On generational trauma: a personal essay
Trigger warning: this article on generational trauma contains references to sex, sexual assault, and rape.
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On generational trauma: a personal essay
Alicia Birmingham explores the impact of generational trauma and mental illness on herself after being raised by generations of women who ignored their own trauma due to societal stigma towards mental illness.
I told my therapist that my mom had a mother with a traumatic past. She never got help. It’s the same as my own mom—stigma abounds in my family. If you need help to ease some sort of mental turmoil, they consider you weak. If you can grin and bear it, and grind your teeth through years of heart-aching anxiety and depression, then you’re considered strong. Not healthy, by any stretch, but strong.
Then I had a traumatic life. Brought on largely by generational trauma, my own was due to being raised by women who needed help and spent their entire lives actively refusing it. My life would’ve been better had my mom not stuck her head in the sand concerning her own issues. She had her head down there for so long, she couldn’t see my rapidly developing issues.
When you’re in mental health treatment, there needs to be a boogeyman—a bad guy, some person you can blame for your problems. It seems easiest to blame my mother—not always fair, but easy. She always told me that I went looking for misery. In retrospect, I think I was just, in a way, screaming, “Love me! Love me! Love me!” I begged for her to do the one thing she couldn’t do. In her eyes, I looked for misery because I badly desired something she couldn’t give me, yet I screamed into the void for it all the more.
It wasn’t all her fault; much, but not all. She was a victim of her mother’s own traumatic life, as was I since the age of fifteen when my grandparents got custody of me. I do not have kids, I will not have kids. This victimization—it stops with me.
Once, I had written a poem about molestation that I was experiencing at a family member’s hand, and my grandmother found it. Was it my grandmother’s fault? No. The pain, the utter disregard I felt when she said to me, though, “I was raped when I was fifteen…you get over it.” Wow. I just remember feeling so completely alone. I deserved some empathy.
The abuse started when I was very young. However, I was still actively being put into abusive sexual situations, even at fifteen. I tried acting as if I didn’t notice what was happening, because to notice was to invite more of the same. There is no fight or flight with me, it is only freeze. I think about seeing it from a third-party perspective, watching myself just taking it. It hurts my heart. That is my reaction to assault.
An example of such an instance is when I was in my mid-twenties, I met a guy online, a taxi driver. He took me to my favorite restaurant. We hung out a few times. I even told him a bit about my past. That was probably a mistake. He knew I was a victim. I realized too late that he was a predator, and my stories of abuse were, to him, just chum in the water.
He reached for the condoms near his bed one night when we were fooling around and said playfully, “What if I grabbed one of these?” I snatched it from his hand, putting it out of his reach, and said, “No, I said we could fool around, but no sex.”
We both laughed.
Then he raped me.
Reaching up and grabbing the condom, he then held down both my wrists in one hand. His weight against me. I quickly realized what was happening. It’s moments like these I wish I were a fighter. I wish I could even speak up for myself. Instead, I silently wept through it all.
I went to the living room, laid down my head on his lap, and sobbed. I eventually said, “Did you do that to me, because I told you about my sexual abuse? Because I told you I freeze up?” It was an odd situation involving traumatic bonding. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. I remember thinking after that, I must have been such a disappointing lay, crying throughout my rape.
These are the thoughts of someone who has suffered lifelong abuse. Somehow, I should be agreeable and apparently an amazing fuck, even as people rape and abuse me. Wishing I knew why I tried to make up for it. I became promiscuous for a while, desperately wanting to be in control, to be the one to choose to say yes. I ended up meeting up with multiple guys from OkCupid for anonymous sex. This didn’t last long. Concerned loved ones pulled the plug on that fiasco and, to be honest, there was a quiet thankfulness in my madness.
I also started doing what I called “social drinking,” when the nurses at the psych hospital asked me about it. I didn’t dare utter the truth, that it was escapism, because I didn’t have that insight then. That year was one of the few times in my life I drank. I always feared what booze might do to my mood with the bipolar issue. After the rape, I became depressed, and drinking sparks mania. Good times! (Not really.)
During all this, I asked my mother for money to travel from Pittsburgh to California to see my best friend, Jett. Certainty filled my heart. Only Jett could comfort me. I was just as loath to ask my mother for money as she was to give it. All gifts from her were conditional. I didn’t want to tell her what had happened, but she wouldn’t help me unless I did.
I said to her, “I was raped. I need to go see Jett.”
I said to her, “I was raped. I need to go see Jett.”
No amount of money is worth the pain this judgment caused me. It haunts me to this day. Even now, when I dare to stir this memory within me, I weep. I have spent the better part of the last twelve years since gently reminding myself that it was, in fact, not my fault. Yet those words ring in my ears still, almost worse than the act itself. “What did you do?
She never gave me the money. I stopped talking to her for about two years. My grandmother helped me, though; I bought a plane ticket. But I had fallen into a deep depression and in the end, I could not bring myself to make the trip. Soon enough, an inpatient stay at the local psychiatric hospital became necessary. I suppose it was the drinking and the depression after the rape. Honestly, it’s all a blur.
My mother, my bogeyman. She deserves that place in my head, but I won’t recover if I live in the past, and that is where she and all my trauma live. She was a terrible mother; many of us have them. I am fighting to be better. I want to be strong enough to remember and not let memories overwhelm me to where I feel I’m repeatedly re-experiencing trauma. Basically, I don’t want to be trapped by my mind.
Here is where I will tell you about my “process.” I write during the week before therapy. Then I go through a session, I discuss the things I’m writing, and I receive guidance on how to move forward. A friend asked if writing helps or if it’s just causing me to relive all the Big Bads that have happened to me. To answer, a lot of this is driving some re-experiencing, yes. Then, at the end of the week, I work through it, I investigate with my therapist why I’ve done the things I’ve done, and I realize that how I feel, how I felt, was all valid.
I’ve tried therapy multiple times over the years for generational trauma. I’ve gotten very little out of it until now. Sometimes you need to be in the right place to hear hard truths. Sometimes, those hard truths sound like, “you were doing the best you could have given the circumstances,” and maybe forgiveness and understanding are for me too.
That sometimes “the best I could” was drinking and having promiscuous sex, and though that may be true, it doesn’t mean wellness couldn’t be right around the corner. Yes, I was a mess, and I was trying my best. My best was questionable, and there was plenty of room for improvement. Perhaps I am not weak, worthless, stupid, crazy, and every other negative thing my mom gaslighted me into believing I was. I am not who she thinks I am, and honestly, I never was. I was always more than she thought of me. I’m just now realizing it.
These days I’m pretty open in therapy. It’s different now, almost a year later. I no longer “think, but don’t say.” These days I just say things like: “That last paragraph is the first time I’ve ever thought that about myself.” Sometimes things just come out; I show myself who I am when I don’t mean to. Sometimes, that person is a relief to me. I’m giving myself permission to be hurt. Trauma was so deeply normalized; my grandmother taught me it was no big deal. She dismissed me, saying I’d—“get over it.” My mother taught me it was clearly my fault if men assaulted me when she said to me, “What did you do?”
I have been in mental health treatment for most of my life dealing with generational trauma. Yet the idea that I’m “doing the best that I could” has never crossed my mind. “Maybe forgiveness is for me, too,” had never crossed my mind. Sure, dozens of well-meaning mental health professionals over the years have said it. It’s different when you say it – and when you believe it – about yourself.
It’s heartbreaking, I am forty years old and just now feeling this kind of redemption. I’m clearing a debt I owed myself so long ago. I have carried the burden of my guilt for travesties that had befallen me by no fault of my own, a lifetime of regret and shame. I’m forty and figuring out how to be myself. With the idea of who I am, without their judgment and shame, being released. At least I’m getting this opportunity; some, like the women in my family, may never get that chance.
Every day, I’m getting stronger. I believe in my own experiences and the truth I’ve lived a little more. Normalizing generational trauma is bullshit. That normalization leads to living lies—lies that the world is burning around you, yet everything is fine. This is a narrative passed on through generations of women in my family. They were told by other people that even if they can smell the smoke, their world is not really on fire. They have built their lives on the foundation that it’s all okay, no matter how truly awful the circumstances. Regardless of how loudly you proclaim there is no fire, you will still get burned. I know, I have been, and I am here to say, even if the act of healing is painful, that it is better than suffering in silence among the flames.
In the U.S. anyone affected by sexual assault, whether it happened to you or someone you care about, can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.
Alicia Birmingham is the author of the comic Frenzy Envy, and the poetic autobiography The Crazy Inside: A poetic journey through manic depression. She is currently working on a comic that explores family dynamics by following the adventures of a young carny girl. Her true love, though, is found in the essay. She is currently living and writing a life she intends on fashioning into a collection of memoir-style essays.