This story is about a series of childhood experiences that, until March 2012, I’d long dismissed as not that relevant to my life.
Not long after I was born, I was catheterized for a suspected urinary tract infection (UTI). That post-birth infection was the first of what turned into a long chain of unrelenting UTI’s and catheterizations, until I was three and a half years old when I had surgery to correct a mild structural abnormality in my urethra.
From that first infection at two months old until six months post-surgery, my young body was plied with antibiotics, twice daily. All told, I was on antibiotics for the first four years of my life. To this day, I live within the confines of a screwy immune, digestive, and nervous system.
Incomplete medical records reveal that I was catheterized at least six, and possibly as many as twelve times in the first two and a half years of life, before the age of toilet training, when they could finally get clean-catch specimens, which my mom remembers bringing to the doctor ” all the time”. In addition to the general-anesthesia surgery, I endured multiple painful diagnostic procedures (ultrasounds with catheter etc.).
I was left without the comfort of a safe, familiar face during all of these procedures because my mom was not allowed to be with me. From what I’ve recently learned, catheterizing a baby requires her to be held down, often by multiple people, and it sometimes takes repeat tries to insert the catheter into such a tiny, already painful place in the middle of the vulva.
My research reveals that parents who assist in holding down a child are often vicariously traumatized by the baby’s degree of distress. My mom was also prohibited from staying overnight with me in the hospital after my surgery. So at three and a half years old, with an indwelling catheter, and hand restraints to prevent me from pulling out the catheter, I spent 3 nights alone in the hospital. This was almost forty years ago when pediatric hospital policies were radically different than they are today.
The surgery mostly resolved the unremitting infections. But when I was twelve, for some unknown reason, I was catheterized again. My mom, wasn’t in the room with me at the time, shudders now when she recalls hearing me “let out a scream a mother would never forget”. Yet, I don’t remember a thing. Nothing. Not at 12, not at 3, and not any of those many catheterizations in my first couple years of life.
This total lack of conscious memory is one reason why it’s been easy for me to dismiss my early history as insignificant, despite the fact that I’ve had lifelong vaginal pain, and that my health collapsed in my early twenties and I’ve spent the last seventeen years trying to get well from a long list of maladies, with limited success and much suffering.
The degree to which I’ve blocked out this childhood experience is astounding. For most of my life, when I thought about this medical history (which was hardly ever), I’d tell myself or providers, things like “Who cares, I didn’t have cancer or lose a limb. This wasn’t a big deal. Babies don’t remember anything anyway. All babies get colds and infections and shit like that.”
I’ve been to countless health care providers (traditional and alternative) over the years, for my long list of physical issues. Sometimes I’d mention the vaginal pain in the list of complaints, sometimes not. But even when I did, I usually put it at the bottom of the list of complaints.
On more than one occasion, I remember astute providers probing further, discovering the childhood history. And I remember one particularly insightful provider saying to me something like this, “You know, maybe with that history, your vaginal pain should be at the top of your list. You went through something really awful. It might be ground zero for all your other health problems.”
But my blocks around this were bizarre and profound, and I just wasn’t interested in excavating.
Until this past March, when I was interviewed by a doctor in Portland, Maine who is researching the impact of invasive childhood genital medical procedures on adult women.
After listening carefully to my history, the severity and extent of which surpassed the other women she’d interviewed, she said to me: “Kyle, I am so so sorry for what you went through. Even though their goal was to help you, what you experienced in your most formative years was repetitive genital medical trauma.”
Those four words made me feel light-headed and fuzzy-brained, and it felt like time stopped.
Some other part of my brain heard the doctor continue, “No child is ever supposed to be penetrated. For any reason. And the things they did to you were incredibly invasive. Your first experience of your genitals was supposed to be pleasurable, even peeing feels good to most kids, but yours was of extreme pain, from the infections themselves and the countless probing procedures. The intent was good, but a child could experience all of it very similarly to sexual abuse…”
I continued to feel light-headed and the tears started dripping out of my eyes.
In a moment of flooding clarity, many of my deepest struggles started to make sense. I daydream about being alive but without a body; my body moves from one physical struggle to another, without respite; I’ve wrestled with long-term depression; I’m incredibly hyper-vigilant; my need for control is profound; I’m sensitive to just about everything external that can penetrate me, whether it’s sound, light, foods, medicine, chemicals; and I’m phobic of physical pain.
The doctor explained to me that historically, babies were thought to have no memory or feelings about painful experiences. But current research is starting to show the opposite. Infancy, when the nervous system is still developing, and before a child is able to verbalize and process her fears or regulate her emotions, is one of the most damaging times of life to experience trauma. Or, as another clinician explained to me, the primary task of the first year of life is to feel safe in the physical world.
As I learn more about trauma, I’m starting to understand that even if my mind can repress the memories, my body remembers everything. The current trauma paradigm suggests that the most effective healing happens, not by reliving old trauma, but by finding ways to communicate with, and release, the body’s holding of the trauma.
I recently heard a story about the body remembering what the mind cannot. In her early thirties, a woman with long-term vaginal pain, started having dreams that suggested something invasive happened to her as a child, but she wasn’t aware of anything. So she asked her mom. It turned out that, as an infant, she’d had the same surgery that I did when I was three. Nearly thirty years later, her infant self insisted on finally being heard.
Three months after being interviewed by the doctor, my lifelong low-grade, don’t-bother-it-and-it-won’t-bother-me vaginal pain escalated into this current, acute, daily four-month flare, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Is the onset of that pain a coincidence? I’ll never know, but I doubt it.
During the interview, in that moment when I felt lightheaded and time stopped, I wonder if the young, traumatized, exiled parts of me heard someone, in this case the doctor, finally acknowledge the trauma I experienced so many years ago, an external validation I’d been unable to offer myself. And because my body knows I’m masterful at suppressing memories and feelings, maybe it decided that the volume on the pain needed to get turned way up to sustain my attention long enough to do the hard work required to heal.