It’s late February in Vermont and the warnings about thin ice on Lake Champlain have started. Have you ever stood on ice and heard the crack or groan under your feet, light or loud? Have you ever wondered whether to keep walking? Whether the spidery cracks were superficial or would break open leaving you at risk of immersion, be it foot or body? Did you speculate whether the cold, hard expanse you had travelled might leave you far from the shoreline, marooned on a floe, or worse?
The exploration of dangerous terrain, unpredictable support, pitfalls, and the risk of never returning to shoreline are like the landscape of growing up in families affected by multi-generational poverty and trauma. Much of one’s experiences are imprinted and patterned by cold, fragile realities, the potential of crisis or loss at any moment. Ever-present is the potentiality and pungency of smaller to larger forms of death.
I read Judith Lewis Hermann’s Trauma and Recovery in my early 20’s and found myself looking in and out. Until then, trauma had felt deeply personal, isolating, and secretive. However, Hermann described core aspects of my experience growing up in a family affected by domestic violence in all its iterations and provided desperately needed re-contextualization. She made connections between the impact of sustained, prolonged family violence and the symptoms of PTSD presented by veterans. She articulated without hyperbole that a ‘family home’ could also be a war zone. For the first time, the symptoms of PTSD that I lived and breathed daily were depersonalized and understood as natural consequences of violence. I learned human beings respond in many universal, dare I say normal ways to trauma, albeit with personal variation. Suddenly, my unique response to a high school assignment: “Draw yourself at age 75” which puzzled my teacher, and only slightly less so me, made sense. I had rendered my future self as a partial skeleton, with a cross extending out of the hip bone, much in keeping with the sense of a “foreshortened future” experienced by many individuals with PTSD.
Thankfully, Hermann also affirmed healing complex trauma was possible, albeit challenging and time intensive. She described how supportive community and social activism could be steps on the path. With new perspectives, an outer shield of numbness and shame began to soften and deeper opportunities for healing emerged.
For many years, everyone in my first family held collective secrets as if our lips had been invisibly sewn shut. Then I cut the threads, breaking a silence initially enforced by the perpetrator’s death threats and then solidified by family bonds of denial, distraction, or distancing. My voice came out hesitantly at first, halted by waves of doubt, fear, and shame. With time and practice, I spoke and wrote my personal truth. I insisted those responsible be accountable, whether they could do so or not. Simultaneously, I resisted the temptation to simply blame and shame. For years now, my voice has grown, in person or on the page.
It has been many years since I lived on the frozen lake, the ice groaning and cracking, fissures and holes appearing beneath or beside my feet. My current reality reflects all the seasons of a year and a life. I am beyond grateful for the loving relationships, personal choices, fateful accidents, mysteries of resiliency, and sheer good fortune that have allowed me to meet this day more or less unburdened, the traumas of the past more backdrop than foreground. My current life includes a strong web of loving family and friends, community engagement, and meaningful professional work. In this moment, the sun warms a pink geranium blossom framed by French doors with a southern view, while a fire blazes in the wood stove on the north wall. I feel the privilege and grace of healing in all directions.
I would like to leave it here, an image of beauty lingering, a story quickly wrapped. But another truth demands acknowledgement. It’s how thin ice re-emerges not only every year, but in surprising moments. No matter how much any individual heals, multi-generational trauma is an experience that ‘keeps on giving.’ No one could tell me in my 20’s the truth that has been revealed over the last 30 years and most potently in the last five. If you heal, you may forever lose the shoreline of first family. If you heal, you may never be able to stay in regular, meaningful connection with loved ones whose lives reflect overt and covert re-enactment of trauma. If you heal, you will watch people you love dearly break in body, mind, and spirit through an array of addictions, the natural consequences of entrenched poverty, and/or mental illness, the latter often untreated and disconnected from its roots of complex trauma. Individual healing is life affirming, but it is not an end to the shared complex history and the ongoing life experiences of others who are still besieged by the struggle, the ice still fragile and cracking. Sometimes, you can only watch them falling into frozen waters or drowning, unable to bring aid or assistance, or having it rejected. No one tells you this. Many contemporaries do not understand how much suffering exists on the periphery, its roots deeply embedded in a shared past, in bloodlines.
Now I work with others navigating the personal terrain of healing from trauma. And I ask myself from the long view: “What will carry this individual through this day or beyond? What are the realities and promises of the future? As s/he steps forward, what can be carried or what can or may be set down? What losses can be chosen, what will only be revealed over the decades? From this vantage point, I strongly suspect, some will lose or gain family connections in the service of healing. And I cannot look away from a gathering truth: No matter how far they travel and how much they heal, there will always be thin ice.