This is the title of the speech that I gave at my Toastmasters Club last week. To satisfy the guidelines of the Toastmasters assignment, my talk could only take five to seven minutes. Here it is in a longer form. I hope to convince you that we as a society should care about preverbal infant trauma. Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but publishing the talk here will help me in my preparation to deliver it to audiences outside my blog and Toastmasters.
Why should you care about preverbal infant trauma? Why should society care? Preverbal trauma causes millions of people to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress. Preverbal infant trauma is a trauma one experiences before one can talk, before one is verbal. As a society, we must not only educate people about this type of trauma, but we must create pathways for them to get the mental health help they need. Otherwise, we are neglecting to help many–people whose behavior often affects in negative ways our families and/or institutions.
As many of you know, I’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress from an infant surgery that I underwent at twenty-six days old. In my lifetime, I’ve also suffered from eating disorders and depression and tried to take my life in my teens and twenties. As a teen-ager I was, what my school psychologist, later called “on fire.” He said I seemed to want to burn the school down and take everyone down with it.
When a person is unable to cope, he or she may be suffering from an event that happened long ago, an event that he learned he shouldn’t be suffering from because–how could one possibly remember? The trauma though is stored as emotion. It is also stored as sensory images, such as smell, sound, or mental pictures and somatic, or body, sensation. We DO remember, just not with words.
Here’s how trauma manifested for me. When I was operated on in 1952 without anesthesia as an infant, I was tied down. My feet, hips, my chest, and my head were immobilized. I was intubated while awake, that is a tube was shoved down my throat so that I could breathe oxygen during the operation. I tied to fight and flee to no avail. I had also been given a muscle paralyzer. Then, my abdomen was cut open with a scalpel, part of my stomach pulled out through the incision, and the stomach itself excised or cut to relieve the pyloric muscle so that the digestive passageway would open up again and allow food to go through. What I went through was torture. No, I don’t remember what happened in words but in pictures, sensations, and body memory.
What did I learn from undergoing this infant surgery? Helplessness, terror, rage, and despair, for I was awake during the surgery and unable to escape, defend myself, or cry out . In order to survive, I dissociated from my body and from myself. Without the proper help as one grows up, it’s close to impossible to create positive and long-lasting connections with others. In order to heal from such an early severance, a connection to a safe self must be reestablished.
Many of the people I’ve talked to who underwent the same operation as I did suffer from depression, anger issues,and post-traumatic stress as in anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, and self-harming behavior. They suffer from low self-esteem. Some medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs. Some are eaten up inside knowing that something is terribly wrong in their lives if only they could put their finger on what it is. Many think they are crazy. I certainly thought that I was.
What we as a society must remember is that something real and terrible happened to these adults as infants. And what professionals in psychology and in medicine must do is educate the public and create pathways for people to receive affordable mental health help. The late Dr. Louis Tinnin, who along with Dr. Linda Gantt, wrote the book The Instinctual Trauma Response and Dual-Brain Dynamics, started a clinic in West Virginia called Intensive Trauma Therapy, Inc. This institute deals successfully with those who suffer trauma, including those who suffer from birth trauma, neonatal ICU trauma, and infant surgery trauma. Trouble is, the treatment is often not covered by insurance and the $4,000 minimum is costly for many. I would have liked to have gotten care there but couldn’t afford it. Affordable mental health care through health insurance must be made available.
When you hear of someone doing something violent to him or herself or to someone else, know that preverbal infant trauma may be at play. This person has no idea why she is behaving as she is. She has never understood how what she’d undergone as an infant affected her. She is acting out because of unresolved trauma. This person is not a monster though she may be acting monstrously. This person, and those like her, need our help. If you want a safe, less violent, and more caring society, you will care about this type of preverbal trauma and support efforts to treat these individuals. At the very least with education, you will judge less and understand more.
Did my ‘speech’ convince you? Let me know.