“Please turn to page 114 in your books. Tell me in your own words what the diagram is showing.”
“I don’t got my book. My dog peed on it, so my mother tried to wash it…” The class breaks up with loud guffaws.
The oncoming car speeds up as I cross over the centerline to make a left turn. I hear metal crunching, glass shattering, and feel the seat belt tighten as I am thrown forward and back.
Guests will arrive in five minutes. I open the oven and smoke pours out.
The anesthesiologist starts to place a green mask over my mouth and nose.
Are these scenarios horrors or hassles? If you have anxiety, each one may seem to be a horror. Which of the above scenes is truly dangerous? Everyone experiences some anxiety as a part of normal life. People with an anxiety disorder are fearful and have persistent, excessive nervousness that can lead to intense dread and terror that gets in the way of everyday life. Sometimes anxiety may be related to childhood experiences.
My anxiety is related to the abuse I suffered as a child. I could never be completely safe or totally comfortable. Brains of abused children become hard-wired to be vigilant, anxious, and ready for danger. I have difficulty “seeing gray,” but instead can easily take any situation to one extreme or the other. For example, taking a wrong turn in the car can bring on the same panic as being lost in a forest. So, imagine my inner panic when the doctor said, “OK, time to get rid of that lump at the base of your thumb. Can you come to the surgery center Wednesday at 6:00 AM? We’ll see if we can do it with local anesthesia, but nothing by mouth after midnight, just in case.”
Those of us with child abuse in our history are excellent at not showing our feelings. My heart was pounding out of my chest. I felt my hands covered with cold sweat and my knees imperceptibly trembling. I tried to breathe normally as the doctor reviewed the procedure, explaining the details of what would happen during that half-hour on the operating table. His voice was steady, but it seemed far away and muffled in a tunnel.
“Will this all be written down for me?” I queried as he continued to talk. But for me, it appeared that only his mouth was moving. I wanted to run out of room and scream, ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve a cyst at the base of my thumb?’ But he was talking again. Finally, I remembered the perfect solution for dealing with fear and anxiety, the EMDR strategy I learned in therapy: alternately tapping thumb and forefinger together—first one hand and then the other, imperceptibly—so only I knew this was happening. In less than a minute I could listen intelligently. I also imagined putting my fear into a bottle and sealing the lid. I would look at this fear later. I thought about having been well-coached by many therapists and understood that I could handle this. I knew what to do. I could follow these instructions. I was making a good choice to have this procedure, so my thumb would work normally again. I had the best hand surgeon in Colorado. I would be safe. I could go to the surgery center and be lucid and calm at 6:00 AM on Wednesday. I knew how to manage my anxiety.
Wednesday morning arrived. Rich, my husband, by my side was my rock as always, my connection to safety, security, love, and wisdom. I filled out multitudes of forms—listed my previous surgeries, the diseases of first degree relatives, and all my current symptoms. The nurses provided a gown (for a person that weighs 600 pounds) that could wrap around me more than three times, attached a blood pressure cuff, placed an IV in the crease of my elbow, gave me oxygen tubing for my nose, scrubbed my hand with iodine, and reviewed my allergies. I felt safe, cared for, and just a bit apprehensive, as they modeled calm, cool, and collected demeanors. They were efficient and effective, just doing their jobs, which in turn gave me a feeling that I could do this too. I visualized my thumb being normal again; I was mindful of what I saw in the room: curtains, smiling nurses, Rich watching all the proceedings, a metal tray, a clipboard with paper in the nurse’s hands, the various tubing covering the blanket over me. I was mindful of what I heard, and mindful of the things I felt, the scratchy fabric, the uncomfortable IV in my arm, my feet in socks poking out from the blanket, Rich holding my hand.
Oh no! The IV for the numbing medicine didn’t go into my hand in the spot they wanted. The anesthesiologist said, “I’ll do it.” He picked another spot on my hand. Ouch! For a split second I felt trapped, helpless---no, no, no—don’t go there! ‘ Wait!’ I said to myself. ‘All this paraphernalia will help me—it is helping me. I am safe. I am safe.’
I was wheeled into the OR. “We want you to move over to this table from where you are.” I was covered with tubing, but struggled to the ironing-board-sized operating table. A giant light hung over me, and someone brought a warm blanket to stop my shivering from the cold.
“We’ll do a Bier block so just your arm will be numb,” The tourniquet tightened around my arm and burning pain from the local anesthetic moved up my arm just like they said it would. Suddenly I couldn’t feel my toes. Fear crept into every pore of my body. I felt heavy. My lips were numb. I was having trouble breathing. I told them all this. This couldn’t be right. I felt trapped, helpless. Could I just tear off all this stuff and run out of the room?
“The tourniquet is leaking the numbing medicine into your system.” No! No! I didn’t want to hear this. Something was wrong! Would I live through this?
Someone said, “You have two minutes.” For what? Maybe for the surgeon’s arrival? Until I die? No! No! All this was happening too fast.
“What’s happening?” I asked in a voice that couldn’t be mine--so calm and ordinary, while my brain fights to keep from exploding. A green mask was being placed over my nose and mouth.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Propofol with Versed,” and then it all went blank.
In the recovery room I awakened to a numb hand with a large dressing. “You did very well.” someone said, “The surgery was a success. Do you want to see your husband?”