Why Should We Care about Preverbal Infant Trauma?

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.hardgirl

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.Haunted Baby

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.

13 Responses to Why Should We Care about Preverbal Infant Trauma?

  1. So very touching and passionate Wendy, and such a tremendous speech. Although you know I already care very passionately about this subject, it still brought tears to my eyes thinking of all the helpless babies that must have gone through hell, and all those still living that hell. I know, one of them is my brother. I wish we could right this wrong and help all those affected to be at peace, but we do what we can, and by continuing your story Wendy, you are sharing the information so people can be better informed to make positive changes happen. I wish you much peace and happiness on your journey. Namaste ♡

  2. So GREAT to hear from you and get your support, which means so much. Yes, my brother too was affected by infant trauma. In this case, he was put into an incubator right after birth and separated from my mother for days. He had ingested some radiator fluid in my father’s car, for he was born in the back seat on the way to the hospital. He also, at age five-ish, went through some brutal tests to see if he had leukemia. He died at age 61 from a major heart attack, and I can’t help but think that the rages he flew into throughout his life, and that alienated him from many, had a lot to do with infant and childhood trauma from invasive medical procedures. Oh my. Well, thank you again for your loving wishes and warm support.

  3. What a wonderful speech! As you say, most people who suffer from preverbal infant trauma are unaware of that fact, even though there are signs in their behavior that they may have been victims. Unfortunately, this problem is unappreciated by most psychiatrists and psychologists … the very people who ought to know, at least as a beginning point in helping those who are suffering the lifelong effects of such trauma. Regarding your brother, I wonder if he might have been circumcised in addition to suffering other infant surgical interventions. It seems just incredible, doesn’t it, that doctors believed babies “feel no pain” for so much of the last century.

  4. Yes, Robert, I do think my brother was circumcised, so on top of every other medical assault, that too. Thank you for your support about my speech. I am using my membership in Toastmasters to hone my talks about trauma. I need to learn how to weave in some slides, some visuals to really bring it home. In the speech in my post, I talk about how psychologists and other professionals need to educate the public about preverbal infant trauma and provide affordable pathways of healing, but on the first point about educating, maybe this part will be up to the survivors. We are the ones who know the true cost of this trauma on the self and on society. We know how important it is to alleviate the suffering of so many. You are already doing this work and I applaud you for it and use it as inspiration to move my own agenda forward. Good to hear from you as always!

  5. So well done, Wendy: a clear and powerfully stated address. And thanks for again sharing this speech with your readers.
    It is wonderful that you have been able to advocate in several circles for greater awareness of how much infant surgery in earlier times was done without pain relief. And as you argue here, the medical and counseling community must become aware of the now well-documented after-effects of this inhumanly basic surgery, including PTSD and violence.
    Robert is right in drawing the attention of at least US readers to the continuing practice of male circumcision without pain relief. Its after-effects ARE becoming more widely publicised, as I was reminded today when reading the “Circumcision Information Australia” website at http://www.circinfo.org/parents.html – it should be compulsory reading for all prospective parents.
    But what this “Information” brings together is also very relevant for those of us who had other forms of past infant surgery. Here is just one powerful warning:
    “Infants experience excruciating pain during circumcision and for weeks afterwards, and they can show behavioural changes such as frequent crying, avoidance of physical contact, reluctance to breast-feed, and sleep disturbance. Local anaesthetic creams such as EMLA are not adequate, and a general anaesthetic poses a significant risk for infants under the age of six months.”
    Thank you again, Wendy and Robert. Our voices may find it hard to get a good hearing above the mantras that are passed on by too many time-worn teachers in medical schools around the world. Many local doctors in general practice are poorly instructed, bound by fear of litigation, and too busy to listen, observe and stay up-to-date. But the facts are now on the public record in a way that was not so for much of our lives. Yay! This must mean progress!

  6. Fantastic information about circumcision on that website, Fred! Thanks for sharing it. I am now so much more informed about this unnecessary and destructive practice. It’s good to know that 80% of the world’s men are NOT circumcised. This statistic gives me hope; we are trending in the right direction! The fact that medical professionals continue to carry out barbaric practice says a lot about the disconnection and dissociation of those individuals. Yes, let’s keep supporting each other to raise our voices over the ones that would negate our findings and pooh-pooh our concerns. Let’s keep reaching out and communicating with others. Certainly the Internet has been our friend in all this and I am forever grateful, for through this medium, I found you, Fred, and Robert and so many others who have contributed to my coping with and recovering from trauma.

  7. I’m so glad that the world has access to your clear writing voice,that includes not only your own experience but your sensitivity to still conventional barbaric unnecessary procedures,such as circumcision.So glad I declined this for both of my sons,despite family criticism!

    and YES! to your last comment on the other post! I’m looking forward to being able to share my own version of your parade and autonomy.That word means so very much,literally a world.:)))

  8. I have been in therapy for many years due to preverbal posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)caused from being sexually abused by my father when I was a baby.

    I recently became interested in trauma caused to newborn infants in hospitals, including bathing procedures, after which I discovered information about trauma to male infants from circumcision. Eventually I also became interested in trauma to newborns caused by the birth experience. I have kept a list of references. I plan to followup with the comments to this site.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and this crucial information.

  9. I am just learning that proverbal trauma is “a thing”. May I ask if separation from a mother can cause this also? I am 51 yrs old and am just learning that my mother was hospitalized for a little over 3 months when I was a baby. I would have been around the age where you begin to crawl so my guess is anywhere between 6-9 months old. My mother was being treated for severe depression & received shock treatments. It would have been in 1967/1968. I have two older brothers & my father was a traveling insurance salesman so he was out of town a lot. He hired a nanny to stay with us while he was working out of town & Mom was in the hospital. My mother passed away at 73 from a brain tumor in 2005 & my father is still living. I had probably the most difficult time with her passing compared to my other 6 siblings. (Mom had 4 more children after her hospital stay). 13 years later & I still feel the void and abandoned in a way. I had a 3 yr old and an infant when she passed. I too suffer from depression & anxiety. My entire life I have felt insecure about myself, always felt not good enough to be loved & always searching for affection. Maybe I am reaching, but wondering if the separation as a baby could have something to do with this?

    • Hi Mary,
      So sorry to have not responded to your comment. I appreciate your writing to me. I was diagnosed with bladder cancer March 4, 2019 and have been fighting to save my bladder and my life. I am now in remission, happily, and am getting back to paying attention to my blog. Of course, yes, separation from your mother is a preverbal trauma and I’m not surprised to hear of your lifelong struggles. Since you wrote to me, have you found material affirming this? Yes, you knew as a baby something had changed and was not right. Anyway, I don’t want to write too much since so much time has passed between now and when you made this comment, but do reply if you like and I’ll reply to you in a timely fashion. Just let me say this. I’m sure you felt grief about the loss of the presence of your mother. And that grief hangs around until you address it. Just the other day, I felt frightened because I had to face a medical procedure alone and it triggered the early aloneness and separation from my mother. Would love to hear from you. Wendy

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