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The Attack of the Great White Shark: A Trauma Trigger Strikes

As I lay in the dark in bed recently trying to sleep, the fear of death paralyzed me. My stomach was tight, my mind raced with fears: Has pyloric stenosis finally gotten me after all these years?  

The week before, I had been pulling oil, i.e. chewing coconut oil, an ancient prescription for reducing inflammation in the body.  My orthopedist had suggested it to deal with recalcitrant knee pain. One of the potential side effects though was what was called a “short-term crisis.” For me, it caused stomach distress. Gas had built up and as I lay down to sleep, I kept burping and hiccupping. That’s when the terrible teeth of PTS, Post-traumatic Stress, tore at me. I literally felt I was going to die.

Why was I so deeply frightened?  The answer lay in an early experience. As a newborn, I had pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the opening of the stomach into the small intestine. As I couldn’t digest food, I was losing weight. At twenty-six days old, weighing four pounds, I was rushed to the hospital, operated on, and saved. From this emergency, my alarm system became vulnerable. The seeds of PTS, Post-traumatic stress, were planted. 

So at two years old, lying on the examination table at my pediatrician’s office, my fears were re-set into motion when my mother asked the doctor, “Could she suffer again from the same problem at a later time?” He answered, “She shouldn’t. We’ll keep checking, of course. Maybe when she’s fifty.” The word “fifty” burned itself onto my brain. Maybe at fifty. And thus, the great white shark was born–a creature that hid within me, patrolling and terrifying me for almost five decades. 

This shark lay in wait for the opportune time to strike. I wasn’t completely fixed, I thought, so the great white could take advantage of me. This shark lived in my amygdala, the alarm system in the right side of my brain. It made me hypervigilant and prone to panic attacks. I lived in subconscious terror that I could die at any moment. Pyloric stenosis was a killer–a great white shark, hyped for the kill.   

So there I lay in my bed a few weeks ago in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear, unable to move. Pyloric stenosis was out to get me, I thought. As soon as I heard myself say this, I knew I was caught in Post-traumatic Stress and that perhaps my fears weren’t real. It occurred to me that the hiccups and burps might be relieved by sitting up. And sure enough, the discomfort subsided after I propped myself up on a mound of pillows. Then, the left side of my brain came to the rescue with the real story: I had been in a panic attack. The great white shark had lunged and since it was the middle of the night, my amygdala and its false story had taken over. 

Many people don’t believe adults still suffer from trauma they experienced when infants without words. Babies though have body memory, emotional memory, and sensory (taste, sound, sight, smell, touch) memory. If the memories are traumatic, they can trigger Post-traumatic Stress symptoms, like panic attacks and freeze responses. Fortunately as adults, we can learn to send sharks back to their caves. Children can learn to do this, too. We have the power to relegate fears from early trauma to the past and swim strongly and calmly into the waters of our future. We only need the awareness, the tools, and the confidence to do so. 


Beth Israel Hospital, Newark, New Jersey: Returning after 62 years

For the first time in sixty-two years, I returned to the hospital that saved my life when I was one month old after having been operated on for pyloric stenosis, a stomach obstruction. Now the hospital is called, as is obvious from the photo, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and is well-known as a trauma… Continue Reading

The Colors of Success: The Story of a Sacramento Meetup

Time to let go of a Meetup Group I’ve led for the last year-and-a-half called Freedom after Trauma. (Meetup is a network of free classes and meetings that one can sign up for online.) The meeting was an opportunity for folks with post-traumatic stress to ReStory their Lives and find more freedom through associative or free… Continue Reading

My Toastmasters Icebreaker Speech about Pyloric Stenosis

THE ALIVENESS OF ME The good news is that I was born a healthy 6 pound, 7 ounce baby. The bad news is that I began to lose weight. One pound. Two pounds. When I reached 4 pounds, the doctors finally got the diagnosis right: pyloric stenosis. Pyloric stenosis is a blockage between the stomach… Continue Reading

Can We Free Ourselves from PTS Prison?

Talking with folks about PTS, those who have it and those who don’t, I get the feeling that, in general, people believe that those with PTSD will just have to live with it the rest of their lives. Or, folks are a tiny bit hopeful that they or someone can change but don’t really believe… Continue Reading

It's about infant surgery, stupid!

Indulge me for a moment while I rant about the fact that Google doesn’t seem to be picking up the key words on my blog: It’s about infant surgery, stupid!  It’s about infant surgery. It’s about infant trauma, stupid!  Infant trauma. It’s about post-traumatic stress, stupid! Post-traumatic stress.  It’s about using writing as a healing… Continue Reading

Preverbal Trauma: Dr. Robert Scaer Weighs In

Check out these quotes below about preverbal trauma from  the book The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency by Dr. Robert Scaer, a neurologist with almost forty years experience in the field of physical rehabilitation. Preverbal trauma is a field about which relatively little is known. While technology can do amazing things, such as… Continue Reading

Just Above Water: Reading Revolutionary Research in Pediatric Medicine

I’m sitting in my well-let living room on a Sunday morning on a hard folding chair, hoping both the light and non-comfy seat will keep me on task: reading the seminal article “Pain and its Effects in the Human Neonate and Fetus” by Dr. K.J.S Anand and Dr. P.R. Hickey published in the New England Journal of Medicine in… Continue Reading