Reflecting on the Past Taught Me Lessons About Mental Health

A columnist realizes he needs time to heal after traumatic medical events

Dunstan Nicol-Wilson avatar

by Dunstan Nicol-Wilson |

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The mind is a powerful tool. One phenomenon I’ve become aware of in the last year is speech impairment after a sickle cell crisis. It’s as though the volume of my voice has been turned down and no one can hear me. I’m usually soft-spoken, but during this phenomenon, the world can’t hear me, even when I feel like I’m shouting.

As a result, I default to having conversations in my head and become a shell of myself. In my journey to improve how I communicate during a crisis, I decided to seek help. I took this problem to therapy to understand why this happens and hopefully solve the issue.

However, therapy doesn’t always address issues directly, and I’ll be honest: I was a little frustrated at the start of these sessions. I wanted a surefire way to make sure I’d be able to communicate after a crisis. Instead, we began with an exploratory exercise where I spoke about some of my hospitalizations.

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Initially, this was easy because I speak about these experiences regularly in my advocacy. Usually, I’d gloss over some of the horrific treatment I’ve received. I tend to reflect on these events without attaching any of the emotions I experienced at the time. However, my therapist asked me to pause and conceptualize these emotions in retelling the stories.

I recalled the time I repeatedly refused a nasogastric tube, but providers forced it down my nose and into my throat. Another time, I kept pointing at the vein my regular doctors use to draw blood. Instead, hospital staff repeatedly poked and prodded elsewhere, as my veins were “difficult” to find. I was once even given a foot cast for a crisis in my foot instead of pain medication.

Pausing over the little details, I began to feel a resurgence of some of the emotions I’d felt. Encouraged to reflect, I could remember the sadness, the isolation, and the mental shutdown. My mind had to go to a different place as a defense mechanism because my body was uninhabitable with the pain.

As I described these experiences, I could see my therapist was visibly taken aback by them. They said it must have been highly traumatic to be in such a vulnerable position and not be heard. The hospital designed to make me feel better was causing even more pain and trauma.

Even though each hospitalization was different, isolation and not being heard were common themes. In response, my mind’s defense mechanism was to withdraw and retreat — almost like muscle memory when the toll of a crisis takes over. I go to a safe space in my mind because I need to escape from reality.

With further exploratory work, I realized that my inability to communicate after a crisis was because my mind was still recovering. Even though my body has healed, it doesn’t mean my mind has. It takes time for my mind to return to my body, to inhabit what was once a safe space.

Initially, this exercise, which I was critical of, allowed me to connect the dots. Then I realized that I detach myself from these experiences when speaking about them. In my advocacy, where I talk about these experiences, it’s essential to do so. I can’t constantly live in those moments because of the emotions they evoke.

However, having a safe space to explore these feelings initiated further healing. My lack of volume after a crisis indicates that I’m still recovering. My mind hasn’t entirely left the safe space that it retreats to in traumatic events. With this understanding, I can give myself the time I need to recover. Not just physical recovery, but also mental healing.

Note: Sickle Cell Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell disease.


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