Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 30-34
Pain. That’s what keeps us shackled to the vicious cycle of intergenerational trauma. In this cycle, ghosts and demons from the past haunt us as we face the present and the future. My experiences may be unique, but my story is no different.
It started with my grandparents on both sides of my family, went down to my parents and eventually reached me. I only heard stories from my parents while growing up, but they were so vividly described that I felt as if I had been there. My grandparents and parents were all deeply impacted by, and were the product of, the civil war in China between the Nationalists and Communists in the early to mid-1900s. War led them to be forcibly removed from their homeland to the island of Taiwan, where they stayed for about two decades.
At the time, Taiwan was severely impoverished. While my parents came from good material circumstances, life was still challenging for them, from youth to adulthood. It was difficult to be dislocated from their homes, and to live in constant fear that the war would spill over from the mainland onto the island. They decided to immigrate to Canada in search of a better life—indeed, any life at all. So, our dysfunctional family relationships were rooted in pain, sorrow and suffering, at least for the span of two generations.
My parents each expressed their often tumultuous and disturbing feelings differently. My mother severely abused me physically and emotionally as a child, while my father distanced himself physically and emotionally from our family in an attempt to cope. That left my older brother and I to fend for ourselves whenever issues came up that went beyond our material needs.
My family also experienced discrimination, both in China and once they migrated to Canada. On the mainland, they had faced prejudices simply because they were wealthy, well-educated and held a more liberal-democratic political orientation; in Canada, they experienced bigotry because of their cultural heritage.
My father and mother were victims of racism and a war-torn past, whereas my brother and I were victims of their victimization. As the older of two sons, my brother was expected to excel in all his endeavours, which typified a traditional Chinese family. I bore the brunt of all the little things that went wrong.
I began to dabble in illicit drugs and alcohol in my late twenties. I also lived with a plethora of symptoms, but wasn’t aware that I had a condition. It was only after a doctor evaluated my mental health status in this period that it became obvious that I suffered from a disease of the mind, and I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
When the symptoms of my schizophrenia became more pronounced, my mental health declined. As I lived with these concurrent disorders, I became the target of stigma from people in society, and from my own immediate family. There wasn’t just pain; the pain was heightened from being ostracized by those I most needed in my corner. It was pain—or, as the Bible quotes Jesus as having said, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” the pain.
Hope. That’s what keeps us alive and moving forward. In the thick of it, my situation seemed hopeless and marred with despair: I battled daily with schizophrenia, and my substance abuse was clearly out of hand. Initially, I was reluctant—even vehemently opposed—to getting help.
My parents distrusted the communists while in China, and their distrust and suspicious tendencies were carried over to the foreign land that Canada was to them. They had been abandoned by their own people. Likewise, I found it difficult to trust or confide in others. I only went to treatment facilities to appease my family and friends and stop their relentless vilification of my choice to use.
I lived this way well into my middle age. It was only when my father passed away, in the spring of 2019, that I experienced a moment of clarity that would change my life forever. The epiphany hit me when I finally realized that everything my father had done for me—raised and nurtured me, supported me, loved me—would mean nothing if I didn’t change my harmful and destructive ways. I knew I had to clean up and focus on my concurrent disorders. I needed to arrest the juggernaut of pain begetting pain, and trauma begetting trauma.
So I made a commitment. With a lot of hard work and devoted effort, coupled with the gift of help from others, I made changes. As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently put it, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”1 My thinking and behaviour began to alter, from being completely self-centred to caring about life and people. I stopped using and began to take my health more seriously. Finally, I started to actively listen to the wisdom and advice of others. With these changes, life became more manageable and tolerable, even pleasant and enjoyable.
I finally began to see a light at the end of the usually dark tunnel called Life. All the assistance and empathy I received from my peers and professionals working in the recovery community began to have a positive impact. I was tangibly healing, and not just physically or emotionally, but spiritually as well. Pain was disrupted by a different experience altogether—hope. And that was something I hadn’t expected.
Love. That’s when you know you’re home at last, and the pain of intergenerational trauma subsides. That’s when you realize it isn’t about being hurt by this type of trauma or that type of trauma; it’s about living life “fearlessly” as yourself (as cancer survivor Anita Moorjani puts it2), in whatever situation you may face, moving forward. That’s when your mental illness transforms into mental well-being. You are no longer afraid to express who you really are, without fear of retribution or judgment. You are alive again, embracing the beauty and splendour of life. And that’s when you’re ready to gratefully give back.
Though I would describe myself as more Buddhist than Christian, let me close by quoting the Bible’s interpretation of love, since it resonates with my own view of what is urgently needed to address the future, for generations to come:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.3
And with that, I wish you well and many blessings in your own rich, exciting and fruitful journey, which is, as they say, only limited by your own imagination!
About the authors
Phil is a survivor of intergenerational trauma who now embraces hope and love
See Gandhi, M. (1913). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Vol. 13), p. 241. See gandhiashramsevagram.org/gandhi-literature/collected-works-of-mahatma-gandhi-volume-1-to-98.php
See, “Live fearlessly with Anita Moorjani,” at onecommune.com
1 Corinthians 13:4-8