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Archive for the ‘Eating Issues’ Category

I had the good fortune to read a post on Jolene Philo’s Different Dream blog that highlighted the work of Margaret Vasquez, a traumatologist who received some of her training from the Intensive Trauma Therapy, Inc. program. She started her own center in Georgia called Freedom’s Calling. On her website, she posted a series of presentations that are a must-see for all who want to learn more about trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Ms. Vasquez was a guest on the Abundant Life TV Show, which has a Catholic focus. While I am not a Christian, the intention of the interview with Ms. Vasquez is to guide us toward information that promotes healing and peace. The interviewer does a good job of keeping the discussion about trauma focussed on this subject and seems to really care about helping all people understand the effects of trauma on their lives. A person of any religious or spiritual background can get a lot from watching this program. Ms. Vasquez has a wealth of information to share with us. I just finished viewing the second of five TV segments and highly recommend it so far.

In the first segment of the program, “The Story of Trauma,” Ms. Vasquez discusses the definition of trauma and the consequences of trauma. I really like the way she categorizes the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): hypervigilance, avoidance, and re-experience. In hypervigilance, she describes the traumatized person as always being on edge or “keyed up.” Avoidance has to do with a person avoiding anything reminiscent of the trauma, and re-experiencing relates to the traumatized person having flashbacks, nightmares, and thoughts and emotions connected to the incident. The thoughts or emotions might be based on a sight, smell, sound, song–anything that reminds the person of the traumatizing event and creates fear, anxiety, anger, or other unsettling emotions.

Ms. Vasquez is passionate about educating people about trauma and helping people heal. I’d love to hear your comments about the information being communicated.

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I’ve got the study of the brain on the brain. I am reading the book The Brain that Changes Itself, mentioned in my last post “In Our Eyes,” and scrutinizing my old artwork with new eyes. Here are two pictures I drew (ink on paper) in 1976, trying to make sense of my depression. The first, “ObsessedBrain,” shows, at the top, my struggle with suicidal thoughts and in the lower portion of the picture, my memories of the times that I attempted suicide in my teens and at age 22.  One eye is open, one colored shut. Is a part of my brain on stop and another part on go?  I notice that my mouth is a grill or a set of bars–not a positive sight. I like that I wear earrings–that as artist, I gave myself some dignity despite rough times.

In the picture below, “FoodBrain,” I’m struggling with my obsession to stuff down pain by overeating. I see that my struggle may have had something to do with what happened to my brain when I was starving for those weeks before surgery; I lost close to 3 pounds then–from 6 lbs. 7 oz. to 4 lbs. My mother said that I was “all ribs” and looked like a squirrel that had gotten squashed by a car. (Thanks, Mom.) In the center of the picture is what looks like a limp neuron with unconnected synapses. What happened to my poor brain during surgery and then afterward, considering that I had no (and I mean zilch)  contact with my mother for almost two weeks?  (In 1952, the fear of infection ruled!) My head is severed from my body, like  a disconnected light bulb.

In my reading and my conversations online, I am exploring the effects of starvation on the developing brain and the ways one can heal the brain. I am also interested in how the brain is affected by infant surgery without anesthesia. In the past, I’ve been addicted to nicotine and food. I’ve also abused alcohol in my early teens but was never addicted. Then, in my early twenties, I became addicted to Valium that a dentist had prescribed in order to treat my TMJ (tempero mandibular joint) disorder. Do addictive tendencies result from early trauma to the brain? Do learning disabilities result?  What is the brain chemistry of PTSD?  I want to know so that I can do more to heal my brain. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Doidge says that in the course of writing his book, “I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas . . . the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity.” I want to be that brain.

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How can survivors of infant surgery and/or invasive medical procedures performed without anesthesia begin to move away from a lifetime of re-enacting symptoms of trauma and move toward a lifetime of experiencing health, fulfillment, and joy?  How can we get our pain, anger, and confusion out so that we can feel peace, clarity, and compassion? Here are a few steps I have taken over my many years of finding my way:

1. drawing

2. engaging in psychological therapy

3. doing somatic body work, in my case, Middendorf Breath Work

4. writing (journal, poetry, short stories, memoir)

5. blogging

6. joining groups of people struggling with the same issue (overeating, grief, depresssion)

7. finding true friendship

8. finding a companion and getting married

9. singing/joining sound (vocalization) circles

10. taking drama workshops

11. dancing

12. reading

My journey, thumbnail version:  I started my recovery by writing in a journal, working with a therapist, and drawing pictures. I learned so much about myself. Perhaps it’s best to start with writing since it’s both free, as in inexpensive, and powerful. I moved into writing poetry and then, when I wanted to write longer pieces, prose: first, memoir and later, short stories. While exploring my thoughts and feelings in a journal, I was lucky to find a therapist with whom to work, who allowed me to pay her on a sliding scale, that is, determined by income. It’s great to know that you’ve got someone to talk to about anything scary that might arise in writing.

Writing groups are great, too. You can form a group of peers. My friend Suzie, who was also a writer, was a great support for me. A highlight of my week was meeting her in Edy’s coffee shop on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, right across from the public library, to share journal entries and talk about our lives. She was a great listener and I was fortunate; she really wanted to know about my life. I wish upon you this type of friend. She was not afraid of my suicidal feelings and accepted all. In turn, I listened intently to her, thrilled at how we were able to be honest with one another. Writing enables this.

When I wanted to understand at a deeper level what had caused disturbance in me, I wrote my memoir. I began with a series of pastel drawings, which dealt with the early surgery. They were disturbing pictures filled with blood, knives, babies hanging from ropes, and explosions. You might say I drew myself into the material. I was so frightened to confront what had happened to me that I had to begin with an intermediary, in this case, visual images. Somehow, finishing this series of pictures allowed me to go forward into the writing of The Autobiography of a Sea Creature, which is now a manuscript on an agent’s desk.

At a certain point, I needed more support in continuing to explore this material, so I started taking Middendorf Breath classes with Jeurg Roffler. What a gentle way to confront the toll the surgery had taken. The breath became my guide into the writing. In fact, in my memoir, the last two sections of the book chronicle the journey that I took with Breathwork or Breathexperience, as it is called, as I began to reclaim my body. This somatic work showed me  how I had dealt with a horrifying experience–by walling myself off from the pain and hence, my body. I had learned to inhabit my body as minimally as possible and still live. Using breath work, I was able to find my way back.

Dance, drama, and voice served as further outlets. These activities brought me into contact with others and balanced out the isolation that writing can bring. And I almost forgot to mention one of my best friends and supports: reading. How many autobiographies, novels and short stories did I read in trying to connect with others and understand my emotional turmoil?  Countless numbers.

Currently, the blog has become the place where I discuss these issues, find community, and inform others so that they can find help. In this way, I heal myself. I have also brought the study of medical humanities into the classes that I teach at community college. Getting the word out about Post-traumatic Stress is a passion for me these days. Why should people suffer needlessly when there are tools available with which we can dig ourselves out of pain and discover the light? I believe we were meant to thrive. We are not simply psychiatric diagnoses and/or the names of our medical conditions. We are human beings who recover from fragmentation and grow into wholeness. I know. I am doing it and I know you can, too.  Allow yourself to know the great beauty that you are and have always been. Step onto the path of ease and joy.

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In my last post, I presented Dr. Louis Tinnin’s questionnaire, which helps people determine whether a medical procedure or surgery they experienced in infancy affects them today. As a survivor of infant surgery, here’s my layperson’s questionnaire. The intent is similar to Dr. Tinnin’s. If you’ve had an invasive medical procedure and/or a surgery as an infant before the mid-1980s, consider the following questions. Since it is very likely that you were not anesthetized for pain, you may have Post-traumatic Stress, depression, or any number of conditions because of this early experience.

1) Are you afraid of your body?  Do you feel it’s out to harm you?

2) Do you often find yourself holding your breath without knowing why?

3) Do you pick at yourself, i.e. bite cuticles mercilessly, scrape off scabs, peel skin from your feet, and/or scratch itches until they bleed?

4) Do you wake up gritting your teeth? Is your jaw sore or tense from grinding?

5) Do you breathe shallowly?

6) Do you overeat or undereat?  Do you starve yourself and then gorge?

7) Are you addicted to substances, such as alcohol or drugs?  Have you struggled with addiction throughout your life?  Once you kick one addiction, does another kick in?

8 ) Have you had suicidal thoughts?  Have you tried to kill yourself?

9) Do you self-mutilate or self-harm?  Have you cut yourself intentionally?

10) Do you take unnecessary risks?  Do you put yourself in dangerous situations unnecessarily?

11) Do you find comfort in going to sleep at night? Do you feel comfortable relaxing in bed before sleep?  Does sleep restore you?  Do you wake with a sense of dread?

I would have answered yes to all of the questions above before therapy in my mid-twenties. I only recently figured out that I’ve had Post-traumatic Stress from my infant surgery without anesthesia my entire life. The good news is that once you realize the connection between your symptoms and the cause of those symptoms, you can recover from the trauma. You can find relief. You can even find ease and joy in life. There are steps one may take.

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Here is the web address for a film you’ve got to see– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfqKDSinees–about the new findings about stress in modern society. This link brings you to Part IV of the video, but I’m highlighting this particular section because it discusses the Dutch Hunger Winter children. Studies show that stress in mothers who were pregnant during this horrific time, a time of famine when Holland was occupied by a “merciless” German army during World War II, affected the health of the mothers’ fetuses and that this early stress still affects their health even now as they are in their 60s. According to researcher Dr. Tessa Roseboom of the University of Amsterdam, these people still bear “the stress of war.” They are more at risk for cardiovascular disease, “more responsive to stress,” and in poorer health generally than those born before the war and those born after. She goes on to say that stress hormones in the mothers’ blood triggered a change in the developing nervous systems of the fetuses as they struggled with starvation . . . “Six decades later, the bodies of these Dutch Hunger Winter children haven’t forgotten.”

The film also features the work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University.  According to him, the Dutch Hunger Winter children’s brain chemistry was altered. Early stress affects “capacity to learn, to respond to stress adaptively rather than maladaptively, how readily you fall into depression, how vulnerable you are to psychiatric disorders, yet another realm in which early experience and early stress can leave a very bad footprint.”

Of course, these findings have me thinking about stress and pyloric stenosis, the condition with which I was afflicted shortly after birth. Is pyloric stenosis caused by extreme stress in the mother? Does the early starvation of babies suffering from pyloric stenosis affect their brain chemistry and, therefore, their ability to learn, adapt to stress, and steer clear of depression later in life? I have done reading in these areas, but this film has renewed my interest and inspired me to learn more, especially about neuroscience and child development.

Why isn’t more attention paid to understanding the cause of pyloric stenosis when 3 – 5 in 1,000 babies are diagnosed with this disorder? Surgery can successfully correct this condition these days (not always without complications later) and even non-surgical intervention is often successful (though is not encouraged in America). Are these “cures” reasons not to get to the bottom of the problem with the intent of preventing it?  The disease is stressful for all involved even if it can be managed–for the parents because their baby is intensely ill and the condition not often readily diagnosed for a variety of reasons and for the baby who is starving, undergoing acute stress, and experiencing adverse physiological changes. Furthermore, surgery  is extremely stressful, especially for those of us who never received anesthesia. (This situation thankfully is no longer the case in America, as I understand it.)

How did early illness and consequent surgery affect my neurological development?  How did it affect my ability to handle stress?  my ability to learn?  my ability to cope?  Have there been studies of adults’ lives who underwent infant surgery?  I’ll leave you to ponder the findings of the first study I learned about years ago. (Sorry I don’t have any details about the study. I’ve been searching for this article so I can read it!). A friend who is a pediatric nurse told me that in graduate school, she was required to read a psychological study that found that the one factor that all the adults hospitalized in the participating psych wards shared was that they all had been patients in critical care units as infants.

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Just got back from Mount Shasta with my partner, where I took an Excursion Workshop with a group of twelve others. How to explain this work without  getting bogged down in detail?  I have been meditating for many years and recently hit a plateau. Wanting to deepen my daily experience, I signed up for this workshop given by Kathryn Streletzky, a fantastic facilitator with the Monroe Institute. Let me put it this way: We spent a lot of time lying on blow-up mattresses and listening to Hemi-sync on our Ipods!  Hemi-sync are tones introduced into each ear that result in the right and left hemispheres harmonizing or achieving greater unity or synchronicity. After listening to one CD titled Inner Journey at the Middle Falls of the McCloud River, I gained insight into something that happened to me in the 1970’s.

The years 1974-1980 were very difficult for me. I was struggling to understand my emotional self, but my clarity was blurred by an addiction to food and to cigarettes. During these years, I quit smoking several times and tried to get my eating under control by attending food addiction groups and by writing about my cravings. I was unhappy with my job, and friendships seemed to come and go–I couldn’t keep anyone in my life for very long.

At one point, I became quite depressed and left a note for my roommate that I was going to end my life. I took the Bart and then a bus to the Pacific Ocean near the Cliff House in San Francisco. By that time, it was late in the evening, so I settled into the roots of a cypress tree for the night, figuring that I would take care of business in the morning. When I awoke, however, morning mist suffused the sky with light and hope. I felt refreshed and ready to return to my apartment in Berkeley. What had happened?  Without realizing it, I had accomplished two things:  one, I had taken a mini-vacation, just what my stress-ridden self needed; and two, the wave-crashing had likely harmonized my brain, not the same way Hemi-sync does, but its own way.

At the beginning of each recording that we listened to at the workshop in Mount Shasta,  the sound of ocean waves soothed us.  The Hemi-sync tones followed the ocean waves, which allow the brain to reach a new level of concentration. Consciousness expanded, inviting new levels of awareness. As I sat experiencing the majestic Middle Falls while listening to Hemi-Sync, I remembered those earlier years of struggle and wondered if the ocean waves that night near the Cliff House achieved a type of hemispheric synchronization–enough so that I felt more focussed and able to take on the difficulties of my chaotic life once again. 

Associating ocean waves with  family vacations on Sandy Hook at the New Jersey Shore also helped.  As I lay in my bed each night as a little girl, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashed, a deep boom sounding when the wave hit the rocks. This childhood time was simpler and happier than the tumultuous days of my twenties. I’m sure this pleasant association played a part in my returning to Berkeley that day. 

I’m looking forward to all the insights that Hemi-Sync is going to bring my way and to sharing my discoveries with you.  Tomorrow morning for my early meditation,
I’ll be listening to CD The “SO” Chord with Hemi-Sync. Will keep you posted.

p.s. Check out the newly posted excerpt from Chapter Five of  The Autobiography of a Sea Creature on My Memoir Pages.

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The other day, as I was warming tortillas in the countertop convection oven, something quick that I could eat with tahini while I worked on my computer, I wondered if there was any connection between my propensity as an adult to underfeed myself, a sort of resistance to eating, and the fact that I was starving before my ps surgery. As I sat there thinking about this, the word “starving” became real and not just a word I was repeating for the umpteenth time. Wow, I was starving! How many times had I described the fact that as a baby, my food was going undigested and I was projectile vomiting everything Mom put in my mouth. Plenty!! I had not though allowed myself to really imagine what that experience may have been like.

What about that 3-week period between birth and surgery? What was my day-to-day life like in that window of time? Most of the time, when discussing my childhood, the tale of my surgery takes over. Years ago, I found my baby book and opened it with excitement only to find the pages blank! First word, first smile, record of weight gain, record of food introduced undocumented. I was unknown, details withheld. No wonder I studied science initially; I wanted answers for blank spaces. (As if science, I came to discover, had all the answers!)

Then I smelled the burning tortillas, not just burning but flaming! By the time I wrestled the oven out the door and onto the concrete driveway where it could cool, the tortillas were black. Maybe that’s what my experience was like in those early days–a belly on fire. I’ve seen pictures in a medical text of the peristaltic waves (the muscular movement the alimentary canal makes in order to move material along) of a ps baby pre-surgery. The waves are visible because the baby had lost so much weight and the movement can be intense since the material is blocked.

Life must have been awful, especially the last few days before surgery. So what is the connection, if any, between my reluctance or slight aversion to nourishing myself with food and my early experience? My mother told me that once I started eating again, I was a good eater and ate everything! This behavior is easier to understand, given that there was such a shortage early on. Actually, come to think of it, I’ve gone back and forth undereating and overeating until I went into therapy in my late twenties. Well, there it is. Early on, I’m starving (there’s that word again) and then I’m eating everything. The pattern was established in my first two months of life–a tug-of-war back and forth of nothing versus everything.

There’s another factor to consider–nursing abruptly stopped when I was taken to the hospital. After I came home, my mother fed me with a bottle. This is where the deepy deep stuff comes in– the break in intimacy with my mother. This subject is one of the main themes of my memoir manuscript, The Autobiography of a Sea Creature. A few excerpts are posted under My Memoir pages on this blog. More are forthcoming. For now, let me just say that I’m glad I got the oven outside before the house caught on fire!

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