“Our ancestors knew that healing comes in cycles and circles. One generation carries the pain so that the next can live and heal. One cannot live without the other, each is the other’s hope, meaning and strength.”
Gemma N Benton
Childhood adversity refers to a wide range of circumstances and events that pose a serious threat to children’s physical and emotional well-being. These potentially traumatic experiences can permanently scar children’s sense of self, and may cause them to see the world as unsafe and threatening. This can lead to distrust and even hatred for everything and everyone and may turn into unfounded feelings of shame and guilt that may continue into adulthood. This was the case with Donovan whom I met several years ago. At the time, I did not understand the depths of his pain. I wish I knew then what I know now.
When I greeted Donavan, I was unsure of how this dishevelled person would respond to me. I was told to be on guard as he had tendencies to show rage and violence, but no one mentioned that his rage stemmed from hidden wounds of past traumas he had suffered – traumas that pierced the very core of his soul. As a boy, he did not possess the language needed to communicate his experiences, and even if he did, no one would have listened to him. So, this young man suffered in silence, bereft of the means to convey his pain. The intensely painful and overwhelming feelings associated with being neglected as a child can take tremendous energy to manage. For Donovan, it meant a daily battle to control his emotional dysregulation. This daily struggle kept Donovan on a long, lonely trek down a dark path, far away from the path that would have helped him to heal.
The traumas that Donovan endured are not the same as those that many other children endure. But no matter the challenge, no trauma should be permanently ignored. Every new encounter or event is impacted in some way by your childhood trauma, even though you may not be aware of it. Many people organise the patterns of their lives so that they shield themselves from further pain as if the trauma were still happening in real-time. The long shadow of trauma holds survivors hostage until it can no longer be silenced. No matter our level of success in life, if we do not face our trauma, we will continue to labour under the burden of our past.
Donavan lived with deep anger and rage. He said that his “childhood was full of physical and mental abuse. The fights between my parents were frightening. But that was my normal. It was only during the times when my dad was sent to jail that all the chaos was silenced. That was when I felt the first sense of relief, even if only for a brief moment. I slept better at night during those times. For me, there was no safe space in the world, especially not my home.” What Donovan didn’t know was that his parents had grown up in similar circumstances and had unresolved anger and fear that made their lives a constant challenge.
For many children, school becomes their refuge – but for Donavan, it was just another place to fear. Donavan didn’t feel supported by his teachers because they didn’t understand him or know anything about what happened at home. “They all just saw me as a problem and could not help me to learn – and at the same time they blamed me for getting poor grades. People viewed me as being unintelligent, emotionally and behaviourally disruptive, and incapable of self-discipline. I was told that I could not make mature and intelligent decisions. ‘You need help’ they would say but they never told me where or how to find this help. The only thing I knew was that no one helped me – not my parents, not my teachers, and not my community. I hated all of them.”
Everyday oppression is most frequently experienced by groups and individuals who have marginalised social identities, and is manifested in subtle and blatant ways. It can take the form of curriculum violence, under-representation by race, and inappropriate policing practices. The aggression directed toward marginalised groups and individuals sends the message that they are insignificant and vile.
The message I was given was that Donavan was dangerous and would harm me. I was told to restrict my interaction with him. However, if I had avoided Donavan, I would have deprived myself of a rich friendship, essential personal growth, and the opportunity for me to find ways to join with him on his level so that I could help him gain a sense of humanity and connectedness.
Like Donavan, many young men are thirsty for trusting relationships because of abuse, oppression, and cultural wounding. Many of us carry these burdens within our families and our bodies. When we reconcile with those who have experienced violence and oppression, we can repair our psyches and family histories and begin to mend the rift in the larger spirit of humanity.
Stephanie Guthman holds MA degrees in School and Clinical psychology, and Educational Psychology, and a PhD in Human and Organisational Systems. She also holds certification in Parent-Infant Mental Health and is a Cornell University Professionally Certified Trainer in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention. Guthman helped to develop and then co-led Bermuda’s first island-wide research project on ACEs. In addition, she has co-led the creation, planning, and execution of multiple conferences on ACEs and Race. Stephanie serves on The Friends of the Family Centre Board and is an advocate in the Caribbean’s Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences (PACEs) movement. She is dedicated to sharing tools and skills that are needed to enable healing and resilience in survivors of ACEs.