Childhood sexual abuse…and surgery as an adult.

The two just don’t mix very well, as I unfortunately discovered this week.

Sunday daytime I had strange muscle spasms across my abdomen and chest. I put it down to fibro or something else random, and tried my best to ignore it. By evening I had stomach cramps, and wondered if I had eaten something with gluten in it, and went to bed cursing gluten. I barely slept, the cramps worsened, and by 4am I was fevery, curled up shaking, and with a stomach the size of a small football. I am *terrified* of hospitals, but murmured to my partner – “I need to go to hospital” who didn’t really need telling twice. I was in so much pain I didn’t even want to go by car. I wanted an ambulance that had pain relief *now* and would bypass triage. I was in too much pain to think about what I was saying. My housemate passed me the phone and I vaguely remember speaking to the ambulance dude. I don’t remember much else past that. Gas and air in the ambulance followed my morphine at a&e. Some doctor trying to convince me it was IBS and I could go home. Another doctor coming in to find me crying and moaning as my partner held me, in complete agony, and admitting me. Apparently I passed out several times. My blood results were clear, but I had ultrasound on Monday – my appendix was inflammed. Appendicitis. On the face of it, not that big a deal. A lot of people develop appendicitis, it’s very common. I spent my Monday in a morphine haze that took the edge off of the pain, and counted down the hours until I could be pain-free. It shouldn’t have upset me. I shouldn’t still be nervous to even leave the house.

But nobody…nobody… could have or had the option to prepare me for what surgery would be like as a child abuse survivor. Over the last couple of years my fear of hospitals and doctors (triggered by the ring using ‘hospital’ settings, to try and make me afraid of seeking help – it worked, for a long time) has gradually faded to at least being at a point where I will accept I need surgery, even if I’m scared. At least now I can say for myself when I need hospital; not so long ago it would be more a result of gentle and well-meaning nudges from my friends, and a huge reluctance on my part. In fairness, this time I was in too much pain to care. I knew hospital meant pain relief of some kind. I had tried paracetamol at home. It didn’t help.

I have been in hospital a few times with unexplained abdominal pain – now they think my appendix has been ‘grumbling’ for a while but finally flared up this weekend. Either way, I’ve gotten used to doctors having to poke my abdomen and cause pain. I’ve gotten used to the fact that when I’m in hospital, my body isn’t really mine. I have some agency, but not a lot. I can say ‘no’, but basically if I want to get better I should just go with it. There are social rules in hospitals and giving over your body to a group of uniformed strangers seems to be near the top of the list. A nurse will appear at some point and tell me she’s going to put a cannula in my hand, or take my blood. Interestingly they always ask if it’s okay to take my blood pressure. I noticed this. Everything else they just told me. Blood pressure? They always asked – every single time.

At least now I have a care plan; they all read that I have PTSD and abuse in my past. They at least would give me some warning that they were about to poke me, and were far less reluctant to let my partner and friend be around than they usually are. I also noticed that for every male doctor who saw me, a female nurse would appear very shortly afterwards to see if I was okay. When I told them I was scared, just before the op, I was put in my own room. Whether me telling them I was scared resulted in this, or if it was planned anyway, I don’t know. All I know is I felt safer. The sounds of a hospital could be closed off simply by closing the door, and I would wake up whenever I heard the door go – it wasn’t like being in a ward where a load of strangers walk past you whilst you’re vulnerable in a bed. The staff knocked whenever they came in to see me, and waited for me to say ‘come in.’ Suddenly the rules had changed a bit. By having my own space, a little bit more of my own agency came back. Because of my care plan, nobody asked me about family, and nobody asked me awkward questions. It’s a first.

But being drugged is in itself a trigger. I could feel my body fighting the drowsy effects of the morphine – my adrenaline going mad, my head going YOU’VE BEEN DRUGGED, and let’s just say innate panic response mixed with morphine isn’t nice. As in, non-stop throwing up not nice. My memories of Monday are vague and blurry, only really clear in between pain relief. I was on nil-by-mouth so my entire diet for 24 hours consisted of pain relief and water. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening. One minute my friend and partner there, next they’ve had to leave, next they’re here… is it night-time? No…mid afternoon… ultrasound scan (they let both my friend and partner into that as well, which really helped)… back to sleep… night-time, moved room… wheeled down to surgery. At that point pure panic set in. Being wheeled to surgery at midnight is creepy… so creepy. Corridors empty, creepy lights, just being wheeled in a bed. My head going ‘there’s no way out of this.’ I felt trapped. I felt so trapped I couldn’t breathe. I tried convincing myself I was okay and didn’t need surgery, but the intense pain in my abdomen told me otherwise. I needed this surgery, it would be dangerous not to have it. They’d read me all the potential risks then asked me to sign to say I okay with it. I realise this is how fully informed consent works. But I kinda wish I hadn’t been told the risks. I kinda wished I’d remained drugged to oblivion and had no idea what was coming. I hate signing to say ‘yes do whatever you need to do to my body whilst I’m out cold.’ There’s something intensely triggery and frightening about doing that.

The staff were great though – I was shaking violently in prep room and when they checked my heart rate, the machine went nuts. They looked briefly puzzled as to look at I was apparently very calm (I was forbidding myself to cry), but on realising I was in total terror, they moved around so I couldn’t see male doctor. Female doctor kept speaking to me gently until I was calmer, and gently brought mask up to my face whilst male doctor fiddled with my hand. I was frightened. These people were strangers and I was about to hand over my body. I’m just expected to trust them, simply because of their job title. And then I was out, I don’t even remember the mask actually being put on.

I woke up several hours later…5.30am… back in my room. (I’d come to for about 2 seconds when they moved me, but actually didn’t wake up properly until 5.30). I felt confused, and initially panicked at feeling drugged and sore. It also was my dad’s birthday. I had woken up on my dad’s birthday, out of it and with an abdomen that felt like I’d been badly punched. I panicked, but was too drugged to panic properly. I just lay there having a minor freak out, but not being able to hear the hospital noises helped. After a few minutes my memory returned; I had had an operation. Oh yeah. I was suddenly wide awake. Anaesthesia hangover completely vanished. I needed to do a body check. I needed to reassure myself that my body was still mine and hadn’t been harmed more than was necessary. I now had an extra cannula in my hand, which was attached to a drip. I lifted up my gown – my pants had been removed. They had warned me this might happen but it still scared me. I had three incisions; just below my bellybutton, on my left abdomen, and just under my bikini line. They had superglued my wounds together. I was hooked to a drip without any idea what was in it, had had my pants removed, and a very painful operated on abdomen. Rationally, I knew this was all okay. PTSD doesn’t really work like that though. I felt incredibly vulnerable and frightened, and very sore.

I also started crashing straightaway. I wanted pain relief but not actually so much for the pain, but more because the terror was making me feel sick and I wanted out. I wanted to be knocked out again so I could stop being scared. I felt disgusted by my body, absolutely disgusted by it. I guess that’s a past safe response – lose agency of the body, then be disgusted by it so I don’t panic anymore. It worked. I didn’t care anymore that my body had been at the hands of strangers and was in pain. I blamed my body. I was sickened by it and wanted the world to go black. Somewhere in the back of my head, I also thought I need to get out of here… but I also knew this wasn’t possible. So I planned to sleep until it was. A nurse came in and I asked for pain relief. I slipped into drug unconsciousness soon after and got a few hours fear-free sleep.

I then did everything possible to prove I was ‘okay’ and could go home – walking to the toilet, getting a shower, smiling everytime someone saw me. Inside I was mess. I was also now in proper pain. But I wanted home. I wanted to feel safe again. I also couldn’t stop feeling disgusted and let down by my body. Less than 24 hours after surgery, they let me home. My housemate wheelchaired me to the car, and I spent the journey trying very hard not to throw up. I’ve slept pretty much non-stop since then. Some of the sleep is recovery, a lot of the sleep is trying to pretend the world doesn’t exist. Some bit of me knows this is silly, that it was just a common operation, and in any case will help me…. but for now, all I can feel is pain and disgust, and the after-effects of losing all agency of my body somehow (despite signing consent form, but you know what I mean). When you’ve been sexually abused…surgery is just extremely frightening and I guess it’ll take a bit of time for me to feel myself again, and be able to accept my body again.

Hey ho. Tearful. But I’ll be okay.

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3 thoughts on “Childhood sexual abuse…and surgery as an adult.

    • I wanted to add, that I too am terrified of having others near my body, that includes dental or medical. You are brave to have endured what you went you through, and so stoically. I hope you appreciate your courage. You don’t deserve disgust, you deserve a purple heart for survivors.

  1. I am so glad you made it through as well as you did.

    Appendicitis is my secret, paranoid fear here at every unexplained abdominal pain. πŸ™‚ I’m pretty sure death is a real possibility should that happen. The upside for me is I know our two doctors pretty well. The downside is I know them well enough to know the younger and more knowledgeable one failed medical school 6 times before finally passing. πŸ™‚ So I am also glad you got good care.

    Take care through your recovery.

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