The first time I sought therapy was shortly after my grandmother’s death–I was eighteen years old. It felt embarrassing and pathetic talking to a stranger about my feelings, but it was also relieving being able to unload on an objective outsider. I was a little amused by the fact that my experience in therapy was solely controlled by me. Think about it! You tell your therapist whatever you want her or him to know about you. You carve out your life story the way you want it to be. You create the villains and the heroes. You can be a damsel in distress or the root of all evil. It is your therapist’s job to make sense of it all and help you find the solutions to fix what is troubling you.
I wasn’t in the mood to play games, but I spent several weeks avoiding the obvious. In the beginning, I often chose to talk about guys, school and my social life–anything other than the devastating loss of my Granny. I liked my therapist just fine, she was one of those “cool mom” types. You know- the kind of mom who rides a fine line between being your friend and attempting to discipline you when necessary. She wants to be your friend, so she will often let you stay out past curfew, knows you might be drinking and doing God knows what else with your friends. But she keeps the door open for you to feel comfortable telling her about it all.
Whenever she would bring up my grandmother, I would quickly change the subject. She would recommend books and I would read them, but I never wanted to discuss the reality of what I was dealing with. It was easier to tread the surface of my life, rather than dive in the deep waters of how lonely, heartbroken and depressed I felt at the time. As time went on, I began to open up more and share how lost, scared and alone I felt in the world without my grandmother. My grandmother was my rock. She represented stability and unconditional love. She was my best friend and a mother figure to me all in one. After a few weeks, I looked forward to my weekly sessions with my therapist and the relief I felt afterwards. My therapist said that it would probably take years for me to fully process the loss. At the time, I thought it was weird that it would take so long. As I have learned, healing from trauma is an individual experience. Some people can recover very quickly, while others need several months, maybe years to process what they have been through. You may be familiar with the five stages of grief and they are not all that different from some of the symptoms of PTSD.
Denial and Isolation.
When my grandmother was first admitted to the hospital, I knew deep inside that she would not be coming back home. She didn’t want me to visit her. She didn’t want me to see her weak, incapacitated and with tubes in her arms. When she died, I often pretended that she was still in the hospital and that I just couldn’t visit her anymore. I knew my grandmother had died. I felt sadness. I spent many days and nights curled up in bed sobbing about it. I attended her opened casket funeral. I wrote a speech which I delivered to her church congregation like a robot, while her body lay on display beneath the podium I was standing on. I still remember how awful the bubble gum pink lipstick they put on her looked. It was terrible with her complexion. Her funeral was on June 29, 1996. She was buried in North Carolina in the graveyard of her family church, next to her mother. I remember standing outside on that hot June day with several members of my family but I felt completely alone. As I watched her coffin being lowered into the ground, I swore I could hear her voice calling out to me from beyond the grave with her southern accent.
Seriously? Are you going to let me be buried with this God-awful hot pink lipstick on? I look like a damn hooker!
To this day, I still regret not saying something about it. At the time I was frozen in disbelief that I would never see her again.
I was eighteen years old and the most important person in my life had just died of cancer. I was extremely angry. To some degree I am still angry about it. I feel robbed. I’m sometimes angry at those of you who take your older loved ones for granted. You are lucky. I’m jealous of you too. Many of you had or have parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents that have lived long enough to see all of your successes and how you overcame your failures. My grandmother was in her mid-fifties when she died. I always thought she would live forever.
My grandmother died of liver cancer. The cancer started somewhere else in her body, but by the time it was discovered there was a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her liver. There was no amount of begging, pleading or bargaining that I could do to attempt to save her life. I wanted to postpone the inevitable, but unfortunately, we don’t get to negotiate in these circumstances. I kept thinking maybe if I had pushed her to go to a doctor when she began complaining about stomach pains a year earlier, they would have caught the cancer sooner. What if I had paid more attention to her symptoms and not been so caught up in the excitement of my senior year in high school? Every time I brought up going to the doctor, she reassured me that she was ok.
I was depressed thinking about the life I had lost and thinking about the life my grandmother would miss out on. These feelings came back strongly after my surgery. Of course, I was happy I survived and would be blessed to see Miss J grow up, but I often felt sad thinking about how close my daughter came to having a life without me.
I had a hard time accepting the finality of my grandmother’s death. But just like my therapist said, about three years afterwards it sunk in. I hated saying it out loud. My grandmother died. As I write this, I am giggling to myself, recalling a brief period of time that I would actually tell people that she went on vacation. Just like my grandmother’s death, I had a hard time accepting that I had PTSD. When I accepted my diagnosis and made the commitment to do the work to recover from the trauma I suffered after giving birth, the healing process truly began.
Now, here I was thirteen years later and the thought of sitting on a therapists couch and discussing the surgery was not appealing to me. I was thirty-two years old. I knew I could benefit from talking about my feelings, but I was busy. I just didn’t know when I could find the time and truthfully, I was terrified to leave Miss J alone for one minute. I hadn’t had a good nights sleep in weeks, partly due to the demands of being a new mom and partly being terrified that I would wake up in a pool of my own blood, hemorrhaging again.
I spent several days looking at the list of therapists Dr. Chinn had given me. I Googled the name of the woman with the star next to her name, Dr. Jones*. She seemed to have all the right credentials: Ivy League education, several years of experience and she specialized in women’s mental health, particularly post-partum issues. Five weeks after Miss J was born, I made the phone call and scheduled a consultation. I couldn’t run away from it any longer. I was not sleeping. I replayed the hemorrhaging and Dr. B “massaging” my uterus over and over again. The fear of leaving Miss J a motherless child and Bobby a widower. Being conscious for the three hour surgery, not knowing what the outcome would be. The feeling of being robbed of the first moments of my daughter’s life-not being able to hold my own child after twenty-seven hours of labor.
As I spoke to Dr. Jones on the phone, describing to her the events that happened after Miss J’s birth, I was transported back to being the embarrassed, sad and angry eighteen year old that I had been all those years ago after my grandmother died. I cried heavily into the phone, barely able to catch my breath as I outlined the course of the week I spent in the hospital in graphic detail.
I scheduled an appointment and collapsed on my couch. I had been bottling up so many of my feelings inside. The brief release of it all during the phone call with Dr. Jones gave me a small ray of hope that I would benefit once again from sitting on the couch of stranger, telling her the most intimate and personal details of my life.
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.
The five stages of grief was cited from here.