The Damage I Am, Part 20
By Robert Maunder and Jonathan Hunter
The Damage I Am is a series of related stories. If you would rather start with Part 1, click here.
Content Note: This is a true story that starts with child abuse.
September 2018. Isaac needed surgery again. Every six or seven years, almost like clockwork, the scars that grip his chronically inflamed intestine gain too tight a hold and the blockage needs to be removed. Painful bowel obstructions come and go over many weeks, slowly building. He has time to anticipate how it will end.
It gets worse every time. I don’t know if I can do this again.
Do you mean the pain?
Yes. But, no. It’s more than that. I think I’m going to die on the table.
I wondered if this was a sign of progress in a weird way. Isaac has never been afraid of dying, so this this was a shift — to a fear that is more like what anybody else who was contemplating major surgery might feel. But then he went on.
I can’t get used to the idea of the operating room. What’s going to happen?
You’ve been through this so many times. Is there something in particular that’s bothering you?
It’s what I don’t know. What do they really do there?
What do you mean?
Do they tie you down? Do they talk about you?
Is that what you’ve been thinking about?
I had a dream.
Isaac stopped speaking for a few minutes while he found the right words or gathered his courage. I just waited for him.
Joan walks into the operating room.
This is your dream now?
He nodded. Joan has been the surgeon for his last couple of operations. He likes her, but more importantly he trusts her expertise.
She walks in, but it isn’t Joan. She has this weird crazy look on her face, really menacing. I’m tied down. I can’t do anything. Then she gets out the blade — no anesthetic, nobody is ready — and she cuts me open from top to bottom.
Isaac stopped again and gathered his words.
From out of the hole… from inside me, he comes out. He’s huge.
Isaac named the young man next door, his abuser for so many years as a boy.
And he says ‘now you’re all going to die.’
We talked about his dream for a while, getting the details right. The ending obviously had him rattled. It was like a jump-cut in a scary movie — the sudden, threatening change that makes you scream.
Over the next couple of weeks, we talked about how to manage these fears. The surgery was inevitable, but maybe it could be easier. Isaac’s fearful anticipation of “what really happens” in an operating room remained a preoccupation, so I asked if he wanted to talk to the surgeon about it. I would see if it could be arranged.
He was grateful for the offer but declined. It felt safer to keep his fears to himself. But a week later when I offered again, he said yes. His surgeon was great. They spoke on the phone and she led him through everything that was likely to happen. He trusted her and felt reassured for a while.
Encouraged by the conversation with Joan, Isaac agreed to talk to the anesthetist about how his pain would be managed, which was also keeping him awake at night. She was practical and realistically reassuring. Once again, Isaac felt that he was in good hands.
One week before surgery, the confidence that Isaac had found started to unravel. A new version of the dream was back and he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. He was considering calling off the operation, in spite of how the tempo of painful bowel obstructions was accelerating.
And then, something changed.
I’ve got this figured out.
I was thinking about your voice. I can conjure up your voice whenever I want. We’ve been doing this for so long that you’re always with me. What I’m going to do is that I am going to think about that dream image with Joan looking all crazy like The Joker. I’m going to think about it as they wheel me into the operating room. But just as an image, not the whole dream. So nothing will change, it will just be that image, and then you are going to talk to me.
What am I going to say?
“It’s not real.”
It was a brilliant idea. Isaac was going to take a dream that was beyond his control and turn it into an image that he could master — a scary image, but a predictable one. And then he was going use a relationship that he trusts — the memory of a relationship that he trusts — for solace and protection.
Do you want me to actually say it? So that it is right in your memory?
Isaac didn’t say anything, but he looked me in the eye and I proceeded.
It’s not real.
Something broke. Isaac wept.
A week later he had his surgery. It was complicated, as hospital stays and operations often are, but he got through it. The last thing he told me before he insisted on leaving hospital, a couple of days before he was really ready, was that we would have to talk about the crying.
That phrase, ‘It’s not real’… it’s complicated. I haven’t sorted it out yet. But we need to talk about it.
We’re not done yet. But we’re getting there.
Isaac is a real person who has consented to his story being told. Details have been omitted, changed and obscured to maintain anonymity.