Experiencing PTSD

Josh left for his annual golf trip last Thursday. That night, Leighton threw up in her crib. Normal. The next night I was sitting in the Pediatric Emergency Room with Will, listening to his strained breathing.

We had been at Chief and Cici’s for dinner. Will was running around with his cousins, playing with his grandparents, feeling great. We got in the car and he started to cough – complaining of not liking his raspy voice. I put him to bed.  I was exhausted after being up with Leighton the previous nights, so put on my PJs and settled down with a glass of wine and Outlander.  Then I listened as my two babies coughed in their sleep from their rooms. Normal. I went to bed.

I heard Will coughing again, badly. Gaspingly. Different. I ran to his room, and was immediately afraid. He started throwing up, so I moved him to the bathroom and cleaned him up. I told him he could sleep with me so I could watch him more closely. He didn’t look good. My mommy brain said ER – he needed help. My grieving Mommy heart said “crap.”

I went into action with tears drenching my face, gasping for air myself through choking sobs. It was more than panic over Will’s condition – it was fear so concrete, it was suffocating.  Josh called Chief and Cici, and our neighbor Laura. I threw clothes on, grabbed my bag, and headed to the car with Will as Laura ran up the driveway to watch Leighton. I was shaking by now as his cough continued to worsen. I was afraid. I was alone. Shock was setting in. I was remembering too much. There was too much familiarity. I knew I had to put that aside and focus on Will – get him to the hospital – ignore my feelings – help this child, this healthy child, he needs you now. Move.

Adrenaline drove us to the hospital 3 miles away, where I parked illegally, and ran my baby boy inside. I was hysterical, shaking myself in shock and fear. The receptionist looked at me and said “are you ok?” No. Why would I be here if we were ok. I pointed to Will.

I wanted to blurt it out so they would understand the severity of what I was experiencing, why I was this torn apart.  I wanted to shout “his sister had Leukemia, she was treated here, we lived here for months, I know these beeps, these machines, these halls. I know the rush to get here to save her life. I know the doctors and nurses and food service people. I can take his blood pressure, tape on his oxygen sensor, force him to take meds, and stop the beeping on his monitors. But I don’t want to be here – not ever again.”

But I didn’t. I just looked at them like they should know that already.

The nurse took us back quickly, identifying what she thought was croup. Ok. Normal.  I sat in a chair with Will on my lap, shaking uncontrollably. My leg, where he was sitting, was convulsing so wildly, I could hear my shoe thumping the floor. I remembered that physical reaction from before – holding Libby through bad news, my leg shaking the same way under her tiny body. It took me back.  I told myself again: Croup = normal, Leukemia = terrible. He is fine. But it didn’t stop the hysteria, the shock, the distress of being back.

I held Will tightly against my chest, my lips pushed into the squishiness of his baby-soft cheek, whispering to him that he would be just fine. And as those assurances came out of my mouth, I tried to convince myself of the same, to no avail. Memories flooded my mind of the days we had spent there, the horror we had experienced, the bad news delivered over and over again. I couldn’t escape. Bombs were everywhere. I looked down at the floor, and remembered seeing that pattern of tile outside of Libby’s room. I looked up, and remembered counting ceiling tiles to try to fall asleep at night. I checked Will’s oxygen level, and knew exactly where to look on the screen. I felt the buttons of the remote, and remembered changing channels for Libby.

There were moments when my mind seemed to ease up, but my body did not – it was reacting to what we had lived through in this exact hospital, three years before.  And while this jumble was jumping around inside my mind and heart and body,  I watched the nurse type at her computer, every few seconds looking over at Will. What?  Was something worse? What was she seeing?  What was she not telling me? Tell me he’ll be fine.

They said he would need steroids and breathing treatments, and that he should recover quickly. And he did.

Chief arrived to be with me. He walked in the room and I started crying again. I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to be strong alone. He knew I couldn’t be. He knew my adrenaline could only take me so far. I knew he was feeling the same.

When the breathing treatment started, and Will hated it, I thought about all of the things we had forced Libby to do. I thought about how we tried to explain things to her to get her through something uncomfortable.  I remembered holding her in my lap as she was poked and prodded, balling myself at the unfairness of her reality. But Will was healthy – it was my memories that were not.

The first treatment was not enough, and the doctor broke the news that he would have to stay overnight. “You mean upstairs?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “I can’t,” I responded. “I just can’t.” But it was what he needed.

The hospital was the last place I needed to be.  I had even tried to avoid delivering Leighton there.  But this was different – I wasn’t prepared.  When she was born, I had planned where I would park, I made sure my doctor was available, I requested a nurse who knew our story, I had reviewed everything with our therapist. But this time, there was no preparation. He needed to go, so we went.

They wheeled us up from the ER to the floor – me clutching Will in the bed, telling him everything was fine. I had done this countless times with Libby as she was moved from her room for a procedure and back. I knew the way the bed maneuvered through the halls, I knew the buttons that were pushed to open doors, I knew how to work the railings, and that it was procedure to be transported like this. And during that five minute trip up the elevator and through the halls – that is what I thought of – those moments with her – so frequent that year – but never ok. I remembered whispering in her ear some tender explanation of a very big thing she was about to have done – you’re going to go have some pictures taken, you’re going to go take a little nap…

The next day, Will had recovered. Chief came to take us home. He told me we would have to walk through the second floor, go down the same elevator, and into the same parking deck. There wasn’t another way out. I carried Will and hid my face in his puffy blue coat, barely looking where I was going so that it didn’t get worse. Chief knew how hard it was for me, as it was hard for him too. He said “take deep breaths, keep breathing.” And as our surroundings became more painful, I cried harder and harder, burying my face in my little boy’s neck, breathing in the goodness of his healthy little body. That was all I could do to cope. Cling to him and take steps forward.

When we got home, Will was fine; we were exhausted.  I was surprised that I was doing ok, that I was holding it together after the trauma. We slept hard that night, and when I woke Sunday morning, I was not ok. I could barely function. The tears came again, and my breathing was laborious. I did not feel I could parent, or talk, or move through the day. I froze staring at the cabinet while unloading the dishwasher. I had to stablize myself to get through the simple task of putting a measuring cup in the cabinet. I was breathing too hard, I could feel my heart racing. The reality of being back in that environment was surging through my body. Adrenaline had gotten us through, but now it was gone, the experience was over, but emotions were bitter.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Was that what was happening?

When I think of PTSD, I picture a veteran, back from war – he hears an engine blow and ducks for cover.  He hears fireworks and huddles his family into safety.  His nightmares wake him in a sweat.  His daydreams don’t allow him to rest.  He is afraid to fall asleep because of the reality he knows he will face when he wakes.  A perfect analogy to how I am feeling.  Maybe that’s why they call it a fight when you’re sick – you give it your all, you see too much, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you are always tarnished – always traumatized – again and again as the memories come back, just like soldiers returning from war. And that is what set in Sunday and has hung around all week – the aftermath of my experience with Will in the hospital on Friday night. He is fine, yes. His illness was very common, taken care of quickly, and he is back at school. But the rest is lingering past those 16 hours in the hospital – it is the trauma I took home from walking those halls again, hearing those beeps, talking to nurses, sleeping on a couch, forcing medicine down my baby’s throat, seeing my child in a hospital bed.

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And along with the PTSD, came more acute anxiety, depression, obsessiveness. Josh and I saw the signs coming – I wanted to climb in bed and sleep, but Josh pushed me otherwise – he knew what would happen if he let me snuggle up in bed in this state – I would sink lower and lower, I would suffocate in memories until I was entirely unable to climb out.  “We are not going there,” he said. “You go to yoga, or you go write. Those are your choices.” So I went to yoga. I tried to get lost in the heat, in the music, in the rhythm that is so familiar – but it was labored, and not curative as it usually is.  And today, I sit here writing, hoping that by processing, I can move forward.

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