Imagine for a moment that you have a friend or family member who is hospitalized. This person has been through quite an ordeal, but is recovering. You call the hospital to inquire about visiting hours, and the nurse informs you that guests are welcome from 8:00AM to 6:00PM. You make plans to visit your loved one for an hour or two.
When you get to the hospital, there’s a catch; the facility is conducting an experiment, and on your way in the door you will be fitted with a device, a weightless series of electrodes that will be attached to your low back, buttocks, and legs. You will then be randomly shocked as you walk through the corridors and into the wards. You will feel this pain shoot down your legs to your feet. The shocks will be of varying intensities; they won’t harm you but they will certainly hurt. You will not be able to decipher a clear and consistent pattern, as the electric shocks will be unpredictable in regard to timing and intensity. You may get zapped many times in a row, and you may have moments of reprieve, but you will most certainly get shocked periodically for the duration of your stay.
Would you become reluctant to see your friend? Make excuses for why you can’t visit? Avoid the hospital at any cost? Your reticence would be unsurprising; electric shock is a fantastic deterrent. It’s been used for decades as a means of aversion therapy, and according to some studies, it’s exceptionally effective. The basic concept is to pair an undesirable behavior, such as nail biting or skin picking, with a jolt of electricity. The unpleasant sensations from the shock rapidly become conflated with the nail biting and this undesired behavior will decrease in frequency or stop altogether.
But what happens when electric shocks are paired with a desired behavior, such as consoling a hospitalized friend? It’s a bit of a mindfuck (for lack of a better term) to get zapped by bolts of pain while in the midst of a goodwill mission, but that’s basically what happens to me. I have a deeply embedded synaesthetic perception tied to the visual landscape inside hospitals and clinics. Waves of electric pain course down my legs when I see sundry and random articles that are part of the medical environment; casts, crutches, splints, blood pressure cuffs, wheelchairs, bottles of medication, hypodermic needles, as well as waaaaay too many other objects to mention.
Although I’ve had these experiences my entire life, I’ve never become accustomed to the mirror-sensory overload that hospitals provide. And, while not exactly the same as getting shocked by electrodes, the pain does follow the route of my lumbar and sacral dermatomes, coursing a fiery path to my feet. It’s a whole lot of no fun, and serves as an inborn analogue to aversion therapy. I am averse to hospitals, even while I have big love for the medical professions and the awesome people who work in healthcare, including several members of my family.
Currently, I’m caught up in an ugly conundrum. One of my therapeutic massage clients is recovering from a serious surgery, and I’d like to pay her a visit. I can go to the hospital to see her and get shocked repeatedly, or I can avoid the hospital and spend every day feeling like a horrible person because I can’t get past my own pain long enough for a social call that might alleviate some of her loneliness. It’s worth noting that I’m not a “special snowflake” easily triggered by life’s daily difficulties, and lacking in grit. Sure, I’ve had a few meltdowns over San Francisco’s notorious parking situation, but I also earned a graduate degree and wrote a novel while working full time and volunteering at a women’s shelter in the skeezy part of The City. I (literally!) just blazed a narrow path to my own front door so that the homeless man sleeping on my doorstep could rest. I also gave him a pillow and blanket, because sometimes doing the right thing means relinquishing one’s comfort and judgement so that someone else has a moment of respite.
In so many ways I’m tenacious in my empathy and compassion. But when it comes to hospitals, I’m shockingly irresolute.