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You Don’t Actually Owe Medical Staff Your Trauma Experience

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

A few years ago, I admitted myself to get some inpatient support for my mental health. If you aren’t aware, part of that process tends to involve multiple lengthy interviews, commonly undertook by several different staff of all sorts. They do what’s called a “psychosocial assessment,” which helps them understand your needs and possible diagnosis. Inevitably they get to a section of questions regarding if you have experienced abuse or trauma. That part of the interview is what I’m talking about today.

Returning to my particular inpatient experience, going through that type of assessment was indeed a part of what occurred. As someone who has experienced trauma, when that question came, I’d answer in the affirmative. Yet what I found was that once I did so, the questions kept on coming, asking for more detail. Truthfully I hated it, and while I didn’t know the word for it then, I felt retraumatized by their questions. On top of it all was that I didn’t think I had a choice (not a good feeling for anyone, and especially a trauma survivor) and so I’d answer. This often involved a lot of anguish and tears.

Now I do want to mention that, in the end, I did indeed get the overall help I needed. It’s healthy though to recognize that something can be helpful overall and point out areas that could use some improvement.

Later after discharge, I discussed it all with my therapist. During this conversation, she said something that surprised me.

“You don’t have to answer those type of questions … You can choose your response based on your level of comfort.”

Mind blown.

This information seems obvious to me now. At the time I truly didn’t realize I had the right to that autonomy.

A few years later, I was receiving inpatient support again but was armed with my newfound wisdom. The same scenario played out and I decided to test out what my therapist had suggested. After an affirmative response to said abuse question, the nurse asked for further details. So I went ahead and told her that I’d rather not talk about it.

Guess what happened? She said OK, and moved on. I repeated this process five or so more times during my stay, and lo and behold the results remained the same each time.

I learned I didn’t owe the staff my story, and I realized that information was not pertinent to my treatment. Whether or not I was prescribed an SSRI or SNRI was not dependent on the details of the traumas I’ve experienced.

It’s important to me to point out that this isn’t about being ashamed or in some way unable to talk about the things I’ve been through. Though even if it was, it would still be my prerogative to share as I feel comfortable.

This is about how it is unnecessary and potentially harmful to feel like you are required to share the difficult parts of your trauma, especially if it’s not pertinent to your medical treatment. It’s about how sharing those details over and over to strangers you’ll only speak to once can be painful and destabilizing. It’s about being assertive and advocating for your needs. It’s about realizing that you have the right to guide your treatment in the direction that is best for you.

Again, if your need involves giving full disclosures of the traumas you’ve experienced, of course do what’s right for you. The point is, it’s your choice!

If you relate to what I’ve shared today and think you may like to redirect some future conversations, here are some  examples of sentences you can use:

  • “I’d prefer not to discuss those details.”
  • “How is that information relevant to my treatment?”
  • “I’m willing to share certain aspects of the trauma I experienced, and I will let you know if I’m not comfortable with your questions.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about that right now; I may be open to sharing more later.”

Some weeks after that hospital stay, I was sitting in the office of my temporarily assigned outpatient psychiatrist, and yet again the same questions came. And I again tested my resolve to keep up my boundaries and responded that’d I’d rather not get into the specifics.

His reply was to ask me: “What would happen if you told me?”

I let him know it wasn’t about that. I responded that I had just met him and it was up to me as to how much I wanted to share. He respected my answer and asked a few more general questions around the topic that he felt he needed to know for my treatment. I answered and we moved on.

By the third time we met, I did choose to share with this doctor most of my story. I did so on my terms, and in a way that was comfortable for me. I felt proud of being able to advocate for myself, and was way less distressed by the experience.

Traumas and abuses often center around a loss of power and control. For myself, and many others, a part of healing can be to find ways to insert power and control back into your life. This can take on many shapes and forms for every individual.

I gained back some power and control when I realized I didn’t owe medical staff details about the traumas I’ve experienced. And I have to say, it’s a lesson that felt good to learn. It’s also an important lesson that is equally applicable to other folks in your life, such as friends, family, coworkers, teachers or any persons who could be the source of uncomfortable questions.

I can and do share my story with those I trust and feel comfortable with. In contrast to the past, I’m aware that it’s me who gets to direct these conversations, in any setting, including medical ones. This has been freeing and has significantly improved my treatment experiences. I hope this information can help you in the same way.

Have you ever felt like medical staff asks for too much detail regarding your trauma story? Have you ever felt retraumatized by these types of questions? Are you surprised to hear that you get to choose how much you share? What are some of the ways you’ve let staff know you aren’t comfortable sharing all information with them? Other thoughts?  Comment below.

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 as @mentalhealthyxe.

Photo by Pasha Chusovitin on Unsplash

Originally published: April 5, 2021
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