Content Warning: Mention of trauma and specifically medical trauma.
Medical trauma can mess with your memories. I've recently (within the last year or two) realized I don't have a lot of clear memories about growing up. Today's episode is my theory as to why.
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TRANSCRIPT OF “I DON’T REMEMBER…”
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MALE VO [00:03]
This is Bad Attitudes.
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Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to another episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast about Disability. I’m your host, Laura.
How clearly do you remember YOUR childhood?
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As always, I want to remind you that disability is not a monolith. My experience as a disabled person is going to be different from the experiences of other disabled people. I am one voice for the disabled community but I am not the only voice.
Before getting into it, I want to offer you a content warning. I will be discussing medical trauma and trauma in general, so if that is something you’re not comfortable listening to, feel free to skip this episode and tune back in for the next one.
I also want to preface this entire episode by assuring you that I am not a neuroscientist and I am not even pretending to back up anything I am saying with scientific evidence. Everything I am saying is based only on my experience and is purely anecdotal. But if it resonates with you, then I succeeded.
I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a whole lot of clear memories of my childhood. There are things that I know happened, but my memories feel more like memories of what I’ve been told or memories of photographs I’ve looked at.
On the other hand, some memories are super clear. The day my sister was born and the day she came home from the hospital are locked in. Those are core memories. But most other memories are either hazy or not there at all.
One thing I know for sure is that I block out certain events as a means of self-preservation. Those times when I’ve sustained a serious injury — like the times when I flipped my wheelchair — are absolute blanks in my memory. I remember the moments before, but the memories skip and pick up several moments AFTER the major event happened.
For everything else, it feels like large swaths of my memories have been glazed over. They’re there, but I can’t really see them, although if I put in a lot of effort, I can pull up a few of them. I’ve come to realize it’s because most of my childhood is populated with trauma.
Let’s be clear on what I mean when I talk about trauma. It’s a very loaded term. Mostly when we think of trauma, we think of kids who are abused or neglected. Kids who have very bad things done to them.
But trauma doesn’t always have to result from something negative. Experiences that are necessary or even beneficial can result in trauma. I’m speaking specifically of medical trauma. I needed a lot of surgeries growing up — 10 between the ages of 4 and 15. The reality is that they were all necessary, and they all benefited me in the long run, but that didn’t stop them from being traumatic experiences. And just because the result was a net positive doesn’t mean that having those events clear in my memories does me any favors.
Therefore, the bulk of my childhood memories are affected by my brain’s self-defense mechanisms. In protecting itself from the traumatic memories, my brain affected other memories as well. In some instances, I have very specific recollections. For example, I remember the day after my sleepover birthday party, I was laying on my stomach on the deck by our pool, drifting off to sleep, only to be awakened by my friend splashing me with water from the pool. That memory is oddly crystal clear.
In other cases, the clearest memories I have are, objectively, traumatic. I went to Disney World for the first time when I was five. The clearest memory I have of that trip is meeting Mickey Mouse. On the surface, that sounds like a wonderful memory. Except that this is the moment we learned that I have a phobia of costumed characters like Mickey and I started screaming my head off and covered my face with my hands. Not exactly the kind of memory you want to bring home from the Happiest Place on Earth.
A majority of my memories are explicitly linked to my medical experiences. Memories of hospital rooms and operating rooms and recovery rooms — a lot of rooms. Memories of casts and x-rays and doctor’s visits. Very specific and clear memories taking place in and around medical settings. By definition, these experiences were traumatic.
You might think, okay, being in a hospital might be traumatizing, but just going to the doctor? Trauma is simply a deeply distressing or disturbing experience and for the majority of disabled children, going to the doctor is HIGHLY distressing. Those plucky kids they show on Grey’s Anatomy are not entirely accurate depictions of what it means to grow up disabled. When I was young, I would start to cry any time I heard my orthopedist’s voice in the hallway outside my exam room. You’re telling me that’s not a sign of trauma? And my doctor was a GREAT doctor. I wish he were still around. He’d probably roll over in his grave to hear me wish he was still my doctor, though.
Disabled kids go to the doctor because they are either already in pain or they are going to have a procedure that’s going to cause them pain — even if that procedure is for their ultimate benefit. That’s just facts. We go to the doctor to be examined for problems relating to our disability or we go to the doctor to take steps to mitigate problems related to our disability. I never once went to the doctor just for funsies.
By sheer necessity, disabled kids have more medical trauma than non-disabled kids. So, it makes sense that my memories aren’t always super clear. All the regular kid memories are bookended by medical trauma memories.
My medical trauma also goes a long way in explaining my fear of abandonment. (Sorry future boyfriend Joey Batey. Your girl be a little cray.) I’ve always known I have a fear of abandonment, especially of being abandoned by my parents. It wasn’t until someone told me that, actually, people who grow up disabled often exhibit a fear of abandonment that I better understood where my fear was coming from. Now, I can’t verify that this is true, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
As I mentioned, growing up disabled for me meant several major, painful surgeries. I doubt things have changed, but back then, Mommy and Daddy couldn’t accompany you into the operating room. Which, for little tiny Laura, meant her parents entrusted her to people who would take her into scary places, do scary things, and cause her untold physical pain. And they did it more than once.
As an adult, I logically and intellectually understand why my parents made those decisions. But little tiny Laura is still inside me and she doesn’t understand. And I think that’s a burden parents of disabled kids face that isn’t really understood. How do you explain to your innocent child that this pain you are willingly putting them through is for their own good? I mean, this isn’t like making them eat their veggies. This is submitting your children to being sliced open and their insides manipulated or giving them medication that makes them feel sicker before it makes them feel better. No child will never understand — and no parent can ever adequately explain — why the people tasked with protecting them from every evil the world has to offer, won’t protect them from THIS.
Just because I understand all of this intellectually doesn’t mean my fear of abandonment magically goes away. I think it will always be there, because, no matter what, part of what formed me is being a child whose parents — however unwillingly — let her suffer.
Let me make it clear that I don’t blame my parents for any of this. At least not anymore than anyone blames their parents for anything. They were tasked with taking care of this immensely fragile child — a child immeasurably more fragile than the average. I can’t even imagine that. They were 23 and 24 when I was born and at nearly twice that age, I still feel completely incapable of caring for something more complicated than a dog. And I don’t think I measure up to that too well, either.
If you grew up disabled, do you find that your memories aren’t as clear as it seems like your peers’ are? Did you even notice, because I didn’t for lots and lots of years.
Also, yes, I’m well aware I need therapy. That’s no secret.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next one.
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