Gillian Clark reflects on her emotional needs after experiencing trauma.
I was a very accident-prone child and became famous for the expression “I’m okay!”
I crashed a snowmobile into a boulder, flew six feet and hopped up to say “I’m okay!” I said it in part to console my brother who was running towards me at an impossibly slow rate due to his one piece snowsuit and oversized hand-me-down Sorrels, but also because I felt pressure to stick to my catch phrase.
I lost both of my skis in a race, tumbled into a snow fence and spat out the snow in my mouth to say, “I’m okay!” I attempted to finish the race without skis.
I lost all feeling in my extremities during a soccer match one summer, for in true Canadian fashion it was sleeting, snowing, and hailing in July; probably all at once. And the game was uphill, both ways. And we had to stop half way through because a beaver gnawed down one of our goal posts. I tripped over my numb legs, landed face first in a semi-frozen mud puddle and said “I’m-m- ok-k-kay.”
There are three similarities with all events:
- I was wearing long johns.
- Tears were frozen to my smiling face.
- I was not okay.
On December 3rd, 2010 I was walking down Spring Garden Road in Halifax. I was on the sidewalk. I was suddenly hit by an out of control SUV and the top half of my body went through a store window, while my bottom half was pinned between a brick wall and the SUV. My right femoral artery was severed, internal organs were damaged and my femur, my pelvis and my coccyx were broken.
I spent two and a half months in hospital and three months as an outpatient. During this time I had 10 surgeries in 20 days, re-learned how to walk, and shit on a nurse.
Everyone would tell me how lucky I was to be alive and have minimal damage. I’d say how lucky I was. Headlines would state how lucky I was. No one (including me) seemed to acknowledge that I was actually incredibly unlucky. A car hit me while I was walking on the sidewalk and that is really unfortunate.
Throughout my hospital stay and the months of rehabilitation, I felt as if I had a responsibility to everyone, especially the medical professionals, to stay positive and feel happy just to be alive. I’d tell the employees and my visitors that I loved watching the seagulls flying beside my window and that the patient down the hall had an amazing singing voice. I’d say that it was nice to have time to think, and that the macaroni and cheese was actually really yummy! I needed to let everyone know that I was okay. In response, I would be encouraged for my positivity and told that I was a role model for other patients.
After I left the hospital I didn’t have anyone to convince other than myself, that I was okay. And the truth is, I was not okay. I was a nineteen-year-old girl with the abilities of a toddler. I would cry every couple of hours, I was having difficulty sleeping through the night, and I had to have a commode overtop of the toilet because my hips couldn’t bend in a way that allowed me to reach the actual potty.
It’s a challenge to be vulnerable. It takes strength to admit that one is confused, upset or angry. I believe these feelings should be acknowledged in the same way that our culture recognizes and values optimism and perseverance, as all of these emotions are integral to the healing process. I understand it’s a hard balance because it can be easy to get trapped in a state of self pity, as was true to my situation after I was released from hospital. However, I believe my emotional crash after being dismissed wouldn’t have been as radical had I been given the tools and the space to be more honest with myself and with those around me about the fact that I was not okay.
I know most of the pressure I felt to remain positive during my ordeal was self-inflicted, and perhaps necessary at the time to begin healing, but there must be a better way to prepare patients for their leave. I believe it comes down to listening. I needed to listen to myself and the feelings I was suppressing, but I also needed medical professionals to listen more carefully and read into what I was saying amidst the positivity and to tell me that it was okay not to feel okay.
Gillian Clark is the writer and performer of Let’s Try This Standing. @GillianShark
Let’s Try This Standing is a solo show about Gillian’s recovery which runs January 13th-17th at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre. It is a sixty minute play about shitting nurses, having sex with atrophied muscles and awkward appointments with bagel eating massage therapists. Get tickets.