This is post is one not everyone will want to read. I need to write about the self-harming that all too often is part of the post-traumatic stress that can result from surgery in early infancy.
Why do I feel the need to open up the subject of self-harming?
Because it is so often part of trauma, so common and yet so rarely mentioned.
For those who self-harm or have done so, I hope they will realise they are not as alone as they may feel.
For those who are close to a self-harmer (whether they realise it or not) I trust that reading my story will make them more aware of what usually causes self-harming and how they could become part of the self-harmer’s healing.
I deeply appreciate those who have expressed their respect, admiration or appreciation of my honesty and openness on this blogsite. I clearly do feel very deeply and passionately about my subject in all its forms and complexity. At my age I am thankfully well beyond my blogs affecting my nearest and dearest, myself and my work.
What is self-harming or self-injuring?
It is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue, usually without suicidal intentions. It may involve piercing, cutting, burning, banging or hitting body parts, and even poisoning. I am grateful that I self-harmed in only a very mild way, although I managed to do all four of the kinds of self-harming mentioned, and over a considerable time.
It should be noted that those affected by PTSD can also harm themselves in non-physical ways, showing their pain by unusual behaviour in many forms.
Why did I self-harm?
I was very rational about it. At the time I was very obsessed (and in a very private way) about the 10 x 3 cm scar on the middle of my body left by surgery for pyloric stenosis only a couple of weeks after my birth.
I wanted to experiment what would have caused this scar, what the cutting and stitching must have felt like, how the wounds healed, and what kind of tissue this kind of scar consisted of on and below the surface. Like most self-harmers I did all this without anybody knowing or even noticing, in high secrecy. Unlike many self-harmers I did not slash my arms, legs, or torso: I just worked on my scars. This meant I kept my scarred belly out of sight for more years than it would otherwise have taken me to come to terms with having a very obvious surgical scar.
Only well after reaching adulthood did I ever talk about my self-harming, and then only with my wife; she had some reasonable difficulty understanding me about this, although she has always made it clear that she loves and accepts me regardless of some inscrutabilities!
It is only in recent years that I have come to understand my self-harming more fully. My experimenting and attempts at re-experiencing were in fact only the tip of a kind of iceberg. I have learnt that self-harming in its various forms is a common sign of several conditions, including (in my case) trauma that has not been treated appropriately. My self-harming expressed my loneliness and alienation, frustration and even anger and hatred, and indeed self-punishment. It was also a coping mechanism to relieve my emotional pain. I now recognise all these feelings in this part of my life story.
The trauma of my surgery and all that went with it had been experienced by my body even though my mind was incapable of recording and recalling it. I believe my self-harming was part of my instinctive self-healing, as I re-imagined, re-experienced and explored what happened to my self so that I could integrate and calibrate my body’s memories and my powerful emotions. Dr Louis Tinnin has written very simply and accurately about recognising and treating trauma stress, and I have created a link (see BlogRoll at right) to the Freedom’s Calling videos at the Women of Grace website which has valuable video material on the same subject.
What might have helped me to avoid or reduce my self-harming?
Could I instead have worked through the trauma caused by my having had infant surgery? Today we have a much greater understanding of this whole subject, and this knowledge is shared by far greater part of the population in developed countries like mine. My counsel on how we can reduce the long-term effect of trauma on children must therefore not be seen as a criticism of my parents or medical lifesavers.
Pediatric doctors need to work towards healing the mind and soul as well as the presenting physical condition. In my work I have seen far too many doctors speak mere facts and deliberately leave the patient’s total needs for others to deal with. The parents of a very sick baby need much more than successful surgery, and so does the baby!
Parents must document and communicate their infant’s survival story. My parents not only refused to talk about my surgery; they made no photos, kept no diary, and destroyed the only bit of my survival story I have ever known existed: my weight chart. Sadly, mine is not only a wartime austerity story: on the web many survivors tell us their parents told them nothing, not even what caused their scar. Other parents resort to joking that would paralyse most children from ever raising the subject again.
Therapists and counsellors can teach us all so much about trauma: causes, recognition and healing. I plead with them to make their knowledge and skills more widely accessible. During my life’s work I have helped many people as a pastor and chaplain at very little or no cost to them. As a result I am like most people (even in prosperous Australia) in not being able to afford the high cost of a trauma therapist. It simply was never on my horizon! How I would have loved to hear and read what I now learn via the internet.
Which brings me back to why I’m here blogging!