Stumbling Through Trauma

When it first arrives, there’s a sickly combination of not knowing what to expect and telling yourself there’s hope. The sickly part of it is that without knowing what’s going on, or what to expect, you don’t really know what reason there is to hold out hope except the cold, helpless fact that there are things you don’t know. And it isn’t that you have hope. That would imply ownership and something internalized. It’s rather that you hold out hope, like something to shield yourself with, to filter what you see and hear, but also in the child-like gesture that asks softly, “…what do I do with this?”

Some would consider this an act of faith, though if that’s the case then it’s faith born not out of love or trust but from fear. I think it’s misplaced to give such a name to what has so little to do with belief. It isn’t that you’re convinced or persuaded of what you hold out in front of you. You place no probability on it. It just is because you just don’t know what else to do. You can freeze or you can move. Perhaps the only thing you do feel relatively sure of is that doing nothing does nothing.

That was the choice I felt confronted by two years ago when it first arrived. I was sitting on the couch watching a TV show with my partner that night. We’d been together for around 2-3 years. She’d just gotten out of surgery a few hours before, after weeks of being in pain. I remember it like it was yesterday. I still see the expression on her face as I called 911.

Out of nowhere, she started feeling strange. It was a light-headed sensation, she said, but in the span of no more than five minutes, she knew something was really wrong. I remember her distress, I remember her asking me to call for help, and I remember the haunting description she gave me of feeling like she was sinking inside. Her right hand started to move without her controlling it, she said from behind wide eyes and the saddest look I’ve ever seen.

It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that not a day goes by where I don’t wonder and worry about the what-if. What if I’d been in the other room. What if we’d gone to bed or she’d decided to rest. What if I had waited longer. What if she had gone somewhere else for her surgery. What if they’d kept her around longer to keep closer watch on her.

Making that call to 911 at the time I did is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, I’m convinced. While I had the operator on the line, my partner’s condition worsened so that by the time the paramedics got there, she was unresponsive. Awake, it seemed, but staring off expressionless into some frightening distance. I had figured it was better to be safe than to second guess things, and I knew she’d just had surgery. I never would have expected what was happening, but I still hoped it was something they would set right quickly at the hospital.

Sitting with her in the ICU, I remember the way she would come and go. One minute she would look at me as if she was trying to remember who I was. The next minute she would turn blank and look past me. Another minute she would try talking to me. The words wouldn’t always make sense. Other times she would become upset. She moved around, got out of her bed, and even tried to leave the ICU at one point. I got pushed. She cried at me like she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t helping her.

If making the 911 call was one of the best decisions of my life, the time it took to inform her family of what was going on may have been one of the worst decisions. At the time, I didn’t have her parents’ or her sister’s numbers, and my partner’s phone was locked behind a pass code I didn’t know. The most I can offer is that I slipped up under all that was happening. I tried sending messages over email and Facebook, but I wish I’d just ran over to knock on her parents’ door once the ambulance had shown up.

I think that has been forgiven by now, though it’s still something I deeply regret.

Due to complications from the surgery, my partner had become hyponatremic. Though the hospital staff assured me and her family that they had detected no signs of seizures, we later found out that she had actually been seizing then. Additionally, there was some suspicion that her fluid levels were being replenished too quickly. A major red flag was how affected her speech had become, and how we continued to see no progress with it through her time there.

One day I showed up at the hospital to find she was gone, and the staff suggested I call the family. I can’t even describe the fear I felt from that. When I heard her sister on the phone, I thought for a brief moment that that was the end. Fortunately, it wasn’t. She was moved to another hospital, thanks especially to her sister, who’s a doctor herself. This proved to be a turning point for her recovery, too, but not until after another week or so had passed.

I also remember the times I visited her as if they were yesterday. How she would light up whenever I came into the room. How I’d take her Diet Cokes and things to keep her company. How we’d struggle to communicate with each other. How much she would worry about her boys.

It’s really difficult to put into any kind of words how shitty it was to have language standing as an obstacle between us. To have the slightest idea of what it’s like, you’d either have to know a lot more about us and our relationship than I’m willing to divulge, or you’d have to have been through something like it yourself. But you might try and imagine how important communication is to you in your relationship with your significant other. How closely tied it is to who you are to that other person and  who they are to you. There’s a web of deeply personal interconnected thoughts, feelings, memories, and more that’s embedded there. You’ve likely felt the tension that arises from pulling on any one thing in the web. It’s a different feeling when the whole web itself is being stretched and pulled beyond understanding.

After the second hospital stay – and so much I’m skipping over by necessity – she went to a recovery center. That lasted another week and a few days. I got to hear her progress for myself when she would have time available that she could call and talk over the phone. It still amazes me how she rocked her recovery, but I’ve always known her to be a strong-willed, reflective, and creative person. It wasn’t long before she got to come back home. That has presented a new set of challenges, some expected and some not, although she has gotten to have much, if not most, of her life back.

Of course, putting it that way is misleading. There’s not really a going back after brain trauma like that. It’s more like finding a new way forward. At first, there were some lingering moments of minor seizure activity. On occasion, she still stumbles over some words. However, you won’t normally notice it unless it’s pointed out. She’s even accomplished the awesomely impressive feat of going back to college and recently started working a new job.

My plan is for this post to be the beginning of a series reflecting on some of the things I’ve experienced and come to think about while dealing with all that’s happened. I have asked and received my partner’s permission to write about some of these things, which is important to me for several reasons. Something I have personally wrestled with and try hard to avoid is making this only a story of my struggle, where she is more of a passive object for me to learn and grow from. That is an all too common narrative, I’ve found, when it comes to these types of experiences, particularly men taking the suffering of a woman in their life as little more than another reason to focus on themselves.

I do not want this to be that. My partner went through a great deal, and it’s difficult to talk about it in any way that doesn’t cheapen things in one respect or another, at least as I feel about it. Because we are different people and because we have some different beliefs, she has her own view of the trauma that she’s experienced. On the one hand, I don’t want to speak for her, but on the other hand, there are thoughts we do share, judging from all the times we’ve talked about what happened with her. I just ask that you keep this in mind as you read this post and the others I write in the future.

First and foremost, this series will be about my experience of watching a loved one suffer, as well as helping them through that. The observations I’ve made and thoughts that I’ve had during this whole ordeal of the past two years. I hope that my writing speaks to people who have been through similar struggles, but I also can’t deny that there is a kind of personally therapeutic element here, too. It is a different experience to witness a loved one hurting so severely, feeling like a helpless spectator, than it is to endure that pain and trauma yourself.

I’ve titled this series “Stumbling Through Trauma” partly because it captures the befuddling nature of ‘it.’ And I call it ‘it’ in line with this observation. Even now, looking back, we have a tenuous grasp on what it was. We try to understand primarily as a means of moving on, and labeling it this way maybe helps to create some distance so that we can move on. Because if you linger too long in that moment, in that experience, that mode of thinking and being, it’s nigh-impossible to find your way back to the road.

It sounds cliché, but there is no guide book for this. There are volumes that have been written on trauma, some that I’ve read, and there are months worth of talks that have been given on it, some that I’ve heard, but nothing really prepares you for your own encounter with it. After the fact, nothing really seems to encompass your encounter with it, either. This is why so many people who have been through trauma have subsequently redefined their lives around it, trying to find meaning from a seemingly meaningless occurrence. Trauma is disruptive on a scale that can feel unreal at the time.

Of course, this isn’t to say that nothing helps us find our way through trauma. There are many things that do, but part of the struggle is finding what works for you. Even therapy, as I’ll discuss in a later post, has its limitations as far as that goes. This series is intended to be open ended, then, in talking about what I’ve noticed, what’s helped, and what’s hurt along the way. When appropriate, I may relate things back to my partner’s time in the hospital, but mostly I want to think about and write about the journey after.

My experience during the worst of it was that I was surprisingly able to act quickly and attentively, for the most part. Yet in the down time, once things are slow, the mind has the chance to wonder more and more. Returning to life can be deeply meaningful, but can also make it feel like some things are left unresolved. Another cliché says that healing is a process, and a consequence of this is that even when the worst is behind us, when things start to return to some semblance of normality, when the therapy sessions are over, there is still a struggle.

I think we do a poor job of appreciating this, particularly here in America, as evident from the way we respond (or rather fail to respond) to PTSD in this country. I don’t have all the answers, though I feel that my experience has enabled me to see more than I used to see, and to hopefully respond more appropriately myself. If nothing else, my wish is that these posts will help some of my readers feel less alone in what they may be dealing with, and perhaps help others to develop a better attention for those around them that might be stumbling through things of their own.

Read the next part in this series by clicking here.

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