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When Having a Trauma-Informed Doctor Is a Matter of Life and Death

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. If you need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

A letter to the doctor who almost killed me:

There I sat, in a small room, and in walked you, the doctor. I’d shown up to the ER because I was having a mental health crisis.

• What is PTSD?

When I think of our interaction, I have a visceral memory of you shouting my name at me from two feet away. You were unimpressed that I didn’t answer a question immediately, painfully unaware that I was frozen in a trauma response. You had no idea that I felt as though the room was getting smaller, and that I was trying to decide if I would be able to get past the door unharmed.

I must admit I don’t recall that much about you as a person. Unsurprisingly, you were the typical middle-aged, white, male physician. What I do remember is that within a few minutes of our interaction, you were irritated with me for utilizing precious ER resources for something so silly as stress, a word you decided on.

Yeah, I guess you could say that I was stressed. But to be more precise, I had been wading my way through months of severe depression.

If you had just shown me a little more patience and allowed me time to speak you would have heard how hard things had been. I’d have told you that it was currently part of my daily routine to contemplate methods of killing myself. That this wasn’t an entirely new phenomenon in my life, but it was at the worst it’s ever been.

If you’d spoken with kindness, I probably would have said that earlier on this same day, I prematurely left work in tears.  Or that when I drove myself home I saw visions of myself ending it as though I were in a movie. You never gave me a chance to say that after sitting at home weeping for an hour, I decided I had to make a choice, live or die. You didn’t get to hear that I chose life. And because of that choice, I did the only thing I could think to do: throw some stuff in a backpack and walk over to the ER.

So perhaps now you can understand why it hurt me so much that after sitting in the waiting room for eight hours, you were cavalierly ready to send me home after speaking with me for less than three minutes — not to mention the shouting.

Thankfully, I did eventually coax myself out of my freeze response and flatly refused to leave. I was honestly surprised that you relented and allowed me access to the on-call psychiatrist.

After that, I never saw you again and you likely don’t know what ever happened to me. So allow me to enlighten you.

I was admitted.

Yep, I went on to spend three weeks in the psychiatric unit, getting my meds majorly overhauled. Turns out I was worthy of care, and indeed with support my mental health drastically improved. In six months, I was told that I have something that’s called complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and once I learned that I haven’t stopped talking about it since.

I also want you to know that now when I look back, I view the way you treated me as a turning point for me and my relationship with health care providers. So I guess I can thank you for that. It was after our unacceptable encounter that I realized that deference could endanger my survival and that it was not wise to automatically assume medical folks and I were on the same team. Regardless of one’s degree, my trust must be earned.

I think it’s also important for you to know that I didn’t let you jade me either. I’ve since had many wonderfully trauma-informed folks in my life, people who understand things like nervous system activation, trauma responses, and how to be kind in moments of heightened emotions. Practitioners have walked alongside me as partners as we’ve navigated appointments and triggers, often in ways that have been healing for me to experience.

And look, I understand that it’s not always a picnic to work in the ER. I can imagine that perhaps you had a bad day, or that the patient prior to me was rude. Maybe you saw me, someone who wasn’t quickly answering your questions, as a person trying to be deceptive. It could be I reminded you of someone or you have experienced trauma yourself. I really can’t know what was going on for you, but to be clear it was never my job to try and figure that out.

Here’s what I do know: you could have killed me.

Or at least you would have played a starring role.

And yes, I guess I’m still a bit angry with you, but more than anything I’d like to know that since our encounter, you’ve had additional training in what it means to be trauma-informed. That you’ve had the opportunity to put those skills into practice and have learned from old mistakes.

Lastly, I hope that, If our paths ever cross again, I will gain new memories of a doctor that treated me with dignity and respect.


If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram.

Originally published: February 28, 2023
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