Trauma as a Right of Passage
“I’m very proud of you. Know that we all are. We’re your blood and we love you! You’re my beautiful chocolate baby always. Know you can always reach out to me with anything if you need advice opinion an ear or if you need me to bust someone’s teeth out with a peanut jar! I’m here as long as I am breathing! Love you :)”
My phone buzzed as an unfamiliar number popped up on my screen, I am after all notoriously bad at remembering and saving numbers on my phone. I stared down at the text and saw the words “chocolate baby” and immediately smiled recognizing the only person in the world who used that phrase both affectionately and unironically towards me, my youngest, and arguably closest aunt. Or as close as I have managed to get with my extended family. Maybe it was the phrasing, the “I love you” or the adderall, or the high I was still riding from just only moments before finally telling my mother that the ways in which we engaged were toxic and enforcing boundaries, but something in that moment told me to address the knot in my chest that had festered for nearly 20 years.
You see, I had been embarking on my own ‘journey’ through trauma work, after, 5 sessions with my new therapist, 4 therapists in 4 months, 3 rounds of email tag trying to get support, 2 calls to the crisis counselor (one in which I was denied because I was not actively “a harm to myself and others”) and 1 new anti-anxiety antidepressant medication, and countless panic attacks, I was simultaneously desperate and confused, yet determined and clear. I was clear in my understanding that the root of a lot of my mental illness stemmed from family trauma, which stemmed from generational systematic trauma and oppression. I was clear in my understanding of the ways in which these traumas had seeped from generation to generation, I was clear in my understanding that while it was no individual’s fault, the cycles continued to impact the well beings of me and all of my family members. I was clear in my understanding of seeing trauma rear its ugly duplicating head in my generation of cousins. And I was determined to make sure at all costs that trauma was going to stop with me, at least for myself.
What I was desperate for and confused about was how to address that trauma, how would it be received. How do I begin to unpick the twine that is generations of pain, coupled with the lack of tools to even begin to deconstruct it in meaningful ways. Sure I had begun to do the work on myself, but as I began obtaining the language and understanding to identify my traumas, my pain, my triggers one thing became more and more apparent: the ways in which my family, like many black families, handled trauma was centered around the act of surviving not necessarily thriving. And that my family, in comparisons to many around us hadn’t completely come undone. But those survival tactics had inevitably become the very tools that replicated our trauma, that passed it on from generation to generation. In my family like so many other families of color, trauma had become a right of passage.
The narrative that so many of us had accepted, and that even my aunts, mother and grandmother have replicated is that parents try their best but ultimately fail, leaving their children with their own baggage. And while this may be true to some degree, it is not inevitable. The degree of trauma and pain experienced by so many black families is not simply a product of how life is, it’s not a product of our moral failing either. It’s the product of generations of systemic violence, abuse, misogyny, racism, classism queerphobia, and the routine deprivation of access to tools to promote our own radical self healing. It’s ingrained in the coping strategies we have forged in direct response to these systems. Strategies so ingrained that we naturalize them and take them for truth, because many of us have no other alternatives.
So how do I, a 20 year old college student begin to address these traumas? I may sit in my classes, reading Foucault, Butler, Krenshaw, Puar, talk about systems of power, intersectionality, the construction of the body, biopolitics and necropolitics, neoliberalism and so much more but what does that mean for me? What does that mean for the terrified young adult staring down at the blank “Notes” page on her iphone, as 20 years of personal trauma and countless generations of family trauma begin to bubble to the surface? What does this mean if the very people who continue to be affected by the theories of the academy have little access to it, and what does it mean when those who live both in the world of academia and lived trauma are only associated with one?
I knew I had to start somewhere, I knew that my lifelong aloofness with my cousins and aunts had been rooted in generational trauma, I knew this innately even before I found the words “generational trauma”. I knew this from the side glances between adults, from the hushed ‘Don’t tell your cousins your grandma got you this’, from the shouting phone calls overheard through thin walls followed by weeks later smiles and raucous laughter as family members recounted for the 100th time how some “got their ass beat” for acting up as children as if nothing happened, from the long bursts of silence and lack of communication that never resolved, from the way my mother tenses around my grandfather and snaps at me in unpredictable ways, to the tears streaming down my 8 year old face shouting to my mother “I DON’T WANT TO END UP LIKE YOU AND GRANDMA!” Even as a young child, I, as well as the other children in my family could sense there were deep wounds forged long before us, but that didn’t stop them from being inflicted upon us.
My first wound came at the age of 2, a wound that has left gashes in me, my aunt, my cousin and probably many more. I was molested by my father, an event that irrevocably changed my life and inflicted way more damage that I would not actively be aware of for another 16 years. After all, I was two, I didn’t remember anything, all I knew was I could no longer see my father, my half sister, nor anyone on his side of the family, that my father loved me but was sick (and most likely a victim of sexual assault himself), that he had apologized to me one time on the phone, and that my mother was now afraid to let me out of her site and terrified to let me be around men. From that event, I had constructed my identity into two halves: my father’s side whom I knew nothing about but knew was sick, abused and not to be trusted, and my mother’s side: a family that rallied behind me, beat up my father, tight knit, and loving, and to some degree above the abuse by virtue of believing me instead of keeping him around. Because to many degrees it is true, they rallied behind me out of love, but what I didn’t know at the time was that they were also rallying out of projections of their own trauma, silence and abuse. Little did I know at the time, that the replications of sexual assault which had been made very clear to me on my father’s side, had also been a pattern on my mother’s side of the family, and was a fate that at least one of my aunts and her daughter had fallen victim to. But the trauma did not stop there, it was also inflicted upon those who were meant to protect us, in my case my mother, most likely my grandparents as well. I cannot truly know the degree in which my sexual assault, and the larger networks and narratives of sexual assault fully plays into my familial trauma, but I do know it is interwoven and interconnected in seemingly unrelated ways.
My second series of wounds derived out of the interactions between trauma inflicted upon my mother and aunts by my grandmother and the ways in which those sentiments colored the ways me and my cousins interacted. Though I do not have the exact details it is very clear that, through my grandmother’s upbringing of my mother and aunts as a teenage mother with three children many patterns of pain and trauma were inflicted upon them. Coupled with sexual assault and my grandfather’s alcoholism,and intersections of queerness to some degree with all of my aunts and mother, there is no mystery that the relationship between my mother, her sisters and my grandparents is littered with unaddressed trauma, distrust, resentment, pain and frustration. However, like most trauma, those interactions did not stop there. The relationships between my mother, her sisters and my grandparents ultimately colored the relationships me and my cousins had with them and subsequently each other. Though there is speculation between family members and even my own therapists, my understanding of the situation is such that each aunt and my mother have their own relationships complicated by their upbringing. One aunt has her relationship to queerness and being accepted, another most likely has complicated and resentful emotions towards her own childhood sexual assault, my mother has her own resentment about my grandmother’s sometimes childish selfishness and grandfather’s demeanor, and while this barely scratches the surface of family history that I have access to they most likely play important roles in our own trauma narrative. I suspect each aunt have varying degrees of distrust with my grandmother, distrust for behaviors that I had been sheltered from most of my life, as me and my grandmother had always been close.
However, I have found out that that closeness was not just a mere act of familial bonding but a deliberate action from my mother to do what she believed was best: maintain my relationship with my grandmother while protecting and shielding me from her inconsistent and sometimes selfish behavior. Little did I know that throughout my childhood, my mother continuously called my grandmother out on behaviors that had hurt her and my aunts as children, she continued to subject herself to trauma for the sake of maintaining a bond between me and my grandmother while keeping me as unaware as possible to the actual nature of their distrust. She did this largely because, she could not provide the emotional support, structure of care I needed, in light of her own mental illness.Whether this was to my benefit or detriment I will never truly know, because while I value the support and love and care from my grandmother, as I have gotten older, and even when I was younger to some degree, I was aware that that relationship was a source of tension within my family. The grandmother that I knew to be kind, always present, always dependable, stepping in when my mother could not, was not the same woman my mother and aunts grew up with nor was she the same woman that my cousins experienced. While I do not know the full extent of these differences they were apparent in the tension in the room when I expressed my fondness of my grandmother, in the ways in which I was advised to not talk about her, in the passing comments and sentiments about being spoiled.
These weren’t unfounded, after all on the surface I did seem to be treated differently, and how are children such as me and my cousins suppose to reconcile treatment at the hands of adults. What I suspect may have fueled this, is a sense that my grandmother has always treated me more like a second mother than just a grandmother. She is who I would run to when my mom and I couldn’t work things out, she would take me to her house for months at a time, she would teach me how to cook, clean, go to bed on time it sometimes felt as if I was a way for her to have a second try at parenting. As I’ve gotten older she has confided in me the ways she’s ‘messed up’ with her children, and made apparent those stark contradictions. And while I am not sure whether or not she has ever had the courage to admit it to their faces she is well aware of some of her shortcomings as a young mother and subsequently has done the opposite with me. I suspect that after my assault in particular she attempted to step up and support out of her own guilt of what happened to her own daughter, my aunt. In essence, I became her retry at handling it properly, the only problem was her daughter was still there, and still dealing with the realities of that trauma even as an adult. What did my grandmother have to show for the trauma inflicted upon my aunt? Trauma that was attempting to be remedied in me but had been neglected in her and then eventually her daughter when the same thing happened to my cousin? Where did me and my cousin, two victims of familial sexual assault on our paternal sides fit into the narratives of our maternal family? How did we as children reconcile complexities way beyond our understanding? How did replications of trauma manifest and diverge between me and her, one leading me to speak up about my assault almost immediately and her to bury it for years, for one to manifest in support from my grandmother and the other to largely remain disappointed.
These interactions did not stop with our shared grandmother however.The tensions between my aunts, my mother me and my cousin continued to manifest throughout my childhood long before my cousin came forth with her assault. While I do not have access to what their actual perceptions of me, the lived reality of me as a child and its impact on my development (as well as the lived realities and perceptions from my cousins as children and the impacts on THEIR development) factor into my trauma as well as theirs. Growing up, in my mother’s attempts to protect me while being unable to emotionally support me meant a lot of times I was compensated with material things to fill that gap, coupled with some therapy and a private school education through scholarship, because those were the things my mother believed were best for me.And while to this day I am thankful for her sacrifices, the trauma replicated by a refusal to nurture the emotional needs of a young child, the association with material items with love, the unnoticed and untreated childhood depression and anxiety, coupled with the racial realities of navigating an all white wealthy world as a low income black student have impacted me in many negative ways as well. However many of these darker tones were not very visible in my childhood, largely because I did not know how to articulate it.
From the perspective of my family members, or rather how my childhood self felt they perceived me, was as a spoiled child who got everything she wanted. Or whitewashed, or bougie, or too good to be around my family. The degree in which these sentiments may be actually true is debatable, but the realities that these sentiments were perpetuated still impacted my growing and impressionable relationship with my family. I didn’t have all of the tools articulate what was going on, but most of my memories with them centered around being poked fun at for my friends, the way I spoke, jokes about not belonging to the family from cousins, being told they wished I was never born, etc. In addition to this, I was oftentimes read as disrespectful for talking back, giving too much lip, for yelling and screaming and externalizing distress in any way that my childhood self could muster up. And this is where I identify one vital aspect in perpetuating generational trauma. The sentiment that children should be ‘respectful’ and obedient and never talk back.
What took years even for me and my mother to realize, was that I was acting out not because I was spoiled and didn’t get my way but out of distress. Out of anxiety and untreated depression. Out of associating love with material things, and feeling that those expressions should they be deprived meant I was not loved. I was acting out of deep seeded trauma of abandonment, out of trauma from sexual assault that despite being in therapy for years I only have just begun actually processing in my 20’s because I had repressed so much. My crying spells and shrieks were pseudo-panic attacks. But the thing is, my mother while she could not adequately help me, did not silence me. She let me shout, get angry get pissed storm off and argue, she let me practice a habit of articulating my pain without fear of repercussion. But what does this have to do with my family? My aunts? Cousins? Grandmother? Well for one I did not receive the same degree of punishment and discipline, I was commented on for being disrespectful, or sensitive. To my cousins I suspect there may have been confusion or resentment as to why I was being treated differently. On top of this , the education I received provided me with a lot of the tools and vocabulary to actually articulate myself later in life (though I want to stress that academia is all a largely racist, classist game of jargon, not a game of actual intelligence but that is a whole other post) This coupled with the disparity with my grandmother’s treatment fostered tensions between the adults in the family which subsequently trickled down into me and my cousins. I assume from their perspectives, it did not make sense to my cousins why I was not being re-subjected to some of the same disciplinary practices we (as black folks) have been using for generations, why I seemed to be receiving help that they had not. And as children, not understanding the full extent in which our parents played in creating these dynamics directed their discontent and valid trauma on the subject, me. Their trauma and pain, and unfair treatment however I want to emphasize is real, and I am not the only victim, because as children, we do not know better. From my perspective as a child, I never felt comfortable expressing what actually upset me. I was loud and vocal about being upset, giving the false idea that I could be responsible for articulating to grown adults the complexities of my trauma as a child, but lacked the trauma work and tools to completely identify the root. I knew that when depressed I shut down. I knew that playful ‘jokes’ about being too good, or aloof or whitewashed or only having white friends felt like devaluations of my blackness. I know that as I grew older and my cousins grew a deeper understanding of the situation, and no longer harbored those feelings, I still had built up a wall.
I never felt comfortable, I never felt emotionally safe. I never felt like the trauma we witnessed had ever been addressed, and like generations before us we were expected to patch up bullet holes with bandaids and be happy with that. Like my discomfort with replicating trauma and rejection of trauma was a rejection of them.That over the years the void I felt where family should have been had been substituted in part with chosen family. With peers some of whom re-subjected me to trauma, some of whom I know I have myself subjected THEM to trauma, but many of whom have had the tools to care for me in the way that I needed to be cared for. So as a teenager, I was expected to participate in the ritual of closeness, because my family loved me, they knew me I was their blood and they would have me no matter what and I was suppose to do the same for them. But if I were completely honest with myself, how do I love them not in how I want to show love but in the way that they need to be loved if I don’t know them, and how can they love me in the way that I need to be loved if they don’t truly know me. Most of my interactions with them is through the curated world of social media: a platform where I like many millenials create a persona of who we wish to be rather than an entirety of who we are. A persona who’s living life in California, traveling to the Hamptons, smiling on the beach with a loving partner. But if I were honest, some of that persona is just as much of a lie to me as it is to them. Months before finding out I would be attending my dream college, I sat in the car on christmas night shaking, screaming, clawing at the fabric in my mother’s car, and relentlessly pulling at my hair tie on my wrist snapping it to feel a sensation. A recurring thought kept rearing its ugly head in my mind: “You could jump out of this moving vehicle right now, look at the handle it’s right there. Right there right there, pull it!’ While the thought even in the moment felt foreign to me it frightened me. I remember thinking that my life would have no purpose if I didn’t get into college, if I let everyone down, if I wasn’t “the family genius”, if I didn’t get out, I’d be a know it all stuck up wannabe to them. I remember thinking I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t want to continue living if I did not get into a college. These thoughts were fleeting and brief, but I buried them so deep. It wasn’t my family I felt I could talk to despite reaching out to me, after all, how does someone go “Hi we never talk but I want to lowkey die right now thanks!” how does someone bridge that awkward silence. How does someone feel warmth in a situation where they’ve only felt misplaced. It wasn’t enough to say that I was loved, if it couldn’t be felt, and I’m sure it wasn’t enough that I said I loved my cousins and aunts if they didn’t feel it. The difference being with my aunts and mother, they were responsible for providing us love in the ways we needed it not just how they thought they showed it. I do not resent them for not knowing how much pain I was in, after all I am more than certain I have missed painful moments in their lives. I did however resent the notion we were suppose to act like one happy family without ever addressing the trauma that colored our relationships. The trauma that seeped down.
With all of this in mind, with these newfound revelations, and knowledge I had collected over the past few years, I stared down at my empty note and began typing, I began pouring out onto my screen 20 years of pain and repressed trauma. Incoherent, at times and frustrating, I addressed the one person that came to mind, my aunt whom I’d had the closest contact with, most active trauma and had just recently contacted me saying I could tell her anything. I confided in her, expressed how I had been hurt, I confided about my suicidal ideation, about a more recent sexual assault, about the pain of realizing my chosen family was closer to me than my blood family, I identified behaviors that made me feel unwelcomed or insecure in my blackness (a recurring issue that has had so many lasting effects on my sense of self) and most importantly a call to sit down and address this trauma. To work through it because I know I will not subject myself to it anymore but I would love if my family would be able to embark on this journey with me. I want them to be a part of my life, but in a way in which we are not constantly retraumatizing each other. In a way where generational trauma are not inevitable realities in life.
However what I had hoped would be received with open arms was received with backlash, and critiques on tone, my disrespectfulness, claims that I am falling to victim status, that I don’t let people reach out to me, that I have misdirected anger and blame. In that moment in an attempt to address trauma, I believe I hit many nerves that she herself was not ready to face. And while the tactics used were not only hurtful, but further instilled a sense of distrust in having my sexual assault and suicidality routinely ignored and met with hostility, part of me has to recognize that I cannot make my family members ready to face their own demons. I cannot break generational trauma by myself. I can only work on me. In that moment it was as if my acknowledging of “I wasn’t loved in the way that I needed to in order to be a healthy child and adult” was read as “I wasn’t being loved at all and you have failed”. But I want to highlight that if my intuition is correct she too was acting out of trauma. Of guilt of her own children’s pain, her suppressed pain. Trauma has a twisted way of striking down those who oppose it “What makes you think you’re so special?” trauma bites, “Why can’t you suffer like the rest of us? Oh you’re to good for our coping mechanisms? Fine we don’t need you!” Trauma, like misery loves company. Racial trauma, is a whole other beast.
I recognize many of the defense mechanisms are fueled by survival, by community, by the way we as black folks have had to survive systems that continue to try to knock us down. We take pride in our resilience. So much so we proudly hold onto mechanisms that hurt us because that's the way things are. We go as far as to justify them, make them integral parts of what separates us from foolish white folks. After all, white folks kids are out of control, they don’t whoop they asses enough. White folks are too bougie, they go to all of them doctors, they drug you up they have you thinking your crazy. Right? At least that’s some of the sentiments. And many aren’t unwarranted. White institutions of mental health, medicine, and discipline have routinely been denied to black communities. They have been ingrained in systems that have been used to justify our oppression, but we cannot let those histories continue to cause us to sweep our trauma under the rug. Because a major legacy of oppression, of slavery, of the mistreatment of communities of color is unprocessed trauma. Not young folks not beating their kids enough, not laws against hitting your kids, not kids running off at the mouth or being too fast, or too disrespectful. And acknowledging that you have hurt your children is not the same as doing the work to process that trauma.
You see in my family, like many black families we rely on prayer. But we have been praying for generations and the same trauma replicates. Because we pray that god will heal us, that god will give us the strength to keep on going to move past it. But the question should be, whether someone believes in a higher power or not, to hope for and have faith in the strength to not move past, to not just miraculously heal but to have the strength to do the hard and painful work of actually working through that trauma. Of digging up those repressed situations which had to be put down for survival, of engaging in radical healing, of getting therapy when possible, of sharing resources beyond just bible verses. Because we cannot continue to make trauma a right of passage.