Overcoming Child Abuse

Reflections on recovery.

The Unexpected Gift of a Colonoscopy

How the kindness of my physician contributed to my healing.

I think it's safe to say that nobody looks forward to having a colonoscopy; I'm certainly no exception. In fact, my last one was scheduled in February and when I woke up the morning of prep day to a city paralyzed by a snow storm, I was ecstatic to receive a call from my doctor's office canceling the procedure. But ho, hum, it was rescheduled for March, and honestly, it wasn't bad at all. Today I received a healing gift from my colonoscopy, but in order for you to understand why, I'll need to give you more information, especially if you haven't read my memoir.

I'm a survivor of horrific child abuse at the hands of my father, who was a physician. I developed PTSD in my 40's, became hyper-vigilant, tormented by flashbacks, and extremely phobic of medical procedures, medication, and even of having a regular annual exam or having my blood pressure taken. Though I had been in therapy for 16 years -- a therapy that worked; that was enormously healing -- and many of the symptoms I've listed had abated, when I turned 50 I couldn't go for the recommended first colonoscopy. Oh, I was aware of the risks of not going. In fact, a colleague of mine had died of colon cancer. But there was simply no way I could do it. Halted by a dense wall of fear, it took several years for me to muster the courage through a combination of EMDR therapy (emdr.com), positive affirmations, deciding on a doctor I could at least partially trust, and support from my husband and friends. Oh, yes, and prayer. Lots of that.

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Anxiety about medical procedures is not rare among survivors of abuse, even if their perpetrators aren't doctors. Consider the anguish a vaginal ultrasound might trigger for a rape survivor, the flashbacks a breast exam might evoke in an incest survivor, or the fear a survivor of childhood beatings might experience during an MRI, hearing only the pounding sounds of the machine, while in a dark tunnel, and under the technician's control.

Now let's focus our attention back on today, the last day of March. It's been a dreary day here in the Atlanta area -- chilly, cloudy, and damp. Again. Folks are complaining about it. We're all eager for the temperatures to rise, and Spring to return. I've been working all day on an article about Military Sexual Trauma for a wonderful website about PTSD, giftfromwithin. The material is depressing; it's hard to get into and hard to get out of... leaves me feeling glum.

I learned as a young girl, while navigating the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, that a long walk can give one a lightened perspective, so I bundled up in a hooded jacket earlier and headed out the door, calling to my husband, "When is the sun going to come out again?" Little did I know that there was a ray of sunshine waiting for me right at the end of the driveway. When I opened our mailbox I found an envelope addressed to Dr. Catherine McCall, which I am not. I have a Masters degree. But I knew the mail was for me because it was from my gastroenterologist, who always calls me Doctor. I've corrected her and her secretary many times, and I know that they know that I'm not a physician, because they refer folks to me for therapy. Doesn't make any difference. They still call me Doctor.

At this stage of my life I trust my gastroenterologist completely. She's smart, skilled, a holistic thinker, caring, and fun. She's not on my medical plan, though, so the colonoscopy costs more. But I trust her, so I pay it, and I'm grateful to be able to earn the money to do so.

I opened the envelope expecting to see her bill, which was there, but it was considerably smaller than I'd anticipated, and there was a hand-written note attached (to Dr. McCall) explaining that she was giving me a physician's discount. I smiled. "Sunshine!" I called to my husband, while waving the opened envelope in the air, and fast-walking back to the house. "Sunshine!" An expected gift, a soothing balm, for the doctor's daughter.

How fitting, on this, the eve of April, National Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month, to be reminded of the unexpected healing gifts we receive, sometimes in the most surprising ways, that help us to overcome child abuse.

Catherine McCall is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.

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