JULIA TORRES BARDEN
As I stood before the judge, I felt like I was being buried alive for all to see. I remember my biological mother and scurrilous stepfather standing on either side of me, apparently joyful about what would happen next. I stood in between them, apoplectic in grief, feeling like I was trapped in a category five hurricane.
Just like the day when I was snatched off the street by a man claiming to be a police officer (who abducted me, forced me into a tenement basement and stole my virginity), my parents didn’t notice my internal raging and severe anxiety. Here they were in this courtroom, not sensing my anguish, thus reinforcing my belief that I couldn’t trust them to keep me safe.
The judge asked to see me privately in his chambers because, as a fourteen-year-old, I was now at the legal age of consent to be adopted in the state of New York. While we walked to his office, I thought of begging him to protect me from my custodial enemies. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t want to be adopted. That I couldn’t believe my father, my flesh and blood in Puerto Rico, would give me up forever. Surely this was a cruel assimilation plot launched by my mother to break my spirit and erase my Puerto Rican roots. I did not want to relinquish my cultural heritage and my love for Puerto Rico.
I wanted to tell the judge that my mother and stepfather were alcoholics who used drugs and fought violently in front of me. He needed to know that I had stomach aches every day and I couldn’t concentrate on school because I had to be hypervigilant to protect myself from them. I wanted that judge to know that when my mother told me I was going to be adopted by my stepfather, I threw myself into a dark closet with a pillow to muffle my screams. I wanted to tell him that forcing me to legally relinquish my beautiful Puerto Rican surname and adopt a Jewish one I felt no connection to would crush my soul.
But, because I’d been raised by my religious Puerto Rican grandmother to be a good Catholic girl who never challenged authority or men, I couldn’t even make eye contact with the judge as we stood alone in his chambers. When he asked me if I wanted to be adopted, the nefarious coaching of my wanna-be-white mother kicked in and I said “yes, your Honor”. Afraid that I’d be physically hurt if I didn’t consent, with those three words I consigned myself to a life devoid of my true identity, succumbing to my mother’s agenda of blending in because she believed that was easier than being a 100% Puerto Rican girl from da Bronx.
Twenty-nine years later, having experienced additional traumatic events, the onset of my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms incapacitated me for a full year, with my amygdala on fire, frequently short-circuiting my fight-or-flight response. My doctors explained that the body can handle only so much unresolved trauma in the brain until it turns on itself, manifesting its overload via physical health challenges. Back then, I was unaware of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) movement and had no idea that all the trauma I’d been through as a child would come roaring back and render me helpless for an extended period. Gradually, with the help of psychiatrists, intensive counselling, my family doctor, medication and a deepened spiritual awakening, I began to regain my equilibrium.
What a terrifying experience it was to be confronted by so many traumatic memories all at once. My doctors explained I had no choice but to face those wounds if I wanted to recover my mental health balance. Further, my recovery demanded that I make painful and unpopular choices about which toxic relationships I needed to cauterise if I wanted to be successful in building my new life. Many members of my family of origin were angry and defensive as I began confronting them in letters or in-person about transgressions that wounded me.
Regardless of my approach with each of them – with kindness and begging for empathy or being direct and confrontational – my versions of past traumatic events were minimized and even ridiculed. It is dangerous and hard to break cycles of dysfunction – violence, molestation, substance abuse – in one’s family. I’ve paid a very high emotional price for my brutal honesty, but it has helped me to reclaim my truth and ability to be my authentic self, a brown Puerto Rican girl who is 100% Boricua.
After several years of processing the painful estrangements, I began to gain confidence in establishing my own life’s goals and definition of family. I even decided to write a memoir as an extension of the life-saving journaling I’d been taught to do in therapy. I wrote NEWYORICANGIRL: Surviving My Spanglish Life to help other survivors of childhood trauma and to validate myself and continue my healing.
In 2014, I stumbled upon Bessel Van der Kolk’s ground-breaking book The Body Keeps the Score. It connected the dots between trauma and its physical manifestations and I felt validated. I wanted to learn more and discovered the amazing TED Talk delivered by Nadine Burke-Harris on ACEs and research connecting one’s exposure to childhood trauma with a higher probability of dying up to 20 years earlier. After reading The Deepest Well, written by Burke-Harris, I felt deeply inspired and concerned about the negative implications of living with unresolved trauma.
I realised that both Drs Van der Kolk and Burke-Harris were describing my life experience. Because of their research, I began to wonder whether my life-long Asthma diagnosis wasn’t, in fact, panic attacks – like the one that sent me to the ER in 2004 when my PTSD symptoms first began to present with debilitating force. What I was learning about ACEs and toxic stress brought me comfort because I’d found explanations for my mental health diagnosis and related challenges.
However, I wasn’t prepared for my panicked reaction on that summer night in 2016 when I went to a movie theatre to view Resilience, a documentary about childhood trauma. Presuming I was already sufficiently ACEs-informed, I underestimated the high anxiety I would experience while visually learning about this topic for the first time.
Being a visual learner, the research and testimonials featured in the movie shocked me, as they unearthed fears about my mortality. Knowing I have a high ACEs score, I didn’t expect the film to make such a strong case about how survivors of childhood trauma can die up to 20 years earlier because of their lived experiences. Even though I’d heard about this finding before, there was something about seeing it asserted on the big screen that triggered me.
I suddenly realised that my dysfunctional family’s tragic history of dying young now made so much sense. My mother passed away when she was only 53, followed by her brothers at 48 and 45 and years after their sister had died when she was 37. I’d also lost two cousins when they were each in their early thirties.
I grieved for them with more empathy than ever before. With enhanced clarity about ACEs and toxic stress, I understood that my mother and her siblings had survived their own trauma as part of our family’s painful migration from Puerto Rico to New York City in the 1940s. Living in severe poverty and lacking access to adequate medical treatment, education and counselling services, they self-medicated to cope.
This information caused me deep sadness as I reflected on my lifelong distrust of my mother. I watched her die in 1995 without ever knowing I’d been abducted and raped in 1970. I chose forgiveness to safeguard my mental health. I had saved my life all by myself the day the perpetrator released me in that filthy basement when I found my way to safety, and no one would take that away from me.
As a result of my lived experience, I have a deep understanding of the concept of intergenerational trauma and what a herculean task it is to break the cycle of dysfunction within the family or culture in which you were raised. Destructive behaviours, cultural norms and negative communication patterns seem especially difficult to change and overcome. These self-destructive human frailties exist within the wider Puerto Rican community, on our island in the Caribbean and around the world.
Beyond the internal machinations of family structure, there is also the external societal aspect to consider when thinking about how trauma affects us. I know for certain that the collective trauma caused by its colonial ruler, the United States of America, has traumatised Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico.
Having been neglected, disrespected, and treated as second-class citizens for more than one hundred years by their government – the US Congress – the psychological and emotional toll has been pervasive and injurious. A glaring example of this occurred in 2017 after the catastrophic Hurricane Maria flattened homes on the island, killed thousands and ravaged the island’s electrical grid. Their own government denied them the essential services and federal assistance needed, while their president infamously threw paper towels at them. How can any island in the Caribbean self-actualise while doing the hard work of confronting their trauma if they can’t even trust the existing infrastructure and local governments to protect them?
We must do all we can to empower those suffering ACEs-related illnesses by making our world a more trauma-informed place, one where mental health challenges are destigmatised and addressed compassionately like any other medical challenge. I am inspired by contemporary role models like tennis ace, Naomi Osaka, who proudly shares her multicultural roots while speaking openly about her mental health distress, and my fellow Puerto Ricans, Rosie Perez and Luis D Ortiz, both of whom have been brutally honest about coping with their mental illnesses. The more we hear and read and see such prominent people working hard to overcome their trauma, the more we will be inspired to do the same.
In 2018, I was invited to deliver a TEDx Talk about my experience with PTSD. While I was honoured to be asked, I was also terrified that the months-long preparation would force me to relive my traumatic memories over and over again. Despite how far I’d come in the fourteen years since my diagnosis, my mental health nearly collapsed as the day I was to deliver the speech approached. Ultimately, I needed crisis counselling and took additional medication to cross the finish line.
That is just how powerful and painful the long-term effects of severe childhood trauma are. Just when you think you’re okay, there is a trigger episode you didn’t see coming. Today we have the science and the data to prove how much our children and adults are suffering due to unresolved trauma. As we continue to grapple with the global pandemic – where people all over the world are experiencing the universal traumatic experience of losing loved ones – there has never been a more important time to educate ourselves about ACEs.
Julia Torres Barden is a childhood trauma survivor. Diagnosed with PTSD in 2004, she is now a mental health advocate and the author of NEWYORICANGIRL: Surviving My Spanglish Life. An award-winning journalist, she is a former company spokesperson, political appointee and the first college graduate in her family. Her cultural connection to Puerto Rico makes her passionate about securing equal voting rights and full representation in the US Congress for her compatriots living on the island. Her mental health recovery was hard-fought and inspired her to advocate for fellow survivors of trauma. Julia is most grateful for the unconditional love and support she receives from those she considers family. Please visit her website: newyoricangirl.com.