You’re probably here because something about the title of this article intrigued you. I promise, we’re going to get to talking about being the child of a veteran and how that’s impacted my mental health. If you are the child of a veteran, I hear you and see you. We’re in this together.
First, you have to know some background.
I used to think that my mental health was directly correlated to the events that happened in my life. Do you think that now?
When I said *my* life, I was referring to the things that happened to me, or around me, from the moment of my birth to the present moment. That makes sense, right? I thought so. It turns out, there’s more to it than we realize or than we can see at face value.
Even before I had a chance to experience trauma in my own life, I manifested symptoms of it. I was cholicky as a baby. If you yourself were the same or you now have a child who is, you can probably commiserate with my parents. I was quick to cry, had chronic stomach pain, did not rest easily or through the night. I was overall pretty fussy.
Throughout childhood, high school, and early college, I clung to perfectionism as some sort of compass. So long as I got As, everything was okay. I had a goal, a direction, through which to channel my seemingly bottomless energy and adrenaline.
If I’m honest with myself, and with you, even then, that wasn’t the whole story. I presented as “having it all together.” Good grades, relatively athletic, just social enough. Underneath the surface, something felt off for as long as I can remember. Some of my closest friends were people who shared this experience and feeling. When we were brave and vulnerable enough to share with each other, we grew closer.
There wasn’t anything in particular that I could point to or put my finger on that was “wrong.” I have lived a blessed life, all hashtags aside. And yet, I wondered often about the meaning of it all. I felt especially drawn to others’ suffering and fixated on how I could alleviate it, the sooner the better.
I began college as an engineering major, aspiring to make prosthetic limbs for war victims. My high school chemistry teacher told me that there were few female engineers out there, so it’d be a good career choice for me. Desperate for guidance, I obliged. I quickly pivoted into majoring in psychology when, in my first semester, I excelled in public speaking, while let’s just say that chemistry lab (and, really, fine-tuned attention to detail more broadly) was not my zone of genius.
In my junior year, I studied abroad in India. I explored whether spirituality and meditation empowered local communities to be more resilient in the aftermath of a town-shattering earthquake (spoiler alert: they did).
In my final year of college, I began studying systemic racism in more depth, and upon graduating, I worked in community organizing around violence prevention.
Shortly thereafter, I lived nearly 12 months in Budapest, Hungary, studying 3rd generation Holocaust survivors and how they are rebuilding and redefining their Jewish identities and culture, which ultimately became my first book.
One of the most beautiful things about being a therapist -- which, by the way, we almost never talk about -- is how much WE benefit from the work we do with our clients. Weeks, months, and years during and after my work with clients, I am learning from and with them.
Years ago, one of my clients found, like me, that there was nothing “wrong” in his life that he could point to, and yet, patterns mysteriously repeated themselves. Patterns that eerily reminded him not of his life, but of someone else’s. Patterns that seemed to be seeking rectification not of his wrongdoings, but of his grandfather’s. In him, I saw myself, and together, I believe that we both learned that the things we hold and carry are of course influenced by our day-to-day, but so often, they don’t begin there, and that’s not the whole story.
In hindsight, what I did not realize then that I increasingly realize now, is that I am on a lifelong journey to unpack the trauma I was born with. The trauma did not begin with me. It did not begin as mine, but I have inherited it and made it my own. It’s gone on to interact with my day-to-day and manifested as a mosaic. My stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout in 2020 are of course in part a reaction to and a manifestation of the various roles, pressures and traumas I hold and interact with daily, combined with and influenced by the many traumas in my body, in my genes, and in my history.
I know, that might sound confusing at first read. This isn’t the way we’re conditioned to think about things. In our contemporary world, there is (or “should” be) an injury that is brief and specific, like, say, falling off our bike. There is (or “should” be) a cure that is brief and specific (and often involves drugs or some sort of purchase or product), like, say, an Advil and a BandAid. Often, the truth, and true healing and growth, is a bit more nuanced.
I did not fully process that my father was a veteran until I graduated with my Master’s degree and learned that there are loan forgiveness programs tied to being related to a veteran.
Seriously. I’m a little embarrassed to write that and to admit it (to myself and to you).
It’s not for lack of *trying* to better understand my family. If you asked my father about his life, he would say, “I’m blessed. Everything is really beautiful, isn’t it?”
He recently celebrated his 35th marriage anniversary, and I asked him if he had any advice about love and marriage. He said, “Everything works out as it’s meant to.” He might even look at my mom and say, “We never fight, right? I can’t remember a single time that we’ve fought,” while my mom nods her head from side to side, reliving the disagreements they’ve inevitably had over the years and keeping them to herself.
At first read, you might think that this is a man who loves life and who is a walking Hallmark card. My suspicion, though I am not my father’s therapist (far from it), is that he’s doing something called dissociation.
Dissociation is one example of a defense mechanism, or of a human’s best effort to survive. It can appear that someone is disconnected from reality, from themselves or from others, or from an accurate or realistic sense of time or history. Dissociation is often a response to a life-threatening or traumatic event. Creating an alternate reality can be the easiest -- or only -- way to survive, or to avoid the deep-rooted pain that is the alternative.
Growing up, of course, I did not know what dissociation was. This was something I learned about in graduate school, that despite reading about in textbooks, or noticing in my clients, I still didn’t *see* in my own life or my own parents until much later.
It can be incredibly hard to humanize our parents. They are the people who we want, need, and expect to be our protectors. Our saviors. Our heroes. If they are imperfect, fallible, vulnerable… what does that mean for *our* safety? Our wellbeing? Our survival?
My father’s mother (my paternal grandmother) was profoundly important to him. She immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and she and her family were deeply impacted by the Holocaust. Years ago, my father once recalled that he remembered, as a child, it was not uncommon for his mother and her living relatives to sit around their modest kitchen table in Queens crying for hours while he entertained himself on the carpet on the floor. He would often spend time with neighbors and out playing ball. As a young adult, he enlisted in the army so that he could utilize the G.I. Bill to pay for college. After years of working as a pharmacist, he went to Mexico to become a doctor and nearly died from illness. According to him, or how he remembers his time in Mexico, he was saved by a local neighbor who brought him a little bit of food daily and checked in on him regularly, nursing him back to life.
Consciously, my father remembers and recounts his life through rose-colored glasses. The body doesn’t always tell the same story as the mind. Trauma physically impacts our bodies and our genes, and we pass that trauma along generation after generation. As my father’s daughter, I’ve inherited his strong will, his optimism, his intelligence, his sense of humor, and, for better or for worse, his trauma.
The more I learn, and the more I grow, the more I want to connect with my father around that very trauma. The more I ask, “Hey Dad, can you tell me about your time in the army? What was that like?” the more hurt and lonely I feel when he responds, “Oh, life is beautiful, isn’t it?”
I write this in case you are reaching, grasping, hoping to connect with a veteran in your life who seems to have walls up. They may seem to have extra armor on, guarding their heart and their mind. They may seem to have created their own happy place in their mind, one like “Kennyville,” which is what my brothers, mother and I have nicknamed my father’s creatively crafted mental space.
I write this in case you have experienced mysterious feelings of longing, of loneliness, of suffering, that you can’t quite place. In case you wrestle with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD, but you aren’t completely sure where they’re coming from.
I write this in case you find yourself drawn to exploring, discussing, and better understanding suffering, largely to help and support others, and also, on a deep level, to better understand and support yourself.
I write this in case you can relate, and in case just hearing this story helps.
When I realized that my trauma was not mine alone, I felt a whole host of things. I felt relieved to have at least an inkling of an explanation. I felt overwhelmed by the concept and by the notion that I might have to deal with not just 20-something- years of trauma, but possibly hundreds or thousands of years. Ultimately, eventually, I felt empowered to retake control of my mind and body. To practice curiosity around my experience and the experiences of my loved ones. To begin making meaning of my history and my past, and to weave that meaning into my present and my future.
If you can relate to this story, this is not only my bias speaking, I strongly urge you to invest in therapy. Having a regular, consistent, reliable safe space to talk through your story and the stories that came before you will cumulatively provide you more value than money alone can measure. Working with a partner -- your therapist -- to bear witness to your story is life-changing.
If therapy is not right for you right now, I get it. Other alternatives that can be extremely powerful are a regular journaling practice, a regular meditation practice, and regular reading, learning, and self-educating about cultures, groups, and time periods that relate to you and your history.
None of these practices need to be done in isolation or are perfect “cures” on their own. We’re on a lifelong journey, together. Our goal isn’t to “cure” all that we have or are experiencing. Instead, our goal is to better understand the unique combination of people, experiences, and systems that make us who we are, and to embrace that pot to find and fuel our sense of belonging, groundedness, and connection.
If you are reading this, and if you are feeling anger toward the person who passed trauma along… the person in your life who may be a veteran, who may have been enslaved, who may have been tortured... the person who you may be trying to connect to, to protect, who may have walls up, who may be distant… try as best as you can to practice empathy, patience, and compassion. Try to forgive. Try to set your expectations appropriately for what the person is and is not capable of at this time. Try to understand that the person is doing their very best to survive. And try to trust that the person loves you very much. They are doing their very best to show you, in the safest way they know how.
Last but not least, do not ever cut yourself out of the equation of people who need and deserve care. If you are not receiving the care you need from this person, identify additional support systems that lift you up -- friends, chosen family, therapy, colleagues. Forgive yourself. There will be days that are easier than others. There will be days when growing alongside this person comes naturally, and other days that deeply hurt. It’s okay to hurt. Give yourself the time and space you need to continue to try, continue to grow, and continue to deepen your understanding.
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Alyssa Petersel, Co-Founder and CEO of My Wellbeing and author of Somehow I Am Different, graduated from Northwestern University in 2013 with dual BA degrees in psychology and international studies, graduated summa cum laude from New York University in May 2017 with her Master's in Social Work, and graduated from The Writer's Institute non-fiction program at CUNY Graduate Center in May 2017. A native New Yorker, Alyssa now lives in Brooklyn and enjoys running, coffee, community, and social justice.