hospital before graduating to a rehab facility. One time when my dad and I were sitting with her, trying to get her to remember things, a technician came in to do more X-rays on her breaks and sprains - wrist, jaw. The technician warned my dad and me that we may want to leave, for our safety. "You go," my dad said, "I've had my kids. I'm not worried about the radiation. I'm not going anywhere." Exhausted, I slumped against a wall in the hallway, buzzing with doctors and nurses and patients, beeps and shouts and other sounds mingled together, and waited. I didn't want to go far. I didn't want to miss anything, a moment when she shone through the disorientation and pain. After the hospital, she was moved to a rehab facility, which, as far as I could tell, closely resembled the hospital, except they made her do PT. She complained about everything, claimed the nurses weren't feeding her and were stealing the food we brought for her, so I would visit before work, after work, and, if I could get away, on my lunch break, to sit with her, help her remember.
The year following my mother's accident, when she was back home and in control of her life again, I went to the OBGYN at the same hospital. I'd been bleeding for weeks with what I thought was a merciless period that would never end. It turned out to be an ectopic pregnancy, which, unbeknownst to the doctors at the time, had already ruptured my fallopian tube and I was bleeding massive amounts internally. It would take another day to admit me to the hospital, say I needed surgery that day, then waiting for 13 hours to be wheeled into the OR. My husband (then-boyfriend) Dylan and I sat in the ER all day, watching Daily Show and South Park reruns on a tiny TV while he held my hand. Though I was on an IV, I was extremely thirsty and my mouth was dry. I was impatient, still in pain, still bleeding profusely. It was midnight by the time they finally got me into surgery and nearly 5:00 a.m. when I came to. Dylan was sitting beside me, along with a nurse, when I woke up. He had an ice water and gingerale ready for me and I drained them both quickly. We had to wait another hour before they'd release me. They said I could spend the day there but I wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as I could. I'd had enough of the hospital. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, cuddle with my dog, curl up and cry. Later that day, the surgeon would call to apologize for not getting me in sooner, said they didn't realize how much blood was flooding into my stomach, that I could have died, that it was a matter of hours.
The hospital has never felt like a safe, comforting place to me. It's a place of trauma, fear, uncertainty, pain. When I was in a severe manic episode a few years ago, my psychiatrist wanted me to go to the ER. I begged her not to make me. I knew of the bright lights, hectic noises, all the people coming in and out, and I knew that was the last place I wanted to be. "Let me go home," I pleaded with her. "Let me go to my bed and my dogs and quiet." I even called Dylan into the room to help me make my case, promise he'd take care of me.
Recently, I've found myself back in hospitals to visit my grandmother. She's dying. Soon or later, no one knows, but it's coming, as it is for all of us (I'm reminded of when my father-in-law told the vet that his dog was terminal and he was making decisions based on that fact, she said, "We're all terminal."). She's spent the last month and a half in various hospitals and rehab facilities. I've been in a lot of hospital rooms, seen her hooked up to tubes and oxygen, heard bleeps and blips, felt the bustle of a hospital, nurses in and out, so many questions. One of the doctors was a girl I grew up with and played hockey with, which my family found comforting, even though I hadn't known her particularly well. We're working hard to get my grandmother home, out of that frenzied, sterile place, to something familiar. I think of my own experiences in hospitals, how uncomforting I found them - chaotic, confusing, scary. I know a lot of amazing things happen in these places - births, recovery, healing. I know health care workers are heroes. But I can only think of all the unknowns, the emergencies, the hurting. I hope we can get her home soon, out of those institutional spaces, to comfort her, ease her pain.
Read more about these experiences, mental health, trauma, and addiction in my forthcoming essay collection, Feed Me, out later this year.