Unremembered Memories

I don't remember the hospital visit which left the scar under my left eye. I was too young. I remember, at three, adult conversations about "best to have an anaesthetic." I remember being pinned down screaming under bright lights, and trying to avoid the white rag placed over my face.

I've always had vague memories of my mother's kindness as she explained about the hospital; I could feel the love. It took longer to remember my feelings of utter rage at my betrayal by my parents, and at my abandonment in that place.

Three years later I steadfastly refused to wake up when Dr. Joe and the anaesthetist came to visit the afternoon before my tonsils were to be removed. The next morning the anaesthetist explained he had come yesterday but I had been asleep, a polite lie to help me maintain my dignity. I knew he knew I had been pretending, and appreciated his kindness even then.

25 years later I began my Clinical Pastoral Education, a six week intensive chaplaincy course in which we were each assigned two wards to look after each day until mid-afternoon. Then we sat in classes of reflection and learning. I was assigned a general ward, and the intensive care unit, which with its humming machines seem to deliberately designed to maximise the inconvenience of my hearing loss. The temperature and humidity of the unit made me feel ill, and for the next three weeks I began to unravel to the point that I could not even enter Intensive Care.

It was then I began to remember my early hospital visits in a new way. As I stubbornly churned through my feelings on my own— you don't tell your supervisors these things until after you know what's going on, if you're an Aussie bloke— I slowly recovered my equilibrium and became able to re-enter the ICU for short periods.

I was delighted with my self-discovery, even a little bit proud of it, but College immediately sent me off for six months intensive work with a psychiatrist. At the beginning of my first visit I explained why I was there and told him my self-diagnosis.

 "Do you ever think you will be comfortable in a hospital?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"So what will you do about this?"
"I'll never take on a position as a hospital chaplain."
"Good." he replied. "Now what will we talk about for the next six months?"

My early hospital adventures have some bizarre effects. As a friend and parishioner lay dying in his last hours at home, we went to visit. Sad as it was, I then went on to do the other work I had to do for the day. If you have a baby and I go to visit you in hospital, that's the end of work for the day. I'll sit with you if you're dying in the hospital, too, but I'll need to sleep a day to recover. It's not like there is some great trauma going on, hospitals just drag the energy out of me.

So here we are, 50 years after those first hospital visits, and next Tuesday I'm off to hospital. I had one of those medical incidents which, when related to your doctor, grab his attention so quickly you can almost hear his neck click as he straightens up! Within 20 minutes I was booked in with a specialist, had donated bodily fluids, had prescriptions for drugs, a sick leave certificate, and been given a list of instructions. By the time I left his office the appointment for the CT Scan was waiting at the front desk.

Blessedly it seems like it's all down to an infection, and the worst-case scenarios don't apply. All the scans are clear, as are the blood tests. But the specialist said he wants to do a precautionary visual examination, which involves the insertion of certain equipment that makes me truly grateful for the invention of the general anaesthetic.

Today I filled out the forms for the hospital. They want to know everything about me except which side of the bed I lie on. I felt quite tired at the end of this, and decided on an extra coffee, but then changed that to a lie down. And I slept solidly.

Hospitals still wipe me out. I will be exhausted, brain scatty, and periodically distressed until I leave the day surgery, and expect I will then sleep for most of the next week. It no longer humiliates me, although I am surprised that the mere paperwork can flatten me so effectively.

But as a pastor, it is a timely reminder of how much our unremembered memories drive our present responses. After all the work we might do on them, they persist despite us. There seems to be no predicting what it is in life that will get at us later. By any measure my childhood trauma was minor. Other folk spend years of their childhood in hospital, yet hospitals don't bother them.

It's the same with all kinds of trauma, and abuse. We don't get to say how much should affect a person or in what way it will affect them. Our task is to listen and to comfort, and never to judge or belittle. Trauma is not something we control, and it can be devastating.

Andrw Prior


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