What is trauma? Where does it come from? What role does it play in the human experience? The answers to these questions will vary greatly depending on the person you ask. For me, trauma is the emotional, psychological, and spiritual energy that enters our lives and shatters our understanding and ways of coping with life as we know it. Trauma takes on many forms and it’s impact on our lives can be subtle or direct, occur as one large event or a series of repeated exposures; but it almost always sends us down a spiraling path of destruction and despair.
My response to traumatic experiences has changed dramatically over the years. When you encounter loved ones who carry overwhelming pain, heartache, sadness, and hurt from life experiences, it can be easy to take on their darkness while simultaneously creating a personalized trauma-world of your own. Over a period of time, these traumatic experiences are compounded and passed down through generations. Think of trauma as a single snowflake that falls from the sky. As one snowflake falls it hits the ground and we observe the insignificance of it’s impact. Another snowflake falls and we have the same reaction and we think, “no harm, no foul; it’s just another snowflake” and we go about our business. With a “one-snowflake-at-a-time” mentality, we neglect to realize the snowflakes, or trauma-encounters, have picked up in intensity and turned into a full-blown winter storm. In no time at all the ground disappears in plain sight, similar to how our life is forever changed and unrecognizable to ourselves due to the amount of trauma falling into our lives.
For 20+ years, I carried the weight of my family’s generational trauma, not because anybody asked me to but because everything is your fault as a child when you grow up in the midst of chaos and despair. I wrestled with immense amounts of guilt, shame, and willful disregard of my mental health and sanity. I developed a warped sense of reality due to the copious amounts of rage and outright denial that my parents were addicted to drugs. I blamed myself for their misery. I sat in the depths of loneliness and despair because it was comfortable and easier to manage than doing the hard work to overcome adversity in the way it showed up in my life. And, to be frank, it was the only modeling of emotional regulation my parents taught us at a young age. I was angry, resentful, and emotionally indifferent towards my parents who chose drugs over sobriety…every fucking time. This was my reality and I was hell-bent on riding the Denial Express all the way to my grave.
There were so many nights where I cried myself to sleep, convinced my shear existence was the reason for my parent’s divorce and development of their addictions. What I did not realize until I went off to college is that my parents were fighting deeply entrenched traumas within themselves; I was caught in the cross-fires of a battle that was not mine to fight. The impact of their childhood trauma bled into my life and lodged itself into the very fabric of my identity and outlook on life. This was during a time when the warnings signs of trauma was not as widely understood and recognized like it is today. Trauma is insidious and creeps into various parts of your mind, body, and soul and easily accumulates in ways similar to the snowfall allegory described above. Innocent and benign at first, until all of a sudden it festers and metastasizes in the form of darkness, making you feel like a prisoner in your own body living a life that is devoid of any happiness, joy, or meaning.
When you have so much darkness, pain, and sorrow in your heart it can feel unbearable with no end in sight. My parents gave me the most soul-wrenching of experiences observing their struggles with addiction, suicide, and mental health complications. Struggles that persist to this day. Saturday, January 5th, I left Oklahoma after visiting over winter break and traipsed my way back to Northern Virginia. Overall, this trip home was good. I spent quality time with my siblings, father, nieces and nephew, and spent an evening in with my aunt and her three children; anybody would call that a win. My plane landed in Washington D.C. and I made it safely back to my home in Ashburn, Virginia. I busied myself with unpacking and preparing for another work week. I received a phone call that evening around 7pm eastern time and it was my sister and her husband who shared the familiar pain of the past; only this time it was elevated to a life or death situation.
My mother survived a suicide attempt. The details of her suicide attempt is anybody’s guess. When I heard the news I was in a state of shock: I almost lost my mother to suicide. If it wasn’t for my sister who called the police to perform a wellness check, because she had an intuition that something was wrong, we could of lost her. My mother is beginning to stabilize in the care of medical professionals one week later…but there is a lingering emotional devastation and confusion as to what happens next with my mother’s medical care. For over 20 years my siblings and I have struggled with this realization: you cannot want something for someone more than they want it for themselves and that is a hard reality to accept. Even after her suicide attempt my mother is convinced she is ok and does not want to seek further treatment for addiction and mental health. It’s unclear at the moment if her judgment is in good conscience or if it’s just a continuation of the poor decisions she’s made in her life.
The latest dose of pure chaos has passed and as the dust settles, I am left sitting in the emotional mess of my mother’s devastation. The only person who can change this reality is herself, not me, my brother, or sister. I used avoidance and distance as a way to cope with this darkness present in my family unit, only to realize that is no real way to live a life of bravery and courage. That response violates my personal and professional values as an educator and conflicts with my wanting to lean into vulnerability and discomfort in all areas of my life. To embrace the suck as Brene Brown so honestly articulates.
My heart is broke wide open and it’s been this way since I was 10 years old. I used to be fearful of my own thoughts and emotions because they were so heavy and full of clouded anxieties, pain, and discomfort. Needless to say, I did not have the space or capacity to recognize the depth and breadth of how much generational trauma seeped its way into my life. I will forever be on the path of healing and understanding what happened not only in my life, but the life of my mother, father, brother and sister. The lives of all my family members, and anyone who can connect to my story, who experienced a great deal of pain and loss in their own lives.
Over the last several of years, my response to this pain and suffering has evolved into me leaning into the fiery pit of destruction. To feel what I need to feel, to think what I need to think, and hold a hopeful space in my heart for order and restoration to follow in the wake of chaos and destruction. To embrace darkness as a gift that enters my life as a way for me to wake the hell up and fight for compassion, empathy, and bravery for myself. Because in doing so, we give energy to what really matters and give people authentic hope to carry on, and clarity in understanding how the storms in our life have come to clear our path to healing, growth, and transformation. The journey is far from over. As new energy, hope, and clarity enters my life, I let the power of writing as a healing manifestation tool and bleed on the pages of my memoir, Phoenix. Shame and fear has no place left to hide if I embrace my story; the good, bad, and indifferent. I am grateful for my ability to enter this growth season. To give the world more compassion, understanding, and empathy.
Trauma has forever changed my life as I will carry it with me, in one form of another, as a tool of self-awareness in the way I wish to live my life. The anger and resentment in my heart is leaving to make room for grace and forgiveness. I cannot carry unprocessed trauma anymore; it’s too heavy of a burden to carry. I give grace to my mother and father; to anyone who is struggling in one form or another. I now realize the power of grace: functioning under the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can with the life circumstances they are trying to navigate. That is what grace is for me and I give that to everyone because I need grace in return. Incorporating grace and forgiveness into my life is a way that I keep anger and resentment at bay. Ultimately, it’s the way I prevent myself to harden to the troubles of the world and stay open to my truth, to honor my story, and maintain the courage to live a life of courage and vulnerability.
I am entering a phase of self-realization that the darkness I survived (the heartache, pain, sorrow, despair, and downright devastation) is for a purpose. I genuinely believe my life was front-loaded with hard lessons to learn. To bring what needs attention and healing in my life. It’s been a tough road but my heart, mind, and spirit are primed for what is coming. The only emotion stronger than fear is hope; it’s what carried me this far. Understanding human energy and the role of hope and clarity in my life gave me the courage to make amends to the past, understand the present, and allow for what this great big universe is trying to send my way. Out of the depths of darkness emerges the soul-shattering, blinding-light of blissful joy and well-being. Only a heart that maintains an appreciation for and leans into the unknown will be prepared for the power that comes from trusting yourself and the process. I will rise and then I will fall because life is messy. But I will not be afraid of falling apart because it provides an opportunity to let go of what no longer serves me. And when I rise from the ashes, I will wear my scars proudly as proof in the power of human resilience.
-With much love and light, -Bradley
“The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our wholeheartedness – actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls.” -Brene Brown