Re-Writing Your Painful Story
Returning to the scene of the trauma
As I write this, I am on a plane, flying to Chicago where I start my book tour. The irony of this fact is not lost on me. You see, I lived in Chicago for four years while I did my OB/GYN residency at Northwestern. But I havenít been back in more than a decade. Why? Well, itís not that I donít love Chicago. And itís not that I donít have good friends there. But my four years of residency were the hardest four years of my life. I honestly think I have post traumatic stress disorder because of my residency. Itís been more than ten years since I finished, and the nightmares only stopped last year.
Why the trauma?
Well, when youíre a resident, youíre supposed to give up caring about yourself in exchange for caring about patients. You might have been up for 36 hours straight, but if the patient under your care has a complication and needs to go back to surgery, youíre expected to scrub in, even if itís hours past the time when the next resident was supposed to relieve you.
And when your grandmother dies and you want to go to the funeral, forget it. My teacher said, in all seriousness, as if he deserved a medal, ďI didnít even go to my own fatherís funeral.Ē
And when youíve been in the operating room working on a cancer patient for eight hours straight, and you ask to scrub out for a five minute break so you can pee and change your tampon, youíll get laughed at. Someone will say, ďCancer doesnít take a potty breakĒ and youíll cross your legs and hope the blood doesnít soak through your scrubs.
Then, when youíre puking your guts out and pooing liquid from food poisoning and you ask if you can go home so you can worship at the altar of the porcelain gods in the privacy of your own bathroom, theyíll pump you full of anti-nausea medications, fit you with a Depends, and send you back to work in the operating room. And then, when you pass out in the operating room, theyíll put you on a gurney, run a liter of IV fluids into your veins, and send you back to work.
Buck up, Rankin.
Then when youíre in Labor and Delivery on the night when you had to deliver four dead babies, all interspersed with a dozen other live, healthy babies, and you start crying, your teacher says ďBuck up, Rankin.Ē And when you finally deliver the last of the four dead babies and you crumple into a heap on the floor of the locker room, sobbing, your teacher tells you youíll never amount to anything. How will you ever be able to be in charge of Labor & Delivery if you canít learn how not to feel? And you build your armor and start to close off your heart.
Then when youíre doing surgery and you get one stitch wrong, your teacher gets pissed and throws a scalpel at you. It narrowly misses cutting your hand and exposing you to someone elseís potentially infectious blood, but nobody apologizes and youíre expected to keep your mouth shut because this is your job. You are a resident, and YOU just donít matter.
Swear to God. All true stories, and yes, they all happened to me. This kind of abuse messes with your head. Which is why when I went back to the hospital where I did my training six months after I finished my residency, I walked into the lobby and threw up. It wasnít just the hospital. Even walking on the lakeshore, which I loved, reminded me of how I once walked home from Michigan Avenue to Lincoln Park along the lakeshore at 1:00am because I had just finished a long painful day and the bus wasnít coming. Every fabulous restaurant was something I ate as take-out while someone tried to convince me that I didnít matter. Even Wrigley Field reminded me of how the residents used to get paid to be the crowd-doctor on call.
I haven’t been back since.
And where is my first speaking engagement of the book tour? Yup. You guessed it. Northwestern in Chicago. Iíll be speaking there tomorrow. As you can imagine, Iím a bit hesitant about all this. Part of me locks up completely when I even think about the fact that this plane is about to land at OíHare in a mere two hours. How will I feel? How will they respond when Iím standing up there on that stage? What will happen?
I donít know.
These wounds revolving around Chicago and Northwestern are still fresh. Just a few months ago, one of my teachers at Northwestern tried to sue my publishing company because she doesnít like the fact that I titled my book “Whatís Up Down There” (long story). I was so hurt that she would come after me instead of being proud of my accomplishments that it just reinforced the message that I donít matter. That I am a bug others can squash. That I should just bend over and take whatever they throw at me.
But Iím trying to shift my thinking. I am no longer the same person I was back then. I now know that those doctors donít have the power to hurt me, no matter what they do. And I donít want to carry this trauma with me any longer. So Iím trying to think of this book tour — this leg in particular –† as a healing journey. (I will be ending my book tour in Tampa, where I suffered an equally traumatic medical school experience. The tour is kind of book ended by the sites of my biggest life traumas.)
What if, instead of letting the stories of my past dictate how I feel or what I do, I choose to release those stories that no longer serve me and are no longer true? What if, instead of holding on to resentments for past injustices, I can forgive the doctors who hurt me? What if, instead of thinking of Chicago as a graveyard of past pain, I can reclaim this great city as the place of my rebirth?
So this is what I aim to do.
In a short while, I will step off this plane onto Chicago soil for the first time in more than ten years. I will drive the Kennedy in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic as I weave my way to my best friend Katsyís house, where I once nestled in her nurturing arms after long nights of call at the hospital. Tomorrow morning, I will return to the scene of the trauma and step foot into the hospital where I spent four long years. Then I will go to my beloved lakeshore and perform a little release ceremony to let it all go. I have changed. Things have changed. I donít need all that baggage any longer.
This time, I plan to be ALL ME, ALL THE TIME, regardless of what anyone says or does. I will embrace my inner diva as I stand in front of an auditorium of people and I will open my heart to everyone in that audience, even if it includes the ones who hurt me. I will spread the empowering message of Whatís Up Down There? to anyone who chooses to listen, I will launch this book at the S Factor launch party, I will go to Harpo Studios, where I will be on Oprah radio to share my message, and I will rewrite the story of Lissa Rankin in Chicago.
What stories of your own might you re-write?