The Ghost of Medical Trauma

When I was a baby and first tried solid foods, my face swelled alarmingly. My small-town pediatrician recommended putting me in the hospital for force feeding until I stopped rejecting food. This did not sound right to my parents. They took me to The Cleveland Clinic where doctors said I had food allergies and needed to avoid the foods that caused reactions. As the story goes, they also mentioned that the force feeding plan could have killed me.

I don’t remember that experience, but my body likely does.

Facing Medical Trauma

My body has survived a lot of medical trauma. Life-threatening allergic reactions. A blood patch after a bad spinal tap. Debilitating migraines. A brutal, barely survived childbirth, and another pregnancy with a month-long hospitalization as I slowly starved from uncontrollable hyperemesis. Then there are the many injuries and chronic pain due to a hypermobility condition and the years of issues that were finally traced to endometriosis.

Now, here’s the thing about trauma—medical or otherwise—it affects everyone differently. For some it is a short-term disturbance, for others the affects are longer lasting and can lead to clinical depression, anxiety, or PTSD. As it says in this article on medical trauma:

Trauma is when our nervous systems are overwhelmed by an event or events—it’s not that you “can’t get over it,” and it doesn’t matter how serious it was. 

What is Medical Trauma? By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT, on

Medical trauma can be further complicated with “invisible illnesses” or conditions that take months or years to diagnosis. The gaslighting from doctors who question symptoms or refuse to look deeper creates additional stress, while navigating a world built for people without medical issues can be deeply alienating.

A Rocky Recovery

A little over two weeks ago, I had surgery to excise endometriosis. I went into it knowing that I already live with chronic trauma and that there would likely be complications due to my problems with various medications. I worked with my therapist before surgery and felt as prepared as I could be.

Despite precautions by the surgical team, I woke up in recovery vomiting and with an infiltrated IV, which triggered vivid flashbacks to the month I spent hospitalized with hyperemesis (uncontrollable vomiting in pregnancy). In the haze of anesthesia, I didn’t know where I was, what was happening, or even what year it was.

During that long-ago hospitalization, painful IV infiltrations (where the vein gives out and meds flood the surrounding tissue) happened often. I also had severe reactions to several medications, including one that caused every muscle in my body to spasm violently. In my confused, post-op state, I felt that happening again. Except it wasn’t happening outside of my trauma-fueled flashbacks.

In recovery from this surgery, it took multiple tries in three locations to start a new IV line. I spent 5 hours in that first recovery room but barely remember any of it. It’s a blur of needles and panic.

The Value of a Support Network

My first week post surgery was difficult. Beyond the recovery room trauma, I had a dangerous reaction to a medication a few days later. Fortunately, it was resolved quickly, and I felt much better once we stopped that med. The physical trauma of surgery was beginning to heal, but my mental and emotional health had taken a serious hit.

On the positive side, I have a strong support network. My spouse was able to take a week off work without losing his job or causing a financial hardship. I have a trusted therapist who I’ve worked with for many years. And I have friends and family who gently checked in and offered help while still giving me space to heal.

During that first week, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. The trauma during those first days of recovery had thrown me into a state of depression. I felt numb, like an empty shell. I couldn’t put together complex thoughts or function beyond watching mindless TV.

But I’ve been through periods of trauma and depression before and know what works for me. I walked slowly through the nearby park, breathing in the crisp air and watching the changing leaves. I slept and ate as much as I could manage, practiced mindful breathing, and gave myself time.

As we moved into the second week post-op, I could feel myself—my resilience—waking up. Instead of only saying, “I’m fine,” I told a few friends what I’d been dealing with during recovery. I had an extra session with my therapist. I cried it out.

At the end of two weeks, we stopped at a local bar for an impromptu drink on the patio, and it felt good to be doing something so simple, so normal again.

Coming Back to Life (Again)

I’m easing back into my life now. Catching up on emails, planning an author event, and diving back into writing my next book. Yet, I wanted to take some time to share about this experience… because I’m not the only one who navigates a life that’s had a lot of trauma.

In the dark times, it’s easy to fall into a spiral of negative thoughts. To worry that I’m not strong enough. That I’m too broken to go on. Or, on the flip side, to feel guilty for my pain, telling myself there are others who have it much worse than me.

But none of those thoughts are helpful. They aren’t truth. They are fears.

When you are in the middle of the dark times, you have to look for the light. Not in the “good vibes only” toxic positivity sense, but in the soft glimmers of light that feel good to you. Maybe it’s a short walk outside. Maybe it’s snuggling with a pet, eating a cookie, or watching your favorite movie.

When you feel nothing, trust that you’ll feel something again, when you’re ready. When you feel anger, beat up a pillow. For sadness, cry it out. Feel your emotions and give yourself space. Find the people in your life who understand. The ones who have been there themselves and will sit with you, confirming that what you’re dealing with sucks and giving you space to get through it at your own pace.

If you don’t have people like that in your life (or even if you do), there are others you can call for help, too. Dial 988 or visit for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Life is full of ups and downs, and some of those downs can be seriously bleak. You don’t have to get through them alone.

Time in nature can help ground you after experiencing medical trauma
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