How can something I cannot remember and of which I know so little affect me deeply throughout my life, right to the present day?
Regular readers will recall that I had surgery for infant pyloric stenosis in 1945, and that I am not alone in this still disturbing my inner life.
From time to time I return to the 10 questions Dr Louis Tinnin asked in a blog posted late 2010. As an academic and practising psychiatrist he uses these questions to help people assess whether they have been traumatised by early infant surgery at a time when medical thinking and practice was primitive by today’s standards and when many of those working in that field believed that “babies don’t feel or remember pain”. It’s not hard to imagine what that meant for medical training and practice.
The internet has enabled people like me who can tick Dr Tinnin’s boxes to be reassured that we are not crazy or mere attention seekers, and to lend support to and draw it from others who have lived with the same mysterious link between their preconscious and their everyday life.
The surgery I had during my first weeks after birth was technically well done. Although my parents would not talk about it, as far as I am aware there were none of the complications that occur so easily after any surgery. Much can and does sometimes go wrong when a tiny baby is opened up, has its internals worked on, is repaired, and has to recover. In my case there was no infection or undue bleeding, the procedure to bring my stomach exit muscle under control was effective at the first attempt, the wound did not rupture but healed quite tidily considering then current technique, and no hernia developed in one the most problem-prone parts of my abdominal wall.
Many people have had no ongoing effects after having the same operation in their early life. Yet I and others have found it has affected them throughout life, albeit below the surface. Most people who know me, have interacted or worked with me, and benefitted from my work have never noticed anything of my private pain.
What do I mean by “private pain” then?
Dr Tinnin writes that “adult survivors report life-long symptoms of anxiety (constant nervousness and spells of terror or panic), hostility (temper outbursts and urges to smash or break things), depression, self-consciousness, distrust of others, and a high vulnerability to stress.” The many symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include these, but much more; the symptoms of early surgery survivors are usually both broader and milder than those of PTSD which arises from trauma in conscious life.
I should add to Dr Tinnin’s list obsessiveness, a symptom which (judging by contact with other survivors) seems to be quite common. For me this obsessiveness has had various forms.
As a child I always wanted to play “doctors”, with myself as the patient. Throughout my life I have had an inordinate level of interest in the scar left by my surgery, whilst other “survivors” report almost forgetting theirs, just as I rarely think of my other scars. All my life I have sought out books and articles on pyloric stenosis and many of the details of surgery. Another lifelong obsession has been looking for “scar siblings” whenever I’m at the pool or beach, or whenever I see an image of somebody with a bare midriff! And I often notice objects or patterns similar to the scar on my belly. I’m so often aware of my scar in various ways. Not unexpectedly I hate all this obsessive preoccupation; I have tried in vain to put it away, to “move on”; I wish I could wipe it from my mind. Time has healed nothing here.
However, my life stage is now that of “convergence”: I have found it true that in many ways my life is truly “coming together”. During the past 10 – 15 years I have recognised and come to enjoy the benefits of becoming “a senior”: the rich treasure of knowledge and experience, life lessons and self-knowledge. These enable me to live and work with a lot more wisdom, tranquillity (and warm fuzzies) than ever before!
As part of this ripening, I have come to regard my early surgery in terms of a sacrament rather than merely a scar. I define a sacrament as a God-given picture and pledge of the good things for which I thank God. In some ways more than most people, I was born imperfect, and my repair marked me for life. But I don’t regret being a survivor, and am deeply grateful that I was given life whereas 30 years earlier I would probably have died.
There are several vexing questions about all this which I want to explore in my next blogs.
However, these questions do not alter for me the fact that my front-and-centre scar which used to discomfit me so terribly and absurdly has now become an inevitable part of a sacrament.