Intergenerational Trauma

My blog yesterday was inspired by an article – Intergenerational Trauma: How to Break the Cycle – and the Maya Angelou quote at the beginning of it. Then, I went off on the story of my own version of that. Today, seeing that this article has real value, I return to it’s inspiration. The paragraph below is quoted from the article.

From our families, we inherit genes, foundational life skills, traditions, knowledge, connections, wisdom, identity, resilience, etc. Sometimes we also inherit behavior patterns, coping strategies of our parents, grandparents who did not process their trauma. Children learn to be by mimicking the adults around them but when these adults are acting from their own trauma, children pick up patterns and behaviors that become their norm. The first victims of intergenerational trauma in families are the most fragile, i.e. children. They might suffer from anxiety or depression as adults without being able to pinpoint its origin, indeed intergenerational trauma in families is not easily recognized or its impact is minimized. Intergenerational trauma in families often happens in an overarching societal context which offers the setting that facilitates trauma to be passed down (poverty, patriarchy, war, colonialism, slavery, genocide, etc).

Just yesterday, as I thought an issue had reached a level of acceptance and even an ability to see how I was better off for having gone through the unexpected and unwanted rupture of a relationship, something “new” had happened fully 2 months after the initial events and I was obsessed with it again. Why am I not more mature about this whole thing ? Then, it hit me – rejection – that was what I was struggling with. Rejection is a common emotional experience in adoptees (and both of my parents were – adopted). And it is the very personal kinds of rejection – relationship ending kinds of rejection that hurt me the most. More neutral rejections – from a literary agent I am hoping will represent me or from a resume submission for some job or other – these don’t trouble me. My recent trauma of rejection was decidedly caused by an overarching societal context – COVID.

Again from the linked article – In families with a pattern of trauma, there are many secrets, taboos, things that are not allowed to be talked about. Secrets that are kept but live and manifest themselves as poverty, being trapped in cycles of abuse, violence, depression, anxiety, self-sabotage, difficulty in relationships, etc. The individual is born with and into fears and feelings that don’t always belong to them but that shape their life in ways that they are not always conscious of.

Adoption was a kind of open secret in my family. Meaning when I was old enough to know, I did know. However, the whys, I didn’t know – in fact, my parents didn’t know those either. We really didn’t talk about it in my family other than the factual knowledge that my parents were adopted. In my earliest awareness, I thought both of my parents were orphans. I had know idea that there were people out there living their lives genetically and biologically directly related to me. When my mom wanted to search and find her mother, my father was unsympathetic. Therefore, she could not share her feelings with him but thankfully, she did share her feelings about all of it with me and I am grateful that I now know how she felt, since I now know more about the impacts of adoption.

Milestones in life can greatly affect a person living with intergenerational trauma (finishing university, starting a new job, having a baby, moving to a new country, being rejected by a new partner and suffering unsurmountable grief, etc.). Intergenerational trauma can also impact our physical health through the nutrition habits we develop and our relationship with food.

Food is an issue – it was with both my mom and my dad. First, my dad experienced near starvation and food insecurity in his youth. Growing up, there always had to be more food on our table than we could eat in a single meal. My mom was a lifelong dieter and passed that fear of obesity down to me. I struggle with what I think of as “stuffing disease” – a compulsion to eat every kind of non-nutritive “fun” food in my house – cookies, candy and potato chips. Then, I regret it and try again to “do better” and I do for awhile – until the next restless, rebellious binge happens. My mom’s struggles could have been impacted by spending some time at Porter Leath Orphanage in Memphis as a baby – not because her mother didn’t want her but abandoned by her husband (my mom’s father to whom my grandmother was married) – my grandmother asked for temporary care while she tried to become financially strong enough to support the two of them. I also learned to eat “in secret” from my mom.

At this point, I found my initial link is an excerpt of a longer blog – Miriamnjoku.com‘s blog on Intergenerational Trauma. There is an awesome graphic on the blog.

When one knows the history of abandonment and/or abuse that their parents or grandparents suffered, they are better able to understand why their loved one was/is disconnected. There is a Chinese Proverb that says that “The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name” . We cannot heal what we are not aware of, so the first step is to acknowledge the existence of trauma. Making the invisible visible is the prerequisite for transformation: acknowledging with compassion that certain patterns are the fruit of pain, trauma and oppression.

Learning the stories of my grandparents was the beginning of understanding why my parents were “abandoned” (that is the view of an adoptee), more conventionally understood as surrendered or relinquished for adoption. Especially, I do believe the loss of their mothers at young ages had a profound impact on both of my grandmothers and their choices and experiences in life overall. This quote by Anna Freud really speaks to me in that regard – “The horrors of war, pale in significance to the loss of a mother.”

What are the things that were passed down to us that we do not want to pass on to our children? We can look at the past with compassion and still want to change dysfunctional patterns that do not serve us. It is a hard journey which is often met with misunderstanding from the family. Are you going to be the first one in your family to go to therapy? Take care of your health? We have to be willing to step into the uncomfortable to heal, even willing to risk rejection, being misunderstood to live well, to release the psychological charge even if it means being different.

There is more in her blog – I recommend reading Miriam Njoku‘s full blog.

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