Category Archives: Self-harming

Who do you think you are?

Recently I watched the 100th program of the popular TV series, Who do you think you are?

ponderAppropriately, it was a review of some of the most notable of the 100 stories to date.  Two utterly poignant segments joined “survivors” ardent about unearthing the fate of their ancestors and family members.  An Anglo-African woman hoped to find some mention of her ancestors who had laboured as African slaves in Antigua.  Another woman’s relatives were among the Jews trapped in Belorussia during the Holocaust: it was known that 2 girls in her family had been killed horrifically, literally by the hands of German soldiers.

I recalled the absolute apprehension and determination of the children of adoptive parents wanting to find their birth parents.

Some of the Who do you think you are? programs I have found to be rather “ho-hum” – interesting but somewhat lacking in power and passion.  But not so the heart-rending search for what exactly had happened in utter blackness long ago and faraway in Antigua and Belorussia.  Sometimes despite deep sadness or horror we just need to discover what we can find out.  We feel a deeply personal and profound bond with imprecise stories about our kith and kin, with the general facts about certain people in other times and places.

My own search has certainly been nothing as emotional as that of the two women with links to Antigua and Belorussia, but it’s been passionate just the same.

People02But it has also reminded me that my early PS, surgery, hospitalization and parenting have affected me more than many other infant PS survivors.  Most seem never to even think about their PS episode, some can’t identify or even care or want to know about “that scar”.  And others recoil at the mention of what their first weeks were like for them and their parents – like the Facebooker who asked me to delete a photo depicting the starvation that some babies suffer before they are properly diagnosed and treated.  We each manage our life stories in our own way.

My parents were people of bygone times who kept from me the details of the infant surgery I had when just 10 days old.  Before I was 6 years old, I became desperate to know what had created what I later learnt was a surgical scar, running down the middle of my young body, and how I should answer the inevitable questions of the curious.

During my growing years I picked up enough from conversations and books to understand the essence and effects of surgical work, and what pyloric stenosis was.  It didn’t take that long to learn how to avoid the inquisitive queries: I avoided most by covering up and lied away the rest.  Meanwhile I learnt what I could do to remove what I believed was a length of white string caught under my skin… the answer was of course: nothing.  Sure signs of inadequate parenting, an insecure child, an introspective nature, and (I discovered later) signs of PTSD and OCD.

A busy working and family life, plus the now understandable reticence of the then available information sources meant that between the ages of 20 and 60 I learnt little more.  But “the need to know” was kept alive by my continuing episodes of feeling embarrassed, obsessed, and self-harming because of my scar and story.

Q mark2The advent of the internet with its free, rich and growing flow of information and its potential for community-building was a major breakthrough and gift for me.  It gave me many details which I had never heard or fully understood, and which I quickly recognized as some of the missing pieces of my puzzle.

Amongst much else I learnt –

  • most of what I now know about infant PS – and that there is an adult form of this condition;
  • how infant surgery was usually done before 1987 (and still is in the case of many circumcisions);
  • that the danger of infection before the 1960s had a major impact on hospital protocols and procedures – with great effects on all concerned;
  • that trauma (another “hush-hush” subject at the time) affected many of the babies and adults of those times;
  • that PS and its surgical repair leave many with life-long problems, for some minor but for others very disruptive;
  • that many medical workers were and remain ill-equipped to understand and fully help those who seek their assistance;
  • that healing occurs in many ways and that we each seek or find our individual path; and
  • that many of my approximate contemporaries who have had early surgery and are willing to network report psychological and related difficulties very similar to mine.
  • that although my parents both died in the early 1990s without ever engaging with me about what were some obvious “issues”, I have discovered that the very little they did tell me and the main import of what I have learnt since are a perfect match!
  • that I am part of a large number of infant surgery survivors who share my passion to connect our past and present: I receive a steady stream or comments from readers who value my sharing, explaining and honesty about what I have learnt.

woman at PCI have enjoyed years of interaction with countless others who had older-times infant surgery and were able and willing to share their stories.  This blog has triggered many of these passing contacts – and a few deep and revealing friendships.  Forum and social networking sites such as Facebook, Experience Project, MedHelp, Patient, and Topix have been valuable also.  Facebook alone has more than a dozen PS Support Groups (although only a few see significant traffic) with over 700 members!

Something deeply personal which I still don’t quite understand but sense I should is a powerful motivator.  Whilst appreciating and respecting those whose problems are much larger than mine, I too remain both passionate and thankful about what I have learnt about “my story” which my parents kept from me.

I am now much better to join the dots between my past and present!

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Understanding ourselves after infant surgery trauma

Some personal experiences are hard to share.

We can relate to many of the personal experiences we hear about: by the time we reach middle age many of us have been through an illness or an accident; we have probably experienced childbirth (if not personally then as a very close and trusted family member or friend); the death of a close relative or friend also happens to everyone sooner or later.  We can identify fairly well with many such life events.

But deep trauma can be more difficult to understand.  If we have never experienced near death or serious abuse in one form or other, we can say, “Yes, I understand…”, but we don’t really to a great extent.  Those of us who have suffered deep trauma usually feel the need to find somebody else who has experienced something similar, or a counsellor who is trained to listen and help us.

In November 2014 I wrote a series of posts on professional doctors, psychiatrists and counsellors who have done ground-breaking work in helping patients and professional helpers to understand infant trauma.  Reading some of the key work of people like Drs K J S Anand and P R Hickey, the late Dr David Chamberlain, the late Dr Louis Tinnin, and others has been an “Ah!” moment of discovery and gratitude to people like me who have been affected by infant surgery (including circumcision) as that was so often practised before the 1990s, without general or even local anesthesia, using other crude, painful and invasive procedures, and with long periods of maternal deprivation.

ponderFor much of my childhood I was obsessed with a very obvious surgical scar in the middle of my belly, the result of 1945 surgery to remedy pyloric stenosis when I was just 10 days old.  From my parents’ ultra-scant comments, I soon came to understand this early episode in my life story was one they’d rather forget.  From the medical reports of the time which I’ve been able to read in recent years, I have learnt that infant surgical technique in 1945would have been basic, and it was followed by at least 2 weeks of isolation in hospital to guard against infection.

When my self-awareness awoke between the age of 5 and 6, I soon became obsessed with my scar, addicted to re-enacting what little I knew about my surgery in childish ways, and then to increasing self-harm.  It is not helpful or necessary to go into details here, but readers who have had similar problems and feel a need to find greater clarity, healing and reassurance should feel free to email me via the links at the end of other “pages” on this blog’s header.

Why I felt these deep and irresistible urges I did not understand for most of my life, but they troubled me.  I believe my parents could have helped me by (1) explaining my surgery and scar, and (2) helping, persuading, tempting and rewarding me to accept and feel proud of my story and scarred body rather than fearfully hiding it from public view.  But I also wonder whether the power of the trauma of my early surgery might have overridden anything anyone tried to do later!

VdKolkBessel 2015Last week our Australian national radio aired an interview with the US Prof. Bessel van der Kolk whose writings have recently been overviewed and quoted by my blogging colleague Wendy P Williams.  A New York Times article about Dr van der Kolk is also well worth reading.  Yet another article about van der Kolk’s work on infant trauma has been made available by those advocating an end to routine circumcision in the USA.

Dr van der Kolk’s website has links to his work, programs and publications, one of which at least is also freely available online and well worth reading.

Prof. Van der Kolk is undoubtedly correct in saying that trauma caused by events in childhood and in later life is causing a hidden epidemic of personal, family and social problems.  Only in recent years have childhood abuse and military service begun to be more widely recognised as often causing deep-seated and lasting damage.  Even now the military establishment often tries to deny or ignore the obvious damage done by PTSD.

Van der Kolk is also correct in his observation that the numbers afflicted by the trauma of childhood and later vastly outnumber those affected by the infant surgery and mass circumcisions of past years.

However, I have never yet heard of a study of the possible long-term effects of circumcision in the light of what van der Kolk and so many others (including the above trailblazers) have documented as the life-long effects of infant trauma.  Such a study may not make pleasant reading but would very quickly and certainly become “a barbeque stopper” and might even be a “game changer”.

Although Dr van der Kolk does not seem to have encompassed old-time early surgery in his work on childhood trauma, I can shout in my loudest voice that from what I have read, what he has written about the effects of childhood hurt is totally true of my journey after infant pyloric stenosis.  Thank you, Dr Bessel van der Kolk and others, for helping me to understand myself and find healing!

Networking after pyloric stenosis (4): Emotional baggage

This post continues a series in which people who started life with infant pyloric stenosis (“PS”) and were usually left with a very gnarly or sunken surgical scar tell something of the psychological damage that came with that.  The social pages of Facebook include at least seven Groups of such people and the comments below are taken from these pages.

In their most formative years many PS survivors didn’t understand the reason for the surgical scar on their belly: their parents were perhaps embarrassed or reluctant to explain it because of their own inner pain over those pages of their life story.

Even during our honeymoon this pose shows how careful I was about showing my belly to the world.

Even during our honeymoon this pose shows how careful I was about showing my belly to the world.

When PS survivors feel shame about their scar, it’s typically because their personality is not extroverted and confident, and/or because they were not helped from an early age to understand the story of their PS and to “own” and wear their scar with pride and gratitude. Let’s face it, not many of like to be “really different”, and when we’re not helped to understand and appreciate the issues involved…

Here is the record of some of the emotional struggles PS’ers feel or have felt.

T B – c. 1990
I have gone through stages where I have become depressed over the scar left, however I think I am beginning to accept it more.  I’m an avid fitness enthusiast and weightlifter.  In saying this, I try to stay in shape.  However I still feel really uncomfortable taking my shirt off in public or around people I don’t know… the internet has made it easier.  It shows that there are “others” out there… I feel the scar is something I should be proud of instead of ashamed.

D C-S  1974
My ops were both in 1974, left me with a big zip scar down my front from sternum to belly button.  Wouldn’t be without it, but it has left me affected mentally and has left me with a variety of digestive tract issues.

Panama man

When infant surgery leaves your body looking like this man’s, only the very self-confident would ever feel at all comfortable

K D 1949
Gosh all your scars still look way better than mine.  I am 64, an old girl, and had it done at 12 weeks.  Huge vertical with big dots horizontally.  I’m in Australia and it is amazing to see how far surgery has advanced.  Have been embarrassed by my scar all my life and never wore a bikini.

J H 1962
I struggled with my scar for years… especially in school, sports, etc.  Always was embarrassed to take my shirt off, kept my arms folded, etc.  Now I’m proud of it and love to show it.
Growing up I used to be so embarrassed.  It’s something I had trouble overcoming… but finally did.

FV 1945
Because I had my op long ago when lots of the issues around it were pretty basic, I’ve had some emotional baggage, probably mild ptsd, shame and obsession for many years, now still in some ways an inordinate interest, although working on the issues and age have helped me heal inwardly.  Suspect there’s also some damage from the hunger and dehydration, as I lag behind all my 4 sibs in some areas.  But I’m glad I lived and don’t have the problems some have, esp. adhesions and serious bowel issues.

WW 1952
I’m 57 and had PS surgery at 3 weeks old and my mother told me that I never crawled.  I would only pull myself along on my butt.  (This behavior, I think, is very connected to the surgery.)  I did walk late, as I recall her saying.  For me, I think transitions have always been hard.  Safety is a big issue.  All my life, I’ve been a late bloomer.  For me, it’s definitely connected to the surgery.  I lost some confidence early on and doubted the power of my body.

parent-talking-to-childIt is noteworthy that most of these kinds of Comments are from people who had their PS surgery many years ago, when the surgical techniques were fairly crude and not cosmetically sensitive, hospital care was rough and ready, and parents did not know as much about child psych as we do today.  These Facebook comments are typical of other forum sites I have read.

However, the one comment (the first one) that is from a younger PS survivor shows that “emotional” baggage after PS surgery is not simply related to whether the surgery and scar were relatively recent or not. Again, many of us just hate being different.

These Comments also show that emotional, psychological and PTSD consequences can show up in different ways.

This series based on Facebook common interest sites also bears out that the medical alternative to treating PS surgically should be considered in every case – as it is in several developed countries.  This option like surgery is not always trouble-free, but will avoid most if not all the serious complaints and problems which fill the PS pages of the web’s forum sites.


During the 3 months after this post was written my wife and I were travelling, visiting family and friends and holidaying in the U.K. and Europe. My Facebook page records some of this wonderful and special time (accessible to Facebookers who “Friend” me).

This series of posts was continued soon after my return home.

Scars and sexuality (2)

Why write a post like this and the previous one, on scars and sexuality, beyond doubt a very personal and sensitive subject?

Not from a perverted interest or pleasure.  Although the subject continues to interest and puzzle me, I don’t get any buzz from writing about it.

  • As I have mentioned in earlier posts, writing helps me to research and reflect on issues that I find challenging.
  • My other reason for writing is that a blogsite like this one lowers the walls that keep some of us locked in the worry and fear that I may be all alone on the planet with a uniquely strange problem.

Here are some further reflections and discoveries on this subject –

  • I have read snippets about the infant surgery from more than a thousand people during the past 15 years, ranging from cryptic remarks to extensive correspondence.  But very, very few of these people have mentioned a link between being scarred and traumatised by infant surgery and their sexual feelings.  Significantly however, a very few have touched on this area or shown that it’s a factor in other ways.  All of these are men – no surprise to me, and it should not surprise anybody reading this, as I am male and males and females experience our inner life somewhat differently.
  • self-harmA book by Fiona Gardner, Self-Harm: A Psychotherapeutic Approach, Routledge, 2002, which I was able to browse through online included this insight –
    Most adolescents begin to explore something about their developing sexual desires through masturbation.  It is generally acknowledged that girls, in comparison to their male counterparts, masturbate less frequently and more indirectly, and rarely have spontaneous orgasms through masturbation.  For boys the discovery of masturbation leads to the development of a sense of autonomy and can be used as a way of soothing or comforting themselves. … aspects of the repetitive harming of the skin can be seen to provide in part a masturbatory activity for some adolescent girls.  This partly because of the feelings of self-soothing that are provoked and which co-exist alongside the libidinal gratification produced through the activity. (both p. 64)
    What Fiona Gardner writes here complements what I wrote in my previous post.  She also confirms what I have read elsewhere: that self-harm can be a masturbatory activity and is most prevalent among teenage girls – although not exclusively so.
  • At an anonymous website dedicated to helping self-harmers from a (perhaps overly simplistic) Christian perspective I read –
    Self-loathing and/or self-injury is an exceedingly complex issue because it is an expression of the depths of one’s humanity.  Self-harm is a manifestation of a need that totally eclipses animals or machines – the need to comprehend complex concepts and emotions and to communicate them with an equally intelligent being.  It reveals that you, like all humans, are a breathtakingly intricate, sophisticated and noble being with lofty ideals and a deep yearning to understand and be understood.
    2 Corinthians 5:21  God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
    Until making this discovery, whenever anyone criticized me I would go into a tailspin; not only inwardly agreeing with the putdown but telling myself that I’m incurably wicked and deserve to be treated as dirt and ruthlessly punished.  Quickly, the oppressive feeling would balloon until it was so overwhelming that I felt compelled to hurt myself (usually by cutting myself).  After that, I’d feel so miserable that I’d be pressured to masturbate in a vain attempt to comfort myself.
    Now, everything has changed!
  • Self harm is addictive.  The Fix website includes much of great clarity and value.  Among this it states very concisely –
    “When a person cuts, it calms them down, and that registers in the brain as a calming mechanism,” says Hokemeyer.  “Once that happens, it’s a behavior that they will always be drawn to for the rest of their lives.”

I recognize now that I was drawn into this form of addiction in early teenage.  It was all my own work, very private and never shared in any way.  It was absolutely clear to me that there was a connection between my infant surgery for pyloric stenosis, self-harming and my dawning sexuality, but I was quite unable to understand, let alone escape from this super-glue web.  However, I also knew that this addiction was relatively harmless to myself, harmed nobody else, had a negligible effect on my life, and would therefore not trouble God (as I believed in him on the basis of the Bible).

  • managing scarSeveral websites I looked up link massage, tattooing and acupuncture as pleasurable and even addictive to some because they release beta-endorphins.  These procedures are often recommended after surgery because endorphins reduce pain and increase blood circulation, healing, waste removal as well as giving pleasure and comfort.  These effects from the release of this handy hormone may also reduce scarring in the weeks and months after surgery and other injury.

When I was a lad and teenager in the 1950s and ‘60s, trauma and its effects were unknown to people like me.  I have since come to recognize that the trauma associated with my pyloric stenosis was the missing link that connected all my “weird” urges, behaviour and coping mechanisms on a thread that also included the other problems I mentioned in my previous post: anger, shame, mistrust, etc.

Long live the Information Revolution!

Surviving infant surgery – why some do so in pain

Many who have had infant surgery spend considerable time and emotional energy hating their scar and trying to hide it.  Like many, I spent many hours in front of the only full-length mirror we had at home in the 1950s.  Like some, I started punishing my body and exploring the scar over my stomach (from pyloric stenosis surgery) before I was 10 years old, and did this for at least 15 years after that.

Some infant surgery scars are hard to hide – or hide all the time.  I think I grew up as a fairly normal boy in most respects and situations, but shrivelled into deeply emotional and instinctively feral behaviour when I felt threatened by having my one and only imperfection exposed!

Yet I’ve been surprised to find that many others who have had the same or more major surgery as babies grew up with the support, skills and confidence that enabled them to handle their being damaged with dignity, appropriate maturity, and sometimes even good humour.

I’ve often wondered: why the difference?

The most significant factors I can think of are temperament, trauma, and parenting – and these are usually related.  Let me explain.

Temperament

My Myers-Briggs personality profile is one I have the honour of sharing with “greats” including Queen Elizabeth 2, Charles Dickens and St Teresa of Avila.  But it also made me vulnerable.

I’m introverted – what goes on inside me matters more to me than who and what is “out there”.  It’s helped me be considerate and aware of others’ feelings, but it also means I find it hard to get over myself and see the big picture.

I am sensing rather than intuitive.  In the Myers-Briggs grid this means I want facts, not feelings, and to understand rather than depend on vague underlying truths – like trusting my parents to answer my questions “when you grow up”.

I am a feeler rather than a thinker.  Don’t bulldoze me with reason, facts and rules; rather let me feel you empathise with me and then help me to weigh up all the facts and get into harmony with my situation.

Finally, I tend to judge rather than perceive.  According to Myers-Briggs this means I tend to be stronger on empathy than logic.

Every theory or grid has its value as well as limitations.  My personality profile has helped me to understand why I clashed with my parents, and especially my strong mother!  It also helps me to understand why I was so deeply affected by the stonewalling by which she became integral to the growing problem I had with my infant surgery and scar, these taking on the dimension of trauma stress.

But my character profile also helps me in two other ways.

First, I realise now that it would have been impossible for my mother to help me: how many parents in her times (the 1950s) and her circumstances (1) knew what we can know today, and (2) have the skills to help their child-with-an-issue?  I love Mum, feel sad that she went through so much because of my illness and surgery, and am grateful for her undoubted love, skills, and commitment.

Second, I have come to understand why I reacted so strongly and damagingly when my questions weren’t dealt with well, and my feelings of shame continued to build with each curious look and question and beach trip.  I have written about this in previous posts.

Trauma

What I have mentioned above and in earlier posts caused what I have come to recognise as post-traumatic stress.  PTSD results from many different causes and comes in various levels of intensity.  I am glad I never had suicidal thoughts but I certainly self-harmed.  My symptoms were very clearly linked with my infant pyloric stenosis surgery and my parents’ difficulty in helping me to deal with that.  The symptoms were only sometimes noticed by others but were with me almost as long as I am aware and affected my enjoyment of life in specific situations.  I have never been able or felt free to seek professional help – and wish I could have!

Parenting

What I have mentioned here and in earlier posts should make it abundantly clear that my parents’ inability to help me was also a major factor in why I am among those who (apparently unlike the great majority) have few or no lifelong pain resulting from their infant surgery.

Your take?

I would value Readers’ response to what you have read.

  • If your infant surgery affected you, how did it?
  • What are the reasons it affected you?
  • What has helped you to manage your “survival”?
  • Any other comments?  Feel free!

Self-harming: a pain-filled subject

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.

What do I expect to gain from writing about my self-harming?

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!