Last night, I walked around my neighborhood, looking at holiday lights. I stood mesmerized before the display of a train, whose wheels looked as though they were turning because of the sequence of blinking lights. My late brother’s first professional job was with Southern Pacific, in southern California, as a mechanical engineer. He designed box cars, among other things. Later in life, he sold train systems to cities in the United States. In one of his last jobs, he was responsible for overseeing the safety of the MUNI light rail system in San Francisco. I loved watching those wheels turn on the holiday display and thinking of him and the success he had in his life.
My thoughts then turned onto a different track. Both he and I were quite ill as infants. He was born in the back seat of our family car, believe it or not, and unfortunately, on the seat was an old car radiator, as I understand the story. Somehow my newly born brother ingested radiator fluid and upon reaching the hospital, was put into an incubator and apparently had a very hard time of it. Certainly, that early bonding with my mother was interrupted. Years later, maybe when he was three or four, he became very ill and was hospitalized again. The doctor thought he might have leukemia and so the testing began. I don’t know the nature of the tests then, but that experience must have been very stressful as well. Turns out he was allergic to cows’ milk!
Realizing that we were both affected by early infant illness made me feel close to him. I wonder if my brother suffered from PTSD but didn’t know it. He would have pooh-poohed the suggestion that those early medical interventions affected him at all, but I do think they influenced his early development in many ways. Who knows? We are all different. But just thinking about the possibility that he, too may have had PTSD without knowing it these many years filled me with compassion for him.
PTSD is tricky. It is subtle and one can live a lifetime without coming to terms with it. I am grateful to have learned about it and to have had the opportunity to uncover what was at the root of much of my obsessive, unconscious, fear-ridden, and self-destructive behavior and thoughts. I am hoping to do public speaking in the form of consciousness-raising about this subject, particularly to broaden the definition of PTSD to include children who have received early traumatizing medical treatment. Are you someone who suffered an early medical trauma? Have you experienced PTSD? Are you wondering whether or not you have? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.