The sound of beeping monitors of ICU, the blood pressure cuff going off on a patient after having detected an unsatisfactory read undisplayable on the screen, hearing a child cry while walking past ED rooms. These sounds, not alien to the ears of a physician, were no longer everyday noises that I could pass by without bothering to register. I could not figure out why such mundane and run-of-the-mill sounds would make me feel physically sick. Luckily, I was able to separate myself from my surroundings and escape the entire episode that would have otherwise unfolded.
I ran away from it each time until I found myself forced to sit through the book review of Rana Awdish’s In Shock. This was a noon conference. And being a second-year resident, who is also a new mom, necessitated my stay, lest I should be labeled as less industrious than my counterparts, who weren’t going through a whirlwind of hormonal changes.
My experience, while nowhere close to what Dr. Awdish had been through, had done enough damage to my stability. I couldn’t stop but picture myself in her spot, and if something that terrible were to happen — I could think no more. After a few deep breaths, distracting myself with anything but the podium, nothing seemed to work at that moment. I felt numbness travel up my hand paradoxically, part of my face tingled, and the Apple Watch informed me of my elevated heart rate. Not a good amalgamation.
Dizziness had set in, and the panic attack engulfed me.
A second-year resident, a new mom, shy of four weeks postpartum, with a 30-weeker in the NICU, who had put up a brave façade thus far, was not going to meltdown now. As I contemplated getting up and walking out while battling to keep the storm within me at bay, I fought with myself and shamed the coward in me, who didn’t have the grit to weather an uncomfortable book review. I caved and walked out. I can’t remember or have deliberately repressed what followed next. I should have cried and relieved my heart of the stress, but I probably didn’t. I was probably paged soon after — I vaguely recall.
The drive back home those days was a redundant picking up of my nervous mom. She hadn’t held a baby in the last 25 years or so, let alone a 1.9-pounder, with an orogastric tube and nasal cannula, a carefully traversing PICC line, and veins for the skin. She hadn’t been driving an hour down to the NICU to spend the rest of the day and part of the night until she could be seen by her physician dad, who returned from a night shift the next day. I would have felt very appreciative any other day, but after spending weeks between such to and from the NICU, the people pleaser yet dissenter in me could not turn down when asked to participate in a jeopardy-style medical quiz.
And thus, the struggle began. It was me against myself.
There was me who didn’t understand that I needed help for my undiagnosed postpartum depression (PPD). Then there was a me who was adamantly shaming myself for not being strong enough. And then there was another me, who was pushing the limits of my psychological well-being, trying to pursue a career that I had dreamt of and was working so hard for.
When I now look in retrospect and try to feel what I have been through, it is hard for me to bring those emotions back. In fact, I wonder if I had ever felt any emotions while in my particular situation.
I may be practicing the art of repression and washing myself of any speck of contamination that would take me back to the state from which I have come very far. My suffering of the past, today, is a mere jumble of words devoid of any color or feeling. It is now a part of life that happened, changed me for good, and disappeared in the deep waters of the sea, hopefully never resurfacing.
Fareeha Khan is an internal medicine physician.
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