Journey through intergenerational trauma, - part 1, a reflection on the Balkans

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I remember after my grandmother died, my dad telling me that the water well which brought fresh water to her house dried up. Not only did the well dry up but the whole source of water stopped. We had to look for a new source of water underground.  It was as if after she left this earth, so did the water which nourished her and my family for all these years. 

I grew up in former Yugoslavia and was proud to be Yugoslavian.  I strongly identified with the stories of unity, multiculturalism, social unity, social equality and collective progress, even though I was just a child. I adapted these stories into the very fibre of my being. Little did I know that later, those same stories would be the fertile ground for trauma. 

What is trauma? 

Often times when talking about trauma, people are referring to an overwhelming experience which becomes hard to integrate into our life and our identity, often times leaving us with either physical, emotional or mental changes and symptoms. . Trauma is an experience caused by an overwhelming experience (whether physical or emotional, or both) as well as the subsequent symptoms which arise due to that experience. Modern psychology tends to look at trauma in relation to the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), which is used by psychiatrists to diagnose behavioural conditions. DSM-5 expands the definition of trauma to include:

Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: directly experiencing the traumatic event(s); witnessing, in person, the traumatic event(s) as it occurred to others; learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend

I want to highlight the part here about learning about trauma happening to others. This type of trauma can be experienced by people who work with people who are experiencing hard and traumatic life experiences, having people close to us going through something traumatic, hearing the stories or even seeing the stories in news, media etc. This type of trauma is often called vicarious trauma, as it is experienced to the same degree by the person who is listening / supporting as it is by the person directly experiencing it.  In other words, it is trauma which is passed down and experienced by someone else other than the person who experienced the event. This type of trauma plays a huge role in passing down of family trauma. Families will often time repeat same stories for generations, including the traumatic experiences and their after effects. These stories can create belief systems in future generations very much similar as in the family member who first experienced it. 

For me this is a key in understanding intergenerational trauma and understanding my own family trauma and the region where I come from. We create so much of who we are through stories told by those before us. 

How does one experience trauma? 

In over 20 years of working with people in therapeutic settings as well as looking at my own personal life, I have come to see that one of the most obvious ways we experience trauma, or the way trauma shows up in our life is through patterns. If something happened to us that was overwhelming to our body-mind, if it continued to happen, or if it happened at a very early stages of our development, our body and mind will have begun to form protective patterns. Patterns which ensure we don't feel that same level of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual overwhelm again. This is a protective mechanism and sometimes it may seem like it actually serves us well. It may be the drive which pushes us to work hard, to go after our dreams, work hard at our dream relationships, our dream jobs, our dream bodies. Patterns which will push us hard to escape the feelings of trauma in our body-mind by designing a new feeling, our dream state of feeling.

Other times, we may try to escape from the overwhelm of traumatic experiences through harmful patterning, such as being in toxic relationships, not being able to keep a job, not caring about what we eat etc. 

I have spent over 25 years looking at and observing my own patterns in my life and of those around me. I had looked at why I attract certain people and situations into my life and why I am attracted to some over others. I have looked at where I had pushed my self beyond what I knew to be my potential and where I had played small and hid in the corner. I had emigrated to Canada just three months shy of the break out of the war in former Yugoslavia, 1990. A war which lasted till 1999 and which broke me and who I knew myself to be into pieces. Even all the way across the ocean I was experiencing trauma, the event and the symptoms simultaneously, even if I was not witnessing it with my own eyes. Those around me were experiencing it as well, while dealing with regular every day things. I started to also see people around me re-traumatized from previous unhealed trauma in the region and past wars. 

Looking at those around me, slowly over the years, I started to see how they coped, creating patterns in their life, some which were helpful, and some which were not. 

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I started to listen to their stories, of how they see themselves, their culture, their race, their part in history. In some of those stories I heard stories of my grandparents, repeated. My grandparents for whom this was a second war in their life, passed on stories and patterns to their kids, my parents, aunts, uncles, friends' parents, aunts and uncles. I listened to the stories of the people who left their home with their feet but not with their heart, of those who yanked even the roots out of there ensuring never to plant them there again. 

I listened to their stories. As I listened, patterns of trauma began to show themselves leading me to see the two distinct streams of trauma integration: 

1. The Dream = when we use all of our body-mind energy to build more than required, to push past all of our boundaries and create the ultimate utopia for ourselves, or the illusion of this new dream so as to never be taken down by trauma as we once were. 

2. The Escape = when we use all of our energy to not face the pain of the trauma by literally escaping through wide array of harmful behaviours and thought patterns. 

Once I identified these patterns I wanted to see if they were formed due to the nature of the trauma, war, or do they exist because they are common human patterns when faced with overwhelming trauma which keeps being repeated across generations, such as systemic oppression, slavery, wars, forced displacement, violence, poverty, etc.  

As a community worker, I have been working with groups of people who have experienced systemic oppression and violence for many generations. Often times, in my work with individuals I saw similar patterns in different people and made me wonder, how much of these patterns are really theirs, how much are passed on by early childhood conditinig, or just the way their parents were, perhaps even their grandparents were. Perhaps even what were their views, their beliefs, their behvaiours. 

It is believed that intergnerational trauma is the passing of the reaction to trauma through generations when trauma is too overhelming to bear for one generation. Or as suggested in Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, edited by M. Gerard Fromm (2012), each generation will re-enact the traumas of the past generations until healing and transformation can occur. 

I had long ago identified some patterning my parents have passed on to me and perhaps even some from my grandparents, but I never thought of it as reactions to trauma, rather their coping mechanisms with the best they had. But the more I listened to people's stories the more I felt there was something deeper.  So in a pivotal moment in my life, I decided to take a two month trip across the former Yugoslavia. On this trip I will visit Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, three out of six of the countries which made up former Yugoslavia. First stop: Sarajevo. 

Why Sarajevo?

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The thing that struck me first when visiting Sarajevo for the first time was the wells of fresh running water in the city, always flowing water, cold and fresh as a crisp winter's day. These wells have been here for centuries and centuries providing water to all who have come to these lands. From the early Ottomans in the 1400s to the Astro-Hungarians in the 1800's to present day. It made me think of my grandma's well and how it dried up after she died. It made me ask the question, what kept the water flowing here?

I choose to start my 2 month journey in Sarajevo because when I lived in Yugoslavia it always held a special intrigue for me. During the 1984 Olympics I remember feeling inspired by this city where all these different people lived and co-existed, as it was a true mixing of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Mixing in every sense of the word, across blood lines and not. I felt like it embodied the essence of unity. 

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So today when I arrived as an adult, I was unsure of what I would feel and what I would find.  In the Balkans, there is a strong attachment to the story of who you are, where you are born and what religion you practice. There is a strong importance placed on these things from many generations ago as all of the sides have brutally murdered each other at different times, locations and ways. To say it is complicated is an understatement. 

One of the things that first hit me in my time in Bosnia is the people's need for truth and witnessing and validating of that truth. "If I know who killed my ____ (insert relative/s), I can move on, I can heal."  "If I can then tell everyone else and have them be on my side of making the other person / side "evil" then I can heal."  "If I can ensure the killing of my family is remembered and told over and over again and never forgotten than I can heal." These were the underlying (and sometimes overt) sentiments felt in conversations, daily movements and ways of interaction. These are also the sentiments that I have heard over and over again during the war. I used to think back then that everyone just wanted to be right, but I see now that everyone just wants to have their pain seen so they can process it, so they can release the energy and pull the pain out of the shadows, eventually releasing the energy which gut stuck. It is not about making the other side evil, rather it is just about saying "hey this happened to me.". 

So when looking at intergenerational trauma and the need to witness the pain of the groups of people who were oppressed, how do we draw the line of being a witness and not taking their side, and how does that group draw the line of being witnessed and not adapting the internal paradigm of being a victim, thus perpetuating a sort of internalized oppression? 

I find this a very hard question to answer here in the Balkans as each side has been the oppressor and the oppressed at different times and sometimes even simultaneously. But one thing I think that is crucial in taking those first steps is the understanding that our need to be right, our need to have our truth be the one that is seen by the world and honoured by monuments or museums is just the desire to say "hey I am hurting".  It is the role of each one of us to stop and say " i hear you, tell me more about it" after which, the role of the one who shared is to say, "now tell me about yours".

Maybe if we applied this approach to the many tensions in the world right now, we could start to create space for the intergenerational trauma to have a space to say where it hurts and know it is being heard, truly, honestly, without defense or attack. 

Just like when a client comes to me, my first question "what is your biggest concern right now that you want to address" creates space for anything that has not been heard to be heard. Even if it is something like: "I have been having this horrible back pain or something like", or "I was abused as a child". All of it needs to be acknowledged, because it is our body-mind's attempt to heal in that space of witnessing.  Even if there is no instant change, the process of being witnessed can sometimes be the most cathartic healing experience ever. 

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To find out more about my work or book a Body-Mind Therapy Session for yourself, email me at info@circlepointwellness.com