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In Our Eyes

Lately, I am wondering how my brain handled infant surgery without anesthesia. How had it coped with the extreme pain?  What was lost, if anything?  Is part of my brain in freeze mode, lying in wait until a princess happens by and kisses it awake?

I don’t know much about the brain, but I do know that my body chemistry was already in crisis before the surgery at 26 days old. I was starving and had lost 2 1/2 pounds. According to articles that I read years ago, surgery for pyloric stenosis is sometimes complicated by the fact that the baby is often in a weak condition by the time a correct diagnosis is made. Doctors try to stabilize infants with IV fluids before the surgery to balance their electrolytes and to hydrate the baby properly, but often, as was the case for me, there’s little time for this stabilization and babies undergo surgery in extremely weakened states. How lucky I am to have survived!

However, I have not always felt lucky. Because of how I’ve suffered psychologically and psychosomatically, I’ve often wished I had died. The other day, one of my students told me that before she had read my blog and learned about my history, she had seen fear in my eyes when she first met me. She is a very perceptive young woman, a psychology major—someone to whom many of her peers go to for advice. She wouldn’t have mentioned it, but since we had studied my blog as part of our medical humanities unit and she knew I had suffered through an operation without anesthesia as a baby, she felt comfortable telling me her earlier observation.

She went on to tell me a story about her friend who had had a tooth pulled without anesthesia in Mexico. He was an adult at the time and shared with her that during the procedure, he wished he were dead. He was in so much pain that he literally wanted to die. I asked her why he didn’t just stop the procedure. She told me that he tried to escape but was being held down  by some pretty big guys and couldn’t break free.

What had I felt at the time? I couldn’t have expressed it in words. Held fast to the table by a paralyzing drug, I was subjected to torture, ironically, to save my life. Certainly though, babies have feelings and I, too may have wanted to die just like my student’s friend. I believe that suicidal feelings and depression can result from early medical interventions without anesthesia. Do I have proof? No. I just know that I have been suicidal in my life at different times, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Twice when drunk in my early teens, I hurt myself, once by slitting my wrist quite badly and the other by throwing myself down stairs. Another time, I swallowed thirty aspirin. Why this extreme reaction to events of adolescence?

When I was in my early twenties, depressed for weeks after tossing my prescription Valium pills out that I was taking for TMJ pain (in the ‘70s, no one bothered to learn that Valium was addictive before the FDA oked it), I swallowed 250 Extra-strength Bufferin. What was this propensity toward self-destruction? This is where the brain comes in. How had trauma affected my brain?  Is there a connection between the brain’s reaction to infant surgery without anesthesia and suicidal ideation? And if so, how?

During the late 70s, I had moved into an apartment building near UC Berkeley, inhabited by artists. One young man, who later went on to become quite a well-known ceramist, was studying iridology and told me that he had a teacher who could look into a person’s  eyes and tell him or her when a major trauma had occurred. I asked my friend whether he could see trauma in my eyes, so he took a look. “WHOA!” he exclaimed, backing away. I laughed at the time, but he insisted that he’d seen several trouble spots. I believed him. I think that the eyes are connected to trauma; I just don’t know how. Right now I’m reading The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. I know I’m onto something and will keep you posted.

0 Responses to In Our Eyes

  1. Hi, I found your blog Googling “infant ptsd.” My collar bone snapped as I was being born and recently I’ve come to wonder if that is at the root for some pathological self-hatred in my history. I haven’t read the entirety of your blog but I agree with your basic intuitive thesis. I would also suggest you read up on R. D. Laing’s notion of “ontological insecurity” — I would imagine that any trauma decreases one’s ontological security, but the more severe, and the earlier in life, the greater the attack on such security. Cheers, Poledouris

    • I’m glad you found my blog and would love to hear from you again as you read more. I think that you are onto something important with your thought about self-hatred being connected to the trauma you experienced during birth. I know that my self-hatred stemmed from the ugliness of my scar; the problems I caused my family, which I sensed early on and was told about as a toddler; the experience of debilitating pain and unbearable helplessness as I was operated on without anesthesia; and depression over the early separation from my mother. I will be reading up on Laing’s “notion” and will probably blog about it soon. Thank you so much.

  2. Hi, I found your blog Googling “infant ptsd.” My collar bone snapped as I was being born and recently I’ve come to wonder if that is at the root for some pathological self-hatred in my history. I haven’t read the entirety of your blog but I agree with your basic intuitive thesis. I would also suggest you read up on R. D. Laing’s notion of “ontological insecurity” — I would imagine that any trauma decreases one’s ontological security, but the more severe, and the earlier in life, the greater the attack on such security. Cheers, Poledouris

    • I’m glad you found my blog and would love to hear from you again as you read more. I think that you are onto something important with your thought about self-hatred being connected to the trauma you experienced during birth. I know that my self-hatred stemmed from the ugliness of my scar; the problems I caused my family, which I sensed early on and was told about as a toddler; the experience of debilitating pain and unbearable helplessness as I was operated on without anesthesia; and depression over the early separation from my mother. I will be reading up on Laing’s “notion” and will probably blog about it soon. Thank you so much.

  3. I realize this is an old post, but it really resonated with me. My PTSD, like yours, is extraordinarily problematic in that the very procedures performed upon me were lifesaving and conducted (albeit physiologically cruelly) with noble intentions. In that sense, I’m unable to express the kind of clear, uncomplicated rage one might at a traditional assailant, since doing so would (in my mind) come off as “ungrateful.” I can also clearly remember saying in my late teens that I could never attempt suicide because I valued my rescued life so much, but come my mid-20s, that facade cracked, and I both attempted suicide and became a self-injurer. Looking back at that time, I can really see the injury as a symbolic act of re-enacting the early medical trauma, and attempting to gain some autonomy and safety in my body by causing the pain, having control over it (and then nurturing myself afterwards). I’ve learnt to deal with those needs in other ways, and no longer injure, but it’s a powerful desire and dynamic.

  4. I realize this is an old post, but it really resonated with me. My PTSD, like yours, is extraordinarily problematic in that the very procedures performed upon me were lifesaving and conducted (albeit physiologically cruelly) with noble intentions. In that sense, I’m unable to express the kind of clear, uncomplicated rage one might at a traditional assailant, since doing so would (in my mind) come off as “ungrateful.” I can also clearly remember saying in my late teens that I could never attempt suicide because I valued my rescued life so much, but come my mid-20s, that facade cracked, and I both attempted suicide and became a self-injurer. Looking back at that time, I can really see the injury as a symbolic act of re-enacting the early medical trauma, and attempting to gain some autonomy and safety in my body by causing the pain, having control over it (and then nurturing myself afterwards). I’ve learnt to deal with those needs in other ways, and no longer injure, but it’s a powerful desire and dynamic.

  5. Wow, Jenn, thank you for your insightful and welcome response. You understand so deeply what I’m talking about on myincision. In my memoir manuscript, I wrote a scene in which as a young teen, I’m cutting myself and then administering treatment. How soothing it was to rub the healing ointment onto my cuts! It’s frightening how comforting and satisfying this was. But as you said, it’s about getting control of horrendously out of control circumstances. Regarding “ungrateful”ness, I recall the extreme guilt that I felt after trying to kill myself in my twenties. How could I after all everyone had done to save me? Well, at a certain point, wanting to relieve the anguish was a much stronger force than wanting to restrain myself due to guilt. Again, thank you so much for your comment. We seem to be on the same wavelength.

  6. Wow, Jenn, thank you for your insightful and welcome response. You understand so deeply what I’m talking about on myincision. In my memoir manuscript, I wrote a scene in which as a young teen, I’m cutting myself and then administering treatment. How soothing it was to rub the healing ointment onto my cuts! It’s frightening how comforting and satisfying this was. But as you said, it’s about getting control of horrendously out of control circumstances. Regarding “ungrateful”ness, I recall the extreme guilt that I felt after trying to kill myself in my twenties. How could I after all everyone had done to save me? Well, at a certain point, wanting to relieve the anguish was a much stronger force than wanting to restrain myself due to guilt. Again, thank you so much for your comment. We seem to be on the same wavelength.

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