Parents are imperfect people, and if left unaddressed, the hurt caused in childhood can show itself in the way we move through the world as adults.
It took five different therapists, 11 years, a lot of tears and multiple failed relationships to come to terms with the idea that my parents’ trauma hindered my childhood and adult relationships. For more insight on the topic, I got on the couch (chair, actually) with Segilola “Segi” Ayeni, a local clinical social worker and therapist, who works with children, adolescents and families.
“The first big thing that can be helpful in coping is therapy,” Ayeni says. “With therapy, you’re working with a therapist to name the trauma you’ve experienced. In the process of actually naming the trauma, you get into the process of mourning the feelings that you have underneath all the trauma.”
My parents, who were childhood sweethearts, married at 19, had their first child at 20 and followed with me and my two brothers. After 22 years, four children, the discovery of two other children outside the marriage and a bout of raging alcoholism, they ended their little fling. “The thing we must remember with trauma – especially parental trauma – is that the person who may be carrying it out, more likely than not, also experienced similar trauma,” Ayeni says.
My home environment was chaotic. In fact, nearly every holiday, my parents argued, sometimes called the police, scared the shit out of me and my siblings, then rekindled the very next morning. The next day was always my favorite. It was calm. It was pleasant. In hindsight, my years of anxiety attacks and fear-based decisions make sense.
Children are resilient. According to Childware Welfare Information Gateway: “Some stress in their lives helps their brains to grow. However, by definition, trauma occurs when a stressful experience, such as being abused, neglected or bullied, overwhelms the child’s natural ability to cope.
These events cause a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, resulting in changes in the body – such as faster heart rate and higher blood pressure – as well as changes in how the brain perceives and responds to the world.”
As a kid, when things got too heated at home, I chose to escape to the local Barnes & Noble. I had this precious little nook that was akin to Narnia’s transporting closet. It was exclusive to me, myself and I. The routine was this: I walked down every aisle, pulled the bind of the most alluring book or novel, floated back to my nook and disappeared into a world unbeknownst to the person sitting to my right. It was my guilty pleasure, and, yes, it was nerdy, but it was my escape from home.
Ayeni says there are a few ways to cope with this specific type of trauma, including identifying your vulnerable inner child, validating your trauma, connecting with something bigger, moving your body and empathizing with the person who caused the trauma. I get identifying with my inner child, going to therapy for validation, playing with my dog to connect with something bigger – even the regimen of daily yoga. Unfortunately, empathizing with my parents continues to fluctuate.
There are moments of compassion that pop up every now and again. During these times, I recall their human characteristics. For instance, I used to watch my mom hold my dad as he cried, and sometimes, I bore witness to my mom’s alternating moods from extreme happiness to despair. Still, I hesitate to fully forgive them. It would feel disingenuous if I did.
“(Empathizing) comes later,” says Ayeni. “If you get to the place where you say, ‘Well, I’m going to just forgive them and kind of move on,’ that can foreclose the process of healing and getting in touch with everything that you experienced.”
I wish this journey was easy, but sometimes it seems impossible. When I first started, I wanted to slash and burn relationships, and sometimes I did. With the remaining ones, including the relationship with my parents and intimate partners, I work with my therapist to take responsibility, grieve and set boundaries.
“A lot of the time when you get to a place when you understand those feelings you can make a conscious effort that you’re not going to repeat the trauma,” Ayeni says. “Whether it’s with yourself, your own children or the people in your life, it’s that process of really mourning that really helps us work through that.”
Segilola “Segi” Ayeni practices at the Mel Bornstein Clinic for Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy in Farmington Hills. For more information on her methods or to schedule an appointment, contact her at 248-340-3224.