Autism and birth trauma

CW: medical trauma, but nothing graphic or detailed; some intense emotion

This is more a “documentary” note to self than anything else. Document some events and insights that I don’t have the energy to describe in detail and analyse (in a comprehensible way) for the benefit of others at this moment.

So, I had a dream … another one in a series that started perhaps 15-20 years ago, perhaps more. The first incredibly vivid and totally bewildering member of this dream family happened in my late teens or early 20s, and I still remember its specific and weird features.

tOne of the most disconcerting features is that these dreams seem to always have either bits of space or bits of time that are just “missing” – hard to explain, as this hasn’t happened to me in real life.

By God, that would have freaked me out – in fact, after the first of these dreams something like this happening IRL was a kind of obsessive fear for a short period.

Hard to explain, like a local amnesia (perhaps – never had one), and space – just a piece cut out of it. Maybe you need more than 3 dimensions to pull that off – no idea. In any case, this disconcerting thing hasn’t happened to me in physical space, either.

Then other repetitive elements, some involving my mother, some involving a closed room, always involving a “window”, and always involving the most extreme, limb-freezing terror (also a “unnameable” sensation that has been spared me in waking life – or so I thought until today).

In brief, lots of very weird, abstract stuff – no story line, no apparent sense, but a repetitive atmosphere, repetitive terror, certain repetitive motives. So blood-curdling, everything taken together, and sometimes so hyper-realistic (despite making no sense in 3D space, or in time, or in story line – more like trees of surrealistic images that provoke the most extreme affect and bodily sensation that I’ve experienced) … yeah, that not only did / do they totally freak me out every time (and I’ve seen some share of weird phenomena and stay really cool with some …) … oh wow is it hard to build a sentence today … but that they also really occupied my mind.

I’m not a-priori a lot into dream interpretations, but some dreams (two families – this one and one other, which I still don’t “get”) are so intense and un-dream-like that I couldn’t let them go.

A few years back I figured that for me the key (or one fairly fruitful key, if not “the” key) to understanding dreams is to disconnect from the visuals a bit, and connect to either the emotional auras and landscapes – or to the physical / kinaesthetic / bodily feelings accompanying them. Or, in the case of this particular dream and others, I actually think that the visuals (and audio – heck this one had a speaker voice-over narrating the thing in my early mother tongue, first time ever this) are sorta an “emanation” or “shadow” thrown by the kinaesthetic and even physiological “movie” (or “dance”?) playing out in the body – they are visual concretisations of this, rather than vice-versa, in my opinion.

The visuals are kind of like the algorithms that auto-generate light and colour projections based on music and vibration in some Berlin night clubs (not that I’ve been in one, but I know an obsessive autistic programming them … hence).

(See my older articles on dreams if interested in this – here and here. I’m sure it isn’t an original idea, still that’s how I came to it.)

Anyways, since last night’s dream (also coming before a symbolic date) made particularly little logical sense, and my body was particularly affected (I woke up in some kind of rigid freeze response – the last image of the dream was “me” (a different body but me) floating down a river, supine and under water, “in a way that I wouldn’t hear, see or feel anything”, as the voice-over said, away from some horrendous, but also totally abstract scene that I had just survived against impossible odds despite absolute vulnerability and for absolutely no controllable reason – but not fully, the voice-over said “I was not alive anymore, I only had the will to live” – and one of these weird amnesia-gaps separated me from the most dramatic scene of the weirdness. Here the speaker said “There is no need to recount how I survived the next few days” because implicitly, it was gratuitously horrendous and would reflect in that way on the beings / persons that caused it.)

The dream was about as narratively coherent as what I’m writing here 🙂 when I woke up, I drew it as a comic with branches and loops, that was the only way.

There were many other elements in it that I recognised from elsewhere – after reading through the key of sensation rather than image. It actually made perfect sense. Read as a story, sequence of sensations that my body went through. Phase after phase, layer after layer – until awakening in the final “freeze”.

It suddenly clicked for me, was kind of obvious that the felt sequence, what the body went through in this abstract story (and probably prior “dream” incarnations of it) – actually yes, might correspond to a real and waking-life event.

I had thought about this earlier when trying to understand what the heck earlier members of this mind-bogglingly intense dream-family wanted me to “get” or know or do. But after the one today I thought, yeah, it probably actually happened in exactly this way and this is why I had weird PTSD symptoms since early childhood – bizarre stuff that only seemed weird to me thinking back years later.

The thing is a flashback of a real event, but the images are so abstract and bizarre – while the sensations are so intense, clear, repetitive, “bodily”, and all-encompassing – and destabilising – because my senses, not to mention thoughts, weren’t fully formed when my body experienced and processed (failed to process!) this.

Putting all the tiny pieces and hard-to-describe sensations of the dreams over more than a decade together, I think it’s the body memory of my birth, which wasn’t a birth but a surgical C-section.

Weird stuff, like my obsession about going into small, dark closed rooms and imagining (“playing”) that something sharp came “from above” to cut me up into zillion small pieces. Weird reenactments of this kind (which I didn’t find weird then; don’t think I told anyone).

Horrifying nightmares where I’m in a dark, small room, see nothing, and just know that my mother is being terribly hurt – no words, no images, no concepts, nothing just extreme, screaming body sensation and raw emotion-instinct that conveys this content.

Stuff that happens to my own skin, in the dreams and … in my eczema, and in the things that make my life hard – it’s sensations from this dreamscape, from this scenario, that overcome me very often in daily life when I’m tired. Render me the same level of skinless, helpless, subject to invasion – the same helpless play-dead paralysis, switching back and forth into very fierce and edge-walking instincts of self-preservation: but nothing in away that makes sense for an adult, or even for someone who can act in ways that a child can – I think it’s really the experience of a foetus / infant. It’s above all existential experience and whole-body impulse – no image, deep, powerful whole-body experiences and responses.

I’ve spent so many years wondering, what the heck is “this” is – this background “landscape” I can fall into so easily when I’m tired, or distracted, or at almost any stimulus. It all looked like PTSD to me before (that much I figured in my 20s, and started reading voraciously). But there were no events. I then later figured I’m really very unusually sensitive (call it autism spectrum if desired) and affective and circumstantial and sensory things might have traumatised me, and that’s the explanation (I’ve blogged about this insight when I had it).

Now I think, yes – that’s part of the truth – and the other part of the truth is, that there actually was that one (luckily just one) extremely dramatic event in my life, which by me as an infant body was lived and experienced as a liminal episode of full physiological terror and being sure I’ll die (hard to put this repetitive dream-flashback sensation into words, there’s no concept of death, but there is the terminally desperate “claw and tooth” fight – of a helpless human creature that has neither, just an extremely aroused physiology presumably, there is also a depth of panic and despair that I haven’t known in my waking life – or as I’d say now, in times after this traumatising “birth” event.

It isn’t weird dream episodes and panic attacks from nowhere or born of metaphors. I now think my first moments in this world were this – subjectively they were a life-and-death fight and trauma, in complete confusion, solitude and helplessness, probably drugged up on top (narcosis – is this the weird amnesia and “poison” in the dreams, or something else?), a creature that was sure it’s dying a violent death right now, was then left alone (no body contact; Soviet-era hospitals, mother under narcosis, no other family allowed) to fry my nervous system through in such a way that it disrupted my early, and later, development, and gives me all these hardcore flashbacks that I could pin to nothing. No assault, no war, no disaster – Ok, emigration etc. but who cares – nobody I know got re-traumatised by later (smaller) losses that way, that much, and now I think I know why (cause of this first real physical unresolved trauma that marked my entry into this world – all later development built on a foundation of unresolved existential panic, freeze and over-activation).

I did read this stuff in Heller’s books on developmental trauma, and could see I checked all the boxes, sort of in theory – but C-sections (incl. unnecessary ones, and ones in which the mother is nevertheless given no choice, like in my case) are considered “routine” and I guess I found it weird and flimsy to think it’s this. But I think the most exceptionally brutal flashback-dreams – refer to these very early events as experienced by a foetus / infant who undergoes narcosis, surgery, and abandonment (not kept near mother, as she is unconscious for multiple hours, nor other family members) and of course doesn’t know what this is – imagine an animal randomly, unexpectedly undergoing surgery.

Of course unable to understand what is happening, and convinced that this is simply apocalypse and violent death happening now – and in the case of the foetus / infant, on top of it this is the invasive, brutal destruction of the only safe “container” or space it has ever known. And if I take my non-verbal, abstract but emotionally strong dreams to give some reliable testimony, the creature definitely feels that its mother is being simply sliced open – or that some horrible harm is happening to her, and that adds to the already unbearable tension, desperation, panic, this extreme state that apparently got imprinted into my nervous system for decades.

And has affected everything.

As the books say, one trauma (unless healed / cleared) reduces resilience to what follows. Alters development, probably of the nervous system – but who knows of what other bodily systems, too (another thing I could blame mysterious autoimmune diseases in self and siblings on, though not sure I want to indulge in that as I can’t know. For the nervous system aspects, read Laurence Heller and other literature on developmental trauma). So yeah, sucks if this happens literally before your first breath.

And yes, what I find hard to forgive is that this trauma was gratuitous – very arguable evidence for necessity, and my mother wouldn’t have chosen it, but there was no autonomy for mothers in the medical system. No choice. Disempowerment of female bodies, again.

This is getting somewhat repetitive, but given that I’ve asked myself the question “wtf is this?” about both the dreams that I now take to be somatic flashbacks, and the other random flashbacks that I figured are flashbacks, but I had really honestly no idea of what, I guess it’s Ok to repeat the statement that “heck, I now really think it’s not some metaphorical thing, but as a baby I psychically and physiologically experienced surgical “birth” and the way it was “managed” exactly as an animal would experience someone ambushing and trying to slice it up with a knife, except that I had neither tooth nor claw nor could move, and this was my only safe space; and I knew my mother got hurt; and nobody ever knew anything bad had happened and that recovery was necessary” … a couple of times.

It’s plausible. I only thought it’s not cause some people found it woo-woo. But why would an infant experience things in any other way? And we do have body memory and bodily intelligence and awareness, well earlier and arguably far stronger and more fundamental than verbal, visual, conceptual memory.

Also, after this afaik I was left alone (to scream? to go into a play-dead freeze response of utter desperation like in these dreams? should I ask?) for hours while my mother was blacked out and nobody was allowed to visit.

I knew this before and I thought, people, are you human? Is anyone human? But putting it together that these endless flashback dreams most likely are the subjective experience of these objective events … as are not just some gruesome childhood fixations but also just the permanent anxiety background I had as a child and still have – 

At the same time, it’s a relief to take all the things I didn’t have time / energy / space to write here as more than good enough evidence that I’ve really been there – yeah, I got PTSD and I always had the feeling I’d been in the “underworld” and knew very extreme emotions and just a lot of weird liminal things I shouldn’t have known – cause yeah, my life started with being certain I’m going to die any moment and going into a profound dissociation that possibly I never fully got out of (remaining body rigidity etc., same I had since early childhood). Persistent “invasion” and “abandonment” phantasms, which aren’t phantasms – but real, actual body memory of events I physically went through when I was tiny and could not even flee.

No base of safety, the persistent “apocalyptic” moods or sense that the world may just invade me or shatter any second, literally any second, I mean all the typical trauma stuff. Obsessive fear of loss, emotional distance for that reason (yes, also disconnect from my mother that I think spiralled out and got more painful with puberty and now with ageing), and who knows what else this was the seed of as other things compounded it – which wouldn’t possibly not have become traumas at all if there had been this first intact, whole holding ground.

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