One of the most unacknowledged, painful consequences of infant surgery and inadequate pain control is the assault on one’s breath. Early in my life, the natural flow of breath was brutally interrupted. It’s not something one typically thinks about, is it, when we imagine the difficulties a baby suffers due to early surgery. We think of a body’s discomfort in the vocabulary of the flesh—sharp, dull, pinching, piercing, hot, constant, intermittent.
My pyloric stenosis, or stomach blockage, was fixed by an incision through my gut’s skin, fascia, muscle, and the pyloric part of the stomach itself. That’s right: The surgeon pulled part of my stomach out of my body in order to slice it and relieve the pressure blocking the food from moving nicely into the small intestine. Instead of anesthesia, it’s likely that I was given a muscle paralyzer to keep me still. Hard to believe, but I felt the cut and all the excruciating pain.
Once in recovery when the paralyzer wore off and I could manage my own movements again, I learned to freeze my breath—hold it—in order to deal with the pain in my belly. Here’s how one does it. You might ask, how could I possibly know? The surgery happened so long ago. But time doesn’t matter because my body remembers: I still freeze my breath unconsciously off and on all day long, the trauma quite alive. Here’s how:
- Clench jaw and grit teeth so hard, you feel they might break.
- Hunch shoulders and tighten arms to rigid.
- Stiffen or freeze the belly to washboard, halting all movement.
- Hold for as long as possible.
- When impossible not to breathe, allow air to seep slowly into nostrils barely moving the chest or the belly.
- Breathe this way until you can hold your breath again.
- Breathe in this interrupted way every day of your life until you realize your breath is broken and you need help.
This process is called the PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) of Broken Breath—my designation.
Healing one’s breathing is a big part of recovering from preverbal trauma. My breath is still interrupted, but I see improvement. In my next post, I will discuss some of my healing strategies. In the meantime, I keep tuning in to what my breath is telling me.
Wow, Wendy, what you went through as a baby! You describe it briefly but powerfully, as you do the “broken breathing” which I understand has continued with you despite the therapies and other help about which you have written here. I must sya that sometimes I envy your memory and sometimes I’m grateful I missed out on that! I have a sister who can remember things going way back… a mixed blessing.
As you know, I believe that I have mild ptsd as a result of the same infant surgery and what followed, especially my mother’s inability to revisit it when I asked her to answer my child-appropriate questions. Pre-verbal and parent-transmitted trauma have affected you and me and several others who have dared to go public about it, and each of us in somewhat different ways. Yet each is quite obviously linked with something of what we experienced so early in our lives.
In your and my blogs we have and will continue to explore, network, and publicize what we have experienced and learnt about this dark, dim, and defining chapter of our life stories.
Yes, Fred. It’s important to keep communicating to the public about our stories because you never know who will be helped. I remember one person reading my blog and writing to me shortly after I began publishing in 2009 and then years later, he wrote back, realizing that his early surgeries had a much more profound effect on him than he had thought–just took him a while to sort it all out. And that’s why, in part, it’s important to keep on exploring, networking, and publicizing, as you say. And quite honestly, writing about this “dark, dim, and defining” chapter of our lives helps me keep coming to terms with it. I love that you mention “parent-transmitted trauma,” for the difficulties we experience having pre-verbal trauma is often inextricably linked to our parents’ level of ability to handle our trauma. You are a true gift to me in traveling this path and your writing, even in your comments, is clear and beautifully wrought. Let’s keep the conversation going! And to finish, yes, it’s good you missed out on remembering; however, if you really wanted to go deeper and remember more, the story for you may be written on your breath if you found a guide to take you there.
Hello again, Wendy! What a powerful new post that resonates with me and my experience in ways I cannot begin to explain! As it happens, the therapy I am attempting is currently focusing on various breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation techniques in order to counteract anxiety. Yet, attempting to engage these procedures triggered profound anxiety, fear and even panic followed by chaotic flashbacks. I immediately knew that tuning into breathing was revealing a long-buried traumatic memory to which my therapist had no prediction nor any response.
Your story suggests similarities that I may be facing from my unremembered past. It is quite likely that my chronically shallow breathing and resistance to deep breathing is a lingering outcome of the trauma of multiple infant surgeries and procedures, some of which were done without anesthesia or pain control.
I know my body carries the trauma. This is an empowering discovery, as is your experience with breathing. I am beyond grateful for your willingness to share details of your experience. Recovery for me only happens when finding similar experiences and similar paths to processing them.
So happy that you replied and that my post is useful and confirming for you. Yes, the breath is a repository–a diary, if you will, and a sure map to the areas that need healing. In my unpublished memoir about my infant surgery, I wrote a chapter about how Middendorf Breath work helped me find my way back to the infant trauma. Thankfully, in Juerg Roffler, Else Middendorf, and Griffin Toffler, I had guides and a community in which to practice this work. It is scary to encounter how deeply we’ve been marked. (As I wrote in a post years ago, I attribute my two decades of smoking, in part, to my need for deeper breath as crazy as that sounds. Smoking, I poisoned my breath, filling it with toxins; hence, I was not really following it or aware of it as a force of healing. I just needed to fill my lungs! ) I’d love to hear how your journey regarding your breath is going. Sorry that the therapist didn’t know how to handle it. Has this changed? In any case, you are on the road to healing and I’m glad that I can be of some help along the way. Thank you for writing!