Healing From Medical Trauma Is a Challenging Process

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by Lara Govendo |

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Healing isn’t linear. The therapist in me wants to dive into the deep end, get my hands dirty, and gut out all the wounds that have compounded over my 35 years of life. The traumas I’ve experienced due to cystic fibrosis and a double-lung transplant have left monstrous divots that I can’t heal overnight, no matter how much I’d like to. It’s a process.

My body remembers everything it has been through physically and emotionally. The weight of my trauma is heaviest in March, the anniversary of my near-death experience in 2017. It’s like clockwork once the month arrives: I’m more tired, my headaches are worse than usual, my chest and breathing feel different. I think I’m getting sick, but then a lightbulb goes off in my head. It’s that time of year again.

This year, I’m learning more about the effects of trauma on brain function. Trauma has long been ingrained in my neural pathways, so now I must intentionally retrain my brain to feel safe in my body for the first time.

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As I began unpacking my trauma, I realized there are more layers than I initially thought. It not only stems from isolated medical events like my transplant, but also from living with a chronic illness and constantly adjusting to changes in my health that affected every part of my life. Only recently have I started to understand the residual effects.

I’ve been stuck in a hypervigilant state for years now, which means I’ve also been in self-protection mode. This affects my health, my relationships, my ability to dream about the future, and how I relate to the world.

It’s hard work training my mind and body to believe that I’m OK now. Being stuck in survival mode for so long made it difficult to develop techniques for alerting my brain that I’m safe. But there aren’t any imminent threats to my life like there were before my transplant. There’s no need to run, hide, or fight anymore.

The more I learn about post-traumatic stress disorder, the more I understand its complexities. Healing won’t happen on my timeline, and it won’t be clean or pretty. I can’t predict when past trauma will bubble to the surface.

Healing is messy, painful, and wonderful, all at the same time. I’ve realized that I can’t get to the other side of healing without wading through the pain and discomfort. This involves a lot of ugly crying during prayer, consciously releasing trauma, and signaling safety to my brain so I can relax.

It’s important but heavy work. Processing trauma takes a level of bravery I wasn’t prepared for, but my newfound safety is incredibly rewarding.

As I dive deeper into the painful memories that have plagued me, I understand myself better. I’m unlearning beliefs regarding what health looks like for me, without external opinions or comparisons. Changing my beliefs is hard, but creating new neural pathways is necessary. I’m learning to love my body and appreciate how it functions, even though it will never be perfect.

Perhaps the greatest measures of healing are self-acceptance and self-love. Giving myself the space and tools to heal has granted me the grace I longed for but never gave myself permission to receive. Celebrating all the baby steps of progress is essential, as it builds momentum and motivation to keep going. These victories demonstrate how self-love can help transform me on every level.

My life isn’t on the line like it was five years ago when I was fighting for my life. I am learning new ways to relate to the world because now I know what safety feels like. My future is full of hope, not fear.

My new lungs give me a far greater capacity for stable health. I take a deep breath, drink in the gift of a new day, and smile. I have what it takes to heal emotionally and physically, and I’m going at my own pace. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today 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 Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Bri Dragunoff avatar

Bri Dragunoff

I feel this so deeply. Different experiences but same trauma. May is my month of somber emotions. My doctors praise my routine and commitment to my treatments but I only am like this because I am desperately clinging to the life I have left and not go back to the place I was in the past. My fears and nightmares sneak out when I start to feel sick and the hospital triggers me. I can't go back without my PTSD coming to the surface and haunting my nights and crippling my days. Therapy was great but it will never be a cure just a band-aid until the next exacerbation.

Paul & Debbie avatar

Paul & Debbie

Your description of personal suffering is very profound and impressive, Lara, very well written and recognizable for many patients no doubt.
Yet, I must admit, being 58 with cf and 30% FEV1, my own experience is nothing like yours. I had my part of happenings that could have caused long lasting traumas as well, both from disease and other disasters, but it didn't stick to me at all. Trauma and stress need not be ingraved in the brain, if only there is no person in the first place to hang on to them and identify. If there is sense of "I, me, mine" in the brain (this is the function of the brain called "mind"), there will not be the idea or feeling that everything that happened, happens to a "me". There is no duality between me, and what happens. They are one. The mind is an illusory construct of thoughts and feelings and memory. Indeed, if one takes this for whom one thinks one is, this content will go in the brain deeply and can be ingraved in the form of long lasting trauma. But this needs not happen at all if one sees through this illusion of the mind being separate.
In my case, I came to this insight very early in life when I found out that the story of the mind, being told to me by my parents and doctors, of "me" having cf, probably "having a short life expectancy" etc., didn't come true in reality at all. I kept living longer and longer than predicted. So, in the end, this story, on which "I" (the mind) had based its entire empire, crashed completely when I was 39 years old and in its fall it took the entire sense of a personal "me" with it. This is called liberation (sometimes enlightenment, although I don't like that term because it has wrong connotations of mysticism, while I think it has a neurological foundation) and it happens to a lot of people, depending on circumstances that are not very well understood so far. After this, what happens doesn't leave a lasting impression in my brain at all anymore. This is however not distant or superficial, but a very intimate and happy, problem free way of experiencing reality as it is. And very spacious and complete, with an innate acceptance of all that is.
The problems you write about are mainly a matter of identification with the disease and with the personality. I wrote several Tales about this on our website, and talked about it in the Forum the previous two years. Any one who is interested in this different way of experiencing reality, which is free of traumatizing and suffering, can find it on https://www.parkinsjordaans.nl
I hope, Lara, my comment to your story will be approved, for I think reading about this might indeed be very helpful to many cf patients, although it may be far from your personal experience or professional expertise. Sometimes thinking outside the box is very liberating and freedom is all what I proclaim.


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