Archive for the ‘surgery as children’ Category

One can always be more free. As the year comes to an end and 2013 is upon us, it’s a good time to let go of things one doesn’t want to bring into the new era.

As a baby, I got wired for trauma. Being operated on at 26 days old for pyloric stenosis, a blockage in the stomach, set the stage. As a baby, my belly was cut open and part of my stomach actually drawn out of my body to fix the problem. In many ways, I am still frozen, holding my body rigidly as I cope with a trauma that occurred 60 years ago. Amazing!  It’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

So earlier this morning, I was sitting in bed with my legs extended, preparing for meditation. I settled in, covering myself with a blanket, allowing my body to sink into the earth and be held as I listened for my heartbeat and tuned into my breath. I realized though that my face was stuck as if it was frozen from the cheekbones up, including my nose. My lips were pulled back and my nose and brow were literally numb. I was smiling a weird lips-pressed-together-and-pulled-back type of smile, more like a snarl, and breathing as shallowly as possible.

What was going on?  I tracked the tension in the rest of my body–my shoulders, hips, chest–and realized that I was straining against something. Flash! In all likelihood, I was straining against whatever hospitals use to tie down infants who are going to be operated on. Back then, my head was secured to the table and here I was in 2012 still fighting to free myself.

Often in my morning meditation, I’m so busy dealing with the somatic repercussions of infant surgery that it’s a challenge to allow a meditative state to kick in. Some days, I simply deal with what I call somatic freeze and other times, I break through to information that my higher self has to offer.

One way I work with this rigid state is to allow my breath into the frozen area. I don’t forcefully bring breath in by taking a deep breath but simply allow my natural breath to return. I invite a quiet breath movement. In this process, I actually began to feel my nose and to exercise face muscles that I didn’t even know were there.

Another strategy to cope with PTSD freeze is imagery. During my meditation, a liberating fantasy brought excitement and a feeling of power.

I am a baby strapped to a gurney before surgery, wanting to escape. I rise and break the bands holding my head, shoulders, hips, and feet and grab the surgeon’s scalpel. It becomes a sword. I’m standing on the gurney now, a super-powered baby swinging her sword, daring anyone to approach. Oh, what fun!  I love watching their shocked and frightened faces. They run out of the operating room and I smash up the place. Oh, more fun!  

So am I suffering from frozen rage?  Am I stuck in that moment of facing my own mortality and being unable to do anything to save myself?  Yes!

I may have been given a local anesthetic before the surgery. I may have had no anesthesia but received instead a paralyzing drug. In this case, I would have been awake but incapable of fighting. Still I would have tried to be free. Certainly, my nervous system cried out, escape! Perhaps before being administered general anesthesia, I fought against being tied down. Since I had been starving for weeks and weighed only four pounds, I was pretty weak. I doubt though that I was fully anesthetized; the level of tension and stress in my body suggests I wasn’t.

My body has been engaged in a lifelong fight with itself and for the last 10 years, through meditation and Middendorf Breathwork, I’ve been finding freedom from this struggle. I am discovering my power. I am learning that more freedom is always possible. For 2013, I am getting a new face–less startle, more real. More truly me.

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I love this self-portrait I made with colored pencils and magic marker thirty-two years ago this month. I am soft and peachy, vulnerable and open. All my features are accounted for (in previously posted artwork, parts of my face are sometimes either missing or in shadow). And my hair is like a golden crown.

This ‘photo’ was taken after having been in therapy with Lee O. Johnson for two years. When I first arrived on her doorstep, I was in turmoil. I didn’t want to try to kill myself again, so I showed up at the Berkelely Women’s Center where she was womaning the phones. Seeing my distress, she clicked on the message machine and ushered me into another room.

Oddly, she had me sit on the floor between her legs so that my back was to her chest. That was weird, but it made it easier to talk since I didn’t have to look at her face. “I need to cry, but I’m afraid my stitches will burst,” I said. “I had an operation on my stomach when I was twenty-six days old. I know it sounds crazy.”

She pulled me gently to her, and I leaned against her chest. “Go on and cry,” Lee said in a soft and motherly tone. “You’re ok now. The stitches won’t break.” She hugged me to her and I wept. I sobbed. I let myself have my tears. Hardened to my pain and grief for twenty-six years, I was able to find relief. The picture is evidence of my opening to myself. I had come home emotionally after all that time, one of the lucky survivors.

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Last Thursday, a dermatologist cut out a melanoma on the back of my leg just below my calf. It was a slow spreading kind and since I caught it early, I am told that it hasn’t metastasized. That’s the good news. I didn’t think the surgery and recovery were going to be a big deal. But I got twenty stitches instead of the projected seven, and I have to spend two weeks with my leg up on a pillow. And yes, it hurts when I walk. A much bigger deal than I thought it would be.

Here’s the part though that I want to discuss. As I lay down on the table while the doctor suited up, I had an experience that helped me understand how I coped with my infant surgery. The journal entry that I wrote shortly after the surgery explains it best.

What a gift that I was only given a local and so was conscious and aware of my body’s response to being cut. The old somatic pattern came raging back. When I lay down for the surgery, my jaw went through a series of unlockings–spasms of about twenty shakes until it settled down. In order for my jaw to relax, my bottom and top teeth could not be aligned; I had to let my bottom jaw slide out to the left.

My jaw spasmed once more–shudders of many shakes–and settled back down. The only way I was comfortable during the skin surgery was to let my bottom jaw slide left a half-inch, which made an awkward fit for my teeth.  Also when I lay down for the skin surgery, my right scapula (shoulder-blade) locked–a terrific force that gripped. I was eventually able to relax it.

All my life, my jaw has been misaligned due to gritting my teeth from the infant surgery. My teeth and jaw absorbed the pain. Gritting nightly stayed with me since that time. The pain must have been extraordinary to tense me up like that, to burn it into my brain, to create such an entrenched pattern. My gums weakened and made me susceptible to gum disease. As I got older, my molars became brittle and cracked. All my molars are crowned. And the scapula lock dates back to the early crisis as well. 

In my life, when I lay down for sleep, my body  goes into lockdown unconsciously. My jaw clenches and my right shoulder-blade locks, which has me breathing in a way that minimizes breath movement in the area of my infant incision. I became aware of this pattern years ago in my study of Middendorf Breath Work, which has helped me become aware of my outdated  somatic patterns and move beyond them.

I have come full circle: incision then, incision now. Let me move into a new future–no more cutting. Let my somatic pattern be released once and for all. Let me find a new way to hold my body in trust and in freedom. Let the old electricity and the old alarms be just that–old. Let me release the trauma buried so deeply in my body and brain. Let me be trauma free. Freedom calls.

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The following piece was written by Melissa Matheney, a student this past semester in my literature class at the College of Alameda. She is using writing as a tool of healing herself and others. I have learned so much from reading her words. She is an insightful writer who tells it straight. A very brave and compassionate person, she shares her story about trauma resulting from heart surgery at age eight to more deeply understand her own life and to help prevent the suffering of others.

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It is difficult for me to differentiate the effects of trauma caused by heart surgery at 8 years old from the effects of trauma that previously occurred in my life. Because of these circumstances, I will discuss the known effects that were directly caused by heart surgery. I also believe it is of great importance to not only address the effects of trauma from heart surgery, but how they have come about and how medical professionals can unknowingly incite trauma with their words.

I only remember a few instances from this time period in my life, as I have avoided discussing or thinking about it for the last 14 years except at yearly doctor appointments. I will mention those moments that held the most significance to me, as I feel that most of the effects that have been placed on my life were derived from these few things.

One of them, possibly the most damaging, was the words uttered by my cardiologist the night I was frantically rushed to the hospital. He towered over me, stared directly into my eyes, while looking through me all at once while saying, “Had you not made it here tonight, you would have been dead by morning.” I was mortified. A switch had been turned off somewhere inside me as I heard his words. In that moment time stood still and I swallowed the most horrid dread I had ever felt in my life. I, at 8 years old, from this day forward, would always be teetering on the edge of death. Like a prisoner who just received news of a nearing lethal injection, I had been sentenced. I was rushed to the hospital to have emergency surgery.

Insomnia and anxiety became apparent immediately after I got home from surgery. Many nights I crept into my grandmother’s room sobbing uncontrollably at ungodly hours. I’d sit on the edge of her bed with my face buried in my hands asking if I was going to die tomorrow. She would always say, “I think we caught it in time.” The “it” being my heart problem; however, the word “think” blasted over every other thing she said. This word became one of the representations of the doubtfulness and unsure attitude that encompassed my entire life. Nothing was for certain, my destiny was interrupted, and “future” became a silly, painful, unthinkable word.

Unknowingly, through others words and the sequence of events surrounding surgery, I developed an outlook on life that would haunt me for many years—the idea that I couldn’t control my own life. As a few years passed, in accordance with this outlook, I became aware that though I could not control my own life, I could control and invoke my own death. By doing so, I would be back in control and I would kill myself before my health issues could have the opportunity. I was in charge. It was a race against time, I felt.

I began cutting myself up, putting cigarettes out on my arms, using drugs, and drinking heavily to black out so I could fall asleep and not deal with the pain of insomnia. I felt invincible and often tried to pick fights with strangers on the streets because I felt as though I couldn’t possibly be hurt any more than I already had. Through hurting myself I established a degree of power. If I hurt myself, I figured nothing else could. Through drinking and drugs my trauma and sadness resulting from surgery and the possibility of more to come later in life, turned into anger–an emotion I often mistook for strength. I tried to numb myself to the point where I became fearless to show others I was afraid of nothing when really, fear comprised every fiber of my being. I was in total denial. Every yearly appointment with my cardiologist during this period of time consisted of him asking me if I was “still carving my body like a Christmas ham and using my arms as ashtrays.” No longer did I respond. I believed that I completely separated having any emotion in regards to anything to do with my heart. I was damaged and waiting to die in my mind.

At 19, off of drugs, I was fortunate enough to work up the nerve to confront my cardiologist about how much his words had harmed me. He was shocked and tears began to stream down from his eyes at the thought of it. He had no idea the impact of what he said to me had lasted all these years. He allowed me to see him for yearly appointments until I was 22 (he was in the pediatrics department and this technically wasn’t allowed). Within those few years, I noticed a difference in his manner of practice and hope in my confronting him, some child down the line will avoid the hurt that I had to suffer through. If anyone has been traumatized by a medical professional and is in the right mind to confront them and has the opportunity to do so, please do to save further people from being harmed—one person can make a world of difference.

After getting clean from drugs, I have tried to pinpoint exactly why I began using and why I went down the harmful road I did. I believe it is rooted in trauma received from my health condition, surgery, and all that surrounded it. I think this is a common theme in people who have surgery and/or life-threatening conditions, especially in infancy or as young children. We feel as though our life and destiny has been altered by our condition or surgeries; therefore, we do everything in our power to establish some sort of control over the lives we feel that have been ripped away or violated. It is only human nature to do so. The unfortunate aspect of this is that often we go about it in the wrong way as I did with destroying myself.

Our duty as survivors is to recognize this suffering in others and help to guide them in a healthy direction of coping. The underlying cause of drug usage, alcoholism, self-destruction, etc. is often ignored and is related to trauma. If those who suffer are able to recognize this, healing can begin and more traumas can be avoided. We can all help one another. It is true that we are products of our pasts, but out pasts do not, under any circumstances, dictate who we have the ability to become within ourselves.

–Melissa Matheney was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her sister, reading, traveling, and volunteering with various needle exchanges to help active addicts live safer lifestyles.

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