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Flowers in the Attic: A Reflection on Extended Family Trauma

Image of an attic filled with old and forgotten items.

I've noticed a lot of discussions on family trauma center around the immediate family (parents, siblings, and possibly grandparents depending on the family configuration), but what happens when the trauma extends past the nucleus of your family?  What happens when nowhere in your family tree is a safe place to turn?  

My brother and I spent a good chunk of our childhood summers in Ohio. I don’t make a habit of volunteering the fact that the vast majority of my family are Ohioans.  My grandfather and his first, and only, wife left the South during the Great Migration and settled in Ohio.  A year later he was shacking up with my grandmother and 22 years later I made my entrance into this messy family tree.   I grew up on military bases, and most of my childhood was spent on one particular base in the South.  This meant that the way I spoke, the food I ate and had exposure to, and even how I moved through the world were all informed by being a third-culture kid in the South.  For those that don’t know, third-culture kids have the culture their parents were raised in, the culture of the area where they live, and for military kids the unique culture of the military that often leaves us detached and yearning for something - I believe we’re yearning for a place to truly call home but that’s a musing for another day-.  

I don’t look back on those summers in Ohio fondly.  We would either be driven up and dropped off by our father, who would disappear moments after the last bag was pulled from his car.  I later learned he was making pitstops at our mother’s family home seeing our maternal grandmother, aunts, and cousins - all of whom he had forbidden us from seeing - before he would head off to do whatever he pleased with his childfree summers.  Or we’d be dropped off at an airport and I’d be tasked with getting my brother and me through TSA and on our flight, alone.  I still remember the year I bought a present for my grandmother.  It was a dolphin statue and I wrapped it before we left for the airport.  “Wrapped presents aren’t allowed through”, the TSA agent told me as I gently placed the gift in one of the bins.  I had to unwrap the present and put it on the screening belt.  I felt silly and frustrated.  Surely everyone could see I was a kid who hadn’t been informed, but at that moment I was a nuisance and clueless.  One of the agents commented on the wrapping.  It only made me feel worse.  

There was always a level of anxiety when we traveled via plane.  I had to make sure we didn’t miss our flight and I didn’t lose my brother.  I had to be brave.  All those trips started with that same realization no matter how we got there, I had to be brave.  Brave enough to walk into places without support, to ask questions when something wasn’t going right, to fight when no one would fight for us, and just be plain ol’ brave.  Some will say that it made me resilient, therapy has taught me that what it did was age me in ways that I can’t erase and repair.  

The first few days were always a whirlwind.  The air was mixed with excitement and resentment.  There was a lot of “Wow it’s great to see you” followed by not-so-quiet whispers of “Now what do we do with them?” from the adults and "Why are they here?" from the kids.  My brother and I became the summer scapegoats.  If something was wrong, we were the problem. It was irrelevant if this issue existed before we arrived and persisted long after we left, in that moment it was still our fault.  Much like when we were at home with our father, so in a way, I guess I should appreciate the consistency.  We were the odd ones out. Pity us or punch us, it was all fair game because neither one of our parents was invested in keeping us safe. It didn’t matter if others continued their mistreatment, because they weren't there to say stop.  

My brother and I don’t talk about those summers.  Like most of our childhood, it happened and we’d rather not linger on it too much. But recently I did inquire if a memory I had was accurate.  My therapist has asked me to get confirmation of my memories from those I trust as I dig through Pandora’s Box because trauma makes our brains do funny things.

The memory was about our grandmother’s attic.   

I don’t remember the lead-up to us being in the attic, but I remember us being in there, banging on the door trying to get out.  We had been locked in.  The weird cousins from the South had been caged.  I remember two distinct feelings from that moment, the first was fear.  A part of me fully expected that we would be left to die in that attic.  While some might say that’s a bit dramatic, my life up to that point had taught me that it was a genuine possibility that I needed to be concerned about because no one had ever come to save us before. Then that fear was replaced with rage as I glanced over at my little brother who was in tears.  He felt it too.  The realization that we could be left to die and no one would care.  

The rage took over.  In the years that followed, the rage always won out to the point that there were periods where a cocktail of rage and dissociation were the only tools in my arsenal.  I figured nothing could phase me if I was emotionally disconnected.  I hated our visits and never hid that hatred. Like the Grinch staring down from Mt. Krumpit, I loathed our visits entirely with every fiber of my being.  

That day in the attic was the defining moment when my dislike became an all-encompassing animosity.  I put every bit of hurt and sadness coursing through my young body into my fight with that attic door and the people I knew who existed on the other side of it.  I can’t recall if I did any damage to the door but I do recall the slew of profanities that ripped from my mouth, each one dripping with detestation. When the door finally opened and we came spilling out, the profanities catching us as we stumbled, I got in trouble for my language usage. Why?  Because what they had done was only a joke. I needed to lighten up and stop taking things so seriously.  It was all in good fun. 

It wasn’t fun for us.  It was never fun for us.  

No one seems to remember all the ways it wasn’t fun for us.  All the ways we were poked, prodded, and humiliated.  It’s as if those moments happened in a vacuum, when in reality those moments sit in a large box of bullshit that we’ve been left to either weed through or ignore.  

At my mother’s wake, once I stopped crying, I mentioned a joke I made months prior about how I would only go back to Ohio for weddings and funerals… and honestly not even weddings.  I said I wouldn’t make that joke anymore. The small group of extended family that had gathered to witness my mother’s lifeless body all nodded in agreement, they didn’t like the joke. Funny, how times change. They didn’t understand, though.  I don’t intend to make that joke anymore not because I don’t want funerals to be the only reason I visit, but because I don’t want to visit at all.  Ever. My mother’s death taught me that.  It wasn’t only her death I had to grapple with the week and a half I was in Ohio, it was the life I had lived in her absence and how unprotected and isolated I felt.  

I learned to be my own anchor in a family where assimilation is praised and being outside the box is demonized.  I had to navigate being a perpetual burden without a support system.  Now as an adult in control of who I see and when, I choose distance instead of connection.  I yearned to simply be left alone back then and now I make that choice for myself every time I turn down an invitation or ignore a call or message.  Accepting the past doesn’t mean I have to leave space for those people in my present or future.  I can acknowledge we are family and that they had, and still have, their traumas that impacted how they interacted with me without having to pretend the first 18 years of my life didn’t happen.  

I can prune myself from a tree that never intended to nurture me and choose to grow in a different piece of land.  

Far too often we attend family functions out of a sense of duty.  We feel compelled to keep up appearances lest anyone think less of our family, but we owe ourselves more than triggering cookouts and fake smiles at reunions.  It doesn’t erase the sadness that comes with choosing to bloom in your own pot, to nurture the flower that is your humanity.  You can often feel unmoored, but the alternative feels far worse. A toxic family tree goes deeper than the branch you sprung from and sometimes to find your voice you have to see the tree for its entirety and leave it to either grow or die without you.   

Copyright(c)2024 Rayven Holmes

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