Support during traumatic experiences

(Trauma trigger warning; this could be a difficult story to read, depending on your personal history.)

Pain. Part of my daily life is sitting with people in the midst of deep, dark, raw pain. “Is it normal for someone to try and have sex with you after you miscarry?” Martha’s dark eyes stared at me, unblinking, tearless. My stomach dropped, my jaw clenched, my eyes filled with tears, and my hand instinctively reached out towards her.

“Martha?” I very quietly asked. “What happened?” “Oh, it’s no big deal,” Martha said as she shrugged her shoulders. “I just wondered if it was normal.”

“Martha,” I gently whispered, “tell me what happened.” Martha went on to describe her experience last week. She found herself bleeding more than usual one afternoon and decided to take herself to the local emergency room, alerting her boyfriend that something was wrong. As a woman in her early twenties who had never been pregnant and had irregular periods, she didn’t recognize the signs of an early pregnancy. The ER doctor explained what was happening, talked her through what the next steps would be, and sent her home with medication. He told her not to drive herself, but she did.

At home, alone, Martha miscarried into the toilet, took her medication, and curled up in bed to sleep. Martha’s boyfriend came home and began to initiate sex. Martha woke up confused, disoriented, and in severe pain. She explained as best she could about the miscarriage. Eventually her boyfriend stopped, screamed at her, and went to another part of the house.

Martha couldn’t remember if she cleaned up the toilet or if he did. After that experience neither of them spoke of any of it again. When Martha’s body was healed they resumed a normal sex life, and Martha expressed she felt comfortable with him “as she always had.”

“But Amy, is that normal?” Martha asked again. These are moments as a psychotherapist that my heart breaks and the weight of the pain and suffering in the world comes crashing in.

I set aside her question for the moment and asked, “Martha, have you told this to anyone else?” She shook her head no. “Do you have family or friends nearby?” I was desperately trying to bolster Martha’s resources because I knew as soon as she left my office, she would need support. “No one; just my boyfriend, and he works a lot.” “Neighbors? A church? A gym?” I was grasping. Then, Martha lifted her chin and her face lit up. “Samantha, my neighbor. She’s kind of my mom’s age. She’s always asking me to come over.”

Based on one kind neighbor, we made a plan. Martha agreed to take a few days off work, go home and take Samantha up on the offer of coffee and a chat. After sharing what happened, Martha would ask Samantha to take her to her next doctor’s appointment to make sure her body was healing. Finally, Martha agreed to continue to check in with Samantha.

With a support plan in place, Martha was able to return to her own question of ‘normal.’ She squared her shoulders, looked me directly in the eye and said, “I don’t think him wanting sex was normal. I don’t think he meant me harm, but it made a horrible day even more horrible.” “Maybe at your next session we can talk a little more about your relationship, and if it’s working for you or not?” I tentatively asked. “Ok,” Martha said. “I can do that with you.” She agreed to call me to confirm she had spoken with her neighbor and seen the doctor.

After Martha left I sat in the cozy therapy chair and sobbed. Then I called a fellow psychotherapist and connected. My colleague supported me in the way I supported Martha: she listened to and held my feelings, helped me resource from my own reserves, and trusted I could find my own ground, which I (and Martha) did.

This work is a constant reminder to me how unbelievably strong and mighty we humans are in the face of daunting and terrifying situations, and how one small act (asking a neighbor to coffee or chatting with a colleague) can change someone’s world. These past few years have not been easy for many in our communities. May we find the time and resource over the next few weeks to reach out to one person in our lives, trusting we will make a difference.