What Intergenerational Trauma Feels Like
“What if something happens and you never come home, Em?”
I heard my mother’s voice in my head as I packed for a trip to New York. I could feel the knot in my stomach move up to my throat and suddenly, I was nauseous. I ran to the bathroom and vomited.
It wasn’t the first time I felt frozen before leaving on a trip and it wasn’t the last. Just like so many times before and since, I canceled the trip at the last minute. “I’m sick,” I told my friend. “I can’t get on the plane.” Well, the last part was true. I couldn’t get on the plane because I was worried about not being able to get back.
It wasn’t until after I began writing my memoir and connecting the dots of my fear of traveling alone away from family did I realize that what I was experiencing was intergenerational trauma. A term that has only recently become more well-known, intergenerational trauma is trauma that is passed down from previous generations to their children and grandchildren, who then carry the invisible weight of a trauma that they didn’t even experience firsthand. In my case, that trauma was the Holocaust.
My mother (I called her “Mutti,” German for mother) was a Holocaust survivor and her experiences in concentration camp stayed with her long after she escaped from Ostlinde. While every Holocaust survivor coped differently, Mutti’s method of coping was to relive that time of her life every day. In my childhood, the Holocaust came up at breakfast, lunch, after school, dinner — pretty much all the time. And without realizing it, her fears became my fears, her anxiety became my anxiety, her distrust became my distrust, and well, you get the picture.
When people ask me what intergenerational trauma feels like, the best way I can describe it is having visceral reactions to situations or things that don’t make sense because you didn’t have a bad experience with them yourself. But intergenerational trauma doesn’t only appear psychologically (as in my fear of travel), it also can appear physically. In fact, recent studies show that second-generation (or 2G) Holocaust survivors display higher than normal rates of chronic illness, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and other genetic abnormalities, such as reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps your body manage stress.
On the surface, the fear of travel and not being able to get home seem silly. But when you dig into Mutti’s history, it’s clearly related to the Holocaust. Most of the people who were “picked up” by the Nazis, some under the auspices of going on a trip, did not return to their families. Instead, they were exterminated in concentration camps. Mutti’s very real fear of someone close to her packing a bag and leaving her was transmitted to me, even though I was born in the U.S., 19 years after the Holocaust ended.
As far back as I can remember, Mutti would explain all the horrible things that could happen to me when I was away from home and every time I wanted to go anywhere. Even a trip as short and close to home as a Girl Scout overnight camping trip was deemed dangerous. In that case, I actually made it to camp and then had an anxiety attack after dinner, calling my dad to come pick me up (there must have been a phone in the lodge back in 1975).
Keeping their children — whether born during, at or after the end of World War II — safe and protected from the world was a common theme for families of Holocaust survivors. Most 2Gs grew up in highly overprotective environments and were allowed few freedoms. Constant location checks were the norm and some of us rarely went anywhere without our parents — or at least without strict supervision.
As my 2G cohort entered adulthood and became parents, we continued the cycle of intergenerational trauma with our children. What’s more, many 3Gs (the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) see themselves repeating the patterns of their grandparents and parents, and want to stop the cycle.
One way I’ve come to grips with my intergenerational trauma is through the healing power of writing. I got the noise and the running script out of my head and onto paper; I gave it somewhere to land where I could look at it with a bit of distance. By documenting my mother’s experiences and the resulting behaviors and emotions, my mind has been able to let go of those thoughts, and it’s helped me see the world in a different way. Another benefit? Writing has a healing effect on physical as well as emotional and mental health,
As I often say, “The only way through is through. There are no shortcuts.” This is hard work, but the result is so worth it. But taking the first step, committing yourself to heal and changing the story is the hardest.
Unsplash Rod Long