(TW: the following post references trauma, depression, anxiety, C-PTSD, and suicide.)
I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and I’ve already lived almost four years longer than she did. I’ve actually never met any relatives on my mom’s side, save for those I shared space with when we traveled to Washington, D.C. when I was a kid for her dad’s funeral. My mom’s dad is a whole other story. For now, though, let me tell you the little I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother. Having done some ancestry work and knowing what little I knew about my mom’s story as I grew up, I know that my grandmother Josephine’s ethnicity was 100% Jewish. That, by the way, makes me Jewish, since (as I understand it) in Judaism one’s “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother. For the record, I’ve done my own DNA work, and I am:
Knowing this is empowering…and tragic, as I never knew anyone from this Jewish (and German, through my mom’s dad) side of the family except my mother. I did inherit some really cool old pictures that maybe I’ll write about some time, but I don’t know anything about anyone in those pictures, nor do I recognize anyone in them aside from my grandparents. Ironically, on my dad’s side of the family I had much more contact with the extended family (my dad’s siblings and their families mostly), but I have almost no pictures of any of them. It’s like I have to choose- pictures or (however fraught) relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?
All that aside, let’s get back to my grandmother and eventually why I’m writing about her. I believe her parents emigrated from Russia or at least Eastern Europe. I also know there was quite a bit of trauma in her life. Obviously being Jewish with parents who may have fled Russia/Eastern Europe means there is much epigenetic trauma simply in her body (and likewise, in mine), but she had her share of it in her own life as well. For example, I found this old newspaper clipping detailing a car crash (pay attention to that theme) she was involved in as a kid with her family:
This happened when she was 11. Can you imagine going over a 40 foot embankment in your car in the age before widespread use of seatbelts? I wanted to visualize what such a crash might have looked like, and the internet has no shortage of pictures of car crashes “off a 40 foot embankment,” often involving death, like this one:
To The Third and Fourth Generation
I can only guess the whole family suffered from PTSD ever since this dramatic, traumatic event. Rounding out the picture of trauma in my grandmother’s life, it’s important to know that my grandmother, a full-blooded Jew, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, right in the middle of WWII, in March 1942. Their marriage represented a microcosm of the Holocaust, to put it crudely, and from what I know of their marriage, it played out predictably. My grandfather Emil was known to be brilliant, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who worked on codebreaking I believe, who then transitioned into the CIA for decades (there were many people from “the agency” at his funeral). He was also an alcoholic and, in my very limited understanding, an “angry drunk.” So there was much trauma also in their marriage, and my mother was traumatized from a very young age as well. Her story is heartbreaking, but is a tale to tell in full at another time. I do, though, actually have my mom’s story in her own words, written for an application for some program at church she applied to one time. She says:
- “Severe abuse to my mother and myself by my drunken father was quite traumatic.”
- “…my mother never slept in the same bed as my father after I was conceived.”
- “There was constant fighting and drinking by my parents.”
- “I was raised to be…perfect…”
- She talks of hiding in the “…closet to get away from the screaming and violence.”
So then, the way my mom told their story, her mother was apparently so traumatized and depressed that she killed herself by driving into a pole or something like it at speed. That’s what I remember anyway. In that autobiography I quote above, she simply says that “my mother committed suicide.” As an adult I got access to my grandmothers’ death certificate, shown below. What’s unavoidably true is that as a traumatic car crash survivor as a child, she later died in a car crash at the age of 42. Her death certificate says her car “left surface of road for 200 feet” and then “came back on road and struck another car.” It also says it was a “rainy night” and “roads (were) slippery.” The death certificate has three boxes that can be checked including “accident” and “suicide.” According to the death certificate it was an accident, not suicide.
Questions are still begged, though. What was she doing driving alone that night in apparently adverse conditions? What was her frame of mind? Was she distracted? It certainly wouldn’t have been by a phone. Was she distraught or crying? God alone knows. Perhaps more to the point- why did my mom believe so wholeheartedly it was suicide and always tell the tale that way in the few times she ever did? Storytelling is powerful for many reasons, and memory is a tricky thing. What I know for sure is that my mother and grandmother were severely traumatized, and my grandmother died alone right in the middle of all that ongoing trauma.
‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’–Numbers 14:18
I don’t want to read too much into the verse from Numbers above, especially by attributing any cause to God, but certainly there’s intergenerational trauma at work in my family history, as you can see above in my grandmothers’ life, and below in my mother’s and mine.
Another Questionable Death
My mother died herself almost 23 years ago (notably she died the day after Kirsten’s dad did; so there’s a little trauma in my marriage right there). Regrettably, my mother herself was very abusive. She never drank, but didn’t need alcohol to be volatile and angry, to yell and curse and demean, to control and manipulate and be codependent. No alcohol was needed for me to be parentified at a young age. This article sums up my experience of being parentified quite well. I read it with a litany of “aha’s” going off in my head over and over again. The article includes this bit that was particularly insightful about my own experience:
In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:
-Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.-(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)
-Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
-Obedience makes a child strong.
-The body is something dirty and disgusting.
-Strong feelings are harmful.
-Parents are always right.
-Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt.
-Duty produces love.
-A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
-A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
-Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
-A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
-The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel.
-Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
Notably, my mother again was someone who always believed that her mother killed herself, and as I grew up my mother was frequently suicidal. She took a number of medications and was in poor physical health most of her life, and her preferred method of attempting suicide was always with pills. More often than not her threats were “empty,” but she made actual attempts often enough that you never knew when she might finally follow through. This brings us to the manner of her own death. In the lead-up to her death much attention was being given to the end of my father-in-law’s battle with brain cancer, until suddenly my own dad found my mom unresponsive, foaming at the mouth, having taken too much I believe of her pain medication. That’s what landed her in the hospital where she eventually died. I’ve asked those who were there at the time about this (this happened in Texas where I grew up, while I was in Minnesota at the time), and they’ve said that they don’t think it was suicide because she “didn’t empty the bottle” of meds like she had before (including one time, I believe, when she had to be hospitalized and have her stomach pumped). But it seems awfully like her own mother’s death in many ways- a death of a severely traumatized and depressed person under somewhat questionable circumstances, and in my mother’s case, someone who had unquestionably attempted suicide before.
It Takes a Village…to Break a Cycle
So why am I writing about all this at the end of May, as Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close? I think I’ve fairly frequently written about my own battle with depression, anxiety, and finally Complex PTSD. I’ve done counseling throughout my adult life, and finally over the past two years I’ve done a lot of work with EMDR. The possibility that my brain’s neuroplasticity might help me rewrite those mental pathways that keep me constantly “triggerable,” hyper-vigilant, and prone to emotional flashbacks gives me some hope that I can lessen the impact of generational trauma on my own wife and children, but I must confess that whether because of the pandemic or because of some other reason, I’ve found my progress lately halted, and my symptoms more severe. I’m always a poor sleeper and always anxious, but my depression over the past 6 weeks or so has been particularly worse, to the point where I’ve wrestled with (especially) “dark thoughts.” Yes, that’s code for suicidal ideation. It’s really, really hard to admit this about myself, and now to do so publicly, but there it is. I don’t think I ever really had a viable plan, but I’ve struggled with it nonetheless.
So here’s the supposedly brave part. Various counselors over the years have wondered with me about taking medication for mental health, and I’ve always resisted it. My trauma drives me to seek control of whatever I can in a threatening world that could erupt into pain at a moment’s notice. It’s why I don’t drink, not only because there’s a legacy of alcoholism in my family, but also because the thought of not being in full control of my actions is terribly anxiety producing, never mind that my traumatized brain frequently causes me to react to things in a way that I never would have consciously chosen. Believing that mental health meds “mess with my brain” thus has always caused me to say no to them. After my last bout with an intense episode of depression and those “dark thoughts,” though, I finally talked to Kirsten and my counselor about it, and agreed to try medicine to “even me out.”
It’s still early days, but I can report so far that I notice a difference. The way I’ve described it is that before I was at the bottom of the ocean, with all that weight and pressure bearing down on me all the time, ready to crush me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe, hard to do anything. Now, I’m not out of the water and don’t know that I ever will be, but I’ve gained some depth. I’m moving upward. The weight and pressure are still there, but they’re less intense. One of the meds helps me sleep, which is welcome relief too. Am I truly brave? I don’t know. But thanks be to God, science has given us more tools than my grandmother or even mother had available. No amount of medication will undo chronic trauma or make childhood (or adult) adversity go away, but it can help with the effects while full healing is sought. And thanks be to God that she is a “great physician,” who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” My healing is still happening, Lord willing, and I trust that God will “complete the good work” begun in me someday. I like the NRSV version of that verse I just alluded to from Phillippians 1:6, which says that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Like so much of the New Testament, the intended audience is plural. It’s written to us, the church. The good work to be done in me is good work to be done in you too. It’s our work, together. Like the end of that old Aboriginal saying I keep quoting, if you “believe that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” Amen.
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, go here: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
For mental health resources, go here: https://nami.org/Home