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  • WJ Kehewin

The Roller Coaster of Intergenerational Trauma

Growing up on the reservation was no picnic in the park. It was more like being on a roller coaster that was coasting along, ready to climb sky-high or drop off an unseen cliff at any moment, and I would never know when the roller coaster would do either. I still remember the feeling of dread that would plant itself in my throat and chest and how I had to learn how to lose my voice and control my breathing to survive. I remember thinking if I slowed my breath down enough, it wouldn't be as awful if I just focused on my breath and nothing else; I would get through the next drop off the cliff. I learned years later that it was called disassociation which protected me from being in the moment. (Disclaimer, I am not a doctor). It always felt like I wasn't safe and that at any moment, I would be thrown for a loop that I wouldn't be able to protect myself from something that I could never recover from. I'm talking about the various abuses on reservations that families don't talk about.


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Where did they learn this from? From hegemonic systems like residential schools, child welfare, the 60's scoop, foster homes and even hospitals that taught lateral violence, political violence, physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse. They learned this from human beings who treated them like objects that could be tossed aside like clear-cut trees in the forest.


I landed in the hospital at 9-years-old with depression and 'the want' to sleep forever and to never wake up again. I remember praying every night to God; " Please God, if you exist, I don't want to wake up". The doctor that worked with me called it suicide ideation...Whatever it was, that brief one-month stay in the hospital was enough to give me sanity and a safe place for a little while so I could gather some hope and courage.


The doctor came to see me every day in the evening just before bedtime, who would bring me a Fruit and Nut Bar and told me there was nothing wrong with me and that the world around me was the problem. He would just let me talk while I ate my chocolate bar and ask me things about my mom, my dad, and why I lived with my grandmother and not with them. I never did tell the doctor about the abuse that was happening, so maybe he thought I was upset about my mom and dad's divorce. I felt that if I told him what people were doing to me, he would hate me too.


This, combined with depression and anxiety, could have and should have broken me and have broken so many people in the past. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have loved ones who have died young, died alone, died of overdose, died of cirrhosis of the liver, and other disease, and of course, suicide. So many people died with broken hearts like my mom and her six siblings; none of them seen passed 50. None of them went to prom or ever saw any of their children graduate.


I was this weird sort of kid who would try to get love and attention from aunties who were loving and teachers who treated me with compassion. If I could make them happy by doing what they thought was terrific, like washing their dishes or sweeping the floor or getting good grades or being the quickest at quizzes or by...on and on it went. I just wanted to be loved and feel like I was good enough. Those aunties and they know who they are gave me hope. Those teachers who showed me kindness and compassion helped me more than they will ever know.

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My mom was always gone...always running from her past, always running from the guilt of leaving us and never feeling good enough like so many of our aunties, our nieces, our daughters, our sisters, our brothers, our uncles, our grandparents, and this list goes on. I understood one thing: my mom couldn't be with me. I knew that she loved us, but she couldn't take care of us. It is so hard for someone to take care of children if they are in survival mode. She was always just trying to make it through the day, and sometimes that meant drinking right through, morning til night, day after day, week after week to avoid the past, to avoid guilt, to avoid shame, and to avoid the pain of missing us. I knew she loved us, and I never questioned that. That was one thing in my life I was sure of.


My mom had depression, anxiety, insomnia, and whatever else she was dealing with and never did reach the pinnacle of healing that she could recognize the monkeys in her brain as not being things that she could control. She died not feeling good enough, feeling guilt and shame and feeling the pain of missing us.


I used to think I was broken and that if I told anyone about the monkeys in my brain or that I have anxiety and depression, they would think I was crazy and treat me differently. I wondered why I wasn't good enough.


School was always a safe place for me, so I went to college then university in 20 years and learned so much about human nature, the body and trauma, and the history of Canada with Indigenous Peoples. The more learning I did, the more healing that entered my life. The more years that passed, the more people with a piece of the puzzle would enter my life to help me learn.


One of the most eye-opening pieces of knowledge that I have learned is about how we are born with every single egg we will ever need in our lifetime. We are born with our children in our body as eggs. That's right. I was with her when she was born, and I was also with her when she was in utero. It makes sense that whatever my mother and grandmother went through, I would have gone through too. So, I would have been exposed to the hormones and chemicals flowing through their bodies like epinephrine (adrenalin) and cortisol. This is where Intergenerational trauma comes in. It makes sense that I would have anxiety and depression too. The difference is that I have had the opportunities to learn and understand that my mother and grandmother did not have. The key here is to share everything I know and learn with others so I can pass on healing to others.


Learning is healing...Learning doesn't have to be going to school, sometimes learning comes from books, or friends, or counsellors or ceremony...as long as you keep learning...you got this.


Until Next time friends. Be kind to yourself.

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