Taming the elephant

At just 10 days old I spent a few weeks in hospital recovering from an operation to remedy a pyloric stenosis (blocked stomach).  My parents would never talk with me about the details of what actually happened and how it might have affected them and me, but all my life I have struggled with some of the typical symptoms of trauma.  In earlier blogs I have written about how some of these symptoms of my pre-conscious trauma have affected me.

I am frustrated by how complex and subterranean these symptoms have been, but have learnt that the effects of stress are like that, whether its origin has been remembered, supressed, or recorded in our wordless memory.  Consider this:

  • my memory of life events before age 4 or 5 years is blank,
  • I feel thankful for my life,
  • I was raised in a happy and stable home,
  • I have not suffered any other trauma,
  • I believe I have benefitted greatly from being a life-long Christ-follower, and
  • I’ve had a happy, interesting and productive life in many ways.

And yet the relatively minor surgery I had so young has been the elephant in the room through all of my life.  Nobody can see this beast but it’s almost always there: as large as life, potentially overpowering, painfully embarrassing at times, so often affecting my mind and sometimes what I do.

I’d love to be able to “put it (this elephant) behind me” and to “move on” as those closest to me might urge me.  I wish it would be less influential, or even better, to move out.  I’d like to be able to forget about it, or not to have it affect my life any more.  Why can’t I control it?

I have no answers (and there probably are none) to this question and to others which I and my nearest and dearest have asked.  What was it about the illness, the surgery, the hospital stay, my personality and choices, and my parents, that created this elephant?  Could its settling into my “room” have been avoided at any point or in some way?

By nature I am introspective and sensitive.  I recognise that this may well not help me, but don’t extroverts and driven people have resident elephants too?

Friends of mine have had counselling and other forms of therapy: a good counsellor can teach us ways of managing our elephants, and they can walk beside us as we make progress putting our life of obsessions behind us.  Like me, people have read, written, talked and networked about their pain and their “elephant”.  And as I wrote last week, the passing years often bring greater confidence and peace, and may even enable us to embrace our demon as a life-enhancing friend or a sacrament.

But those of us who share an infant surgery story like mine and have found themselves living with trauma find that whilst all of the available resources are helpful, comforting, clarifying, and in various ways healing, their elephant never quite moves out altogether.

Traumas including our obsessions are like the negative genetic traits we’re born with and the scars we gather up: they are indelible and they can dominate our life.  But they will fade, especially if we learn and work to gain control over them.

2 thoughts on “Taming the elephant

  1. wendy williams

    The “relatively minor surgery” that you had so young was not “minor” back in the 1940s. I know that my operation for pyloric stenosis at 26 days old was considered very serious. First I had lost over 2 pounds before the surgery and second, the surgery was not common, according to my mother, and special professionals had to be brought in. My prognosis was not good and my mother did not even sign the consent for the operation because, according to the hospital staff, I was failing. Compared to today, with those cute little clear plastic tubes, the fancy, neater laparoscopic procedures, and the advances in infection control, surgery in the 1940s was the stuff of the dinosaur age.and likely done without anesthesia. “Minor surgery”? I tend to think not. You and your family went through some tough stuff and you are awesome for surviving!

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    You are right, Wendy, and thanks for your Comment.
    It’s only today that the surgery for pyloric stenosis is regarded as relatively minor, and some would say now that it is also one of the most “elegant and effective” surgeries. It wasn’t always like that. When we underwent this operation it was a gruelling procedure with considerable risk and a substantial number of deaths. The recovery period carried its own hazards and was lengthy: a difficult and damaging time for the mother as well as the baby.
    What is especially sad is first, that even today it is often far too long before the medical world recognises this rather common and obvious condition and takes it seriously, and second, that when caught early it is not more often treated with medication with far less damage, pain and risk than the surgical option.


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