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:

  1. Clench jaw and grit teeth so hard, you feel they might break.
  2. Hunch shoulders and tighten arms to rigid.
  3. Stiffen or freeze the belly to washboard, halting all movement.
  4. Hold for as long as possible.
  5. When impossible not to breathe, allow air to seep slowly into nostrils barely moving the chest or the belly.
  6. Breathe this way until you can hold your breath again.
  7. Repeat.
  8. 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.