The Bridge Between: Breaking the cycle of generational trauma

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I wish I realized it sooner, but it took me decades until I became fully aware that I too have a huge responsibility in ending generational trauma. 

I cannot recall the exact moment that my brain came to this realization that I have full control of changing my life and ending a cycle that almost ruined a promising future.

In my freshman year of college, I was in a women’s studies class. I waited until everyone left the classroom. I asked my teacher to explain generational trauma and she described it as an experience that happens in an individual’s life that creates serious harm, whether that’s physical, mental, or emotional. It can be deeply disturbing to the individual and can cause them to feel out of control of the situation.

I wanted to tell her about how much I was suffering but I couldn’t find the right words.

In Sudan or even here in my new home in America people don’t often talk about trauma, let alone tell you ways to get help. So I’m not surprised that I grew up calling myself a victim, always blaming my pain and my frustrations on others as if they were a remote control that had the ability to move me around. 

My heart didn’t know how to differentiate; some days it was like a sponge that soaked all the pain, and words became hurtful like a hammer that nailed me to my bed, my body unable to move.  

Some causes of trauma can be the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, living with a parent or partner who misuses substances, severe illness or injury, or witnessing an act of violence.

For me, it was leaving my home and loving aspects of my Sudanese society – a society that never loved me or showed my value. A society that couldn’t see me as a person because of my dark skin tone, that didn’t want me to go to school because I was female, and didn’t want me to pursue a career because it only saw me as a housewife. 

I was not surprised to read from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website that almost a third of refugee women reported traumatic experiences. Their trauma occurs due to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; terrorism, and war. Talking about it has been the biggest taboo in my experience.

Therefore what most of these women, including myself, do is cry – most often in silence.

If tears could be accumulated then my bedroom would have been a swimming pool, collecting every teardrop and telling you the story of wanting to belong while feeling so lonely. 

I don’t have a therapist because I can’t afford one, so I take it one day at a time. I am unlearning all the harmful habits that have been embedded in my head since I was a child.

The hardest thing about growing up without a sister is that I had to fight alone. I looked for sisterhood in every friendship and in every relationship and sometimes even in my mother’s eyes, knowing that she too is broken – broken in many pieces while society expected her to be whole, and I expected her to be whole.

How naive I was. We both need repairing for us to begin the process of healing, knowing full-heartedly it’s not a one-day journey but a life commitment. 

One thing I have learned about generational trauma is that it is like a chaotic book of poems. It’s hard to know where the beginning is, but I know I can persist through a crisis; I have done it before and have adapted to a new normal.

Now, as we start a new year, my new normal is to continue living loudly and unapologetically. Always speaking my truth and leading with confidence. To be a voice, not an echo, and not, as Bessell van der Kolk wrote, “let the body keep the score.”

Ekhlas Ahmed is a community outreach worker at Gateway Community Services, a program officer at Maine Community Foundation, and the founder/executive director of Chance To Advance. Follow her on Facebook and contact her at [email protected].