Here is a photo of me and my mom, December 1956. I am four and she is forty-four. Notice where my right arm is. My hand rests on my mother’s back. Had I felt the need to reach out to her? Maybe the picture taker prompted me. I know my mother didn’t. She is unto herself and prided herself on her independence. Her hands, out of view, seem to clasp one another. She leans a bit forward and I lean back. Our bodies are close but not touching, save for my hand on her back.
My mother has PTSD and so do I, but neither of us know it. It wasn’t even a diagnosis back then. The tree, with all its ornamentation, seems to grow up out of us. Of course, the tree is still green because the base of the chopped trunk sits in a pan of water. Perhaps the dying tree is an apt symbol for PTS, for it interrupts growth. Certainly, my mother and I had a complex and often difficult relationship.
I come from a long line of PTS parents. My mother was beaten or “stropped,” as she called it, by her father as a child. She told and retold the story that her brother, Harold, shared with her when she was older, as he was witness. When my mother was two years old, her mother was holding her and her father whacked my mother’s face so hard that her nose bled all over the new white Easter gown she wore. The family had been on their way out the door to go to church. Tears emerge as I remember this story. Poor Mom. And so I reached out to her as a little girl, for she had already told me this story and many other such grim tales. Of course, she shouldn’t have but she, in fact, couldn’t stop telling them. She had PTSD.
Believe it or not, according to my mother, her father had been hung from his thumbs as a child by his father, a Methodist minister. Apparently, there was a trap door in the kitchen that opened into the root cellar and when little William Henry was “bad,” he was hung in the dark. When his first born son died at age three from a high fever, my mother told me that her mother claimed he had changed. First he plunged into depression and isolated himself. When he re-emerged, he was angry, cruel, and controlling. One could say that my mother’s father’s PTS parented her and then her PTS, me.
Does any of of this stress, transmitted over the course of a century, have to do with creating a restriction (pyloric stenosis) in my gut? The cause of pyloric stenosis (ps) is unknown. Might stress have been a factor? Large amounts of stress hormones in the blood of pregnant women can negatively impact their fetuses (Sapolsky, R.). In any case, Post Traumatic Stress is a serious challenge to healthy parenting and the more we are hip to our own symptoms and behaviors that result from PTS, the more likely it is that we won’t pass it on.