I feel like it’s especially appropriate on this summer solstice day to share a post about healing the old traumas of the past. This is a time to celebrate our successes, including the resilience it’s taken to get this far in our healing journeys. But especially now, during this time in our history, we are revealing hidden wounds that we can’t fully remember – those of our elders, our ancestors, the ancients who came before us, whose blood runs in our veins. When we look deep within our lineage, we can find the repeating patterns in our story, narratives that keep us locked in the past, to old versions of us (and humanity) that deserve healing.
have been blogging for two decades now, and I’ve been healing for the majority of that time. That’s a LOOOONNNGGG time to be healing, right? Fifteen(ish) years. And with that much experience, you’d think I would have learned by now that healing is not meant to adhere to my timeline. But there are still so many days that I’m just tired of feeling so damn fragile – physically and mentally. And after coming down with COVID at the tail end of recovery from ankle surgery, a year of grieving too much loss, I’m just…tired and in need of some meaningful relief.
When I started this blog I was a shattered spirit in a hollow shell, trying to piece the shards back into the same form they once were. Other traumas compounded, each new wound bleeding into the last, undoing all the work I had done to “get back to normal”. That trauma stole my voice and I felt like the only way for me to survive was to lock up the parts of me that were wildly beautiful and audaciously true. I’ve never shied away from dealing with my own issues. But, my system was overwhelmed with grief, broken pride, and painful memories. My existence was a fraction of what I knew I was capable of. I felt buried underneath it all unable to honestly believe in my own light.
At the start of the pandemic, I urged us to use this time to truly know ourselves, because once we’ve been shaken this much there is “no return to normal”. As some of us are finding out, once we start peeling away all those safe layers of fluff that kept us ignorant, safe (and hella judgmental of others’ vulnerability), we begin to find more and more inside us that needs to be resolved, dozens of traumatic memories that we could pretend were healed because they were hidden, but now ache for attention and release.
Unfurling the tendrils of trauma
Let’s be honest, I overshare quite a bit of my story here at times. Most of you, if you have been following me for years, know that I have a significant trauma history. This is why in my trauma-informed care classes I talk a lot about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). The higher the score, based on experiences like violence, neglect, and abandonment, the more likely we are to experience adverse health impacts later in life. My score is a four, which places me well within that range of folks who will struggle with chronic illness. All because of how the accumulation of toxic stress of trauma impacts a developing brain and our bodily systems.
“As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide, 1,220 percent.”Acestoohigh.com.
When we look at how these adverse childhood experiences, such as a parent’s addiction or neglect, are rather, common. It’s staggering when we see that 28% reported experiencing physical abuse, 17% had a parent with a mental illness, and 21% had experienced sexual abuse across all demographics. Sobering when we consider too that most studies confirm that at least 75% of US adults have experienced at least one traumatic event (that number is now likely higher due to the sudden deaths of loved ones to COVID). When you add in “little t” traumas that are more cumulative in nature, like a hostile work environment or microaggressive abuse tactics, these numbers climb even higher.
And while I grew up as a kid who was well-loved and well-provided for, certain circumstances and events in my life, like an early childhood sexual assault, contributed to this score and also to the health problems I now experience on a chronic level: depression, anxiety, PTSD, frequent injuries, chronic back pain, overweight, pre-diabetic. And a recent psych evaluation concluded that while I have all the symptoms of ADHD, it’s nearly indistinguishable from my trauma. My resulting superpowers include walking with a cane while tiptoeing on the eggshells of emotion for the people around me.
With that much trauma in the world, even for “good girls” like me who came from a loving family, we can clearly see some of the amounts of dysfunction in the world, the collateral damage of preventable trauma is notable and cyclical. It has been happening for generations. Early traumatic experiences influence what comes after them, especially when there’s no help, acknowledgment, justice, or even relief from those situations. And when we look at how injustice, racism, school violence, and ableist assumptions can influence someone’s life in life-altering ways, the enormity of the inflicted harm over centuries and centuries of development is overwhelming.
Trauma transforms us into broken clocks, frozen in time, arrested in our development. Generation after generation, we experience new but familiar scenarios of the same wounds. We are offered a choice – we can continue like we were, struggling in patterns we don’t want to understand, living the consequences of the sins that came before us. Or we can dig in, listen to our elders, and learn more about the people who came before us to better understand the wounds that lay under the surface of the baggage we earned fair and square. Because we can’t rewind time the only way to deal with the wounds that are surfacing is to find the compassionate witness within to heal these wounds for ourselves and others.
“A broken clock is right at least twice a day”
I’m not the type to shrink from the responsibility of knowing and fixing myself. Nor do I hold others responsible for my feelings or for my healing. I am keenly aware that I am rarely, if ever, blameless in my own suffering. In most situations, I can trace problems back to one of my failures or mistakes, no matter how faintly related. That comes from being a catalyst so often in my life – I’m the fuel to the fire that will burn Rome to the ground and I know accountability is always right around the corner.
My vulnerability has always been on display, but now the accumulations of trauma in my life reopened wounds that made me feel especially unforgivable. I surrendered and fell on my sword, rejecting the growing spotlight happening in my career. It’s taken me two years to extricate myself from the traps of my depressed and traumatized life and two years of not working for anyone else to piece myself back together, to know what I wanted versus what others expected.
That time away allowed me to see the biggest broken clock that was prolonging my suffering: I always stop myself just before I hit success. And what finally drilled it in was that I noticed that my kid does it too – something I might not have seen had I still been working 60-hour nonprofit weeks (sweat equity). I decided right then to fix this pattern once and for all.
That was hard to see. It’s not that success eludes me, it’s that I get a taste of it and say, “Nah, someone else can have it.” I think there are times I’ve convinced myself that it’s noble, but what it really does is keep me safe from being truly seen by many. I’m good with being seen by a few and having my influence reverberate in small, intangible ways. But I get intimidated and turned off once I’m in any sort of spotlight. Sorta hard to run a successful business if I’m too reticent to let people know about it.
Trauma taught me that the only way for me to be safe is to contain the bigness of me. Contain my loud mouth and pointed opinions. Cage my expansive expression of sexual freedom. Reject recognition at all costs, sour new opportunities that could build on my successes. And my personal favorite: make myself unavailable to new beloveds so they aren’t burdened with the disappointments and trauma dumping I habitually bring. I glue myself to the bench, a permanent sideliner, just like I was on my high school tennis team or choir. I step down from nonprofit boards, I leave jobs just shy of a promotion or major milestone. I think we can safely say that my trauma turned me into an expert in the meaningless art of self-sabotage.
But I come by it naturally – when I look at my family history I see Mexican names that were erased for Anglicized versions (Enrique exchanged for Henry, Dolorita exchanged for Dolores). Some were born into privilege whereas others had to claw and scrape for survival. I saw lofty ideals etched against the cold truths of brutal work ethics. I saw farmers, miners, homesteaders, and revolutionary heroes. Women whose names were allowed to be lost to casual obscurity, just one of many Maria’s, just one of several Robert’s. The uniqueness of who those people were, who most of our ancestors were is buried under layers of patriarchal biases.
When we talk about intergenerational trauma, we talk not just about the wounds that were inflicted, but the wounds that we inflicted. We carry those memories under our skin, under layers of excuses, blame-shifting, and revisionist narratives that justify their acquiescence to oppression or trauma. Each of them faced trauma, but they weren’t blameless in inflicting trauma in the form of verbal abuse, neglect, or profit.
No matter how simple or chaste history convinces us that they were, we can’t fully see the damage that lies within our bones and blood. We fill in the blanks with our hopes and dreams but rarely do we get to know them as people who had their own hopes and dreams, perhaps quite similar to our own. We don’t get to see who they would have been had their clans, tribes, and towns not been subjected to violence. We don’t get to know whose names they whispered in their confessions, what sinful prayers clung to their lips on their wedding night.
Yet, we carry their memories in our bones. The more I reconnect with that part of my history, the more I recognize and mourn my own. The more I understand the sins they committed, the sorrow of mourning children that died too early, and the roles they played, the more I can recognize how those experiences imprinted into my body and reactions. My symptoms are an echo of how their responses might have felt under trauma.
And if this influences my beliefs and behavior, at least a little bit, doesn’t it stand to reason what we might want to dig further into our family histories when going to the doctor or going to therapy? The memories of societally inflicted wounds of oppression and activators of survival inhabit the same body as the depression, anxiety, and PTSD, yet do we ever ask what it feels like when we’re reacting to something that isn’t “our stuff”? No, because we focus squarely on the individual instead of the societal and collective impact that triggers trauma responses, depression, or poor coping mechanisms, some of which have been passed down for generations.
For example, my dad would yell “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” as he stomped through the house whenever he thought he did something wrong. So is it nurture or nature that I have similar reactions when I’m feeling guilty for my own mistakes? Is it to blame for why I give up just as I’m about to elevate, ascend, and soar into success?
One of the deepest patterns I have to unravel now: how do I contribute to a better world without sacrificing myself? Because from a very young age, I believed that to “be Christ-like” meant that it was my role to bear the weight of others’ sins, just as Jesus bore the weight of ours on the cross. And while I might have outgrown Catholicism, this is still a core…talent of mine. It’s woven into the fabric of my calling, like my trauma is woven into the nerves and tissue of my body.
Sometimes in my zeal to step aside so I’m not in the way of others claiming their strength, I forget my own. My exes have benefitted from this in some way – if I claim the sole responsibility for any deficiencies in the relationship, no matter how minor, they can walk away with the smug satisfaction of their presumed but unconfirmed absolution. And while I believe they energetically will feel the weight of their culpability, I rarely afforded myself the compassion that I poured into sparing them responsibility.
My ancestors often didn’t have the knowledge or choices that I have available to me. So why am I giving away my power to stay small and play it safe? Why am I allowing others to dictate the strength of my heart or manipulate the force of my love? Is that really what life is all about? Would my ancestors want me to remain as small and contained as them or did they sacrifice so that I could be the expansively brave and audaciously loving being I turned out to be?
They didn’t want their sacrifices to simply help us survive at the lowest aspiration of humanity – they wanted us to thrive as the greatest dream of our potential.
Because that’s what I promised my dad when he died, that’s what I promised the faces gracing my ofrenda last year. I will stop this pattern by fixing this broken clock of healing. Previous generations didn’t have the tools and societal support I do now. It is my job to ensure that this generational and personal pattern of sacrificial success finally ends now.