I recently attended a training conference for work that was primarily centered around trauma-informed care, and how to most efficiently care for trauma victims. The training was absolutely superb. I walked away with new information and a genuine heart to serve future trauma victims that I will certainly encounter in my rather unusual line of work.
The guest speaker was a renowned psychologist and professor who proved to be equally informative, intellectual and compassionate. At the end of this incredible weekend, I felt hopeful and confident that one day we will live in a world where most human beings will have a better understanding of trauma and how to care for those who have experienced these really ugly and unfortunate situations. (God-willing, of course!)
This man's heart to serve and deep desire to effectively care for trauma victims was especially meaningful to me for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, I think it is important to acknowledge that I was a child subjected to the prolonged effects of severe mental illnesses from a very young age. My mother experienced many different types of abuse in her childhood and all throughout the formative years of her youth; which lead to her unhealthy coping mechanisms as an adult, and inevitably her numerous (mental and physical) diagnoses.
As a child I witnessed years of my mother's mental and emotional torment caused by the severe trauma she experienced and her lack of resources to ever work through the abuse properly. To make an extremely long and complicated story as short as possible, I think it goes without saying that each member of my immediate family has been through many years of therapy. Truth be told, we will probably always be in this therapeutic process, as it helps each of us to cope with my mother's illness' in a healthy way and to simultaneously work through our own subsequent issues.
We have experienced amazing therapists and absolutely dreadful ones, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists and various other medical professionals in the mix. I wish I could say that her journey was filled with positive experiences in this field, but that was not the case at all. It was astounding to me the lack of knowledge and/or compassion some medical professionals exhibited in situations with my mother. There were always "good" doctors out there, but very rarely did they seem to actually care. This was obviously frustrating to me, but I could live with it because I wasn't the one dealing with these demons firsthand. For my mother, it was devastating coming to the realization that nobody in this world could fathom her abuse, not even the "good" doctors who either couldn't or wouldn't care for her efficiently.
This frustrating situation I witnessed with my mother "came to life" for me in an unfortunate way after I was sexually assaulted by a close friend in 2015. See: What I Wish I Could Tell My Rapist for further details on my assault.
*Potential triggers ahead.*
I still remember my first pelvic exam after being raped. It wasn't for a rape kit or anything like that. I am one of many women out there who decided against telling my story to local authorities and/or pressing charges. I just wanted to move on with my life and never ever think about those horrific images in my head ever again. If only it were that simple, right?
My first pelvic exam (post rape) was relatively painless. I hadn't yet come to terms with the reality of "being raped" yet, so I guess you could say that my denial kept me emotionally "safe" from any potential triggers. I tried tirelessly to convince myself that it was a minor mishap between friends, because for some reason I believed this would be the easiest way to move on with my life.
The real problem began after I came to terms with my rape and began therapy to overcome and move past my assault (physically, mentally and emotionally). It took me a little over eight months to even say the words aloud or give the situation more than a moment's thought. A couple months after this harsh realization I went to a local clinic for UTI symptoms in the hopes that they would sign off on a prescription no questions asked. Unfortunately, things didn't unfold how I had originally planned.
Without hesitation, I was asked to strip down (on the bottom half) and to assume the dreadful position we all loathe in those undesirable stirrups. I didn't think much of it. My rape wasn't even on my mind at the time. I had multiple pelvic exams over the course of my teen years (due to my battle with endometriosis) so this was nothing new for me. I got in position and reluctantly braced for impact, but something was different this time.
It was like my body shut down before my brain did. The doctor persisted and forcefully kept attempting to insert the needed tools, but my body remained tense and unwavering. Of course, both the nurse and the doctor urged me to relax, but no matter what they said, my body had gone into defense mode.
While the doctor attempted to be kind at first, her facade quickly faded when things weren't going as smoothly as anticipated. She began to raise her voice and make threatening remarks like "if you don't loosen up, you'll rip and then we will have to transport you to the ER... you don't want that, do you?!"
I was appalled. I thought doctors were supposed to ooze empathy and understanding. Isn't that like a good fifty percent of their profession? I kept tightening up, and she only became more abrasive with both her words and her forceful actions.
After maybe ten minutes of this medical torture (for lack of a better word), I asked them if I could have a moment to collect my thoughts and maybe relax a little on my own. They complied and exited the room promptly.
The moment that door shut I was overcome with emotions that I couldn't even fully comprehend. I burst into tears and immediately broke into a full blown panic attack, feeling like I was unable to breathe, as if there was a huge weight just sitting on my diaphragm. Within a few minutes, it hit me, I was triggered in some kind of weird PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) episode because of my rape.
I had seen my mother do this multiple times growing up, but watching it from the outside and experiencing it firsthand are two very different things. I wanted to die. I could not bear to even begin to process my rape and all of the insane emotions that went along with it.
I left the doctor's office that day in a complete daze. I had accepted that my rape happened, but apparently, I hadn't made enough efforts to process through it. That was my bad, and I will take responsibility for going in blind to a pelvic exam and expecting it to be a piece of cake. However, even though I should have known better and realized that I wasn't ready for the exam, that still doesn't excuse the deplorable actions on behalf of that doctor.
When I left the clinic that day, I attempted to explain (through my uncontrollable sobs and heavy breathing) that I had been raped, and that the exam had retraumatized me, causing me to flashback to that emotional time in my life. The doctor apologized with a straight face and said she "had no idea". She suggested that I come back another day when I was "feeling better". This was the full extent of our conversation. That was baffling to me.
In a world where one out of every four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, it seems alarming to me that a medical professional giving a pelvic exam wouldn't see the obvious signs of PTSD or even appear to have compassion for the situation. She seemed so emotionless and detached. It was like my PTSD episode was just a speedbump that imposed on her perfect little work day. I felt so abandoned and degraded, and like almost every victim out there, I found numerous ways to blame myself at that time instead of reporting her actions or drawing attention to her malpractice and/or ignorance.
It's even more alarming that I have experienced similar reactions from multiple other medical professionals even after this prominent appointment. I do everything "right". I only see female doctors/ultrasound technicians etc. I always inform the necessary parties of my sexual assault and how my PTSD sometimes pops up in pelvic exams or otherwise intrusive appointments.
In addition to that, my husband has accompanied me to every (potentially triggering) doctor's appointment since that dreadful day. And yet, even when I cover all of the bases and do everything in my power to avoid being retraumatized, I still find female professionals who lack in empathy and understanding. FEMALES who should know and who should care, because these traumatic events can happen to literally any woman at any time in her life. You would think there would be some automatic compassion built in, but I have found that is rarely the case.
Obviously over time I have come across a few medical professionals who have shown genuine empathy and an efficient medical understanding of trauma (like the psychologist who spoke at my aforementioned training conference), but unfortunately, those individuals are in the minority. In my experience, there are more "professionals" out there who either don't know or don't care to know about PTSD and sexual trauma than there are good and decent professionals who show legitimate interest.
I understand that sexual trauma (and trauma in general) is vastly complex and extremely difficult to fully grasp. I do not expect every Tom, Dick or Harry I come across to have an intellectual understanding of trauma, but I do expect doctors to understand and research and above all, empathize (if nothing else). There is no excuse for medical professionals to skip out on PTSD training when an estimated 24.4 million people suffer from this disorder in the U.S. alone.
PTSD affects a wide variety of individuals both young and old. War veterans, first responders, rape victims, prostitutes, victims of childhood abuse or neglect, mental health patients and many, many more have all fallen victim to this life-changing disorder. Our society needs to change, but more than anything we need doctors and other medical professionals to grasp this very difficult concept and be an exemplary example in our ignorant and broken world. Our medical professionals should be setting the example and leading the way towards more widespread understanding and treatment options for this often debilitating condition.
If you or someone you know suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, break the cycle and get the help that you deserve.
Veterans Crisis Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Rape, Abuse and Incest Network 1-800-656-4673
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line Text CONNECT to 741741