I was raped as a child – an essay

Last night talking at the dinner table with our young teens we sought to explain how ‘in our day’ – as we were growing up in the 60’s and 70’s – raping a child was called ‘kiddie-fiddling’. With their jaws agape and a quizzical look in their clear eyes they both said ‘really?’ 

We explained that yes, ‘kiddie-fiddling’ was indeed a ‘thing’ (as it’s called these days).  When our children are innocent they can see the world and it’s frailties with ease.  Try to explain ‘war’ to a child – break it down into word-chunks they might understand.  Give it a shot!  In your attempt to translate the concept of war into simple sentences you will see how ridiculous it really is.  Such is the power of our human language.  You can start with something like this “Well, a long, long time in a land far away there were a group of humans who didn’t want to share, and who thought they should have more than everyone else…”  you get the idea.

As part of that conversation we explained that I had undertaken the next part in my journey to be free from my past – I had emailed my family – and shared with them the secret of my life.  I disclosed that I had been raped as a child and 40+ years on my life remains in tatters from those experiences.  They were shocked and said it’s not possible!  I explained in my email that I had no memory of whom, when or where – or how old I was.  My brain adapted to these experiences when I was a child as a coping mechanism to the pain and suffering I endured.  Why is that such a crazy idea? WIKIPEDIA Child sexual abuse

After we got over the ‘who’s to blame’ bit I had to explain to my family that there are so many more stories than they have read in the newspaper or had seen on TV – once you start looking for them. 

So many stories I’ve heard personally too, of our living generation, and the horrors of rape in their own childhoods, for those who have memories.  The Royal Commission (thank you Julia Gillard) has published many more stories – the transcripts of interviews with those whose lives were shattered in some of the most appalling treatment you could imagine – and then some!  One story I read with such gratitude for his courage to share his painful life.  Because you see fellow human beings – we are lingual creatures.  Our stories we pass from generation to generation seek to inform and guide, to speak truth and justice, a whispered wish for the future generations yet to be born.

He was an abandoned child and ended up at the church, as it was with ‘illegitimate children’.  The abuse started when he was 5 or 6, he says.  The nuns were in on it – they would taunt the children with their own horror story and then enable the priests to rape and torture – and indeed murder at times – the children in their “care”.  I’m sure the nuns had some weird pleasure in the pain and suffering afterwards – as the child would lay uncomforted in their cot and wish they were dead – bleeding and whimpering in pain.  And asking god if this is all that life would be for them.

Don’t think just because women don’t have cocks they are any less guilty.  Our partnerships – or our duty of care – for our children has been cast aside.  Women and men allow the abuse of our children.  End of story.

He is in his 40’s now – giving his testimony to the Royal Commission.  His life has been topsy turvy after enduring the next 7 years of abuse – imagine having to wake up to the prospect of that kind of suffering every day?  Why is it so hard for the naysayers to believe that you might end up a drug addict or suicide from this mistreatment all those years ago?  Why does the media give air to ideas like ‘money-grubbers’ when referencing victims seeking compensation?  I can never understand how readers of that type of language could think the children should just pull their socks up and get on with it.  Then, or now as adults.

I’m here to tell you – the effect of child rape is devastating.  I know.  I have lived with it every day of my life.  Some days I think I can’t live with it.  That I can only remove the pain by removing myself – or taking my own life – suicide, if you prefer.  Suicide is a funny thing when you’re staring down the barrel of it – ‘scuse the pun.  It seems such a logical way to make the full-soaking pain go away once and for all.  Unfortunately there’s no cure for my condition.  There’s a choice of medications – alcohol, anti-depressants, heroin, cocaine (if you can afford it), meth or ice (if you can’t afford it), over-eating, and other unhealthy addictions.  Then we’re on to funding nasty habits and the crime that goes along with that.  And jail.  Or homelessness.  If you were born into a poor family your outcome may be less favourable.  I feel I’m one of the lucky ones.  I could be dead.  I know that.  But the poverty of affected families is the real killer for healing our wounded. I once read something that went like this: the success of our society is measured by our treatment of our most vulnerable.

Anyways, our 40 something alter-boy from ‘the day’ has gone on to have a pretty awful life, as you can imagine.  After wading through 40 odd pages of the transcript with tears flowing down my face I got to the real clincher – his arsehole doesn’t close anymore.  Really.  He said that.  WIKIPEDIA Fecal incontinence  To this day – he wakes up in the morning and is reminded – as he does a shit – of the horrors of his life.  How real is that? Crikeys!

So, as you see, it can be a bit sad for us to call those people ‘money-grubbers’ when they’re so desperate to keep their lives on track – to survive.  It must make survivors so sad to hear words like that used when we know and understand they’re not liars trying to get a free-ride.

What about that nephew of Father Gerald Ridsdale?  Nice uncle he turned out to be.  He was raping our hero David until he was 15 or something like that. Really?  How the fuck does that look when you’re toddling off to school the next day after having lived a nightmare of rape – again?  Repeatedly.  And you’re a teenager.  And no one is doing anything about it – even if you do tell – and he did tell adults!  What does that do to your head?  Like you’re some kind of eternal liar?

These days as a grown woman with my life partner, two beautiful children, a supportive and loving extended family, work I believe in, and a community I adore it’s probably hard for anyone that knows me the depths of despair my life leads me to sometimes.  I took alcohol medicinally to ease the pain for most of my adult life.  I told my parents it could have been worse.  It could have been heroin and I might have ended up on the streets like so many of my counterparts.  Broken and poor.  The trappings of a middle-class life meant that my life can seem ‘normal’ to those I meet on the street.  But it’s not ‘normal’ I can assure you.  On my ‘bad days’ this is a living hell.

So who raped me as a child?  Who got to me?  How many were there?  How many people knew and never did anything to help me?  As I explained to my parents, I will explain here. 

As our generations start to speak up about this episode in human history and more stories become available we can start to see the extent of our cultural condoning of this behaviour.  From our legal system’s protections and our government’s complicity to keep ‘the dirty secret’, to our cultural ‘leaders’ like the church, our schools, our youth groups, our senior public servants, our judges, to our grandfathers, uncles, friends of the family, brothers, cousins and fathers – and let’s not forget the nuns, grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters and friends of the family whose private-secret-keeping has enabled this behaviour to go on – generation after generation.  I’d like to think it’s because we just don’t know what to say.  Because in the cold light of day it’s hard to believe this behaviour continues – that children around the world, in Australia, in our offshore detention centres are being raped today.  Right now as I write this there are children being devastated.  At what cost to our future? 

To those children who were raped today – I am so sorry that our society has allowed this to happen to you.  I’m sorry that your life, happiness and potential from now on will be compromised.  And I’m sorry for me too.  I’m sorry that my culture failed to protect me as a child all those years ago.

So, I don’t know what happened to me.  As a young child I didn’t think to take names or semen samples – or to note the witnesses of the crimes being committed against me.  I remember reading a story in the news last year about a 20 something year old man in a public library trying to ‘get at’ a 3 year old in the children’s section.  So if we’re talking about ‘access’ to our young people – gee whiz – is it such a leap to make that in the time when ‘kiddie-fiddling’ was a seeming-fun-thing to do for adults – that we weren’t ‘accessed’ on a not-out-of-the-question extraordinary level?  Doesn’t surprise me at all!  You?

Then there’s the Jimmy Saville story… wow.  If you haven’t read the depravity yet – and have a strong stomach – then go ahead and google it.  This ‘entertainer’ coined the termed ‘kiddie-fiddling’ – I’m sure!  Fun and games abounded!  He accessed children in the entertainment business, volunteered his time in children’s wards in hospitals… and even worked at the morgue.. eeeccccttt.  He was a ‘child racketeer’ and gave ‘access’ to his friends and associates.  Lovely man.  Enough said about the society he lived ‘in the day’.

I do feel free today.  I feel free that I’m not carrying my ‘dirty little secret’ anymore.  Sharing it does make me feel better and lighten my otherwise dark-emotional-load.  I have forgiven my parents for their failure to protect me – and I said hey – that was ‘the days’ right?  I’m not surprised.  And neither should they be.

In the transcript of our courageous hero altar boy he talked of the nun’s behaviour towards the children and the heavy load of emotional, verbal, physical and spiritual abuse.  When I finished the document I couldn’t help but wonder where the pictures of the nuns were in the news stories covering the Royal Commission?  How do we forgive them more easily than the kiddie fucking priests?  Because they are women?  They were there.  They knew what was going on.  They enabled the raping of children in their “care”.  Why aren’t they being summoned to the Royal Commission to have their day in court and to be found guilty of failing to protect the children in their care?  Just because they have breasts and a vagina instead of a penis they are less guilty?  Really? 

A child is raped or not raped.  Those who participate in that behaviour – be it the dick or the enabler – guilty.  There are no excuses.  Let’s expand our opportunity for the truth in this Royal Commission and not have to wait for some other round in the future which will take years to plan as this one has – not to mention more expense to our already underwhelming government spending.

I saw in the news yesterday that the Catholic Church is trying to wriggle out of their obligation to pay compensation to those ‘money-grubbing’ child bandits.  They are poising themselves, using and modifying our legal system, to avoid paying for the generations of damage that has been inflicted on our communities in the name of their so-called-god.  I don’t know what kind of god would allow this type of treatment of the most vulnerable people in our societies – our young.  I’m not sure if they’ll even need to do much to avoid paying up as our weak government will no doubt step in and make us, the taxpayer, foot the Human Suffering Bill that is upon us in the present time.  How many suicides?  How much addiction?  How much abstract porn?  How much sexualising of our children through the cultural media?  How much detachment from our food and environment?  How much war, death and destruction? How much more can we take?

Daily I am afraid for my future.  I am afraid for our young teen’s future.  As we try to explain to them the ‘way the world works’ it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the faults of our current cultural narrative.  Like this ongoing child raping thing.  I feel like our societies have lost touch with what’s important for life and living.  Our children are the future.  If we don’t look after them when they’re young – they aint going to want to look after us when we’re old.  Simple as that. 

And for those people who think that children are a ‘lifestyle choice’ – I say to you – raising children is fucking hard work.  Being a conscience parent and raising good people is a tough job… this is no choice… this is a labour of love.  If you’re not interested in raising kids – fine – but don’t knock those who see it as their life’s work.  Those who choose to raise children in our societies today need to be supported. They are bringing into being the people who will one day have to wipe your arse when you’re old and incontinent – don’t knock the task we take on as parents.  It is a lifelong commitment to our young – the next generations – to honour and protect, to serve and love.  Maybe it’s time to get back on track?  The period of history we are leaving now wasn’t called ‘The Dark Ages’ for nuttin’.

 

PLEASE NOTE: We also grew up in a time where domestic violence – men pitted against women – and women pitted against men – in the home – with children bearing witness to this abhorrent treatment of human beings.  The ‘Behind Closed Doors’ violence that I had to endure in my childhood was enough to make me constantly anxious when un-sedated by medication – all my life.  Both my parent’s verbal, emotional, physical and spiritual abuses that took place in our home have affected me to this day – in my own life, and the abuses, I in turn, inflict on my own young family in the current day – as was handed down to me.  The story about love and care and kindness is lost on children who experience domestic violence.  Children should never be exposed to explosive violence… I’m not talking about general disagreements here… let's not be silly about deflecting this. 

For those who were sheltered in homes where love has become violence – and for those who are still living in those conditions – I am very sorry our culture has failed to protect your innocence in the present time.  That your future has been sold down the river by those who continue to fail to protect you.

Please join me to be sorry for those lives that have already been lost to Domestic Violence and Child Sexual Abuse through suicide, high risk behaviour that leads to ‘accidents’ and dis-ease.  And for those children in the present day who are still suffering in silence – we are sorry this is your life so far and we hope to help you soon by changing our cultural narrative to:

RAPING CHILDREN (or anyone for that matter) IS NEVER, EVER OK.

Currently:

RAPING CHILDREN IS FINE SO LONG AS YOU KEEP IT A SECRET, THE KIDS DON’T TALK AND NOONE LISTENS IF THEY DO.

What are you going to do about it today?  How do we change our cultural narrative for real in 2016?

One thought on “I was raped as a child – an essay

  1. My beautiful friend send me these passages from an interesting book called 'It Didn't Start With You'.  Thanks for sharing someone elses sharing :- )

    Traumas Lost and Found

    The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
    — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

    It didn't start with youA well-documented feature of trauma, one familiar to many, is our inability to articulate what happens to us. We not only lose our words, but something happens with our memory as well. During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our dayto-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.

    Sigmund Freud identified this pattern more than one hundred years ago. Traumatic reenactment, or “repetition compulsion,” as Freud coined it, is an attempt of the unconscious to replay what’s unresolved,so we can “get it right.” This unconscious drive to relive past events could be one of the mechanisms at work when families repeat unresolved traumas in future generations.

    Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung also believed that what remains unconscious does not dissolve, but rather resurfaces in our lives as fate or fortune. “Whatever does not emerge as Consciousness,” he said, “returns as Destiny.” In other words, we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness. Both Jung and Freud noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away on its own, but rather is stored in our unconscious.

    Freud and Jung each observed how fragments of previously blocked, suppressed, or repressed life experience would show up in the words, gestures, and behaviors of their patients. For decades to follow, therapists would see clues such as slips of the tongue, accident patterns, or dream images as messengers shining a light into the unspeakable and unthinkable regions of their clients’ lives.

    Recent advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to unravel the brain and bodily functions that “misfire” or break down during overwhelming episodes. Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist known for his research on posttraumatic stress. He explains that during a trauma, the speech center shuts down, as does the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. He describes the “speechless terror” of trauma as the experience of being at a “loss for words”, a common occurrence when brain pathways of remembering are hindered during periods of threat or danger. “When people relive their traumatic experiences,” he says, “the frontal lobes become impaired and, as result, they have trouble thinking and speaking. They are no longer capable of communicating to either themselves or to others precisely what’s going on.”

    Still, all is not silent: words, images, and impulses that fragment following a traumatic event reemerge to form a secret language of our suffering we carry with us. Nothing is lost. The pieces have just been rerouted.

    SAND Image
    Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture. Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

    The following story offers a vivid example. When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story. Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older. He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight.

    Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair. As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he’d worked so hard to win. He desperately sought help to get his life back on track. Over the past year, he’d been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician. Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help. Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope.

    When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head. Sleep had always come easily for Jesse. Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 a.m. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried. Three hours and several blankets later, Jesse was still wide awake. Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness. The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that. Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal. Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

    I listened closely as Jesse spoke. What stood out for me was one unusual detail—he’d been extremely cold, “freezing” he said, just prior to the first episode. I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being “cold,” or being “asleep,” or being “nineteen.”

    Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again. Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

    Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse. Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep. The process of healing could now begin. With tools Jesse learned in our work together, which will be detailed later in this book, he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he’d never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own. Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

    In an attempt to explain stories such as Jesse’s, scientists are now able to identify biological markers— evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in posttraumatic stress, a true pioneer in this field. In numerous studies, Yehuda has examined the neurobiology of PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children. Her research on cortisol in particular (the stress hormone that helps our body return to normal after we experience a trauma) and its effects on brain function has revolutionized the understanding and treatment of PTSD worldwide. (People with PTSD relive feelings and sensations associated with a trauma despite the fact that the trauma occurred in the past. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, nightmares, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or “on edge.”)

    Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

    Yehuda discovered similar low cortisol levels in war veterans, as well as in pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after being exposed to the World Trade Center attacks, and in their children. Not only did she find that the survivors in her study produced less cortisol, a characteristic they can pass on to their children, she notes that several stress-related psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are associated with low blood levels of cortisol. Interestingly, 50 to 70 percent of PTSD patients also meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression or another mood or anxiety disorder.

    Yehuda’s research demonstrates that you and I are three times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if one of our parents had PTSD, and as a result, we’re likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. She believes that this type of generational PTSD is inherited rather than occurring from our being exposed to our parents’ stories of their ordeals. Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors carry the physical and emotional symptoms of traumas they do not directly experience.

    That was the case with Gretchen. After years of taking antidepressants, attending talk and group therapy sessions, and trying various cognitive approaches for mitigating the effects of stress, her symptoms of depression and anxiety remained unchanged.

    Gretchen told me she no longer wanted to live. For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body. Gretchen had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. Medication brought her slight relief, but never touched the powerful suicidal urges that lived inside her. As a teenager, she would self-injure by burning herself with the lit end of a cigarette. Now, at thirty-nine, Gretchen had had enough. Her depression and anxiety, she said, had prevented her from ever marrying and having children. In a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone of voice, she told me that she was planning to commit suicide before her next birthday.

    Listening to Gretchen, I had the strong sense that there must be significant trauma in her family history. In such cases, I find it’s essential to pay close attention to the words being spoken for clues to the traumatic event underlying a client’s symptoms.

    When I asked her how she planned to kill herself, Gretchen said that she was going to vaporize herself. As incomprehensible as it might sound to most of us, her plan was literally to leap into a vat of molten steel at the mill where her brother worked. “My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “even before it reaches the bottom.”

    I was struck by her lack of emotion as she spoke. Whatever feeling lay beneath appeared to have been vaulted deep inside. At the same time, the words vaporize and incinerate rattled inside me. Having worked with many children and grandchildren whose families were affected by the Holocaust, I’ve learned to let their words lead me. I wanted Gretchen to tell me more.

    I asked if anyone in her family was Jewish or had been involved in the Holocaust. Gretchen started to say no, but then stopped herself and recalled a story about her grandmother. She had been born into a Jewish family in Poland, but converted to Catholicism when she came to the United States in 1946 and married Gretchen’s grandfather. Two years earlier, her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz. They had literally been gassed—engulfed in poisonous vapors—and incinerated. No one in Gretchen’s immediate family ever spoke to her grandmother about the war, or about the fate of her siblings or her parents. Instead, as is often the case with such extreme trauma, they avoided the subject entirely.

    Gretchen knew the basic facts of her family history, but had never connected it to her own anxiety and depression. It was clear to me that the words she used and the feelings she described didn’t originate with her, but had in fact originated with her grandmother and the family members who lost their lives.

    As I explained the connection, Gretchen listened intently. Her eyes widened and color rose in her cheeks. I could tell that what I said was resonating. For the first time, Gretchen had an explanation for her suffering that made sense to her.

    To help her deepen her new understanding, I invited her to imagine standing in her grandmother’s shoes, represented by a pair of foam rubber footprints that I placed on the carpet in the center of my office. I asked her to imagine feeling what her grandmother might have felt after having lost all her loved ones. Taking it even a step further, I asked her if she could literally stand on the footprints as her grandmother, and feel her grandmother’s feelings in her own body. Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation. She also experienced the profound sense of guilt that many survivors feel, the sense of remaining alive while loved ones have been killed.

    In order to process trauma, it’s often helpful for clients to have a direct experience of the feelings and sensations that have been submerged in the body. When Gretchen was able to access these sensations, she realized that her wish to annihilate herself was deeply entwined with her lost family members. She also realized that she had taken on some element of her grandmother’s desire to die. As Gretchen absorbed this understanding, seeing the family story in a new light, her body began to soften, as if something inside her that had long been coiled up could now relax.

    As with Jesse, Gretchen’s recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was merely the first step in her healing process. An intellectual understanding by itself is rarely enough for a lasting shift to occur. Often, the awareness needs to be accompanied by a deeply felt visceral experience. We’ll explore further the ways in which healing becomes fully integrated so that the wounds of previous generations can finally be released.

    SAND image

    An Unexpected Family Inheritance

    A boy may have his grandpa’s long legs and a girl may have her mother’s nose, but Jesse had inherited his uncle’s fear of never waking, and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression. Sleeping inside each of them were fragments of traumas too great to be resolved in one generation.

    When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature; when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.

    Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. For Jesse, the unrelenting cold and shivering did not appear until he reached the age that his Uncle Colin was when he froze to death. For Gretchen, her grandmother’s anxious despair and suicidal urges had been with her for as long as she could remember. These feelings became so much a part of her life that no one ever thought to consider that the feelings didn’t originate with her.

    Currently, our society does not provide many options to help people like Jesse and Gretchen who carry remnants of inherited family trauma. Typically they might consult a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist and receive medications, therapy, or some combination of both. But although these avenues might bring some relief, generally they don’t provide a complete solution.

    Not all of us have traumas as dramatic as Gretchen’s or Jesse’s in our family history. However, events such as the death of an infant, a child given away, the loss of one’s home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in our family. With the origin of these traumas in view, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest. It’s important to note that not all effects of trauma are negative. In the next chapter we’ll learn about epigenetic changes—the chemical modifications that occur in our cells as a result of a traumatic event.

    According to Rachel Yehuda, the purpose of an epigenetic change is to expand the range of ways we respond in stressful situations, which she says is a positive thing. “Who would you rather be in a war zone with?” she asks. “Somebody that’s had previous adversity [and] knows how to defend themselves? Or somebody that has never had to fight for anything?” Once we understand what biologic changes from stress and trauma are meant to do, she says, “We can develop a better way of explaining to ourselves what our true capabilities and potentials are.”

    Viewed in this way, the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand not only can create a legacy of distress, but also can forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.

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