I live with a monster. Or rather, a monster lives with me. It has lived with me for almost six years now.
When the monster first came to live with me, I had no place for it to stay. It was so big that it barely left any room for me at all. It squeezed me all the time, so hard that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I spent every moment trying to run away from it, to catch my breath for just a second, and every once in awhile, I succeeded. And yet somehow, it always caught me again. And squeezed me again. Until I couldn’t breathe. Again.
As time passed, I began to get to know my monster a bit. I began to understand that it would respond to a little bit of training. I made a great big box for it, and I told it to stay in there until I was ready for it to come out. At first, it never listened, leaping from the box over and over again. I’d tell it to get back in the box and sometimes it would do as I asked, but other times, it just squeezed harder.
Eventually, I was able to contain my monster to a smaller box, allowing me more room for myself. And as time goes on, the box manages to get smaller and smaller. I’ve gotten so good at commanding it that it stays right there most of the time, until I am ready to take it out and let it squeeze me for a bit.
My monster, you see, is the lingering doubt that if I had made a single decision differently at four in the morning on a Monday almost six years ago, my daughter Hudson might still be alive today.
At that hour, she woke up crying, her fever having risen about a degree and a half in the hour or so since I’d last given her some ibuprofen. She’d been running a fever off and on for about 24 hours, and at one point, it had even spiked up to 104 degrees. I’d already paged the pediatrician the day before—she told me not to worry even if the fever got that high, as long as it continued to respond to medication. But at four the next morning, when it actually did seem that the fever had stopped responding to medication, I didn’t take Hudson to the emergency room. I thought about it, but I knew that the doctor’s office would open in just three hours, so I waited. She was seen almost as soon as it opened, and the pediatrician sent us right back home.
And yet, not even 24 hours later, Hudson was in a coma from which she would never wake, despite all the best efforts of a pediatric intensive care unit in a major metropolitan hospital. She had a particularly aggressive form of bacterial meningitis. It didn’t respond to intravenous antibiotics. And it essentially killed her in less than a day. She was seventeen months old.
Ever since Hudson died, I have wondered. Agonized. Suffered. If I’d only taken her to the emergency room at four that morning, when it first seemed like something might be really wrong, would an ER doctor have noticed something that the pediatricians didn’t? Would a young, overeager resident have wanted to do a spinal tap? If they had tested her for meningitis then, might they have started the antibiotics soon enough to make a difference? Ten hours passed between 4 AM, when I first thought about taking her to the emergency room, and 2 PM, when I actually took her to the emergency room because she wasn’t eating or drinking.
If only I had taken her to the hospital ten hours earlier, could I have saved her?
This is my monster.
For a very long time, it tormented me. It was all I could think about. And I fought it. All the time. I would storm through my house, flailing my fists wildly, screaming at the walls, “WHY DIDN’T I TAKE HER?” Every few weeks, I would have vivid dreams involving my failure to save a baby, mine or someone else’s. The constant pressure of grief and guilt felt like something physically crushing my sternum.
It was a big, heavy, horrible monster.
But as time passed, I realized that if I treated it more gently, it would treat me more gently, too. I began to understand that if I took it out and let do its thing for a little while, it would stop bothering me so incessantly. So that’s what I did. Every time it started banging on the door to come out, I let it out. I told myself the story over and over and over again. I told it to others. I wrote it down. I turned the story over in my hands and looked at it from every possible angle. I recounted every event, every decision point, every place where something might have gone differently. I asked myself every single “what if” question that I could think of. The outcome never changed, but the terrible weight of those memories diminished somewhat.
I let the monster squeeze me until it had enough, and then I told it to get back in its box.
I didn’t realize it then, but telling a traumatic story over and over is one of the most effective treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder. Every time I let the monster out of the box, I lessened its grip on me. I made it smaller and less all-consuming. I took greater control over its whims.
Eventually, I made it my monster.
These days, my monster mostly stays in its very small box and it very seldom escapes without permission anymore. When it does, it’s still a big, heavy, horrible monster. But I don’t have to run like I used to in order to make it let go of me. And it doesn’t take as long to force it back into its box.