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Archive for the ‘suicide’ Category

I was 25 years old, lying in sand by the Pacific Ocean. I had come to the sea to kill myself, depressed again after so many years of trying to make my life work since my suicide attempt at age 21. But I just couldn’t bring myself to harm; I had grown. So I drew words that bubbled up from nowhere. From somewhere. Pain from long ago. Ancient hurt buried until that moment where water meets shore and life called–a baby’s cry in early morning hours.

Pre-verbal trauma cannot be remembered in words. Perhaps that’s why this message came in a word picture, if you will.  There are many ways to release early pain if the brain does not get in the way. The brain that says, oh that happened so long ago, or you couldn’t possibly have felt that! That memory brain didn’t realize that it was shut off while the trauma was occurring. A different part of the brain recorded the experience, and talking and writing don’t access it. They can point the way to trauma, but they don’t release it.

Draw the story. Draw the message. Draw whatever it is that bubbles up. Begin the healing process.

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Whenever I tell someone of the new direction my life is taking–public speaking about PTSD Awareness and Self-Empowerment, teaching Writing as Healing workshops, and teaching reflective writing at a nursing program or medical school–I am often given a story in return. It’s usually after I mention that the field of medicine is undergoing a change of heart and that I want to aid in that process.

Recently, a co-worker told me about her grandmother’s passing. The hospital staff “just didn’t get it” she said and she often went home from sitting vigil at her grandmother’s bedside deep in thought about how a health care system could be so hard-hearted and broken. The nurses were just doing their jobs without compassion. Of course, there was a gem here and there, but on the whole–apathy.

Another person, a colleague,  told me of his having undergone surgery for a urinary tract problem as a child. He was operated on without anesthesia and the entryway for the procedure was through his penis!  The pain, he said, was unbearable–beyond words–and he attributes many of his life challenges, especially with romantic relationships, to this early trauma.

Guaranteed, everyone has a personal story or a one about a relative or friend who was traumatized by his or her interaction with medical professionals. From procedures and outcomes that were not well-explained to insensitive, cruel words, lack of heart abounds in medicine. Not to say that there aren’t successes. There are MANY and maybe we need to celebrate these more. But the woundings continue to hurt if not healed. Lack of communication seems to be the culprit.

Not everyone is a communicator. For example, someone who gets her PhD in a subject may be the penultimate expert but if she can’t communicate this material to students, she will not be a successful teacher. Same with a doctor or nurse. He may be a very skilled diagnostician, for instance, but if he cannot convey his understanding in a way that positively affects his patients, problems will result. I remember being correctly diagnosed with depression at age twenty-two, enduring months of internal agony, but since only antidepressants and a follow-up appointment a month later were offered to help me, I promptly threw the vial in the trash and proceeded to try to kill myself.

Perhaps this next example says it all. When I was brought to the emergency room after my suicide attempt failed, an orderly was assigned the grim task of cleaning me up, which entailed washing my butt and legs caked with feces from having shat on myself after an overdose of pills. Ok, not a job that anyone, except Mother Teresa, would want to do. But his disdainful silence–disgust really–during this task caused me such deep humiliation that it was every bit as traumatizing as the physical suffering that I had inflicted on myself.

We do tend to remember the bad more than the good. I think we need to talk more about the positive interactions with medical professionals in order to balance the equation. But often, the trauma still lives within us so that we need to tell the story in order to heal. When we find an opportunity to vent, we take it because we’ve held in the pain so long. In this chapter of my life, I don’t seek to villainize; I know that I was saved by the medical profession when I was operated on at three weeks old for pyloric stenosis. But the surgeon’s words that burned onto my mother’s brain, and hence onto mine–if she cries, she dies–almost killed me in the long run. We can certainly do better.

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I feel my heart rate increasing, like a detective getting closer to the whereabouts of the culprit—the current way in which the chemistry of my brain works due to the trauma of infant surgery without anesthesia. I just read a paper entitled, “Working with the Neurobiological Legacy of Early Trauma” by Dr. Janina Fisher, a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Instructor at the Trauma Center in Boston, and the first page read like a narrative about my life. She’s writing about why many trauma survivors don’t get the help that they need, and that sure was me growing up. Here’s what she says in the first paragraph:

Despite the fact that an estimated 70% of all psychiatric inpatients and 30% of outpatients have histories of psychological trauma, the effects of those histories often go unrecognized or underestimated. When my client, Jill, first began psychotherapy at the age of 16, she was depressed, suicidal, angry, and oppositional, for no reason that her family or therapist could clearly pinpoint. Like most survivors of childhood trauma, her presenting issue was not framed as, ‘I was badly neglected as a kid by my alcoholic mother’ or ‘My two older brothers sexually abused me and terrified my whole family.’ At the time, she barely remembered what had happened: she only knew that she was filled with shame and rage and just wanted to die.

 That was me! I not only wanted to die, I tried to die—many times. What’s truly a miracle is that I didn’t kill myself just by continually engaging in risky behavior, such as driving insanely fast, walking alone late at night, and starving and stuffing myself until I felt sick. For me, self-destructive behavior was a lifestyle off and on until my mid-twenties.

The article goes on to say that since most trauma survivors complain of the very things that many non-traumatized therapy clients suffer—relationship issues, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness and alienation, problems with anger—it’s hard to know whether someone has an early trauma history unless he or she tells you, which is unlikely, or unless a report exists, which is often not the case.

According to Fisher, the ‘symptom-equivalents’ of traumatic memory [are]  intrusive fear, hypervigilance, chronic self-hatred, alienation from self and from one’s own body, [and] disorganized attachment behavior in relationships. Many therapists don’t recognize these signs that point to early trauma in their clients. Lucky for me in my early twenties, I had used writing, drawing, and painting to explore the early trauma and so at age 26, could articulate to some extent what was going on with me to a counselor. It was quite clear that I was suffering from the early trauma of my infant surgery.

Furthermore, Dr. Fisher goes on to say that even when counselors or therapists correctly recognize the signs of early trauma and assign a post-traumatic stress (PTS) diagnosis, professionals need to understand the neurobiological effects of trauma so that  they will be in the best position to help their clients. The neurobiology of trauma is summarized in her article, but the specific details of that process are not clarified.

I’m closer to identifying the culprit that causes the fear, hypervigilance, and distrust of my body that I still experience 59 years after the surgery. Will keep you posted.

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Twice in my twenties, I found myself lying on my back, crying out for help: once on a beach the morning after failing to muster the will to slit my wrist and the second, about two years earlier, lying on a cot in the attic of an abandoned house, where I cried out “help!” to a small window filled with turquoise light. (The night before, I had taken 250 Extra-strength Bufferin and, much to my dismay, had woken up alive.)

No doubt, these scenarios are re-enactments of lying on my back in surgery at twenty-six days old, unanesthetized, and paralyzed by a drug to keep me still. Did I go out of my mind?  I think I did. My brain froze with trauma. I cried out for help then in whatever way an infant can who has no words or ability to fight or flee. Dr. Louis Tinnin, in his latest post on his blog Infant Surgery without Anesthesia, offers insight into the plight of the infant undergoing unanesthetized surgery. He discusses Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” –what Tinnin calls a “silent scream” for help.

Through re-enactment, our souls tell us what needs to be resolved so that we can heal and thrive. Until we pay attention and resolve the trauma, our souls keep reminding us. Here are the drawings of my silent cry for help on the beach that day in 1976:

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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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