We carry our parents’ and ancestors’ trauma.
Like an underlayer of skin neatly stored below the surface of who we are, we carry with us stories of violence and oppression, deep-seated fears that come to haunt us for generations. Everyone has traumatic stories, because everyone has to face the reality and finality of death and contemplate their own mortality at some point in their life, but inter-generational trauma runs deeper than that. It speaks to upheavals and violent events that permanently leave a mark on us and, through our reactions, on our offspring. And hence starts the cycle of inter-generation trauma, the poisonous gift we hand down like treasured heirlooms, made of hidden boxes and stifled emotions.
Such trauma is difficult to articulate to those who do not harbor millions of little cells coated with anguish and sorrow. I’ve battled anxiety my whole life, and I’ve received more advice to get rid of it than I care to mention. I’ve tried them all too, or almost all. One needs to keep a few additional cards up one’s sleeve in case the old tricks stop working. And more often than not, these pieces of advices and nuggets of wisdom come accompanied with a bonus advice on how I ‘need to change my outlook on life’ and ‘think more positively’.
But, see, Karen, you and I do not have the same history. We are not starting from the same starting blocks. You have not been taught by your parents that each phone call that comes after 9PM automatically means it’s your family back home calling to inform you someone has died. You do not have a history of war displacing your family and loved ones, of ill-adaptation to a foreign land, of tongues that hurl racist insults at you and of eyes that look at you with contempt, conveying loud and clear the message that your shape, your eyes, your hair simply do not belong and that you probably should go back where you came from. You belong Karen, you have always belonged, and who knows, maybe I too would have been aligned and at one with the universe had I not been influenced by my country’s history, had I been on your side of the fence, content and carefree, comfortable in a body that doesn’t feel like a constant riot.
I can not go back, and neither could my parents. What happens to our bodies when home rejects you? What happens to our brains when we witness unspeakable violence, when we feel the liquid air thick with hate and fear drowning our lungs? What happens to us when everything and everyone we had ever held dear disintegrates before our very eyes, yet we know we have to go on, because we have no other choice, because we need to support others, because, in spite of it all, our impulse for life overcomes our despair?
And most importantly, what do we do with all these emotions in moments where ‘process emotions’ is not at the top of our to-do list?
I know health professionals are poring over the topic of intergenerational trauma, trying to figure out if and how traumas inscribe themselves in our DNA and shape the existence of those that come after us. I know there must be scientific explanations that make sense of the mess of emotions that come with that kind of trauma. The literature is out there and I invite us all to read it. What I am more interested in, is to know when pain becomes so unbearable that you can not speak about a topic anymore. When the wounds you carry run so deep you can still feel the blood gushing from them. I want to hear the stories of people who crawl halfway through hell to make sure their family reaches safety. I want to hear their stories because their stories matter, because I desperately want them to voice these emotions they have stored up on their way to what they could only hope was better days. I want them to heal. And healing can not be done in silence. And healing can not be done when you are invited to tell your story as a performative act designed to make white saviors feel better about themselves as they’re building their careers off your suffering. And healing can not be done without justice and accountability, and these two are so often missing that their absence only compound trauma with despair.
I want to hear their stories because I didn’t really hear my parents’ stories on what happened to them, how they decided to leave home, that home which was suffocating and imploding in a cloud of grey smoke. I want to hear how they felt, I want to hear what went through my mother’s head when she was speeding from the airport under sniper fire. I want to hear my father grieve his shattered projects. On a boat to safety, my mother witnessed someone die from a heart attack. They had to continue to their next stop with a corpse aboard. When she came to her host country my aunt could not step out of the house without a suitcase packed with basic necessities in case she could not go home. My father had to jokingly tell her the Mourabitoun didn’t have checkpoints in the Swiss countryside.
Please Karen, do let me know how I need to change my outlook on life and how life is too short to be worrying constantly. And while you’re at it, you can ask yourself if transformative reparations would not be doing me and the other people who are suffering and have suffered a resemblance of peace that your yoga class can not offer?
That kind of trauma nestled itself if my parents’ hearts and minds, and they passed it on to me. I recognize it now in each of my jumpy reactions, in my state of constant alert. It can manifest as severe anxiety, a perpetual need to know that all the people I love are actually ok, in catastrophic thinking, in a severe aversion to negative emotions and in a propensity to try and process them alone. It manifests as an obsession with death, to the point where I wonder how people who do not constantly think about death actually live.
Trying to break that circle is the only way to heal. But healing doesn’t mean forgetting or erasing: it means honoring our parents’ and ancestors’ suffering and putting it to rest, laying a wreath of holly and lilies on so they too can rest, and you can live, and fight so that the cycle is broken for good, until the people who come after you don’t have to live with this weight.