To Be or Not Be …….. Grateful

As adult survivors of infant surgery without anesthesia, it’s difficult to be angry about what happened to us early on. We feel grateful for having been helped and saved, and we should. The surgeons, the nurses, the staff, our parents, and families leaned in and lent a hand. We survived because of them. What’s not to be grateful for?

Early in our lives though we were brutalized. Instead of anesthetizing us before the surgery, we were given a drug to paralyze us so that we were awake for the intubation and the surgery. Our families assumed we were given anesthesia and pain relief. Who would have imagined otherwise? The truth is that we were cut open with minimal or no anesthetic, even preemies. The intent was not malicious, but the effects have been devastating for many.

Discovering the real story in my fifties helped me understand the volcanic rage I’d felt all my life. Of course, other reasons for this anger factored in: both of my parents’ rage at their own mistreatment as children seethed beneath the surface. But barely out of the womb, the early brutality we experienced sent many of us in the direction of contraction, helplessness, and suffering. And since my parents were oblivious to the fact that anesthesia was generally withheld from ill infants needing surgery or invasive medical procedures pre-1987, they could not help me cope in the ways that I needed. My mother even claimed that she suffered from my surgery more than I did: “You didn’t feel a thing; I’m the one who remembers,” she’d say.

But as I’ve written and told audiences, bodies remember, breath remembers, emotions remember, and senses remember. Memory isn’t only verbal–a fact few people understand. We survivors suffer as we grow up, for the assault lingers as Post-traumatic Stress, or PTS, and we don’t even know it. We make excuses for why we are unhappy or why our lives are not working out: We’re weirdly wired, we’re super sensitive, we’re crazy, we’re mad.

What happened to us is a hard truth to accept. How could other humans have done this to us? It’s unbelievable, incredible, inhuman, criminal, and wrong. But it did happen, a fact that medicine would rather not dwell on.  Many survivors turn away from the truth because the reality is too painful to admit. They say that it happened long ago and doesn’t matter anymore. However, those early lessons can and often do unconsciously inform every decision we make and every action we take.

For me, it’s time to put gratefulness aside. Time to feel anger and for this anger to fuel action. Time to get the word out so that survivors of infant surgery without anesthesia can know they aren’t crazy, or weak, or wrong. They aren’t “freaks,” a word I’ve often heard survivors use to describe who they thought they were. Time to get the word out that infants were brutalized. These infants grew up. These adults now suffer. And we’ve got to help them. Even just knowing and accepting that infant surgery without anesthesia is real and actually happened is a huge first step in healing.






6 Responses to To Be or Not Be …….. Grateful

  1. Thanks again, Wendy!

    Your mother was so very wrong to say “You didn’t feel a thing!” I’m sure she suffered, but her suffering couldn’t possibly compare to yours. I can just begin to imagine your suffering because I am one of the few men I know who have relived my circumcision in primal therapy. The physical pain is very real, even when felt from amygdala memory, but there is also a kind of flooding of the whole personality. Instead of joy in our bodies as we grow up and experience adolescence, we feel dread and terror that seem to come out of nowhere.

    In my case, those feelings sent me to a psychiatrist when I was eighteen, but he didn’t understand either, told me to cheer up and enjoy life and stop brooding about imaginary deficiencies. American culture completely accepts infant circumcision without anesthesia (as it is still performed, for the most part) because it was done to the father and most men are unaware of or “tune out” the painfulness of their first experience out of the womb, even though it has affected them profoundly.

    In some ways, Wendy, I am fortunate in that there is a growing movement in this country called “Intactivism” with slogans like “End the pain!” helping men aware of having been harmed to gradually to get the attention of the general public, pediatricians, and obstetricians. Those professionals, though, are fighting back. It’s amazing to see so many circumcising doctors yelling at Intactivists that they are wrong and stupid to doubt the wisdom of doctors who perform these lucrative surgeries.

    There should also be a movement that covers your sort of experience as an infant, bringing you and those thousands of victims of other kinds of surgery without anesthesia the attention and care they deserve. I’ve been frustrated by what I perceive as a lack of full recognition by the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) of the harm done by the pain experienced by babies who endure surgery without adequate anesthesia. APPPAH members sometimes forget what their founder David Chamberlain knew so well when he wrote the following:

    “Instead of responding to baby cries as authentic communication, birth professionals have proceeded to cause pain with the conviction that the pain is merely reflexive and that owing to the immaturity of the infant brain, the pain could not really matter. From the perspective of present knowledge, these key nineteenth [and twentieth] century beliefs are only myths, but tragically, they are mega myths still influencing mainstream psychology and obstetrics today.”

    Thanks, Wendy, for speaking out here. Your message has helped me to see that my own personal concerns are part of a problem that is much larger than all but a few have even imagined.

    • Thank YOU, Robert, for your deeply thoughtful response. How I wish there were a movement that educated the public about the fact that infants underwent torture from infant surgery and invasive medical procedures without anesthesia, including, of course, circumcision. These infants grew up and are now among us suffering. Many have taken that violence inside and are at war with themselves and their world. Babies are still suffering from inadequate amounts of pain control for surgery and medical procedures. And, as you know, newborn males are being currently circumcised, often without pain relief. Recently Roey Shmool, a filmmaker and survivor of infant surgery without anesthesia, filmed me, for he is making a documentary about this issue. I am so happy about this. I have had no luck in publishing my memoir manuscript which tells how I discovered that surgeries were done on infants pre-1987 by giving them a muscle relaxer and paralytic and no anesthesia so that they were conscious for the surgery but unable to move. So I’m counting on the film to cultivate an interest in this issue. (I haven’t given up seeking a publisher, btw.) We wonder why American society is so angry and buys tons of weapons and is becoming more and more insular? Well, one reason is that many were tortured as infants and we remember in the cells of our bodies. We act out in anger toward ourselves and others, unaware of the early brutality fueling our actions, attributing these feelings to the nature of our upbringing or of society’s values. We fail though to realize the reason goes much deeper. You, having faced this early pain, understand the depth and insidiousness of this wound. And because of it, you’ve woven deep compassion into your life and are able to stand up for yourself and others. I am deeply grateful for you and your company. That you are standing by my side gives me courage and fortitude to go on advocating for this issue.

  2. I wish to qualify what I said about APPPAH in my previous comment. Suzanne Arms, the current president, does seem to appreciate the harm done by infant surgery without anesthesia. The fact that babies feel and “remember” pain was apparently unknown until 1985, a staggering fact. The trouble is that although this awareness has been published, so many doctors and members of the public still don’t perceive that the consequences are real and serious. Your story, Wendy, is an excellent case in point.

    • Until we study the effects of preverbal trauma in a scientific way, society may never understand what the consequences are to the individual who suffered this trauma and to society. Maybe I’ll contact APPPAH and see if I can speak or do a workshop at one of its conferences. I’ve tried in the past to no avail. Fascinating–either the co-ordinator of the workshops loses my information or doesn’t get back to me in a timely fashion. I gave up on them. Maybe it’s time to approach their door again. There is so much resistance in our society against knowing the truth about the brutality that infants are and have been subjected to. There is an extraordinary amount of ignorance about this topic in the psychology profession, for example. I’ve experienced this first-hand. However, whenever I discuss this issue with people one-on-one, there is deep interest. The institutions aren’t interested, it seems, in knowing the truth. So as always, people power is key. Educating from the bottom up (grass roots) is perhaps the best route. Still, I must somehow find courage to keep knocking on our institution’s doors. Much appreciation to you for keeping the dialogue going.

  3. Hi, Wendy! Do you by chance have access to the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health? In Volume 25, No. 3, Spring 2011, there is an article by Terry T. Monell called “Living Out the Past: Infant Surgery Prior to 1987.” I read this when it came out and found it very exciting, though I was concerned about some copy-editing problems. Nevertheless, it occurs to me it might be helpful to you to read this article and get in touch with Ms. Monell. She might have some insights regarding the extent to which APPPAH regards this subject as deserving ongoing attention. The population affected must be huge but may be mostly silent. Perhaps other people with mysterious scars related to long-ago infant surgeries prefer not to think about the emotional impact the surgery had on them and APPPAH doesn’t want to stir up trouble by giving the subject too much attention. Maybe they prefer to let “sleeping dogs lie”? Nevertheless, it might be worth trying to learn what Ms. Monell’s experiences were after submitting the article,how she got it published, and what the reactions of APPPAH staff were to the contents of her article. Just a suggestion. I will want to hear about the video once it is completed. It’s exciting that you have this new collaborator! Robert

    • Thank you, Robert! I do have a copy of that article and love it. I used to be in touch with Terry early on in my search for like-minded souls through my blog. We had some deep exchanges but she chose to end our connection. I’ve never understood why. I hope I reconnect with her one day. About APPPAH, maybe it is more interested in the current issues families face with regard to parenting. I will keep you posted on the film. Yes, I’m thrilled to have a sidekick and fellow fighter! Thanks for your unending support, Robert. Hey, when you get a chance, update me on your successes with regard to educating the public about the horrors of circumcision, please.

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