Ripping the Lid off Intergenerational Trauma

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intergenerational trauma/abuse and my life. As I understand it, the basic theory of intergenerational trauma is thus:

Image found here.

In addition to patterns of behavior and socialization, scientific research is beginning to show that trauma causes changes to a person’s DNA which are passed on to later generations. Let me say that again- TRAUMA APPEARS TO ALTER THE HUMAN GENOME. This is extremely important and valuable information that may give us new ways to understand and heal such changes before they cause permanent changes to homo sapiens as a species.

My recent post about difficult experiences in my childhood has caused a lot of drama for me. It is not easy to be the secret keeper on past trauma, and this seems to have caused a shame spiral for my parents, especially my mother. I can understand feelings of shame, exposure, fear of judgement, maybe even violation. However, what I feel like the subtext of such conversations is, “these things are secrets, and are not to be spoken of.” I cannot accept this. Keeping such things buried inside is what causes mental health issues like those I have, and a lot worse. I believe that dragging these things out into the light and looking at them in all their horrific detail allows intergenerational wounds to heal with the hope of stopping the perpetuation of the trauma and the poor patterns it creates. It’s not easy being the catalyst for such a thing. I fear that I may lose my mother in the process, but I hope to God I am wrong.

I am no mental health expert, but here’s what I think/theorize about my own life: my mother was the subject of mental and physical abuse from her father. The details of this are not mine to share. I wonder if this set in motion the cycle.

I believe that abuse triggers a lot of poor parenting decision. I don’t believe these decisions aremade out of malice, but are the result of maladaptive behaviors and habits from the abuse suffered, and a lack of knowledge of better options. Being treated in such a way as a child has to give a person fairly low self-worth/esteem. Anyone with half a brain knows that decisions made from that place are a disaster. I would guess that it made her extremely guarded and prone to lashing out as a protective mechanism. I would think it gives one a shorter temper and makes it more difficult to deal with stress.

As a cis-het woman, I wonder if this led her to get into and stay in abusive relationships with men who were way beneath her and mistreated her and her children. This is not meant to be shaming or blaming her for anything that happened. A person makes decisions based on what information and background programming she has. Understanding the roots and unconscious biases and motivations helps contextualize what otherwise seems awful or irresponsible at first blush.

I believe I may be part three of this intergenerational cycle of trauma. Why do I think this? Let’s take a look at the basics of my backstory:

  • I was not abused in the way my mother was, but I have a small number of important ACES.
  • I was the victim of severe childhood bullying over about 3-4 years. Mostly due to my weight and appearance. I deal with significant self-image issues from this to this day.
  • I was fat and awkward and didn’t bloom until late, and did not have any romantic contact with men until I was 20.
  • My first dating experiences were weird and exploitative.
  • My first husband was emotionally immature and sexually stunted. He also came from a history of abuse and alcoholism in his family. Communication was poor between us and we didn’t know it, and didn’t have role models from either of our parents on how to do any better. We fought all the time and were terrible to each other. Our sexual issues (he didn’t want me) caused me to endure extreme body shame and worthlessness. I was sad and depressed most of the time. I was diagnosed with GAD during this time. I mostly felt sexually and emotionally starved, and desperately lonely.
  • Rather than leave a bad situation, I decided that I was going to be polyamorous. I met my second husband during this time. For the first time in a long time I was getting romantic attention and felt loved and wanted. I was also getting my sexual needs met and feeling sexy and attractive, not only from him but from other men I knew. I was dating several people at a time for a while and was building my confidence. However, instead of doing the real work of healing, I was externalizing my worth through the male gaze. Little to this date had been positive and good, and looking back, a lot of this attention wasn’t either. It was lascivious and exploitative. (Not all the men, but quite a few. Some were wonderful and we are still friends to this day.)
  • Coming off the disaster of a relationship with H1, I know now that I was emotionally needy and insecure, and getting love and attention from who would become H2 was blinding me to the fact that polyamory wasn’t making me happy. I didn’t want many or more, what I really wanted was out of a bad situation and into a stable, good relationship. It also blinded me to the fact that H2 was financially, emotionally, socially, and mentally a mess. I didn’t really understand the extent of this until we were married. He was a terrible, lazy husband and he constantly gaslit me about my needs and feelings. He constantly pouted about not having multiple relationships, but didn’t put any real effort into making ours robust and strong. He bored of me and we got into almost a mother-child dynamic, which basically killed it.
  • We had a child, and I developed fairly severe PPD. H2 was not well suited to caring for me and I felt like a burden. The strains of raising an infant rested mostly on my shoulders. Most of the childcare and feeding were left to me and my mother, and he retreated into video games and other obsessions. I dealt with PPD, full time work as an attorney, and childcare with little help. I often went to my parents’ place with our child for days on end and he didn’t care.
  • Most of the time, I felt sad and worthless. I felt like the cause of all our unhappiness, even whilst I was the person doing all of the financial planning, most of the cleaning, most of the childcare, and working.
  • Finally one day, it dawned on me that I did not want to teach my daughter that this is what a relationship is supposed to be like. I wanted better for her than the wreck I was in. We separated when she was 8 months old. I continue to do almost all of the child care to this day.

After my divorce from H2, I spent a lot of time on myself. I got myself into consistent therapy, which continues to this day. I read everything by Brene Brown and Harriet Lerner. I focused on the value of vulnerability and the fact that my actions were being taken from a place of brokenness, and that no amount of male attention was going to fill that void. Filling that void continues to be my life project. I spent a lot of time drinking wine and sitting in front of my fireplace. I had to look my abandonment issues directly in the face and sit with my sadness and hurt. It was EXCRUCIATING. And it continues.

I cannot say that I am “cured,” or that everything is easy, but I am on the road to stopping the cycle of trauma. I‘ve taken inspiration from literature in this endeavor. The thought of my daughter inheriting or being taught these self-defeating behaviors and thought processes terrifies me, and it keeps me motivated to do the hard work. I believe the reward is worth the struggle.

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