Trauma is used both to describe distressing events and the human reaction that occurs afterward. It is not simply one singular horrific event in time. It is a series of outcomes that affect every part of one’s being. Reasons for trauma can be large – Holocaust, wars, Residential Schools, internment camps. Trauma can also result from “smaller” experiences – the death of a loved one, a rejection from a friend, a breakup, a car accident. How someone reacts to such events are individual – and the physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions are not usually within our control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that one may develop after a distressing event(s). These symptoms include: re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative thoughts or feelings, and hyper-arousal. PTSD is a formal diagnosis for intense emotional pain. But what is it like to really live with the effects of trauma, big or small?

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”  ― Susan Pease Banitt

I have heard the following from survivors, paraphrased in my own word:. living with trauma is like not living your own life, like not being in your own body; a sense of floating; a sense of complete numbness;  a feeling as though your body is always on alert, as if it will never truly relax. The body is constantly in flight or fight mode, something that one gets very used to living with. Life becomes sped up, or slowed right down, as if walking through sludge. It becomes an existence colored by the quickness and vulnerability of life, and the reality and permanence of death, sometimes leading to the question of “what’s the point?” asked over and over again. Guilt comes easily, trust becomes impossible. One turns to drugs or alcohol to try and numb it all out, or to try to feel outside of the numbness. A life is truly changed.

But what happens when you experience these symptoms, but you are not aware of any traumatic events that have happened to you? Because trauma gets inherited in more ways than one, you may look beyond your past, and to your parent’s pasts, and even to the lives of your grandparents.

The well-known form of passing trauma on is through the way we are parented. The way we are parented as children can form the basis for what we are like as adults. If our parents experienced trauma and are living with symptoms like those listed above, it may affect one’s ability to be fully present as a parent. Moreover, if our trauma is directly from our parents, then we are likely to use the same harsh parenting style on our own children.

But here is the fascinating part. We can also pass on our trauma through our genes, not only our behaviours. Relatively new discoveries in the world of genetics have created a new field of study called Epigenetics. This is the study of the mechanisms that switch our genes on or off, or even alter genes completely without changes being made to our underlying DNA sequence. There are triggers in our environment that will determine if that pesky allergy gene we inherited from Dad will actually be expressed, or if that ability to be social and outgoing that we inherited from mom will be turned off. Backing up a generation or two, the genes that may have been altered in Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, due to their trauma, can be passed on to a developing fetus. Studies examining children of trauma survivors show that PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares, will manifest under stress, which is linked to inherited trauma through epigenetics.

A very relevant example of how we see this affect our society is in Residential School survivors. Many children today who have not been in Residential Schools, but have parents or grandparents who have attended these schools, are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms that have been inherited.

The good news is that epigenetic changes do not have to permanent. Remember, what you are exposed to in life, and how you design your children’s environment will affect if these genes are expressed or not. Moreover, trauma is overcome, through hard work, perseverance, and allowing trusted human beings to help us undo the responses that have occurred as a result of other human beings. We can heal our relational hurts relationally – in fact, there is some evidence this might be the best way. Everyday cycles can be broken, PTSD can be healed, family legacies can be changed, and genes can be switched. Compassion for this process is paramount.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

A couple of years ago, I was told that the student I thought I was supposed to be tutoring in math also needed help in reading and writing.

Except that he didn’t.

To be clear, he didn’t need help in math either. He could do entire questions in his head while whistling his own made-up tunes.

But I could understand why he would suffer on report cards. He was a perpetual noise-making motion machine and a class clown. He never tired of the word “Why?” – even when he knew perfectly well why. He rolled his eyes and was intentionally inflammatory. He blatantly defied instructions while being the only student in a room sitting directly across from his teacher. I imagine he’s difficult in a class of thirty.

But that’s exactly what should make him a great writer.

Think about what it takes to be difficult. Defiance. Insubordination. Stubbornness. Captiousness. Humour. Creativity. Quick wit.

Those are all qualities of good writers. Writers are the relentless askers of questions, the defiers of authority, and the nit-pickers of every detail. They are those who can draw the absurdity out of the everyday, and make people laugh and rage and blush and raise their eyebrows and twist themselves up into knots.

Now, just because he has an impressive aptitude doesn’t mean he’s destined to become the next Stephen King, and it doesn’t excuse his behavioural problems, either. But sometimes it’s nice to be able to look at a difficult kid and say, “This is your time to shine.”


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

Recently, I was present at the creation of the Edmonton Chapter of Black Lives Matter and, in my personal process of learning about racism and the daily grievances of POC from POC, I have consistently found two activist narratives at play. On the one hand, there are activists who argue that we need to educate people and offer programming and workshops for non-POC people to become allies. On the other hand, while not detracting from the efforts of those working in education, other activists fiercely defend their right to live in peace, to not be asked, to not have to educate the ignorant.

The latter group bases their reasoning on the existence of the internet (where learning can easily be done) and by how damn tired the whole issue of racism is. In other words, if you don’t know that discriminating against someone by the colour of their skin is a sin by now, then you are never going to know. You are a lost cause.

I can’t necessarily argue one way or another for the correct course of action. I do think there is a point to be made by the latter group, if only because there is no discriminatory equivalent to melanin in one’s skin. As a visible Muslim, I simply do not experience the same type of discrimination as POC do daily. I can remove my hijab and step into privilege once more. They can’t remove their skin. Nor should they have to. And for the POC sisters who wear hijab, their discrimination is intersectional and therefore, exponential.

Dismantling the system that marginalizes a person based on the amount of or hue of the pigment in their skin is a must but should not have to rely on the actions of those who are marginalized. Those who benefit from and are privileged by the system should also be responsible for its dismantling. People of colour are traumatized and continue to be traumatized every time they see their kin gunned down by police in the street, every time a microaggression can’t be #madeawkward for fear of violent repercussions or stereotyping, every time white supremacists get the nation’s attention by being permitted to hold a media megaphone. They are exhausted from making and taking space they are owed.

Any efforts POC make are excellent and valid; however, non-POC allies need to step up to the plate, calling out racists in their midst, and developing their own education initiatives that, while centering POC voices and their cause, do not rely on them to be present for explanations in spaces that can quickly become unsafe. #makeitawkward is the responsibility of every ally.

That being said, what about cases of discrimination that are not centered on discourses around race or ethnicity? What about Islamo- and Judeophobia?  I am still working through my thoughts on this, but generally speaking, in my experience while working against Islamo and Judeophobia, I have found that education by individuals from those communities is one of the single most powerful instigators of change. Having conversations with diverse groups of people, lecturing to audiences that may, in fact, hate you, is exhausting and unending but it is also exhilarating. Every single time I have lectured, I have come away with stories of change, of growth, of increased understanding from people who simply lacked knowledge, from people who even feared me and thus hated me. By being available to answer questions (no matter how ignorant those questions might seem), I am providing the theatre for change to happen. I humanize myself to people and, in turn, they come to see me as a person. These conversations are challenging and difficult, but the outcomes are worth the effort. Change does not always come immediately. Sometimes it is months, even years after something has touched the life of someone before they come to me and let me know how a talk changed their perspective, how a list of resources shaped their learning, how a safe space to be ignorant led them to seek knowledge.

Ultimately, whichever area of activism you are working in, and whichever course of activism you choose to take, make sure you are taking care of yourself in the process. Sometimes, the most powerful revolution takes place by simply remaining present, owning your space and refusing to give in to hateful rhetoric around you. Loving yourself and staying healthy in the face of a deeply imperfect world is powerful too.

In solidarity,

Nakita


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.