It’s been two and a half years since a prenatal diagnosis began our medical journey. I have a list of words that make my blood turn cold: fever, infection, PICU, surgery and 2nd floor (where the operating room is located). In all of those list-worthy items, I felt my son go before me to a place where I could not reach him. I felt helpless, isolated and afraid. It reminded me how Mary might have felt when Christ went to the Cross.
“Be not afraid,” Christ said (Matthew 28:10). And yet, many complex traumas imprint on our hearts. How can we be not afraid? Perhaps exposure to crisis is exactly what can lead to healing and the ability to conquer my fears.
Exposure to Crisis
The American Psychological Association describes exposure therapy as “a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears.” We tend to avoid the things that frighten us. When traumatic events happen, elements of the event maintain the power to evoke in us a sense of helplessness, fear or anger, even when the event is long past.
The APA explanation continues, “Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear become even worse.”
Parenthood has a way of creating opportunities for exposure therapy. I cannot avoid many realities I would like to avoid. There are lists I could write of the things that once made my stomach curl, but now are…not so bad: changing his G-tube, Broviac dressing changes, Medi-flight, drawing more than 3 CC’s for his labs, blood transfusions. Some things now have downright positive associations. A trip to San Francisco is a trip to the place where these terrible things happened but it is also the place where my son got his life back, where relationships were made, beauty discovered.
During exposure therapy, “psychologists create a safe environment in which to ‘expose’ individuals to the things they fear and avoid.” As part of my son’s support team, a woman from palliative care reached out to me to see if she could help support me through this experience. In our “conversations” we built up a clear sense of things that anchor me, strengthen me and help clear my perspective. Walking this journey with a therapist means there is someone to help me call to mind lessons learned in the past.
Fears Seem Endless
My therapist helped me hold onto the images that gave me strength: Mary at the foot of the Cross, when Christ was beyond her reach (“At the cross her station keeping, / Stood the mournful Mother weeping, / Close to Jesus to the last.”); or the fox from The Little Prince (“One runs the risk of crying a bit if one allows oneself to be tamed.”); and the spiritual desert where one retreats to find the Lord in solitude, as I did during the admissions far from home.
When I encounter an item on the list, some panic sets in. My vision clouds as a rush of experiences flash before my eyes. I felt it in the hallway under the “PICU” sign when my son was so ill at a year and a half that we had to return to that place. I saw the fear and the fog and the uncertainty of his lifespan we faced when he was two years old.
It happened again when a fever in the emergency department caused him to “rigor,” to shake while his toes turned purple. After five and a half months of nothing more than sniffles, I saw before me a return to the frequent hospitalizations, the illnesses, the loneliness and helplessness of my child going where I could not reach him.
One more time I experienced it when my otherwise supremely healthy daughter had to visit the 2nd floor to remove a tree berry from her ear. All the fear for my son made sense. Here more than ever, I could see these feelings were vestiges of trauma once experienced, but now past.
Exposure Therapy: Directly Facing a Feared Object
This is in vivo exposure, “directly facing a feared object, situation or activity in real life.” To some things, we habituated, like drawing his labs. To others, the fear became extinct as this became our new normal. In between crises, I meditate on the Sorrowful Mother, keeping that grief and its purpose before my eyes.
I walked into the operating room with my daughter. It was big and could have overwhelmed me like our first moment in the PICU, but I set that thought aside and moved forward. Self-efficacy is a sense of knowing we can impact the situation. I know how to manage my feelings in these difficult times.
That is the goal of exposure therapy. Facing the things or feelings we fear whether by reviewing them in the safety of prayer or in vivo with the support of images from one’s faith (and a good therapist) can slowly and gradually move us to comply with Christ’s words, “Be not afraid.”