Emotional Ghosts Continue to Haunt Me

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by Christie Patient |

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hardest, caregiving, coping, healthcare workers, covid-19

Much of my young adult life was molded by my fears. I have talked about the effects in past columns, and how my mom’s hospitalization helped me find my courage.

After surviving months in the ICU, a double-lung transplant, and a rocky start to her recovery, my mom is doing well now. Some medication side effects bother her, most notably insomnia and fragile skin, as well as some residual surgical site pain, but compared to this time last year, she is thriving.

After enduring those things with her as a caregiver, I am doing well now, too. I rode the waves of triumph when she made noticeable progress in recovery after her final discharge from the hospital. For months, I felt invincible. It was the end of a long period of darkness, and for the first time in years, it didn’t feel like another tragedy was lurking.

I took advantage of my newfound courage. Empowered and motivated, I accomplished a lot in a short time. I started a business and worked enough to come out ahead in the first six months. I began connecting with people on the subject of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) by way of this column. I felt like I had something to offer, and enough energy to help people in this community.

As the winter approached and rainy darkness descended on the Pacific Northwest, I knew I would have to fight for my happiness and to keep my motivation alive. I’ve felt the flutter of old anxieties, but have tools and skills to combat them. And my time in the ICU with my mom gave me the gift of knowing that I can power through fear.

While I am doing better overall, in the past few months, I have had some instances of sudden anxiety or strong emotions tied to my mom’s time in the ICU. These experiences aren’t panic attacks or nagging stressors that consume the mind. They don’t linger for days, or swell and subside like waves. It’s more like seeing a specter that causes my adrenaline to spike, and then it goes away if I stare at it.

These moments are always brought on by a sound, sight, or smell that brings back memories of the ICU. The distinct smell of a particular brand of hand sanitizer, the sound of a vent alarm on a TV show, and watching someone have an asthma attack have all caused the emotions and fear to flood in. A scene from “The X-Files,” in which Fox Mulder’s mother lay in a hospital bed intubated, incited a sudden burst of sobbing from me.

I hesitate even to use the word “trigger” because it is often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, with which I have not been diagnosed. These emotional events don’t reduce my ability to function or affect me for more than a few minutes. But they certainly come on in the fashion of a gunshot — loud and sudden.

The most recent of these occurred while I was sitting in an exam room waiting to talk to my doctor. The appointment was more a formality than anything else. My medical needs were not urgent or looming.

The longer I sat there, the closer I looked at the room. Boxes of gloves mounted on the wall next to a hand sanitizer dispenser. Masks in boxes on the counter. Instruments to check vital signs next to a purple, paper-covered exam table. Then I noticed the floor, where speckled gray linoleum met a sagy green wall, a color that hospitals always use because it is supposed to elicit a sense of calm. Bang.

Memories of uncertainty and fear from many days in the ICU churned in my gut. I reasoned with myself: You are just here to get a few referrals. You’re not sick. No one is dying. Hospitals exist to help people. They’re good. And they all happen to look basically the same, so you better get over whatever this is. Deep breaths. Everything is fine.

It only lasted a minute, and once it was over, I decided it was best not to linger in the memories. Revisiting those memories when I am at home or out taking a walk feels safe and comfortable. Alone, trapped in an exam room did not seem like the best place to ruminate. I opened my book.

These flashbacks are few and far between, but they come as a surprise every time because I’ve worked to process and move on from this experience. I don’t think there’s any way I can desensitize myself to triggers without knowing exactly what they are, but I know I’ll get through them as long as I remember to breathe. Which I think is true for all of us, even if IPF makes it hard.


Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


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