This is the latter part of an essay exploring the effects of intergenerational trauma. Since writing this piece in 2018, I’ve established healthier connections with my immediate family. This change came about after a severe and sudden relapse with Anorexia Nervosa this year. I have not attained clarity, misunderstandings remain the same, but I have felt ‘seen’ in a serious way and this, for the moment, is enough.
Two years ago, two weeks after Christmas, he stops talking to me. ‘Your body has become too depressing to look at.’ One year later he emails to say I’m not to use the word ‘father’ when writing for publication unless a pseudonym is used. He says this after reading a personal essay where the word ‘father’ appears twice. The piece is about rape but he doesn’t ask any questions. He has not spoken to me since. When I tell mother about this, she says: ‘He had a troubled childhood.’ And then: ‘He’s on the spectrum.’ When I ask her what spectrum she’s referring to, she says: ‘Oh you know, the spectrum.’
Establishing autonomy is a developmental imperative during teenage years and yet adolescents continue to turn to their mothers for support and security. Therefore, if the person relied on for emotional support is neglectful (if they ignore cries for help and deny reassurance), the child is left with feelings of abandonment, shame and distress. Neglect is often distinguished from ‘active emotional abuse’ as it arises more often than not out of ignorance. Often, this parent is without an appropriate childrearing model (written into the parent as a child growing up in their own family). Active emotional abuse is an act of commission and neglect is an act of omission. My therapist says my mother’s complicity regarding my father’s maltreatment stunted my ability to regulate difficult emotions. That is: from a young age I learnt to manage emotional distress via the body e.g. self-harm. When this became too much to contain (when I ran out of skin to run a razor or fist across) I sought to remove the body completely (why cut into the canvas when I can remove the canvas?). Anorexia, in this way, can be interpreted as a removal of trauma: a return to the autonomous self.
Fasts until lunchtime. Three black coffees. A biscuit dipped in tea around midday. Kayaks in the ocean outside the family house until sundown. Drinks wine of an evening. Makes cabbage salad for dinner sometimes fish. Sleeps for three hours. On occasion his dead mother sings him lullabies. Climbs out of bed at 4AM to go bike riding. Takes his go-pro and aims for a personal best each time. A PB is easy because failure is too great of a risk. He gets migraines often. He has a ten-year-old cancerous tumour growing inside of him. The GP says he needs to rest but he says the GP knows nothing. Sometimes he goes on Google Doctor and calls me afterwards to say he is dying at a more rapid pace than I am. His voice sounds angry but also proud. It tastes like bait but only because I bite. Think: race him to the finish line. Skip dinner and go to the gym. Use the treadmill until several ripped toenails soak blood into socks. Wake the next morning. Collapse from exhaustion. Call him: I can’t breathe and I don’t plan to eat for the next forty-eight hours [Pause] And my hands are blue [Pause] What colour are your hands?
No one thinks it if you don’t look the part. The aftermath becomes the former: before pathology struck. There is no post-anorectic. There is only: ‘She is back to normal now.’
Current relapse. Temazepam prescription for insomnia: monthly script lasts two days sometimes three. Valium refills: take 4 x the usual amount daily. Cymbalta prescription is given but not taken for fear of weight gain. PTSD diagnosis: told it’s not new but very, very old. Borderline Personality is put on the table but nothing is taken off the table. Borderline Personality is soon replaced with a c-PTSD diagnosis (different from BPD, PTSD: the ‘c’ stands for ‘complex’, and is given to people with a history of trauma often first misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality). Go to cafes to watch people eat to make myself sick to throw up nothing. Rice cakes and tea consumed after midday. Occasional blackouts. Lose 10kg in three months: BMI drops from 15 to 14 (within a year I’ll be facing tube feeding as my only option for recovery but I have no way of knowing this now). Make a Spotify playlist titled ‘end lol’. Temazepam overdose followed by a day in the hospital: two police officers and an ambulance are called to my apartment. Ask the officers if they feel any different wearing the uniform and one officer says of course. Suggest this officer see a therapist. Handcuffs are threatened but say I know the drill: I’ve failed three times. The other officer asks why I’m unhappy and then reads a poem on my fridge about dead flowers and says cute. She rolls up my blinds to expose the sunshine and says what a lovely white light. I laugh with such force I fall off my chair and pass out on my carpet.
My therapist says he’s self-motivated and advises against returning home: ‘He won’t change because he lacks insight. Not because he’s chosen to lack insight, but because his nature prevents it.’ I nod because I understand. OCD has dictated my life since I was five and even though I didn’t choose it, I know it looks like something waiting to be removed, dismantled. There is no use saying to those questioning its roots: ‘Each time I try to break it down I feel myself breaking away with it.’ It’s the foundation for all other diagnoses because it doesn’t exist separately to my understanding of ‘self’. My therapist says due to chronic emotional abuse within the family unit and an underlying genetic predisposition (that is, ‘hyper-sensitivity’) I fit the criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder (or, c-PTSD). I nod okay but do not take the news well (I go on a sex binge followed by a Temaz comedown aptly illustrating my problem with emotional regulation and proving her right). She says now is a good time to cut the cord binding my body to other more harmful bodies. (She knows the majority of surrounding bodies are mentally unstable and/or struggling with addiction.) Say: ‘But I no longer possess the ability to demarcate health from ill-health, harm from safety.’ She says that’s why it’s something to talk about: ‘Look at your romantic history. Two long-term relationships with ice addicts, one on-and-off-again romance with a speed user, and now your current partner of three years is an alcoholic, prone to abusive blackouts. It’s a pattern. It starts with your father.’ I want to say: ‘But they are all good people it’s just trauma it’s just brokenness,’ but I know this is the entire point. When I tell my boyfriend about this session he nods in agreement. He doesn’t consider himself harmful because his drunk episodes are not remembered by his body, they only reside inside mine.
The damage of emotional parental maltreatment lies in the cumulative effects of repeated acts of psychological abuse. It is the sustained and inappropriate emotional response to the child’s expression of emotion and its accompanying expressive behaviour. Meaning: if hurtful words are said in a moment of anger the recipient can attribute whatever is said to the parent being angry and not internalise it. However, if verbal degradation is common and unable to be tied to disagreement or feud, the child attributes whatever is said to her individual character: she internalises the abusive statements, allowing them make a home within her body (because they need to land somewhere). At first, these words are parasitic. Though, in time, they host the body.
Three days before Christmas: ‘Are you using drugs you’ve lost weight, the bones in your face have become more visible.’ I don’t know why he suspects narcotics over an eating disorder considering my life has been demarcated with the latter. I tell him no. I don’t tell him I was raped a year ago. I don’t illustrate the aftermath. I do not say: ‘I was forced to mediate an internal collapse with the usual cushions: starvation and compulsive exercise.’ Months after Christmas I tell mother about the rape because she requires a tangible trigger to make sense of the weight loss, or: ‘You just seem very manic, very agitated, these days.’ After I explain, she says: ‘I figured something like that happened. I wanted you to tell me.’ Her face is blank. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ I say no. She nods. She goes back to reading the weekend paper (because her way of coping with trauma or conflict is to freeze, much like mine). The rape combined with my father’s ignorance and my mother’s vague response has a cumulative effect: it opens a door I never considered before and I end up on a Sugar Daddy website having sex for pay with several men each week for several months as a way to control (and therefore remedy) guilt and shame. To make sense of this new trajectory I tell myself it’s good writing material (one client gives me five hundred dollars just to hear me say: ‘You’re my king and I’m your princess’). Each night I re-watch Leaving Las Vegas and wait for my edges to reveal my centre. I tell myself a tragedy can become a comedy if there’s enough laughter so I keep laughing.
It’s easy to hide a depressed psyche inside a healthy physicality. It’s easy to hide an imminent suicide underneath the ‘right amount’ of flesh (you hide it between the folds) (nobody mourns the alive body). I felt my death before I acquired the language to give it form, and yet due to the transparency of the anorectic body this pull was only noticed alongside specific diagnosis: assumed to be embedded within it, never outside if it. Anorexia externalised an inner desire: shocking mother into frenzy, isolating sister, providing a sounding board for father. It became a form of storytelling that spoke without being asked. Sickness is urgent once it can be measured in the flesh, or: I wore Anorexia until it wore me (my death-wish unmasked, and then, simply, my death). And yet, prior, during, after: I am in the grip.
Research indicates parent-child emotional abuse experienced before and during adolescence has a profound and direct influence on mental health. A study of 1,376 women found those with a history of childhood emotional abuse were more likely to be clinically depressed; struggling with an eating disorder; diagnosed with a personality disorder; in and out of a psychiatric facility; and/or suicidal. Conversely, individuals with a history of child abuse tend to respond more poorly to psychological and psycho-pharmacological treatments for depression. The occurrence of parent-child abuse curtails the development of adaptive affect regulation, that is, the ability to modulate emotional landscapes without undue attempts to avoid or suppress difficult emotions. This deregulation or ‘lack’ exists at the core of Borderline Personality Disorder and c-PTSD.
To think about my father’s life and my mother’s life is to think about my grandparents’ life is to think about their parents’ life and so on and so forth. How can I ground responsibility to any one body without grounding it to all prior bodies? And: how can I remove my body from the chain when I am its lineage? History moves through me.
Think: the act of writing feels like the act of erasure. ‘I put it all down.’ [Pause] ‘I hit delete.’ At times I fear this is my sole motivation: tell the story, only to subtract it.
Before and also now: I am moving in and out of time and yet not moved at all. There is an edge, and it is familiar: each experience has the potential to push me off of it. Mother says: ‘It is time to get down.’ Mother says: ‘It is time to be responsible.’ What mother doesn’t know: every attempt to leave the edge ensues the heaviest guilt. Self-destructive behaviour remedies this. Anorexia remedies this, or: ‘It’s okay to smell the pretty red roses because your kidneys are malfunctioning.’ The weaker I feel (the more intimate I become with death), the greater the elation. Health disengages me. Health results in attempted suicides at 4AM; cutting up a scarred thigh with an eyebrow sharpener; blackout sex with strangers; dissociative drug binges. I do whatever it takes to take the pressure off, in turn placing my body back on the edge. But mother can never truly know this, even when it is explained with complete accuracy and precision. What I know now and wish I knew then: language often fails when it’s spoken to the wrong body. Sometimes a sentence is understood only as a sound.
A negative relationship between parents is a common denominator in unhealthy parent-child dynamics. The abusive parent will often feel resentful towards their offspring e.g. ‘Having children ruined your mother,’ said to me at fifteen, and then again at nineteen. Over time, partner to partner (male to female) abuse impacts negatively on a woman’s emotional and physical health, interfering with her ability to respond adequately to the needs of her children. To ask my mother to take a stand against my father on my behalf requires her to take a stand against her husband on her behalf, and she cannot do this: the ramifications are too elusive, there is too great of a risk. She stays because she no longer sees the damage, or, more to the point, she has never seen the damage because she grew up with her father who was much like my father. What is familiar is attractive: the chance of being understood feels greater if the territory is already known, even if the defining quality of said familiar environment is one of misunderstanding. Mother says: ‘That’s just your father,’ because she lacks the language to give his behaviour its proper name. If an emotionally abused woman believes she has no interpersonal control in her relationship she will become passive instead of assertive. Victims can convince themselves that maltreatment is an expression of love, thus causing a breakdown of interpersonal functioning. The victim will experience a loss of identity, uncertainty, and displaced rage. According to Bem’s Self-Perception Theory, ‘love’ or ‘loving’ is sometimes used by victims as a coping strategy. Meaning: the individual attempts to interpret her own behaviour to make sense of the other’s behaviour. Unable to make sense of her compliancy and fearfulness (unable to find a reasonable explanation for the abusive behaviour), she presumes that she must indeed care for the abuser, else why would she stay? In this way, by convincing herself that she loves the abuser, she is able to justify her passivity. In many instances, the victim is unaware of herself as a victim. Mother says: ‘That is how he shows his love,’ and just like that, the rage I feel towards my father inverts and becomes a rage against myself. I suspect my mother endured a similar displacement of feeling as a thirteen-year-old when she was forced to endure her father’s alcoholic explosions every night, always forgotten by him come morning, forever unaddressed by her own mother. And yet, irrespective of this, it’s harder for me to forgive my mother because (as a female) it’s easier for me to put myself in her shoes than it is my father’s. I’m made aware of how differently ‘I’ would behave if ‘I’ was my daughter.
Social Learning Theory posits that children learn how to relate to others, resolve conflict, and communicate efficiently via the role modelling of their parents. Abused children pose the risk of either becoming victims of abuse or perpetrators of abuse in their adult relationships. My father turned into his father and my mother turned into her mother. I fear I am being pulled across a line already written. Think: am I staying in my current relationship in the hope of mastering feelings of fear, depression, and helplessness in aim to transcend prior childhood trauma? And: do I need to draw a line between dots to make the connection real?
It’s difficult to explain without sounding like a victim, yet if it were anyone else’s story I would say: write it down, make it tangible, so when the time comes to removing the tumour you know exactly how to cut around it, extract it, without damaging the surrounding area. I would also say: if you sound like a victim it’s because you are a victim, even if he is too.
Parenting needn’t be perfect but it should be ‘good enough’. And yet, ‘good enough parenting’ is just as elusive as defining emotional abuse: what is ‘good enough’ for one child may be lacking for another. Parental ignorance is the failure to acknowledge the different needs of different children. I was the ‘too-sensitive’ child and my sister was not, yet we were both treated as if our constitutions mirrored the other. The high-pitched whine of the refrigerator in summer months was enough to send me into a panic, as was abrasive fabric, and the smell of unknown food items. My sister spent her childhood climbing trees kissing boys behind the pool shed and making friends with everyone and anyone in the neighbourhood. Despite my desire to move my body in a similar way, I often succumbed to periods of distress e.g. needing to carry a bucket of water around with me at all times because dirty hands threatened my wellbeing. I saw a child psychologist at five due to an inability to handle failure. My diagnosis: ‘Just a perfectionist.’ Conversely, not all emotionally abused children are permanently affected by parental maltreatment. My father often ridiculed my sister’s academic efforts. He called her ‘stupid’ and inferred that ‘she’ (her intellect) was lacking. (Note: emotional abuse refers to all behaviours that demoralise a child’s emotional, psychological, or behavioural competence, irrespective of whether the abuse was purposeful or out of loving concern. It is not simply ‘an extra form’ of negative feedback.) My sister has since told me she grew up feeling inferior to me because I managed to attain the grades I desired even though I was sick and didn’t attend school.
She was not aware that my periods of hyper-productivity were a painful byproduct of severe OCD. However, I didn’t need to assert this fact because she no longer needed to hear it. She no longer feels inferior. Instead of internalising her disdain for my father into a disdain against herself, she escaped: she proved him wrong. She is now a successful and socially competent and healthy and not ‘lacking’ human. She has proven that a harsh and even hostile environment can produce a pro-social and capable adult. Father says: ‘This will make you more resilient,’ and my sister becomes more resilient. A 1995 study of 239 Australian students found that having outside emotional support when parents fail to provide mediates ill effects of abuse and/or neglect, preventing the emergence of dissociative tendencies in adulthood. My sister maintained a strong friendship group during primary school and high school. When discussing what was going on at home she could always rely on someone saying: ‘That is insane. Your father is fucked.’ Meaning: the way an individual perceives an event determines the coping mechanisms utilised.
At the hospital my body sits in the waiting room and behaves like it’s leaving. I learnt it from him.
At age twenty-one I invite him back to my apartment which is my mother’s apartment because my sister is busy with tennis training and I know he has the time. I say I need to share something important. I ask him to sit, and get straight into it. ‘The times you dared me to kill myself as a teenager have remained with me.’ His face stays blank. I go on. I have a script prepared. ‘I don’t want to fight, and this isn’t an attack, my social worker just thinks I need to tell you this because your words have turned into intrusive thoughts and I keep re-feeling the feelings.’ He sounds silent. ‘I mean, do you want me to die?’ He takes a mouthful of tea. ‘It was a joke.’ And then: ‘They were all jokes. You were a very sensitive child. You still are.’ I wait for him to say something about character building or resilience but he doesn’t. Say: ‘I was self-harming. I had two suicide attempts. I’ve been in therapy for seven years. You always said I didn’t have enough guts to do it. Why’d you say this?’ He shakes his head, laughs. ‘What is this?’ I feel my breath quicken, become sticky. I remind myself that I can call my social worker at any point (even though it’s a Saturday) because she’s given me her mobile number in case he doesn’t take to the conversation well. I drop my body onto the carpet and press my spine against my couch, curling my knees into my chest. ‘I just want to feel better.’ I stare at a picture of Lou Reed pinned onto the wall above the television, a rough magazine cut-out. I’ve had this picture for seven years. The qualities that make it special are no longer found in Lou’s pensive face or yellow hair, they are found in its aliveness, its ability to remain intact after so much time. My eyes start to sting and I feel a wave of nausea surge upwards almost forwards. Father pushes away his chair and stands. I turn to him, adamant about maintaining dry eyes. He gathers his body into a straight line. ‘So I guess you’re now going to kill yourself and leave a note saying “Haha proved you wrong?’’’ He walks to the door. ‘If you ever want to discuss a thing of relevance, let me know.’ He raises his eyebrows, eyes sparkling, and then leaves. I sit frozen for a long while. Once I reassociate, once I unfreeze: I unravel. I walk out onto the balcony. I climb onto the ledge. I look down. I imagine swimming across the cement. I imagine my spilt body. I think of the intact picture of Lou on my wall. I wonder how many bones need to break before my depression is given its true mirror. I know I won’t die in the free-fall (I’ve read many people die prior to impact, something about the shock of imminent death being too much for the body to process) because I itch at the thought of my face sliding to the side, my hip bones crushed into a powder. I feel a warmth inside my chest when I envision the internal world of my body spilling out, across, until I’m unable to be located anywhere at all. I sit on the ledge for half an hour, maybe longer, before walking back inside towards the medicine cabinet. I take a week’s worth of Valium and call my social worker. I tell her what happened and she asks if I need an ambulance. I say I don’t and it’s only then I realise I’m crying, and that my singlet is dripping, and it’s very likely I’ve been crying this entire time.
Afternoon air sharpening, cold and heavy as
no words can render grinding itself between
body and mind
catching grins through the bars
inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two
pieces which floated apart
I can feel that other day running underneath
this one like an old videotape
(or) the sky
torn off my life.
There are many ways to be held prisoner
some people watch because there is nowhere
else to go.
(reading between Anne Carson)
Despite knowing what I know now and what I have been told since, I cannot unstick the question from underneath my tongue. It tastes like a twenty-five-year-old memory and it tastes brand new. Today: I listen to Springsteen’s ‘The River’ seventeen times. I sit alone in my apartment and cry because you introduced me to this sound two decades ago. This song captures the pain in living an average life and yet it slips around mother and it slips around sister. It doesn’t slip around you. You say: ‘Listen, no talking,’ and I know you hear what I hear: the missed opportunity, the alive dream that doesn’t come true, the haunted life. I have always wondered how someone can feel ‘this’ and not ‘that’. My therapist says: Why not ask what you need to? I shrug, turn away. ‘I don’t know.’ What I do know: the question grows heavier each year. It’s a personalised vertigo, and it’s just for you. But I will never cough it up and out. I will never say: ‘Why don’t you love me.’
When I think of his body in relation to my body I try to imagine two separate trajectories, both spiral-like in form, both lacking a centre place yet always spinning (can it be unravelling if there is no end point?). Mostly though, I fear there is only one spiral and that we encircle each other, oblivious in our communion, both believing our movement is singular and chosen, and that it is leading us somewhere good and safe fast.
If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue