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.