I was writing a scene in my manuscript yesterday; a flashback where the protagonist is admitted to hospital as a child. It was one of those occasions where writing brought the subconscious to the surface, connecting a distant memory with a more recent one.
A year or two ago, my blood pressure reading on a routine visit to my GP was high. I told my doctor I always felt nervous when visiting her, no matter how innocuous my reason for being there. ‘Ah, White Coat Syndrome,’ she said smiling, and sure enough, when she re-tested my blood pressure a few minutes later when I was more relaxed, it was back to a low reading.
That phrase, White Coat Syndrome, stuck in my mind. I didn’t bother googling it at the time. I had more of a ‘Huh. Interesting. I wonder where that quirk came from?’ reaction. Yesterday, when writing a scene about the protagonist as a young girl in hospital, I finally made the connection.
I’ve had many of these moments in the past few years. Learning about myself as I pour words onto paper. They say your first novel is autobiographical to a certain extent. My story is totally fictional – I am not the protagonist, my family members are not written into it, the events that play out never actually happened. But there are echoes of my childhood there. Feelings and emotions rather than characters and situations. Fremantle, where I grew up, plays a big part, as does my near drowning experience that I wrote about here.
As I continue to write, some things which appear surprise me. Like the connection I made with White Coat Syndrome. Writing the hospital scene was a visceral experience. It took me back to the time I spent in hospital as a child. At the time I was bullied by nurses during the night and until now, hadn’t connected it with the anxiety I feel around medical staff in their professional capacity. I actually laughed when I realised I had given my adult protagonist a pathological fear of hospitals that she needs to overcome. (I don’t share that fear with her, by the way.)
It was 16 August 1977, and I was five. It was the same year I nearly drowned – quite a big year for me – the incidents weren’t related! I am certain of the date because I remember my family visiting me in hospital and telling me that a famous person called Elvis Presley had just died. I had no idea who he was, but I remember feeling very sad for that poor man. I remember being in a shared ward with several beds. The girl opposite me had the hugest thighs I’d ever seen. Don’t ask me why that memory stuck – they must have looked like tree trunks to a five year old! I also remember I was given a soft ladybird on a springy coil that bounced back when you pulled on it.
I remember being awake during the night – whether I myself woke or I was woken by the nurses, I can’t recall. But it was hospital dark – just enough light on in the ward for the nurses to see, with fluorescent lights on in the distance, out in the corridor, stark against the surrounding darkness. The nurses were cajoling me into taking medicine, but I was refusing. I was an independent sort of girl. I had two older brothers. I was developing into quite the tomboy. But I was scared. My parents weren’t there. It was eerily quiet. These strangers were trying to make me do something I didn’t want to do. I don’t remember how much resistance I put up initially, but I distinctly remember them pointing to a large man wearing white and telling me that if I didn’t take my medicine he would come over and make me take it. Of course I gave in. And, Bingo! Forty years later and I’ve finally figured out why I suffer from White Coat Syndrome.
But that white coat has a silver lining. Through writing creatively, I am now able to process anxieties, feelings and memories that have been suppressed by my subconscious. I can channel them into the grit that will hopefully make my novel interesting. Writing allows me to better understand why I think or behave the way I do, and the next time my heart is leaping out of my chest when I’m waiting in doctor’s rooms, I’ll go easy on myself and curse those night nurses from 1977. What they did was not okay. But writing has allowed me to process it, hopefully get past it and channel the experience into something creative.