The following piece was written by Melissa Matheney, a student this past semester in my literature class at the College of Alameda. She is using writing as a tool of healing herself and others. I have learned so much from reading her words. She is an insightful writer who tells it straight. A very brave and compassionate person, she shares her story about trauma resulting from heart surgery at age eight to more deeply understand her own life and to help prevent the suffering of others.
It is difficult for me to differentiate the effects of trauma caused by heart surgery at 8 years old from the effects of trauma that previously occurred in my life. Because of these circumstances, I will discuss the known effects that were directly caused by heart surgery. I also believe it is of great importance to not only address the effects of trauma from heart surgery, but how they have come about and how medical professionals can unknowingly incite trauma with their words.
I only remember a few instances from this time period in my life, as I have avoided discussing or thinking about it for the last 14 years except at yearly doctor appointments. I will mention those moments that held the most significance to me, as I feel that most of the effects that have been placed on my life were derived from these few things.
One of them, possibly the most damaging, was the words uttered by my cardiologist the night I was frantically rushed to the hospital. He towered over me, stared directly into my eyes, while looking through me all at once while saying, “Had you not made it here tonight, you would have been dead by morning.” I was mortified. A switch had been turned off somewhere inside me as I heard his words. In that moment time stood still and I swallowed the most horrid dread I had ever felt in my life. I, at 8 years old, from this day forward, would always be teetering on the edge of death. Like a prisoner who just received news of a nearing lethal injection, I had been sentenced. I was rushed to the hospital to have emergency surgery.
Insomnia and anxiety became apparent immediately after I got home from surgery. Many nights I crept into my grandmother’s room sobbing uncontrollably at ungodly hours. I’d sit on the edge of her bed with my face buried in my hands asking if I was going to die tomorrow. She would always say, “I think we caught it in time.” The “it” being my heart problem; however, the word “think” blasted over every other thing she said. This word became one of the representations of the doubtfulness and unsure attitude that encompassed my entire life. Nothing was for certain, my destiny was interrupted, and “future” became a silly, painful, unthinkable word.
Unknowingly, through others words and the sequence of events surrounding surgery, I developed an outlook on life that would haunt me for many years—the idea that I couldn’t control my own life. As a few years passed, in accordance with this outlook, I became aware that though I could not control my own life, I could control and invoke my own death. By doing so, I would be back in control and I would kill myself before my health issues could have the opportunity. I was in charge. It was a race against time, I felt.
I began cutting myself up, putting cigarettes out on my arms, using drugs, and drinking heavily to black out so I could fall asleep and not deal with the pain of insomnia. I felt invincible and often tried to pick fights with strangers on the streets because I felt as though I couldn’t possibly be hurt any more than I already had. Through hurting myself I established a degree of power. If I hurt myself, I figured nothing else could. Through drinking and drugs my trauma and sadness resulting from surgery and the possibility of more to come later in life, turned into anger–an emotion I often mistook for strength. I tried to numb myself to the point where I became fearless to show others I was afraid of nothing when really, fear comprised every fiber of my being. I was in total denial. Every yearly appointment with my cardiologist during this period of time consisted of him asking me if I was “still carving my body like a Christmas ham and using my arms as ashtrays.” No longer did I respond. I believed that I completely separated having any emotion in regards to anything to do with my heart. I was damaged and waiting to die in my mind.
At 19, off of drugs, I was fortunate enough to work up the nerve to confront my cardiologist about how much his words had harmed me. He was shocked and tears began to stream down from his eyes at the thought of it. He had no idea the impact of what he said to me had lasted all these years. He allowed me to see him for yearly appointments until I was 22 (he was in the pediatrics department and this technically wasn’t allowed). Within those few years, I noticed a difference in his manner of practice and hope in my confronting him, some child down the line will avoid the hurt that I had to suffer through. If anyone has been traumatized by a medical professional and is in the right mind to confront them and has the opportunity to do so, please do to save further people from being harmed—one person can make a world of difference.
After getting clean from drugs, I have tried to pinpoint exactly why I began using and why I went down the harmful road I did. I believe it is rooted in trauma received from my health condition, surgery, and all that surrounded it. I think this is a common theme in people who have surgery and/or life-threatening conditions, especially in infancy or as young children. We feel as though our life and destiny has been altered by our condition or surgeries; therefore, we do everything in our power to establish some sort of control over the lives we feel that have been ripped away or violated. It is only human nature to do so. The unfortunate aspect of this is that often we go about it in the wrong way as I did with destroying myself.
Our duty as survivors is to recognize this suffering in others and help to guide them in a healthy direction of coping. The underlying cause of drug usage, alcoholism, self-destruction, etc. is often ignored and is related to trauma. If those who suffer are able to recognize this, healing can begin and more traumas can be avoided. We can all help one another. It is true that we are products of our pasts, but out pasts do not, under any circumstances, dictate who we have the ability to become within ourselves.
–Melissa Matheney was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her sister, reading, traveling, and volunteering with various needle exchanges to help active addicts live safer lifestyles.