The Reality of PTSD as a Result of My Disability

*This post was originally posted on my first blog. I felt like it was applicable to the fear and anxiety I still have related to my past. I’m working through it of course, but change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s just one day at a time.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a nervous person. Along with those nerves, I was also very scared, especially as a kid. Rather than using the word “fears,” I was simply told by my parents and my doctors that I had a “vivid imagination.”

Because of this vivid imagination, I remember one specific time when I was 12 and my parents waited a while before they told me about a specific scheduled surgery. I understand now that they didn’t want to alert me to it too far in advance because they knew I’d essentially be a nervous wreck right up until I had to go in for surgery. Though I can understand this now and I know it was a protective measure, I didn’t see it that way when it happened. I remember the night my parents sat me down to tell me about a surgery that would be occurring in about a month. I couldn’t exactly comprehend at first that my parents had waited to tell me, but once I did I immediately started to worry. Not long after that moment, the dreams I would always have leading up to a big operation started. The most common, of course, was the dream in which I woke up during surgery.

Due to my “vivid imagination,” my dreams were exceptionally vivid. In my dream, I was lying on the operating table. My eyes were open, and I was seeing everything. The doctors had the femur of my left leg in their hands, and they were twisting it to the left in order to straighten it out. Though I couldn’t feel any pain in the dream, I could imagine it, which was almost as bad. I looked at the doctor’s gloves, which were covered in blood, my blood. In a room as white as the operating room, the red seemed out of place. And yet, there it was. On the doctor’s hands was the blood that ran through my very veins. As I watched the doctors attempt to “fix” what was “not normal,” I tried to scream out. My mouth opened to make any kind of sound, but nothing happened. I tried to move. I focused so hard on trying to simply raise my right hand off the table, but it was too heavy. The doctors had to know I was awake. If they knew, they’d stop. If they knew, it would all be over. I just needed to do something to get their attention, but they were so focused on my legs. They didn’t even glance up towards my face, not even once, to see the fear and the anguish that was mirrored in my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to get as far away from that room as possible. I wanted to get away from the dead quiet that enveloped me like a blanket that was too heavy, practically suffocating me. The moment I closed my eyes to escape the horror I was seeing, I woke up.

When I woke up from this dream, I felt like I could barely breathe. Without even giving it a second thought, I yanked back the covers to look at my legs. I touched them to make sure they were still intact, still closed up tight. I looked on my legs, my hands, and my sheets for the blood. The blood that had been so incredibly red, so out of place in that white room. With my sweaty palms resting on my knees, my emotions took over. I cried out, knowing that tears couldn’t do this type of fear justice. I rocked back and forth, holding the stuffed teddy bear that was tucked into the bed beside me, and knowing as I started to shake that the tears were coming. When my body finally allowed me to cry, I curled up on my side, hugging the stuffed teddy bear to my chest like a shield, and let my tears speak for me. After the immediate emotion passed and I was curled up into the tightest ball I could form, I began to hum. I hummed the lullaby that my dad so often sung to me when he’d rock me in his mother’s rocking chair on the nights I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, sleep tugged at me again, and I opened my eyes for a pleading moment as I looked into the darkness, knowing the dream was waiting for me.

Physical Therapy: Past and Present

I received physical therapy every week of my life until I was 16 years old. So, me and PT have quite a history. And to be honest, it isn’t all that pretty. For me, PT was focused on getting me as independent as possible and as mobile as I could possibly be. That meant learning to walk with a walker, then crutches, and eventually independently. With a physical disability, that’s no easy feat. I didn’t walk in any sense until I was 5 or 6, I think…so I was way behind my peers in that respect. However, that’s where PT came in…to provide me with the tools I needed to reach the same level of functioning as my able-bodied peers. As you can imagine, it was hard work, it was painful, and I left every therapy session having cried at least once (or at least that’s how it felt).

The trauma of physical therapy didn’t surface until I had my first surgery at the age of 11. Following my first surgery, after being in long-leg casts for 8 weeks, physical therapists were ready to get my legs moving. Try keeping your legs board-straight for 8 weeks and then being asked to bend your knees. It’s a level of pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. One of the three most vivid memories I have is one particular day in physical therapy at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Greenville, SC, following my first surgery. The physical therapist was determined to get my knees to bend. However, up until this point I had fought her every step of the way. She ended up placing a blue-padded bench right behind my knees in the hopes that gravity would do it’s job over the course of an hour and by the end of therapy, my knees would be bent over the bench. Suffice it to say, gravity didn’t win. I held my legs in the air for 90% of my PT session that day. Eventually, the physical therapist put her hands on my knees and pushed down. Because I had held my legs up for almost an hour, down they went and out came my screams. One minute my legs were in the air, pain-free, and the next…my body went into overdrive trying to process the pain that was splitting me open from inside. I cried and screamed so loud and for so long that I remember a nurse coming in asking if everything was okay. Until that moment, I didn’t understand the concept of a blood-curdling scream…and I also didn’t understand what it meant to feel such an intense pain that when you open your mouth no sound comes out at all. Now I know better.

That PT moment occurred at the age of 11. I am now 25, and I can still go back to that moment in my mind in a matter of seconds….and when I do, the tears come, and I can’t stop. I cry for the pain I felt, the level of fear and anxiety that was coursing through me, and the fact that at the age of 25, I can so easily place myself back in that moment without even blinking. To put it bluntly, physical therapy has essentially traumatized me. It still holds a lot of power over me, I still have nightmares, and I still have really intense reactions towards PT.

A few years ago, my doctor suggested I go back to PT again. “It won’t be like last time. This time, when you say stop, they will.” See, as a child in PT, my voice didn’t matter that much. If I said stop, the pain continued. The physical therapists kept pushing. They had to in order to help me get to the point I needed to be. Therefore, a few years ago, when my doctor said it would be different, I didn’t believe him. Even when the physical therapist said, “You’re an adult. You’re in control now,” I had a very hard time believing her. After only one PT session as an adult, I started having panic attacks. Even though I was in a different place, in my mind I was an 11-year-old girl in the PT room of Shriner’s Hospital. I panicked. I couldn’t breathe, and I felt like I was dying. In short, I had a panic attack.

I have not been back to physical therapy since my previous experience as an adult caused panic attacks. However, I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel like I at least need to try going back. I am utterly terrified and just the thought of it makes my heart race and my breath become rapid. How I’m going to go through with it, I seriously don’t know. But I have to try. I owe myself that much. And I just hope the physical therapist doesn’t negatively respond to my panic attack. I can’t have that happening again.

Send good thoughts over the next few weeks. I need them.