“Becoming comfortable in their bodies is, for our patients, the number-one, paramount issue, and if we can’t help them do that, then we can’t help them at all.”
–Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, world expert on the healing of trauma
As a survivor of infant surgery without anesthesia and/or pain control, my first two decades on the planet were a study in body revulsion. I was in runaway mode. The farther I could get from my own skin, the better. Finding comfort in my body was nearly impossible. I had no notion that the body was a safe place in which to live.
Why did I feel this way? I had no idea. As a child, the story of my stomach surgery had been told to me by my mother; my own experience of the surgery was locked away in trauma. I was a newborn with no words. My mother told me that I never felt anything since, she assumed, I had been anesthetized. In the saving of me, I’d been brutalized and so my foundation was grounded in profound suffering. I had no words to describe the persistent and pernicious alienation I felt from myself.
I’ve tried to communicate this disjuncture in the many posts I’ve written and published since 2009 and the ways I’ve tried to sooth myself. Please do check these out. In this post, I simply want to underscore that many survivors of early invasive medical procedures have distorted relationships with their bodies, something I have learned from survivors’ comments and emails as a blogger. Many of us have sought help from alcohol, food addiction, nicotine, drugs, negative relationships, numbing careers, and dangerous activities.
If you underwent an invasive medical procedure as an infant before 1986 in America, the watershed year that Drs. Anand and Hickey published their seminal study of infant pain and the time when Jill Lawson went public about the death of her newborn son, Jeffrey, dying after a heart artery was tied off without anesthesia or pain control, then it’s possible you’ve experienced a disturbed relationship with your body. It’s likely you’ve wanted out.
In the quote that begins this post, Dr. van der Kolk refers to his findings regarding therapy for survivors of trauma (though in his book The Body Keeps the Score, he barely mentions preverbal trauma.) He claims that psychotherapy without a component that addresses or involves the body is useless. Our bodies are the repositories or storehouses of the trauma. During trauma, the verbal part of our brain goes offline so-to-speak. Emotions and physical sensations, such as smell, taste, touch, sounds, visual imagery, are the keepers of the story so that therapy must involve unlocking these stories locked down in our bodies.
If you are a survivor of infant surgery or invasive medical procedures without anesthesia or pain control, undoubtedly finding comfort in your body has been a challenge. Maybe some of you are just realizing the source of your alienation from yourself. This step is so important. In any case, be kind to yourself as you realize the distance you’ve traveled from you and the length of the journey to come in returning home. If it’s any comfort, know that I have traveled this road and the journey is possible. I have learned to be still and be nourished. I have learned to self-soothe–not perfectly but oh so much better.
While we may not ever learn to be completely at home in ourselves, we can snuggle up closer than we ever imagined possible. In order to do this, however, we have to begin our journey in the light of the truth of what happened to us. We must claim the source of that profound alienation, though it may be scary, for it’s the first step on the way back.
*I wrote a draft of this last post in February of 2019, just before I was diagnosed with bladder cancer in early March, 2019. I am now thankfully in remission. More on this will follow.