Living with Pain: Psychological Trauma and Pain

Living with Pain: Psychological Trauma and Pain

My friend Bobby and I decided it was too hot on a June afternoon in Kentucky to continue playing basketball on the court outside our Catholic grade school. We were both 13 years old and were shadowed by Bobby’s 10 year old brother, Davey, circling us with his bike while we played.

As we left the gas station across the street from our parish, Bobby and I tried to ditch his brother. We ran through the gas station lot and across a 4-lane road. Davey saw us as we were crossing the median and he charged after us on his bike.

Bobby and I turned to watch Davey pedaling hard to catch up with us. As we turned to look back, a car shot by and hit Davy broadside. He flew up from his bike, somersaulted through space about 15 feet above the roadway, and landed 30 or so feet past us.

Running to him we thought he was dead. Davey was lying on his back with both legs at grotesque angles with blood pouring from a baseball sized hole in his right thigh.

Davey survived, but spent the entire summer lying in bed in a chest to ankle cast. I felt horrible. It was my idea to ditch Davey and I felt responsible for his injuries. I could barely talk to Bobby and felt horrible around their mother, who I was sure blamed me for Davey’s injuries. I had nightmares on and off the rest of the summer.

bigstock-Depressed-Man-Sitting-On-Top-O-48751034Two years later my grandmother, who had been visiting us from Pennsylvania, suffered a mild heart attack and was briefly hospitalized. A week after she returned to our house, my parents left my younger sister and me home with our grandmother after dinner, and went shopping with our 3 year old brother.

While playing cards with grandma, she left the table and went back to my bedroom where she was staying. Within moments we heard a muffled thud. I instantly knew. Frightened, I told my 10 year old sister to stay put and hurried back to grandma.

To my horror, I found her on the floor, eyes rolled back, frothing at the mouth with her body  spasmodically shaking with her heels slapping the wood floor.

I froze. She didn’t look human. I called her name several times and she couldn’t respond. I’d just learned the new method of mouth-to-mouth breathing to resuscitate someone in distress. But I couldn’t move and I couldn’t think.

When my mind restarted, I knew I couldn’t give my grandmother mouth to mouth resuscitation. I was horrified and gagged at the thought. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, kneeling next to her, I said I was going for help.

As I flew past my sister, I warned her to stay put. I ran next door, but the neighbors weren’t home. I raced across their yard to my best friend Pat’s house. Within seconds of hammering on their door his mother, usually bedridden with arthritis, slowly opened the door wide enough for me to blurt out my dilemma.

She told me to run back home and that she’d call emergency services.

Back in my bedroom with my grandmother, I knew she was moments from dying. After a few minutes a hideous sound gurgled deep in her throat she simply stopped breathing.

In shame and dread, I sat in the dining room as the firefighters looked after grandma. An overwhelming guilt speared me for failing to keep my father’s mother alive. I knew, just knew, that he’d hate me the rest of his life. The shame and dread I felt was crushing.

Neither of my parents said or asked anything of me or my sister in the aftermath. For months and years after I buried the panic, shame and dread, plus my deranged view of myself, deep inside.

Six years later, in bed on a Sunday night, panic and shame detonated in me. I thought I was going crazy, only to learn later that I had suffered a panic attack. That I  was reliving the same feelings of dread, panic, and helplessness that I experienced as my grandmother shook loose from her life.

The most difficult feeling during that and subsequent but less intense anxiety attacks was an overwhelming feeling of shame. I didn’t connect that shame with what I suffered quietly 6 years before when my father, wide eyed and mouth ovaled in a silent scream, rushed into the house knowing that something awful happened to his mother. Neither my mother or father ever said anything to me about what happened. Traumatic stress bloomed in that silence among us.

Several years after the initial attacks subsided, a gloomy and sleepless depression settled in. It wasn’t until I entered therapy in my mid-twenties that I finally unraveled the case of post-traumatic stress syndrome that encased both Davey’s accident and my grandmother’s death. I felt responsible for both and convicted myself as a coward.

There is an extensive body of research into the body-mind connection and especially the concept of “body memory” — in which memories, or at least their effects, are unconsciously stored in our bodies.

How much and in what way are these emotional traumas and the medical trauma I described in my last column,  “Medical Trauma and Pain,” implicated in my development of Behcet’s Disease, arthritis and fibromyalgia?

I  wonder if my emotional suffering in the aftermath of these traumas may have provided the pathway for a dormant Behcet’s and arthritis genes to become active and spread.

This isn’t to say that this disease and its attendant pain were “all in my head.” To the contrary, they were “in” my body — and my mind and body connected in a way that provided the avenue for the disease to overwhelm me just as the traumas had.

I suspect that if the two traumas in my childhood and adolescence had not occurred or been handled differently by my parents, the genes might have remained dormant and powerless.

It suggests to me that early intervention with someone who’s been traumatized may stop the development of PTSD and the flowering of disease genes that may otherwise remain segregated and harmless.

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn lives in Chicago where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog “Left Eye Blind” can be found here.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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