This family snap shows me in the mid 1950s, sitting with my younger brother and two oldest sisters on the verandah of our holiday house in Stanwell Park. Several times in those years my hard-pressed migrant parents were able to ease their poverty when a Christian family gave us the free use of their holiday cottage for two or three weeks.
We usually went there in February, when Sydney is hot and very humid. Stanwell Park is on the beautiful coast just south of Sydney, but we often scored the tail-end of deep lows out in the turbulent Tasman Sea: stormy winds, pouring rain, and little beach weather. But they were good family times: we would sleep under mosquito nets (how exciting) and used that 3-sided verandah and the surrounding bush to very good effect. Many great memories.
This photo is also one of several that reminds me that as a young lad I had regular battles with mum because of the way I wore the swimmers she made us: I pulled them up to my chest to hide a prominent scar I had no clue how to deal with.
In recent years the internet has allowed me to become aware of the distress young parents still suffer when their newborn baby becomes sick and needs surgery (“the most terrible time I’ve ever been through”). In a future blog I want to sketch how much more terrifying infant surgery was for parents in the earlier 20th century.
The internet also expresses the deep feelings some of us have about having been marked for life with a scar of which we have no memory, and to which we could never give our assent.
The web has enabled me to comprehend what the hospitalisation and surgery of babies meant until just a few decades ago. Knowing what I do about my parents’ circumstances in the 1940s, only recently have I come to grasp that both my parents and I myself were deeply affected and probably traumatised by my early surgery.
In previous blogs I have written that my parents stonewalled all my attempts to extract from them the story of the scar over my stomach, and it’s become clear they never wanted to revisit that harrowing 1945 chapter. In the far simpler times of my childhood and adolescence neither they nor I had a clue on how to “unpack” and deal with our pain over my pyloric stenosis and time in hospital.
And is it any wonder that their stonewalling infected as well as affected me? Only in recent years have I grown to understand and accept my complete failure over so many years to deal with my inner hurt, frustration and anger.
The beach is one of my loves, and swimming is my favourite form of exercise, but until my 30’s I found it impossible to show the world my torso. Just at the thought I would be gripped by fear and unreason: I folded my arms, pulled my swimmers up so high that the thought still mortifies me. I fended off the questions of the curious with embarrassing and terrified denials that there was anything special about my belly.
I can be an uncomfortable hot-body, but I would put up with wearing a stifling shirt on steamy Sydney summer days, and at school I worked out ways of avoiding or disappearing from phys ed classes if I got wind that the lesson might involve removing my T-shirt.
Not to mention the racing heart, the blushing, the deep discomfort I felt whenever a conversation included a word from a whole page of medical words like “doctor”, “operation” and “stomach”. And the years of self-harming my scar – or was that punishing or hating it?
Again, our understanding of all this has grown so much.
I know now that for much of my life I’ve struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The recent post of the US psychiatrist Dr Louis Tinnin (Link 3 on the Blogroll to the right) is a priceless resource that has given me so much added clarity and reassurance.
Like a threatened animal that has to choose between fight and flight, I’ve always known I could not fight (never been much of a fighter!) and so flight was my only and instinctive response whenever I felt danger.
Therapy and counselling were not on my horizon during most of my life, but I’m grateful that I’ve nevertheless managed to grow and heal to a great extent. I’ve never been suicidal but do ruminate a lot. Reading and researching, networking and sharing stories, reflecting and understanding have all helped. All of these have been built on the foundation of a stable nature, marriage and family, all based on strong personal Christian values.
Again, the internet has been so valuable, as it’s enabled me to leave my feelings of utter loneliness behind and relate to others with similar stories and experiences.