Unconsciously Walking to the Hospital

Something I noticed lately is how much I was creating anxiety by walking near a hospital along the river trail path I take. My daily walk would start off positively and then slowly every few hundred feet, the anxiety would grow and I would start thinking my sweat was a sign my heart was starting to fail. Before I knew it, I saw that big H sign and turned around, jogging back home.

I brought it up for weeks to my therapist, thinking the hospital was an accidental result of my anxiety, but soon enough I realized, I was virtually sleepwalking. My trauma wanted to go to the hospital. Of a dozen trail or sidewalk options to go for a walk or run, I would choose this specific one as if it was the only desirable route.

Desirable for my unconscious.

There is a curious relationship here for me, between urban design and mental health. Hospitals site themselves at important crossroads and the desirable walkable streets are often ones that lead to major services. The recreational path I take often has nurses on their break.

When I lived in Dupont Circle, there was a very prominent hospital south of me right on the Foggy Bottom circle. In many ways, all roads led to this hospital and it provided an hourly reminder of its presence with ambulances racing through the diagonal avenues of DC.

If I feel unwell I can walk myself to get help, feels safe, secure, but also an unhelpful temptation.

I made the connection that I was replaying my journey to the hospital in the previous medical trauma 10 years ago. I haven’t left that sterile room and so my past is my present in new form.

Our copy cat North American cities present the same stage so that when one visits or moves to another city they will immediately identify certain configurations of streets and services. So for trauma survivors, will certain triggers and memories resurface even if they have left behind that city.

With my therapist, we worked to chose a different route, and so far I have enjoyed my non-hospital crossing paths, one that takes me in the opposite direction and further away.

I find the siting of hospitals in general to be an interesting dynamic. In suburban and rural areas, hospitals are placed far out of sight out of mind in sprawling campuses, where you could only identify the front entrance by car. In cities, by virtue of history and land use, they are prominently in the heart of activity centers. Is this good? University campuses are often centers of major hospitals, I wonder how many walk-ins are of a psychiatric nature presenting as medical.

I wonder what else am I doing in the city unconsciously. Why do I choose or avoid certain sidewalks within the same neighborhood. What memories dredge up unknowingly as I walk by a familiar looking house or apartment. Perhaps then it explains why New Urbanist and revitalization projects often try to conjure up “feelings” of European cities, of Parisian boulevards and markets. Because inherently, cities are a bag of bricks, but placed in a certain way, evoke desirable emotions.