A scar is a reminder that something happened to you, something that was likely painful. And sometimes, as in my case, the scar is ugly and ragged, something I learned to be ashamed of. But today, I feel differently. I feel lucky to have a scar–a mark that actually pinpoints the location of the early torture and pain. My brother Wayne was not so lucky. My brother had no scar from his early hospitalizations, but he had the unresolved trauma and the post-traumatic stress. Trouble is, he didn’t know.
My brother, who died in 2010, had anger issues all his life. He could go into a blinding rage in zero to .1 of a second flat. I once watched him chase down the driver who cut in front of our car, pull out a tire iron, and threaten the man with a beating. During a knock down drag out fight when we were teenagers, he threw me into a window so hard I felt the glass bend–pure luck that I didn’t crash through. He broke my mother’s wrist when, angry about something or other she’d done or said, he whammed the book he was holding down onto her arm as she was washing dishes. (It was an accident; he’d meant to hit the counter.) There are many other instances. His rages were felt by all who knew him. And while he was so much more than his rages, of course, they were a defining factor for him.
Where did this anger come from? I was a very angry girl and young woman, but I took it out on myself. I cut myself, pulled out my hair, scratched into my skin, burned myself, and tried to kill myself a few times, once very seriously. I now understand these actions–symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from unresolved early medical trauma. That’s why I think my brother had it, too.
My brother was very sick when he was four or five. The doctors thought he had leukemia and, my mother told me, conducted so many tests she joked that she kept the hospital funded for a year. He spent several weeks in the hospital. My mother was distraught, thinking she might lose him. After all the tests proved negative, the doctors realized that he had a severe allergy to cow’s milk. My mother used to say that he was raised by a goat.
He was also hospitalized in the intensive care unit as a newborn. My mother gave birth to him in the backseat of the Ford as my father raced to the hospital. Unfortunately, my father had stored car radiators or batteries back there and somehow, he had ingested fluid from one of these types of car parts. He was put into an incubator as soon as he arrived at the hospital. So twice in his very early life, he was hospitalized, isolated from my mother, and subjected to many procedures and tests, some of which I’m sure were quite traumatic. (Back then, medicine believed that babies did not feel pain and, therefore, did not generally use anesthesia or manage pain. Please see two previous posts from Feb. 10 and Feb. 25 for more information about this.)
My brother died in pain. He had a major heart attack. For the few years before he died, he was very stressed and often scared that he would lose his home. He had lost his job several months before his death. He had no health insurance and constantly worried over the mounting bills and debt. He’d had many high paying jobs in his life as a mechanical engineer and businessman, but in the financial meltdown, he really crashed. After he died, I learned that he’d spent a lot of time in his last few years making bullets and storing ammo in his garage. He was frightened. He was armed. He was defended.
I believe that he had post-traumatic stress like I do. I believe that many of his personality “traits” were actually “states” of PTSD. I think his rage was a lifelong consequence of unresolved and untreated trauma due to invasive medical procedures at the beginning of his life. He had no scar to point to and say, aha, here’s the origin, here’s the wound. My mother had told him of his severe sickness as a baby and young boy, but whenever she brought it up, he silenced her. He did not want to be portrayed as a weakling. He was not vulnerable. His trials were over. And no scar reminded him of the pain and suffering.
So while I have cussed and groaned over the fact that I have an unsightly scar at the center of my body, it reminds me of why I suffer the symptoms that I do. It helps me have compassion for myself and remember that my personality quirks are not always me but symptoms of PTSD. (It’s a relief to know there’s a reason for some of the crazy ways I’ve acted in my life.) It helps me explain myself to myself. Since my brother had no battle scars to show for his warrior wounds, his wounds were invisible. Perhaps a scar would have helped my brother explain himself to himself. Perhaps not.
Your story-picture of Wayne is so very poignant, Wendy. Thank you for showing your deep love and understanding of his scarless yet terribly damaged and troubled person: you probably understood and accepted him much better than he did himself.
May God give him rest; I’m glad for the perceptive and compassionate way you have written about him.
Btw, I’m sure that many of us who carry a visible though unsightly scar from infant surgery find it somewhat easier to deal with the damage it represents than those whose “phantoms” are less easily identified and managed.
Yes. And when folks have phantoms, many times the scarred and unscarred do not want to disturb these spirits. They are afraid to stir them up for fear of what they’ll do. People fear that what they may learn may endanger themselves somehow; they won’t be able to handle it. Or, they have habituated to their level of dysfunction. If you ‘awaken’ them to the true cause of their misery, and they see that they can change their lives and live in greater health, awareness, and peace, self-doubt floods in (I can’t do it!). It’s not the people don’t want to change; I think they are afraid of the unknown. After all, who they are–rages, phobias, physical pain, shame–is familiar and is part of their identity. It’s who they are. I guess the key to helping others see they can survive and thrive in the transformation of trauma-related feelings and behavior is in serving as a model as someone who has changed and in inspiring others to tap that excitement within about getting to know their best and trauma-free selves. Help them connect to the I-can-do-it part of themselves. On another note, thank you for your prayer for my brother. (It brought tears.) He is free and this is Grace.
An important point to make. Facing needs requires making changes, and that can be challenging. How difficult we all find it to move out of our comfort zone. In the past and present many institutionalized people (e.g. the mentally ill living in asylums, ghetto dwellers and prisoners) felt and feel far more at ease incarcerated than free.
How true of all of us when it comes to our own frames of reference – including our fears and phantoms.
That’s why we have each other–to help each other change and grow!!