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When Childhood Medical Trauma Affects Behavior Later in Life

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Recently, I reread the book “What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” written by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. The book explores how childhood trauma affects behavior later in life regardless of whether or not a child was old enough to remember those experiences.

When I was younger, I had multiple medical procedures due to my cerebral palsy ranging from ages 2-16. Although I don’t have complete memories of the procedures from when I was very little, reading this book helped me realize that I still experienced trauma that would forever change who I would become.

As a child, I had horrible temper tantrums until I was in middle or high school. My mom tells me I would throw plates of food and that yelling at me just would not work. Now I know why.

Although we’ll never know 100 percent for sure whether my medical trauma was the specific cause of me being a highly dysregulated child and cause my temper tantrums, this book explains that there could be a link. Maybe I wasn’t just a “horrible child” as I viewed myself. Rather, maybe I was just unable to regulate myself.

As the book explains, yelling at me would not work because yelling at a dysregulated child will only dysregulate them even more. As a child, I did not know how to properly calm myself and deal with my overwhelmingly intense emotions. Instead of having adults know to help me calm down and talk to me when I was in a more regulated state, I was left with feelings I could not fully understand.

This history of medical trauma and being unable to regulate my emotions makes my adult diagnosis of borderline personality disorder make a lot of sense. I currently struggle to regulate my emotions in a healthy manner, possibly as a result of never being taught how to do so as a child.

But that doesn’t mean my situation is hopeless and I will never be able to feel in control of my emotions.

To me, being in control of my emotions doesn’t mean not having emotions. Instead, it is feeling my emotions in a healthy way without turning to self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm or eating disorder urges.

When I was in middle school, I would often call my mom up to my room at night to talk about my emotions about my CP, but when she would arrive, I would clam up and not be able to talk. As the book explains, those moments were me trying to “dose” myself with talk about my cerebral palsy in order to help me process it in a manner I could control in manageable bits.

However, when I would clam up, I was often met with responses of “other people have it worse” or “I don’t have time for this” if I couldn’t speak at all. These reactions were out of frustration of me not talking. These conversations were a way of trying to regulate my emotions regarding my cerebral palsy even though I did not have the understanding of what that was at the time.

The messages I received while learning how to view my disability were ones of “stop complaining and just deal with it.” I didn’t learn how to accept my body for what it is.

Even with the messages I received as a child, I’m not mad at my parents for how they handled my situation because they did what they knew and what doctors suggested at the time. As the book explains, parents cannot give what they themselves do not have. My mom came from a family where her dad became disabled when she was 5 and continued to push through life raising the seven children. Also, my mom’s younger sister lives with cognitive disabilities and as a child, my mom was taught to just let her be who she is.

As a result of rereading the book “What Happened to You?” the causes of my behavior as a child become clear. I no longer view myself as a “horrible child,” rather I was a child dealing with trauma that was unsupported in a way that would help me learn to manage my emotions in a healthy way.

Getty image by Jorm Sangsorn

Originally published: February 16, 2022
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