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Trauma and physical illness

Contains Descriptions Of :

  • Difficult feelings and thoughts resulting from a traumatic experience.

  • Physical illness, hospitals and medical terminology.

My name is Lindy and this is my story about the trauma I experienced as a consequence of contracting a critical case of swine flu in 2009.

11 years ago, I was a lively 26 year old who was independent, motivated and enjoying a holiday abroad with friends. Little did I know that my life was about to change dramatically. In the blink of an eye I went from lying on the beach to lying in a hospital bed in a medically induced coma which lasted over 12 weeks and resulted in over 6 months in hospital.

I found the long stay in hospital extremely hard to cope with; Every day there were strangers moving me, washing me, taking my vitals, observations, and bloods. There were tubes, lines, drains and a ventilator attached to my body. All aspects of my day were dictated to me and I didn’t sleep or eat well. My care did not go smoothly, and I lost trust in the healthcare professionals trying to help me. I longed for the outdoors, fresh air, and my normal life; it began to feel more like torture than care. The weight and muscle mass I had lost was dramatic, my hair was cut short because it had become matted and my body was scarred from numerous procedures. In a very short space of time I’d lost my whole personal identity.

When finally released from hospital I went into the care of my family and the district nurses with a long road to recovery in front of me. Although I was extremely relieved to be home, I was still very poorly and completely incapable of looking after myself. Flashbacks of my hospital stay would plague me and the worst moments would replay in loops in my mind. I was home but unable to suppress the thoughts which made me feel like I was still there. Any reminder of my experience would trigger a continuous loop of horrible memories. There were also extremely vivid dreams where I would be vulnerable or incapacitated. Even as I slept, I could get no escape. I became fatigued and withdrawn. Texts and phone calls would go unanswered and I would cancel plans and visits at the last moment which lead to the breakdown of many relationships. I was fortunate to have a safe, calm place to recuperate and these symptoms eased over time.

"Flashbacks of my hospital stay would plague me and the worst moments would replay in loops through my mind."

I tried to remain outwardly positive and upbeat throughout this and for the most part I kept the internal struggles to myself.  My illness had been distressing and difficult enough for the people closest to me and I did not want to burden my family and friends further. Looking back, I can see that in my darkest hour, when I should have been reaching out for help and support, I was instead putting others first and trying to keep them happy.

After 6 months at home my rehabilitation was cut short when due to complications, my left lung had to be removed. This compromised my breathing even further and the little progress I had made was wiped out. I’d developed a deep hate and fear for the hospital and the familiar smells and sounds brought all the emotions and memories flooding back. It was all too much and I finally broke. I had endured 12 months of hell and I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I cried for days after my lung was removed and although I was deeply sad, in many ways, it felt good. I had held on to the pain of everything for too long and it was finally time to release it. I grieved for the old me, for my old life and the realisation that I was permanently changed. This was the first step in accepting that I would never be the same person again and that was ok. Doctors voiced concerns over my mood and recommended medication. No other mental or emotional help was offered and this made me feel as if I had to hide my emotions and put on a “brave face”. In not facing up to my suffering at that time and continuing to bury my true feelings, I closed myself off and became extremely detached. I no longer felt strong emotions or empathy. I lost the connection between mind and body and it took years to get that awareness back.

After some time, I was ready to move back into my own flat. Now living alone I noticed how the experience had impacted my thoughts and behaviour. I found I was incredibly jumpy; any little noise or movement would give me a massive fright and it would take me a few minutes to compose myself. Odd, intrusive thoughts of terrible things happening to me would invade my mind, and no matter how often I told myself they were ridiculous I could not quell the feelings of fear and paranoia they induced. I was extremely hard on myself and would engage in negative and cruel self-talk. I’m saddened by how harshly I judged myself then, I wish I had been able to give myself the patience, love, and kindness I needed and deserved.

"I’m saddened by how harshly I judged myself then, I wish I had been able to give myself the patience, love, and kindness I needed and deserved"

Social anxiety was now a massive obstacle for me, something which had never been an issue before. I had been mostly indoors and recovering for over two years at this point. My physical body was weak and walking and standing for long periods of time was difficult. I would worry about where I was going, and I’d try to plan for every eventuality. The stress and anxiety of this was exhausting and took all the fun out of every outing. I had lost so much confidence; I was a shell of my former self. I felt enormous pressure to be the old outgoing, bubbly, party loving person I was before, and I just did not have the energy for it. I would worry about people’s reactions to me and what they would say. I can remember being out and someone said to me “oh I thought you had died”. The anxiety of going places would build into physical symptoms and I would feel tired, breathless and nauseas. I developed a dry heave and had no idea it was related to anxiety until I saw it mocked on an American sitcom, seeing the funny side of it helped. With lots of perseverance, self-care and a great support network I was able to overcome this.

It was during the Corona Virus outbreak and subsequent lockdown that some of the negative feelings and fears related to my traumatic experience began to resurface. This is what prompted me to look back over my trauma and the impact it had on my mental health. I was somewhat surprised that over 10 years later it could still negatively impact me.

In hindsight I can clearly see the emotional distress I went through and the negative impacts this had on me. For a long time however, I wasn’t aware that how I was feeling, and acting were related to the trauma I had suffered. When you are critically ill the focus is on lifesaving treatment and physical rehabilitation, everything else takes a back seat. It is difficult to distinguish between your physical illness and its symptoms and the emotional trauma and the symptoms related to that. They are both intertwined and, in my opinion, should be treated together.

To an outsider, leaving hospital might signal the all clear and a full recovery but in most cases, it is just the beginning of the healing journey. Recovery after hospital can be challenging and sometimes worse than the primary illness itself. In my experience there appears to be little awareness from both medical professionals and the public about how a physical illness can cause trauma and distress and very few people seem to actually seek help for this. I find myself wondering what trauma the recent survivors of Corona virus have suffered and what support, if any, they will receive. This is what prompted me to write this blog and to let people who may be going through the same thing know that they are not alone and things can and will get better.

"I have spent many years processing what happened to me and this will be ongoing. Enduring this hardship, I have realised how strong, brave and resilient I am and have managed to turn this experience into a positive."

I have spent many years processing what happened to me and this will be ongoing. Enduring this hardship, I have realised how strong, brave, and resilient I am and have managed to turn the experience into a positive. I am now a successful yoga teacher who specialises in Chair Yoga. Standard yoga classes don’t always suit a student’s needs. I am passionate about teaching accessible yoga and helping everyone experience the benefits as it played a huge role in my own recovery. As I have only one lung I use supplementary oxygen to teach but still live an active and fulfilling life.

Getting to this stage of recovery was challenging but with the right support and tools, it is possible to heal. You may be living with trauma and think you are not strong enough to overcome the challenges you face; you may feel like you’ll never be happy or content. But I think it is possible to be even happier and more content than you have ever been before. During trauma recovery you grow as a person, you heal and learn to love yourself. Unbelievable as it may seem I have experienced so many positives from what happened to me and you can too.

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