We Want You Here

By Laura Greenstein | Sep. 24, 2018

 

Sometimes life can feel like a burden. It can feel like each day is a challenge. As if making it to your bed at the end of the day is like reaching the finish line of a long race. It can feel as if each interaction is a struggle. As if you only have a limited amount of oxygen, and each word you speak is a drain on your supply.

For those of you who have ever thought about suicide, you know this feeling all too well.

But you should know that you are so strong.

You’re strong for still being here even when your thoughts tell you that being alive isn’t worth the pain. You are strong for carrying the weight of it all on your shoulders for so long. For carrying it by yourself even while thinking you were alone in the way you feel—even while believing that no one and nothing out there could take off some of the weight.

But you should know that you are not alone.

We are a whole community of people who understand what you’re facing. And more than anything, we want to help you. You don’t have to go through this alone. We want you to ask us for help. We want to help you carry that heavy weight because we understand what it’s like to burden it alone. We may not know exactly what you’re facing, but we understand what it’s like to feel hopeless.

But you should know that there is hope.

There are resources. There is help. There is support. There is time. Time that forces everything to change. You may not feel okay today, but that is okay. The awful way you feel is not permanent. You may feel like you can’t bear the pain any longer, you may feel like you don’t have it in you to reach out for help, but you are stronger than you know, and we believe in you.

And you should know that you are worth it.

You are worthy. You are important. Your life is important. You deserve a place on this planet, and we deserve to have you with us.

And you should know that you are an inspiration. 

You have faced more than many can fathom and yet here you stand. Your strength is a source of hope for those who feel the same as you do. Not only should you feel comfortable telling us about your darkest moments, but we want to hear it.

And you should know there is no shame in your story.

To feel shame is, unfortunately, part of our experience. But it is not fair. It is not fair to yourself. Because the way you feel is not your fault. You should never blame yourself for your darkness. Your darkness if a part of your story, and we accept you.

More than anything, you should know that we want you here.

 

Laura Greenstein is communications manager at NAMI. 

 

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2018/We-Want-You-Here

The Power To Create Change Comes From Within

By Katherine Ponte, BA, JD, MBA, NYCPS-P, CPRP | Oct. 24, 2018

 

Stigma is a shield created by society, made up of misunderstanding and fear of mental illness. When we look away from someone behaving erratically or “strangely” on the street, that’s the fear society ingrains in us. Perhaps we’re scared to consider the possibility that the same could happen to us; that we might be shunned by society, too.

The shield of stigma also stops us from seeking help for our own mental health. When faced with a stressful life event or emotional challenges, we might carry the hurt or confusion inside. Perhaps we avoid facing a potential diagnosis, so our illness only grows worse. Stigma facilitates mental illness turning into the “monster” it doesn’t have to be.

Social perceptions need to change. However, stigma is so deeply rooted in societal norms that it can take a long time to eradicate. And people like me, people living with mental illness, can’t wait on society to change. We need to live now. In fact, we need to be pioneers.

Our Experience Combats Stigma

First, we need to overcome our own belief in society’s fears. This requires finding hope, and specifically recognizing the possibility of recovery. Recovery from mental illness is living a full and productive life with mental illness. With this mindset, we can take ownership of our condition and live a fulfilling life. This can be one of the most powerful forces for change.

Stories of living fully with mental illness can help reshape society’s bias. They also provide inspiration and guidance for other people living with mental illness. This is the power of peer support and sharing lived experience. It creates a cycle of more people finding recovery, and then in turn, society seeing more positive examples of people living well with mental illness. Society needs to see what life with mental illness can and should be—a life of possibility, not a life sentence.

Our Experience Inspires Others

When people share their mental health journeys, it also helps set our own expectations. Recovery is hard and there is no smooth path to get there. It’s also not a cure, it requires continuous patience, discipline and determination. There will be stumbles and uncertainties along the way. This is the reality of mental illness. That’s why relatable, real-life examples are so valuable.

Knowing that others are going through similar challenges can help us build resilience. The result is self-empowerment by the example of others. We, the mental health community, rely less on the image society projects upon us, and instead focus on the image reflected to us by our peers. This is the power from within ourselves and our community.

I believe that this type of person-driven recovery has been overlooked as a way to combat social stigma. It’s become so ingrained that not even people with mental illness think recovery is possible. Too many of us allow society’s fears to become our own. Together, we can reverse the vicious cycle of stigma and instead, power the virtuous cycle of hope and recovery.

 

Katherine Ponte is a Mental Health Advocate and Entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness and is in recovery from Bipolar I Disorder. She is on the NAMI New York City Board of Directors.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2018/The-Power-to-Create-Change-Comes-from-Within

Avoiding Holiday Stressors: Tips For A Stress-Free Season

By: Jessica Maharaj

The “most wonderful time of the year” can quickly turn into the most stressful time of the year for many. When compounded by a mental illness, common holiday pressures can create a perfect storm of exacerbated stressors, symptoms and setbacks if not proactively addressed.

The reality is that potential hazards exist at every turn during the holidays. These situations can trigger heightened difficulties for people suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental illnesses. The holidays can also introduce additional stressors such as complicated relationship dynamics at family gatherings, grief over losing a loved one or simply trying to live up to the unattainable expectations of the “perfect holiday.”

While it’s important that all people consider the impact of the holidays on emotional well-being, it is crucial that those with mental illness consider tactics for avoiding pitfalls. Of all the things on your holiday preparation to-do list, the most critical one is maintaining your mental health and practicing self-care.

Major Depressive Disorder With A Seasonal Pattern

Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD), is a form of depression that often accompanies changes in seasons. This disorder results from chemical changes in the brain and body and is best controlled with the help of a mental health professional who understands the nuances of treating this condition. Whether through online, remote care options such as telepsychiatry or in-person treatments, seeking professional support is truly beneficial in proactively managing this condition leading up to, during and following the holiday season.

Symptoms of SAD can become more pronounced as the holidays approach. These tips can help you manage your symptoms during the holidays.

  • Stay hydratedDrink plenty of water and herbal teas, and don’t forget to hydrate your skin with lotions and lip balms. Hydration nourishes the brain and its physical effects can improve your overall mood.
  • Find time to exerciseThe holiday season is a great time to ice skate, ski or hike. If you don’t have access to these outdoor activities, any form of exercise will release endorphins, which can lessen the symptoms of depression.
  • Spend time with loved ones. This offers an opportunity for social interaction, which can help lessen the feelings of loneliness that may come around this time of year.
  • Pamper yourselfTaking a bath, having a warm drink or getting a massage can create a sense of calm and happiness, especially during the stress of the holidays.
  • Indulge without overconsumingTreating yourself can make you happy, but over-indulging in unhealthy food around the holidays can negatively impact symptoms.

Grief Over The Holidays

One of the greatest holiday stresses is the absence of a loved one who passed away. The empty seat where they would have sat can fill families with a sense of grief, loss and emptiness, as well as worsen symptoms for individuals with mental illness. The following recommendations can help you and your family cope:

  • It’s not all sadKnow that some parts of the holiday will be wonderful, and some parts will be sad. The anticipation of sadness may be stressful, but the holidays provide an opportunity for healing. You can still take joy in the relatives that are present and remember fond memories of holidays past.
  • It is okay to feel the way you feelIt is healthy to acknowledge your feelings and work through them, rather than suppressing them.
  • Take care of yourselfFind healthy ways to cope, such as exercising. Organizing family walks is a great way to get fresh air and enjoy the company of others. Don’t search for solace in unhealthy foods or alcohol. If alcohol is present, drink responsibly.
  • Don’t feel pressured to uphold family traditionsWhile they might be a comforting way to remember a loved one, sometimes family traditions are too painful to bear. Your family will find new ways to celebrate, and your traditions will adjust with time.

Keep in mind that the loved ones you lost would want you to remember them fondly, to enjoy the holiday season, and to find comfort in having the family come together.

Managing Holiday Expectations

The holiday season only comes once a year, and while it’s understandable to aspire for perfection, it’s important to set realistic, attainable goals. The following are a few key tips for avoiding the stress of perfection.

  • Make a budgetWhile the average American household spent nearly $1,000 on holiday gifts in 2017, it’s important not to go overboard. Do your best to stick to a budget while still leaving a small amount extra for wiggle room; the holidays tend to bring out the generosity in us.
  • Come up with a planSpread out your errands, so you don’t become overwhelmed with too many tasks at once, and don’t forget to schedule some relaxation time!
  • Find the best time to shopMalls are less crowded on weekdays and weeknights. If you can manage, try to go during the day and park farther away from the stores. Your time in the sunlight walking to or from your car can boost your serotonin levels. Practicing mindful activities while you wait in line can also help you stay calm among the holiday shopping chaos.
  • Be kind to yourselfAll you can do is your best and your best is good enough. It’s impossible to please everyone, but we are often our own harshest critics.

Keep in mind that the holidays are about spending time with loved ones, not gifts. Your friends and family will be happy to create memories with you, so don’t worry about finding an expensive gift or if they will like it; they will appreciate your efforts and affection regardless of what you give them.

The holidays bring joy and happiness as well as frustration and stress. This holiday season, you may have many things to take care of, but the most important one is yourself.

Jessica Maharaj, a Certified Nursing Assistant, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at George Washington University while also working at InSight Telepsychiatry. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology with a second major in Biology and a concentration in Human Services from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Jessica was the President of UMBC’s campus chapter of NAMI during her undergraduate career. 
https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2018/Avoiding-Holiday-Stressors-Tips-for-a-Stress-Free-Season

How Schools Can Help Students Respond To Suicide

The rate of teen suicide has steadily increased since 2005. Among youth ages 15-24 years old, suicide is the second leading cause of death. A ripple effect of needs is created when a teenage suicide death occurs. Responding appropriately is critical to ensuring that everyone affected—family, friends and the school community—receives the right type and amount of support.

Grief can have a profound impact on students and may create new mental health issues or worsen existing conditions. Additional factors must also be addressed, including identifying students who may be at risk for taking a similar path (also known as suicidal ideation or suicide contagion).

Professor Ron Avi Astor, who recently spoke with USC’s online MSW program, believes that suicidal ideation is often thought of as just an individual issue treated only in counseling, but schools can help a great deal by addressing possible peer and social dynamics that may contribute to stronger suicidal ideation.

However, many educators feel ill-prepared to help their grieving students, and many school districts aren’t offering the necessary training. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) offers a number of guides for schools, administrators and staff that explain how to respond to crises such as a death in a school. These guides incorporate psychological first aid models, which outline steps to help grieving students through a school crisis, including:

  1. Listen: Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues from students that show stress and make yourself available to talk.
  2. Protect: Answer questions honestly and communicate what is being done to keep students safe.
  3. Connect: Keep communication open with other adults, find resources that can offer support and help restore student activities that encourage interaction with friends.
  4. Model: Be aware of your own reactions to crises and demonstrate how to cope in a healthy way.
  5. Teach: Help students identify positive coping mechanisms and celebrate small achievements as they begin to get through each day successfully.

When suicide is involved, more effective and specific interventions are needed to address school environments and peer dynamics. As an example, it’s critical for educators and other adults to be able to identify whether a student is at higher risk for suicide contagion. According to the NCSCB, there are certain signs that indicate risk for extreme emotional distress during this time.

Outlined in its Guidelines on Response for Death by Suicide, those signs include:

  • Presence of a mental health condition, particularly depression;
  • Thoughts or talk about suicide or dying;
  • Changes in behavior, such as extreme acting out or withdrawal from others;
  • Impulsive and high-risk behaviors, such as increased alcohol or substance abuse;
  • Talk of a foreshortened future, with an inability to see their place in it.

As the NCSCB notes, “If school staff and other adults perceive the presence of such risk factors—or if reactions to the death persist without significant improvement, a referral for mental health services may be indicated. Response to a death by suicide should not only include the immediate response, but also long-term follow-up and support.”

Addressing Mental Health Needs

Because suicide is often the result of untreated mental illness, addressing mental health needs is often the best way to try to prevent these tragedies. Many parents and teachers incorrectly believe that school-aged children are incapable of experiencing mental health conditions, but that’s simply not the case.

  • 13% of children ages 8 to 15 experience a mental health condition.
  • 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
  • 50% of children ages 8 to 15 experiencing a mental health condition don’t receive treatment.

In order to teach children about mental illness and encourage them to seek help, NAMI created NAMI Ending the Silence: free presentations available for students, school staff and families. These in-school presentations teach middle and high school students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to recognize the early warning signs and the importance of acknowledging those warning signs. As one teacher noted in response to the program: “It is amazing what just one day, one talk, can do. You never really know what’s going on in the brain of any particular student.”

Although death and grief can have a profound impact on a school community, resources such as these can provide critical guidance and support for teachers and staff to help their students before and after a tragedy. Hopefully, one day, we won’t need these resources anymore.

 

Colleen O’Day is a Digital PR Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/May-2018/How-Schools-Can-Help-Students-Respond-to-Suicide

10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent

ALEXANDERNOVIKOV VIA GETTY IMAGES

I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the shit you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.

I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero bullshit; just go ask my dad.

Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away.

  1. My phone is never more than 1 foot away from me at bedtime, because the last time I did that I missed the call that my mother died.
  2. The very thought of my mother’s death, at times, made me physically ill for about six months after she died. I literally vomited.
  3. Their deaths have at times ripped the remainder of our family apart. I did my best to honor their wishes and sometimes that made me the bad guy. The burden of that was immense, but I understood why I was chosen. It made me stronger as a person, so for that I am grateful.
  4. I’m pissed that my son didn’t get to experience them as grandparents. I watched it five times before his birth and I feel robbed. He would have adored them and they him.
  5. I would not trade my time with them for anything, but sometimes I think it would have been easier had you died when I was very young. The memories would be less.
  6. Don’t bitch about your parents in front of me. You will get an earful about gratitude and appreciation. As a “Dead Parents Club” member, I would take your place in a heartbeat, so shut your mouth. Get some perspective on how truly fleeting life is.
  7. It’s like being a widow — a “club” you never wanted to join. Where do I return this unwanted membership, please?
  8. Other club members are really the only people who can truly understand what it does to a person. They just get it. There is no other way to explain it.
  9. Life does go on, but there will be times even years later, you will still break down like it happened yesterday.
  10. When you see your friends or even strangers with their mom or dad, you will sometimes be jealous. Envious of the lunch date they have. Downright pissed that your mom can’t plan your baby shower. Big life events are never ever the same again.

Here I sit eight and ten years later and there are still times that I reach for the phone when something exciting happens. Then it hits me; shit, I can’t call them.

Their deaths have forever changed me and how I look at the world. In an odd way it has made me a better parent. I am always acutely aware of what memories can mean to my son and how I will impact his life while I am on this earth. He deserves to know how much he is loved and when I am gone, what I teach and instill in him now, will be my legacy.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-schmidt/10-things-that-changed-me-after-the-death-of-a-parent_b_7925406.html

It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are

Trigger Warning: Self Harm, Suicide

A well-documented feature of trauma, one familiar to many, is our inability to articulate what happens to us. We not only lose our words, but something happens with our memory as well. During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.

Sigmund Freud identified this pattern more than one hundred years ago. Traumatic reenactment, or “repetition compulsion,” as Freud coined it, is an attempt of the unconscious to replay what’s unresolved, so we can “get it right.” This unconscious drive to relive past events could be one of the mechanisms at work when families repeat unresolved traumas in future generations.

Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung also believed that what remains unconscious does not dissolve, but rather resurfaces in our lives as fate or fortune. “Whatever does not emerge as Consciousness,” he said, “returns as Destiny.” In other words, we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness. Both Jung and Freud noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away on its own, but rather is stored in our unconscious.

Freud and Jung each observed how fragments of previously blocked, suppressed, or repressed life experience would show up in the words, gestures, and behaviors of their patients. For decades to follow, therapists would see clues such as slips of the tongue, accident patterns, or dream images as messengers shining a light into the unspeakable and unthinkable regions of their clients’ lives.

Recent advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to unravel the brain and bodily functions that “misfire” or break down during overwhelming episodes. Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist known for his research on post-traumatic stress. He explains that during a trauma, the speech center shuts down, as does the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. He describes the “speechless terror” of trauma as the experience of being at a “loss for words”, a common occurrence when brain pathways of remembering are hindered during periods of threat or danger. “When people relive their traumatic experiences,” he says, “the frontal lobes become impaired and, as result, they have trouble thinking and speaking. They are no longer capable of communicating to either themselves or to others precisely what’s going on.”

Still, all is not silent: words, images, and impulses that fragment following a traumatic event reemerge to form a secret language of our suffering we carry with us. Nothing is lost. The pieces have just been rerouted.

Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture. Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

The following story offers a vivid example. When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story. Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older. He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight.

Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair. As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he’d worked so hard to win. He desperately sought help to get his life back on track. Over the past year, he’d been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician. Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help. Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope.

When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head. Sleep had always come easily for Jesse. Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 a.m. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried. Three hours and several blankets later, Jesse was still wide awake. Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness. The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that. Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal. Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

I listened closely as Jesse spoke. What stood out for me was one unusual detail—he’d been extremely cold, “freezing” he said, just prior to the first episode. I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being “cold,” or being “asleep,” or being “nineteen.”

Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again. Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse. Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep. The process of healing could now begin. With tools Jesse learned in our work together, which will be detailed later in this book, he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he’d never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own. Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

In an attempt to explain stories such as Jesse’s, scientists are now able to identify biological markers— evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in post-traumatic stress, a true pioneer in this field. In numerous studies, Yehuda has examined the neurobiology of PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children. Her research on cortisol in particular (the stress hormone that helps our body return to normal after we experience a trauma) and its effects on brain function has revolutionized the understanding and treatment of PTSD worldwide. (People with PTSD relive feelings and sensations associated with a trauma despite the fact that the trauma occurred in the past. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, nightmares, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or “on edge.”)

Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

Yehuda discovered similar low cortisol levels in war veterans, as well as in pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after being exposed to the World Trade Center attacks, and in their children. Not only did she find that the survivors in her study produced less cortisol, a characteristic they can pass on to their children, she notes that several stress-related psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are associated with low blood levels of cortisol. Interestingly, 50 to 70 percent of PTSD patients also meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression or another mood or anxiety disorder.

Yehuda’s research demonstrates that you and I are three times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if one of our parents had PTSD, and as a result, we’re likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. She believes that this type of generational PTSD is inherited rather than occurring from our being exposed to our parents’ stories of their ordeals. Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors carry the physical and emotional symptoms of traumas they do not directly experience.

That was the case with Gretchen. After years of taking antidepressants, attending talk and group therapy sessions, and trying various cognitive approaches for mitigating the effects of stress, her symptoms of depression and anxiety remained unchanged.

Gretchen told me she no longer wanted to live. For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body. Gretchen had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. Medication brought her slight relief, but never touched the powerful suicidal urges that lived inside her. As a teenager, she would self-injure by burning herself with the lit end of a cigarette. Now, at thirty-nine, Gretchen had had enough. Her depression and anxiety, she said, had prevented her from ever marrying and having children. In a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone of voice, she told me that she was planning to commit suicide before her next birthday.

Listening to Gretchen, I had the strong sense that there must be significant trauma in her family history. In such cases, I find it’s essential to pay close attention to the words being spoken for clues to the traumatic event underlying a client’s symptoms.

When I asked her how she planned to kill herself, Gretchen said that she was going to vaporize herself. As incomprehensible as it might sound to most of us, her plan was literally to leap into a vat of molten steel at the mill where her brother worked. “My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “even before it reaches the bottom.”

I was struck by her lack of emotion as she spoke. Whatever feeling lay beneath appeared to have been vaulted deep inside. At the same time, the words vaporize and incinerate rattled inside me. Having worked with many children and grandchildren whose families were affected by the Holocaust, I’ve learned to let their words lead me. I wanted Gretchen to tell me more.

I asked if anyone in her family was Jewish or had been involved in the Holocaust. Gretchen started to say no, but then stopped herself and recalled a story about her grandmother. She had been born into a Jewish family in Poland, but converted to Catholicism when she came to the United States in 1946 and married Gretchen’s grandfather. Two years earlier, her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz. They had literally been gassed—engulfed in poisonous vapors—and incinerated. No one in Gretchen’s immediate family ever spoke to her grandmother about the war, or about the fate of her siblings or her parents. Instead, as is often the case with such extreme trauma, they avoided the subject entirely.

Gretchen knew the basic facts of her family history, but had never connected it to her own anxiety and depression. It was clear to me that the words she used and the feelings she described didn’t originate with her, but had in fact originated with her grandmother and the family members who lost their lives.

As I explained the connection, Gretchen listened intently. Her eyes widened and color rose in her cheeks. I could tell that what I said was resonating. For the first time, Gretchen had an explanation for her suffering that made sense to her.

To help her deepen her new understanding, I invited her to imagine standing in her grandmother’s shoes, represented by a pair of foam rubber footprints that I placed on the carpet in the center of my office. I asked her to imagine feeling what her grandmother might have felt after having lost all her loved ones. Taking it even a step further, I asked her if she could literally stand on the footprints as her grandmother, and feel her grandmother’s feelings in her own body. Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation. She also experienced the profound sense of guilt that many survivors feel, the sense of remaining alive while loved ones have been killed.

In order to process trauma, it’s often helpful for clients to have a direct experience of the feelings and sensations that have been submerged in the body. When Gretchen was able to access these sensations, she realized that her wish to annihilate herself was deeply entwined with her lost family members. She also realized that she had taken on some element of her grandmother’s desire to die. As Gretchen absorbed this understanding, seeing the family story in a new light, her body began to soften, as if something inside her that had long been coiled up could now relax.

As with Jesse, Gretchen’s recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was merely the first step in her healing process. An intellectual understanding by itself is rarely enough for a lasting shift to occur. Often, the awareness needs to be accompanied by a deeply felt visceral experience. We’ll explore further the ways in which healing becomes fully integrated so that the wounds of previous generations can finally be released.

An Unexpected Family Inheritance

A boy may have his grandpa’s long legs and a girl may have her mother’s nose, but Jesse had inherited his uncle’s fear of never waking, and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression. Sleeping inside each of them were fragments of traumas too great to be resolved in one generation.

When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature; when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.

Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. For Jesse, the unrelenting cold and shivering did not appear until he reached the age that his Uncle Colin was when he froze to death. For Gretchen, her grandmother’s anxious despair and suicidal urges had been with her for as long as she could remember. These feelings became so much a part of her life that no one ever thought to consider that the feelings didn’t originate with her.

Currently, our society does not provide many options to help people like Jesse and Gretchen who carry remnants of inherited family trauma. Typically they might consult a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist and receive medications, therapy, or some combination of both. But although these avenues might bring some relief, generally they don’t provide a complete solution.

Not all of us have traumas as dramatic as Gretchen’s or Jesse’s in our family history. However, events such as the death of an infant, a child given away, the loss of one’s home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in our family. With the origin of these traumas in view, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest. It’s important to note that not all effects of trauma are negative. In the next chapter we’ll learn about epigenetic changes—the chemical modifications that occur in our cells as a result of a traumatic event.

According to Rachel Yehuda, the purpose of an epigenetic change is to expand the range of ways we respond in stressful situations, which she says is a positive thing. “Who would you rather be in a war zone with?” she asks. “Somebody that’s had previous adversity [and] knows how to defend themselves? Or somebody that has never had to fight for anything?” Once we understand what biologic changes from stress and trauma are meant to do, she says, “We can develop a better way of explaining to ourselves what our true capabilities and potentials are.”

Viewed in this way, the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand not only can create a legacy of distress, but also can forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.

https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/an-excerpt-from-it-didnt-start-with-you-how-inherited-family-trauma-shapes-who-we-are-and-how-to-end-the-cycle-viking-april-2016-by-mark-wolynn/