Intergenerational Trauma

I’ve been thinking a lot about intergenerational trauma. Like how someone might be abusive because his father was abusive because HIS father had untreated PTSD from going to war as a teenager.

Then I think, as I often have, about how a privileged person might look at a population of indigenous people and wonder why they “haven’t got their act together” without taking into account what might happen to a people when they have, in recent history, the collective trauma of an entire stolen generation.

I think about how I am someone who has had a relatively stable, middle class upbringing, with access to books, family, love, a roof over their head… and how those things can give one a belief in their right to love, to education, to a voice that should be listened to. I think about someone who has been through a broken home, poverty and homelessness and how that might cause them to believe that they are unworthy of education, of security, of love.

I think about how our self-perceptions inform our decisions and how the outcomes of our decisions inform our self-perceptions. I think about poverty traps. I think about the ways in which we discuss the privileges of money, gender, race and so on… but what about the privilege of love? What about those who haven’t had love in their childhood? Isn’t love a privilege that not everyone is given?

Those who go unloved, or are badly abused or neglected when they are small, when their beautiful brains are still developing… what an incredible, long-lasting trauma that must be. What a tremendous setback at the very start of your life, like the race has begun and your legs are already tied together. How hard that must be, how brave and resilient such people are for pushing onward.

I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion and empathy. How undervalued it is. How desperately we need to cultivate more of it. How many more discussions we have to engage in about the way pain breeds more pain. How someone’s bad decisions might be the result of the only coping mechanisms they were capable of coming to when they were small and vulnerable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much healthier we’d all be if we funded better mental health care, if we listened to more stories of people who aren’t the same as us, if we simply sat with ourselves and practiced loving kindness directed both outwards and in.

When I see someone behaving in ways that seem stupid, baffling, or infuriating, I try to ask myself where that comes from. So often, the answer is pain. There is so much pain residing in the hearts of our species, I hope never to close to it but to remain open, to sit besides it with empathy and compassion.

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Right to Exist

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“People may think you’re giving up, when in fact you are simply giving in to the reality of your new life” – Toni Berhard, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

When you have a disability and suffer from chronic pain, sometimes your achievements will be weaponised; “You could handle making a web series so you could handle having a job.” In fact, I can see how it must look from the outside, when I walk into social engagements bursting with energy, when my artistic output appears impressive to some, it can be hard to look at me and understand how small my life can be from the inside. In fact, I think I’ve tended to keep the smallness of my life hidden out of shame. Now that I have observed this about myself, it is my intention to attempt to shed this shame and open up about the realities of my existence.

Surrounding every achievement of mine is a lot of empty time where I wander about the house, perhaps doing a little bit of gentle housework, listening to music, taking naps with my cats, staring at the wall and crying. This time is my rest time, my recovery time, there is a lot of it and it has intersections with depression. In fact, there is evidence that chronic pain and depression access similar pathways in the brain and so when I am having a pain flare, it is likely to include depression. This lowers my cognitive capacities so that this time is not a productive time where, say, I am reading, learning, studying and resourcefully making the most of my situation by enriching my mind. It’s not like that, it is instead a time where days drift by in a haze of chronic pain and a constant contending with the grief of all the years in my life that have been lost in this limbo of non-achievement.

I have this aspect of myself that is incredibly ambitious, driven by a desire to explore every inch of existence, to travel the world, to make art with every breath, to create just as much as I consume. It is a fire, a passion, a drive and sometimes a mania and anxiety, a fear of missing out, a fear of ceasing to exist. That part of myself has forever been in battle with the realities of my limited capabilities. It is a simple fact that my body responds poorly to a great deal of activity, this is inclusive of stress which causes my muscles to seize and my neuropathic pain to burn and bubble. It is a simple truth that I must surround my achievements with more downtime than most inhabitants of Western cultures could perhaps conceive of.

For most of my life as a person with a disability, there has been no pleasure or joy in this downtime, laced as it has been with shame. What does this shame look like? It is a shame around being financially dependent on others, on not being a productive and contributing member of society, on not reaching my potential. Sprinkled amongst the shame has been fear, fear of missing out, of wasting my life, of how I could possibly survive without the assistance of others. Finally, there is an emotion below all that which is the most raw and painful and that emotion is grief, grief for all the days when I stare longingly at my paintbrushes and have to walk away, grief for the long gone days when I could hold a book up on a train, grief for the bed-ridden little girl I was who spent so much time staring at her ceiling, grief for every other person who has to sit and watch the rivers of life flowing past them.

But over the last year, I have adopted a sort of secular Buddhism that fits within my own life philosophies and values. Included within this Buddhism are meditative practices that I am slowly getting more skilled at as well as regularly engaging in concepts of self-compassion and loving kindness. Through these practices, I am learning to sit more gently and kindly with reality and learning to allow myself joy that shines through my suffering. It is not a joy that denies the difficult truths of things, it doesn’t negate my pain, nor minimise my struggles, however when I accept the reality of my life and am gentle with myself, it makes all these quiet days more bearable.

Often, when I wander the house with a burning body and a blank mind, I feel the tightening sensations of self-loathing and sorrow. Here I am, getting older, here I am with a life half spent in a sort of nonexistence, how pathetic I sometimes see myself as being. It is a cruelty of the constructions of our culture that we believe our only values are in how busy we are, how much money we make, how much we put out into the world and how attractive we remain while doing so. It is a cruel game, it is one I am simply unable to play and I’m tired of feeling as if I have to justify my life. I am allowed to just be. There is no law in the universe that requires proof of our right to exist, a flower, a tadpole, a pebble, a sunbeam, a teardrop… none of them ever worry about their worth.

I sit outside on my deck crying for the third time today until eventually the tears cease. I breathe. I watch clouds morph and merge in the springtime sky. I breathe. I sit with my pain with gentleness, putting less emotional energy into investing it with value judgements that are always so cruel. My cat chirps at me and jumps onto my lap, her fur is luxury to my fingertips. My heart swells with joy and love and gratitude.

I’ll cry again. These cycles will happen again. I breathe. I accept. It’s a relief to let myself be in exactly what I am. This isn’t giving up, this is letting go of the struggle against reality. Much of my life is lived very quiet and very small. That’s ok, there is so much beauty right here, right in the midst of the suffering.

Lost Time

I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, haven’t I? I’ve been trying to play catch up in a race that is rigged by forces beyond my control and perhaps exists only in my head. A competition between myself and imaginary rivals with doubters and detractors watching from the sidelines. “I told you so” I cry triumphantly as I flip them the bird and take what’s mine. What is mine? The friends I never had in childhood? The high school I never graduated? The accolades I was never awarded? The bragging rights I never gave my parents? The income I never earned? The paintings I never painted?

Now that the surgeries where they cut muscles and removed bones were successful, I paint joyously and gratefully, I never thought I could have this back. But the joy turns to intensity and the intensity turns to anxiety. I paint furiously, forgetting I am still a cripple and pushing my body beyond its current capacity. I retreat guiltily, depressively as my body responds in pain and seized muscles. I fall into old habits of beating myself up for my failures in self-discipline and lack of wisdom and the inability to indulge my wild passion in more restrained measures.

I panic and sleep too much and eat too much sugar and ice cream and wonder how I’ll ever go Vegan and why the hell haven’t I managed to make myself meditate lately when I know it helps and why haven’t I gone for a walk and why haven’t I saved the Great Barrier Reef and now that I no longer have my disability as an excuse, what if I’m still useless, still nothing?

But my disability was never an excuse, simply an explanation and I’ve never been useless, never been nothing. I drag myself to a group meditation and spend the whole time feeling like I might start screaming from the panic attack I am silently experiencing. Yet, the facilitator speaks of compassion to our own emotions and of sitting with a gentle kindness with ourselves and though no words particularly stick with me this time, I find myself calmer at the end of the session. I start to notice what’s going on.

What’s going on is that I’m scared. Scared as my body heals that I will fuck it up and ruin all the hard work and money that has been invested into me. Scared as my body heals that maybe it’s too late to make a something of myself. Scared as my body heals that I will have nothing to offer. Scared as my body heals that I will lose the hard earned wisdom I gained from my chronic pain and disability. Scared as my body heals that I will hit a wall and still be disabled and lose the patient compassion I have had from loved ones.

It’s useful to put words to those fears because I can challenge them and realise that what they are about is that my life is in transition. A shift from one sort of existence to another but not a miracle cure sort of shift, rather a slow and ongoing changing without a knowledge of what the end destination might look like. Only now I have hope. And I guess maybe that’s what scares me most… I never want to lose hope again.

And so with these realisations, I hold myself in compassion because I’ve had these fears before, the first time I started to recover from a chronic health condition, only to fall into another. I realise the thing I need currently is not to suddenly fill my life with achievements and become obsessively caught up in my identity as an artist and the ways in which that can make me feel valuable and lovable but instead to remember the value of meditation, loving kindness, gentle compassion, human connection and a returned focus on self-care both physical and psychological.

This is not to say I am de-prioritising my artist practice, it is my passion and always will be but I need to bring these other aspects back into focus because I still have this disability and need to find sustainable ways to explore and work with my shifting capacities. I need to do this gently, kindly and I need to forgive myself when I stumble and struggle. This is better than before the surgery and for that I am grateful but this isn’t suddenly easy and I need to remember that and be kind.