20 years ago or so, my mother called to share what felt like a disorientating thought. “Cynthia,” she said, “Of all the members of our family, you’re the together one, the capable one and the successful one.” Though flattered, my thinking was, How can that be? I’m the daughter with all the problems – the pain, the wheelchair, the one left childless without her show-biz career.
I’m guessing now that my mother was intuitively letting me in on a secret. A generations-long family secret. By telling me I had the right stuff, Mom was revealing that I’d broken the trauma cycle. She potently advised that I never let my family members hold me back, to “never not succeed because of them.” That day I realized I’d done something exceptional, but I didn’t yet understand what it was.
Though you’d think 38 years of chronic pain would have opened my eyes, it took the crisis of cancer to deeply examine what my mother was shedding light on. I come from a profoundly dysfunctional family (domestic violence, divorce, mental illness, suicide, alcoholism, etc.), one so traumatizing my doctor shared that the toll of trying to fix them, along with the inflammation of CRPS, was what gave me cancer. To have a chance at survival, I at last walked away from the toxic members of my family which was the hardest and best decision of my life.
Unfortunately though, walking away might not be enough. Now that I’m in remission, I’m concerned that my inability to unlock from my frequent harmful thoughts about the trauma of past assaults will bring on a swift, more aggressive recurrence.
Enter EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Repossessing.) For years studies have shown that people with serious adult-onset illnesses – including high-impact pain and cancer – experienced many adverse childhood events (ACE’s), as I did. I’ve long considered doing EMDR for trauma release, but feared stirring up the debilitating depression that my family often sparks. EMDR, for the uninitiated, is a psychotherapy treatment designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.
I won’t lie to you. My EMDR plunge has been god-awful as it’s brought on a ton of expected grieving and even rage. That being said, I’m sticking with it – and am astonished by EMDR’s effectiveness and the insight it evokes.
My phenomenal practitioner, Kathy, has pointed out two major, life changing themes. The first, that family trauma is handed down over many generations, adversely changing our gene expression through what’s termed Epigenetics. Sadly, I was born into the thick of this ever-rolling harm.
When I was seven, my dad jumped off of a bridge due to severe mental illness. Much dysfunction led to his suicide, but this was the tipping point that my family of origin never recovered from. After sharing what limited knowledge I had of my dad’s past, Kathy quickly assessed that, like me, he had a traumatic childhood. I was stunned to learn that his parent’s alcoholism, affairs and abandonments, along with all of the denial and covering-up, deeply wounded him. That insight gifted me great empathy for the person who shattered my world.
Mom’s side of the family was equally trauma-inducing. After her parent’s ugly divorce and Grandma having my loving grandfather committed to an institution, she had my mother kidnapped. Legend has it that this broke my aunt Grace’s heart as her agonizing death from leukemia at age 20 soon followed. To this day, even with advanced dementia, my mother describes her own grandmother as “a witch, the most evil person I ever met.” It goes on and on.
I finally understand that I have a family tree evergreen with trauma, the root of all my physical and psychological illness.
The second theme Kathy put forth is that to release my trauma we have to heal my “inner child.” I now understand that even as a fetus I took in the negative chemicals and vibe of my mother’s nightmarish situation – and it’s my inner child who’s carrying the greatest injury. The work is tricky because to reach her we must maneuver around the many protective, life-preserving mechanisms she’s used for 60 years.
With Kathy’s guidance via Zoom, I’m slowly making friends with my inner child. While I want to protect her from the knowledge of a tragic future, ultimately I have to be vulnerable enough to let her spill the repressed memories of violence and dysfunction that host the lion’s share of our trauma.
My hope is that by healing my inner child I can end the cycle of excruciating harm I endure when I think about my family’s countless trespasses. If I can get to a strong landing point of understanding and release, my depression will turn to just sadness – and from there I can move on with better wellness.
I want to be free.
No matter the outcome, Mom was on to something. Thankfully I’ve cracked the family code by asking why and doing the hard work. As Kathy reminds me, I choose “to think, not drink” – and because I don’t maintain the dysfunctional status quo, I’ve “jumped out of a sinking ship.” All this time I thought my life had been upended by pain, but I now realize it was family trauma that caused every ounce of my misfortunate.
This insight lovingly brings me to my aunt Grace who, by breaking the family trauma cycle, saved my mother. While I never met her, I see Grace as an angel and forever feel a deep connection, so much so I name my work for her goodness. We’ve always been compared, and I now see that our similarity extends beyond looks and personality.
A quote I continue to hear in my research about generational trauma is “The first born daughter often carries what remains unresolved in the mother.” Grace and I were the eldest daughters and gave everything to save our broken families, an impossible task.
It cost my dear aunt her life – and I think she’s proud watching me fight for mine.