Hope and how to heal generational family trauma.
I was dying, I knew it my vision went black, the pain in my chest at once sharp and dull stole my breathe until I was bent at the waist without sight panting shallow breaths of air. Just breathe I told myself. Sweat popped out upon my brow and just as my knees grew wobbly my vision cleared and the pain eased to a dull heavy throb.
I didn’t know when it would happen again or how bad; the condition was getting worse and the quack MD I was seeing was mystified.
Familial dysfunction is most often generational. The trail to healing can be a lonely trek in a snowy forest that is as beautiful as it is dangerous. In the forest you might die — in the healing journey, you might lose your sanity.
Generational abuse in families breeds a kind of sick and loyal secrecy. The family normalizes the abuse…yet it is still there, something icky you want to hide so the world will love you.
How do we go from reactionary traumatized human beings to sane and more often happy? How do we shift from angry, depressed or sad human beings? The trail can be cold, lonely, and terrifying.
it can be warm, uplifting, encouraging, and filled with support. Whether we believe or can see or not the choice is most often our own.
I felt no fear with the motorcycles loud growling motor, my four-year-old feet dangling near the hot exhaust I held onto his dun-colored corduroy jacket my little fists clamped tight. He took the tilly hump in an almost jump and then went down the steep bank spilling out into the dirt road near Horsefly springs.
The move was dangerous on its own let alone with a minuscule four-year-old behind. The wind felt good on my face combing through my long dark braids and brushing away the smell of him that lingered on my face despite his spit shine.
The wind in my hair I wriggled backward to keep my tender inner thighs from being pinched as we bumped down the road toward the cabin, we called home.
I remember that spring came in a blast of warm weather turning the snow to slush. He rode his motorcycle around and around the cabin in a dizzying repetition stirring up mud more than four inches deep. The constant whine and growl of the motorcycle set my mother on edge.
I and my year younger brother watched him out the window, he didn’t slow down and to step in his path meant getting run over. He gave my brother infrequent rides and insisted on giving me rides often even when I didn’t want them.
The rides were not worth the price.
Every time he took me a little farther halfway through the ride, he would scale a road bank hide the motorcycle in the trees and take me by the hand and lead me deep into the mixed growth of evergreen trees. I hated his jacket, the way he stripped me of my clothes and took himself in his hand.
What do we do with it? It feels like permanent ink staining the soul and no matter what you do it will not wash away.
The damage from those early childhood traumas feels like someone ripped away parts of you.
As an adult and it can be very difficult to find your way or to know what the right choices for you are. To even know what normal is.
There is this fancy word called internalization which attempts to describe the process by which we take on the traumatic experience.
To my mind, it is an educated word… a word that intellectualizes the experience. To intellectualize an experience is to emotionally disengage from it. But here is the trick when we disconnect emotionally from our early childhood wounds, we remove the possibility of healing.
Those early wounds were not intellectual. We were much too young for them to be intellectual: they are emotional, physical, spiritual wounds and the only way to heal them is to feel them and by that process begin to understand and untangle them.
In a phrase, the only way through traumatic wounding is to feel the pain and practice different habits than those we learned to survive the experiences.
I hear you say or perhaps you have the urge to immediately click away from this information in your browser window both reactions are fair.
After all, our brains try very hard to protect us and keep us sane and that can mean pushing away painful events, reminders, and information even if it is the wiser choice.
Acknowledging the trauma to ourselves can be difficult, feel impossible, feel like a betrayal to those that raised us.
Or perhaps we are so angry we left early and can only see those people as terrible and ourselves as nothing like them.
Which mode of survival one chooses isn’t right or wrong it is a mode of surviving something that hurts us.
I left home married to one of my abusers. I stayed with him for five and a half years not knowing I had a choice. He never raised a hand to me, but I may as well have been chained to the bedpost. We call the mechanism that kept me there grooming. I was co-dependent, uneducated, and some strange mix of insightful, abused, and naïve.
I stayed in situation until my body could no longer tolerate the mental-emotional stress and began shutting down.
My choice was to stay and die or get out: leave. My body was giving me clear signals I had to change something, and the message was getting louder every day.
My vision would go dark, I would be seized by the tremors that would escalate into trembling, then shaking violently until my limbs seized up. I remained conscious but frozen statuesque unable to move my body, my muscles contracted wrenching inward bowing my torso and limbs until I felt sure my bones would break or muscles tear.
So…how do we wash away the ink staining our souls? How do we build sane happy lives after such experiences?
Let’s look at that word internalization again.
When we are young our prefrontal cortex is not fully developed and up and running.
Our reasoning skills as a young child are nowhere near their full compacity. We experience the world primarily through feeling and taking in the feelings of the people we are around the most as our own feelings.
This natural mimicking of how to be in the world in safe and loving environments gives us everything we need for a successful life.
However, in cold, emotionally violent, physically and mentally abusive environments it dulls our compacity to respond to the world accurately or adequately.
This taking in of the primary caregiver’s emotional life and feeling response to the world is called internalization.
Because this kind of training happens before full prefrontal cortex development primarily through feelings it is very difficult to shift once we are adults.
In my life, the familial trauma and the patterns associated with severe abuse, neglect and loss of culture, and intermarrying: is generational it has been going on for a good long while.
The patterns of abuse in certain areas of my family have become so normalized they are not seen as abuse at all. As a preteen, two of my older step brothers by marriage tied I and my younger brother to chairs to see if we could get away. Once tied up taunting, tickling us until we peed our pants, poking, dripping water in our face, generally speaking mildly torturing us was the name of the game.
If we got close to getting away often someone would jump forward and yank the binding’s tighter. I don’t know how many times I walked away with wood splinters in my face, torso, arms, and legs, rope burns or scraped skin.
It got to a point where if I had to be tied, I wanted the big rope it was easier to untie, and it hurt less didn’t dig in like the brittle orange bailing twine.
The boys as my brothers were known on the mountain could get pretty over the top. Every time I recollect my mother seeking to intervene my father would say, “oh leave them alone, they’re not hurting them they’re just playing around”. His comment not only dismissed concern, it legitimized what was happening, and normalized it to such an extent that I stopped hoping for help when “the boys” would get in a mood.
My parents would walk right on by greeting everyone as if the endless pinned to the ground feel-ups, torture tickle sessions, and tie-ups were normal toughening up. They weren’t normal they were painful, demoralizing, shaming, and abusive.
The point my stepfather who is also my great uncle grew up with a mother who literally broke a violin over his head threw butcher knives at her kids and hit them with cast-iron frying pans or anything handy.
When I met her, I was 14 and she was in her eighties a mere four-foot in height she had everyone on that mountain bullied except myself and my older brother Jared.
She didn’t like me because I wasn’t afraid of her and quite bluntly once told me so. Little did she know it was her own violence and dysfunction passed down generations so well that I was a product of growing up with an adult who had internalized his mother's violence as a young child.
He (Dad) was a lesson in contradictions at once gruff, loving, soft-hearted, and violent. He was desensitized to such a point violence was something to laugh at. The father I grew up with seemed mostly disassociated from the tender feelings, I so love to show my own children and experience in my current life.
I grew up in a world of extremes it taught me many good things and it also broke parts of my self and spirit. I have spent major portions of my life putting back together and mending the damage done.
It is work largely done in myself, in how I have chosen to live my life, how I choose to raise my own family.
I haven’t gotten here overnight and though I am eons from where I started, I am nowhere near done.
You see it is like the lyrics to a song I wrote in my early twenties each teardrop that I cry, is stairstep upward, and I can see the light, truth will not hide. With the seeing and feeling of every trauma, no matter it time frame, I learn to break down the walls of fear, pain, anger, and judgment.
Then I can reach for something wholesome and find gratitude for knowing the darkness.
This gratitude has nothing to do with condoning abuse, neglect, and the trauma experienced from them. Rather, this gratitude is here because I not only survived the encounter, I didn’t stay stuck in the trauma unable to function. I have grown to the degree I can trust others, love them, and have the courage to really embrace life.
Every single time I don’t allow fear to make my choice, and I chooses to stay vulnerable and emotionally sober I win.
Historically: The first man to win my trust was a married, retired police officer who saw through my early bluff read me like a book but rather than use that knowledge against me he painstakingly built a friendship with me invited me into his and his wife’s world and never once made a pass or treated me inappropriately.
If not for him I might be a manhating woman rather than a joyous soul exploring life and a loving mother. Never under estimate the difference one kind act can make!
Because of him and my ability to slowly let down my guard I got to experience what it felt like to trust a male, respect him, and love him. You see the choice is ours as individuals. I could have stayed in ignorance because I was familiar with it, kept right on bluffing ignoring and being tough.
But if I had I would never have gotten to feel the genuine love, trust and respect, and how that felt when it was reciprocated.
What I lived through growing up was on the extreme side. However, the tools I offer are the basic work for any level of trauma healing.
I genuinely had to reinvent myself in many ways to survive. Once an adult I had to figure out how to peel off those layers of dysfunctional behavior, pain, trauma, and literal habits.
I had to see what I was before the trauma, and then try to build on that after feeling the pain of that said trauma.
Trauma is a spirit, mind, body, and energy wound that goes beyond physicality and must be approached with this in mind in order to heal.
When I was newly in the world, divorced, void of family and abusers for the first time: I truly had no idea what was considered normal, what normal attention felt like, what normal perceptions were, and I paid a hefty price for my ignorance for a while.
Initially, this drove some of my survival patterns even deeper.
But… I was lucky a plucky, perceptive, joyous, and loving, seventy-year-old lady became friends with me. A retired police officer took the time needed to get inside my defenses time and time again and every time he did, he showed me humor and kindness instead of hurting me with the knowledge gained.
There were a small handful of people that irrevocably shifted my life for the better by simply loving me without judgment.
In order to heal, we must be willing to feel the pain from our trauma and then take the steps needed to begin living a happier healthier life. When I first changed my body language from the victim stance of small tight movement to the body language of taking up space and projecting confidence it felt like a lie.
But after a while I got good at it and it became a natural feeling that when I felt afraid or alarmed, I automatically shifted my stance to be wider, taller, relaxed to project confidence and worth I didn’t feel.
The shift in stance dramatically shifted who approached me and who didn’t. I stopped being a creep magnet that felt so nice after a while that when I was having a bad day and not feeling very aware and a creep approached I found myself less tolerant, less afraid, to the point of being able to say or do what was needed to break away rather than being stuck for hours and feeling drained afterward.
The point being made here is that in the beginning, I felt frightened, trapped, I felt deserved the treatment even if I didn’t like it.
The gained experience of feeling what good encounters with others felt like taught me how things could maybe even should feel versus what I had internalized from my childhood. So, consistent good experiences with healthy people help us to heal from childhood trauma.
To illustrate the above points in order to heal trauma: we must recognize it, feel the pain it caused rather than blocking it out, then understand the damage it caused, then literally practice a different ways of living, and feeling.
It usually isn’t easy, and one can often feel very lonely and misunderstood. It is essential to healing generational familial trauma and required if we want to truly live a happy life.
I have found in my own experience there are incredible, kind, intelligent, and loving people available to support us if we open up to take a risk accept help and reach out and try to see them there.
They love us even when we can’t initially love ourselves and if we let them they can help us rebuild ourselves and thereby heal generations of trauma.
One word of caution:
we can only heal ourselves …
By doing so we can have a profound effect on those around us for the good or not so good depending on how they see it.
We can only heal ourselves.
You cannot fix your partner, mother, brother, etc. Only you: this world is, after all, a free-will zone and we have all the choice in the world as individuals, but we cannot make another person’s choice.
This last must be understood if we are to live free compassionate lives that reflect our inner-most-being.