In my early twenties, I rented a small room in Berkeley, California that was itself its own house. It had a tar roof, a front door, a window onto a courtyard, and access to a shared bathroom in the hall of the larger apartment building, behind which my unit was located. Across the courtyard from me in his tiny house was a concert violinist. We did not get along; he was too sane, perhaps. He wanted to be friends but did not honor boundaries. And boundaries—space—was what I needed. Lots of it.
There I began three years of crying, feeling the grief I would not allow myself to feel until then—the unfelt grief of twenty-six years of living. Those tears, along with writing, reading, and working with a beloved therapist, thawed me. From frozen, my blood began to flow and emotions cubed in ice rose to the surface.
The safety my therapist provided was key. It was there in that room, too that I began again to draw and paint.
There were many things to grieve, but the main one I want to discuss here is my infant surgery. I had been taught to forget it, taught that my parents suffered more than me, taught to think that I hadn’t felt a thing (due to anesthesia that I actually wasn’t given.) I felt betrayed—how could my body do me like that? A rotten beginning—major stomach surgery at twenty-six-days old. At age twenty-six, I faced this past. I seemed destined to be living alone in that room on Ellsworth Street; time to discover who I was, so that I might discard the me I was told I was. Time for tears to cleanse.
I became that baby who could finally cry—cry from pain, cry from having been cut, cry about a horrible beginning where I’d lost 2.5 pounds at the time I was finally operated on. I was taken from my family and isolated. I was on “death’s door” (mom’s words). I grieved my early time taken from me.
I was angry, furious really, and hadn’t known it until age twenty-six. The surgeon had fixed my stomach and upon discharge from the hospital, told my mother that “if she cries, she dies.” If my stitches burst, he told her, he couldn’t do the surgery again. Thus, my life in prison began. Imagine not being able to freely feel feelings as a baby. Now imagine twenty-six years of that.
So much to grieve. So much to rage over. So much to cry about. And I did. I wrote, tears streaming down my cheeks. I beat my pillow and felt the tears in my belly—deep crying, pouring out all that pent-up emotion and tears. I bawled. I felt the grief of not being the perfect child; of bearing an ugly scar; of putting my parents through agony; of feeling broken (though I recovered physically); of having been broken into.
Could I trust my body, my emotions? I needed to learn how. Crying was the medicine that enabled me to learn. Depression slowly lifted. I began to allow some love in, some compassion, relief. I felt some peace. Grieving invited my emotional self to move back in. And over time, I found home within.
Hi Wendy. Beautifully put! Gives me lots of things to contemplate. Thanks for writing, talking, and being you. /Maya
Thank you so much, Maya. Means a lot.
Wow,Wendy! “If she cries, she dies.” What a nightmare situation. You not only suffered a terrible trauma, but you were forced to repress your reactions to the trauma. No one knew that your amygdala recorded every moment of that agony and you needed to cry for a long, long time to assimilate the pain and eventually adjust in a natural way to this unnatural intrusion on your earliest postnatal experiences!
I sympathize as someone circumcised shortly after a difficult birth at 3:45 a.m. one night in 1945. Everything was routine and “normal” in my case, but like you the agony of that experience (I believe I may have had a breach birth, my mother under anesthesia shortly before the circumcision) was deeply embedded in my unconscious, causing all sorts of difficulties later in my life. Many decades passed before I discovered a therapy that could take me back to my beginnings and enable me to re-experience the cutting sensations of my circumcision. Since that therapy experience I have experienced a tremendous reassessment of my life, a tearful journey, I suspect, much like yours. Fortunately, the medical profession no longer practices the kind of nightmare procedure you did, but I guess that leaves you with relatively few people who can empathize fully with your experience. Unfortunately, the medical profession still circumcises baby boys, subjecting them to tremendous pain in a procedure that inevitably has negative consequences on their later experiences of intimacy. Luckily, there are enough men like me… and enough women who are sympathetic… that a movement is underway to stop infant circumcision.
I’m glad you are maintaining this blog as a signal to others like me that there is plenty of harm being done by doctors that needs to be acknowledged and apologized for. Like you, I suspect I’ll have a very long wait for an apology from the medical community.
Robert, You absolutely get it. And yes, the apology from the medical community? Probably never. I am so grateful for your sympathy and sorry you experienced what you did so early on. Because of what happened to us, we can soothe each other thankfully. You remind me of the importance of stopping circumcision; you remind me of how it’s wounded so many. That you have healed so profoundly is more than inspiring. Gosh, maybe if the medical profession now gives babies anesthesia for surgery, maybe circumcision too will one day become a horror of the past. In the meantime, thank you for being my ally in all the best ways. xo Wendy
Thank you Wendy for another beautifully expressive and crafted post! What a gift you have in being able to merge your life story in powerful poetry and prose. However the pain and journey of self-discovery you sketch here is far from beautiful and a gift.
I sense I have never felt my own surgery quite as deeply as you and Robert did, each in your own way. Perhaps my poor memory has been a Godsend? However, you know that I and many others have also battled lifelong to piece together, work through and find peace after infant surgery as it traumatised many pre-1978 – and as Robert reminds us, still does in certain benighted ghettoes.
I am thankful that most “procedures” now come with adequate pain relief and a far better understanding of the emotional constitution and needs of pre-verbal infants. Robert focuses on the medical profession’s responsibility here, and rightly so: they have the knowledge and the power. But I must add that people who can expect to be (or are going to be) parents also have a responsibility, even greater than doctors in some respects, to prepare for parenthood. Why and how are boys still circumcised? What do prospective parents need to know in the light of their family genetics and its consequences?
This is undoubtedly a big ask, but ultimately a key reason why we are writing about our painful journey in the public sphere.
I hope Robert will reply and answer your very important questions. The role of parents is key. I guess the battle is two-fronted: home and hospital. And when one becomes a parent, which I have not, there’s so very much to learn and to stand up for; I suppose to celebrate, too as infant surgery now is preceded by anesthesia. I do wonder, however, about the premature ones. Do they get adequate pain control? So much that is medically invasive is done to them so early on.
Thank you for your kind words about my ability to capture stories in writing. I am grateful that I can. In my early twenties, a dear friend suggested after my failed suicide attempt that I begin to learn about myself through writing. Following her advice was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a lifetime of them. Another of my best decisions was starting this blog in 2009 and finding you, dear Fred.
Hi Wendy! I have waited 50 years to find people like you and to know that my life-long struggles probably are based in the trauma of infant surgery. I had never heard about surgery on infants without anesthesia and presume mine were done under a full dose of anesthesia as they were much more involved brain surgeries. I had six before I turned two and have lived the impact of this ever since. To know there are ways to acknowledge, uncover and process some of this early trauma is profoundly liberating. I feel like I have found a community at long last who will “get it” about me and what I deal with.
Thank you for this amazing site. I am only sorry I have come to years after its beginnings. I look forward to exploring, reading and sharing.
Wow, Bill, thanks so much for writing. I’m so glad you found this site. Feel free to email anytime for more contact or call. I’m having difficulty with my restory email right now, so you could use the email on my contact page. In any case, welcome to the family. We are a diverse group, having had many different types of procedures/surgeries as babies, but we are all united in needing to know what really happened to us and reclaiming our power in this way. I hope some of my posts in trying to share how I go about healing help. I’m still healing and still impacted by the surgery, but the negative effects have been mitigated/lessened to some degree, which has enabled me to become a better friend with myself and others. Right now I’m working on becoming more tender but in order to do this, I’m accepting my body’s continued rigidity and seeking ways to let go of the somatic freeze. Would love to hear from you again whenever. Again, welcome to our community.
Thanks, Wendy! So glad to be here. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of discovery of an issue I have been seeking for my entire life. I look very much forward to participating here and to connecting with you and the others. Thanks for the invitation to email or call. I hope to do both someday soon.
I am looking into participating in an ITR program. Their philosophy and approach seems incredibly well matched to my issues. The prospect of finally gaining some control over the trauma of infant surgeries is empowering.
Your comment about your body’s continued rigidity resonates with me as I experience the same thing. I am only just now starting to be aware of the chronic guarding I experience.
Do you know anything about massage specifically for addressing the physical response to trauma? The ITR folks hinted about it but I don’t have any details yet. I will review your topic list here too in case this issue has come up already.
Hi Bill, Sorry to be so late in responding. I’m still having WordPress issues so will simply check the Comments manually more often until I find tech help for my site. First, I’m thrilled you are seeking help by participating in a program. What is ITR? How is it working out? Your phrase “chronic guarding” has really stuck with me; this condition has been the reason that I’ve had difficulty with intimacy, which is so disappointing as it’s hard for me to let my guard down. The answer to your question about massage is, No. I wish I did know of massage that specifically helps with trauma–I’d be making an appointment today! But now that I think about it, maybe I’ll do more investigation on this. I do know that in the therapy mode of Somatic Experiencing (SE) that Dr. Peter Levine developed (his books Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and maybe moreso, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness discuss the fact that talking therapy alone is not effective), touch is part of the practice. In any case, keep me posted as to what is working in order to heal the rigidity you experience, if you feel comfortable doing communicating about this. Thank you and so good to be in touch.
Hi Wendy. Now it is my turn to be slow in responding. ITR is short hand for “instinctual trauma response” of Tinnin and Gantt. I spent a week in a program in Tallahassee following their model and it was very helpful. It didn’t resolve everything but it provides a great foundation for further awareness, exploration and growth to finally begin to release the fear and guarding held over from infant trauma. I completely agree that trauma recovery, particularly preverbal trauma, must be done by much more than just talk therapy. I have always needed to experience feeling like a safe baby, child, adolescent and then adult all of which are held back by the inability to feel safe as a baby based on the trauma. So therapy designed to free the mind and body from the experience of the trauma and to let my guard down so as to experience for the first time being safe and grounded and healthy requires so much more than just random talk. I am optimistic about the journey based on reading your inspiring story here, learning about all the resources mentioned here, and engaging therapy in a much more purposeful and informed way. Hope you will keep posting new or updated topics!