Thoughts on Turning 30

By this point should we have unpacked our many suitcases of generational trauma?

In Depth
Thoughts on Turning 30
Illustration:Vicky Leta

This year, I will undergo a process that billions upon billions of people have undergone in the course of human history: turn 30 years old. According to every bit of cultural wisdom related to this pivotal albeit unremarkable age, this means I am officially exiting my youth and entering Real Adulthood. I’ll no longer be desirable by most straight men, unless they’re into cougars, but somehow also: It’s time to evolve into my final form and become a mother.

As I inch closer to this fateful number, there is one thing that plagues me above all else: the idea that by this age, a person should have already sorted through most of their emotional baggage and shoved it into a deep hole, never to be resurfaced. This seems like a relatively fair ask in an age where therapy is a cellphone call away, but what about the special baggage? I mean the big fucking suitcases of bullshit handed down to you from your parents, grandparents, and their parents and grandparents. How exactly does one discover, unpack, and resolve generational trauma in the few months before their 30th birthday? Fuck if I know, but it feels like I’m supposed to do it.

Over this last year, it felt as if every popular show on television was rooted in some kind of traumatic self-exploration that found main characters discovering how their family history had left them unknowingly altered in some way. Shows like White Lotus, Ted Lasso, and Mare of Easttown were each on some level about the particular traumatic exchanges that occur between family members, specifically white parents and their white offspring. Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand, the founder of Latinx Parenting, explains that among these portrayals, “The biggest misconception is that once we are aware of what is happening, it should be easy to fix. Our family histories and the stories that have gone untold but have lived in our bodies require multiple people…to eventually shift the paradigm of intergenerational trauma.”

This onslaught of pop culture reminders has unlocked a treasure trove of concerns regarding what I might have picked up from my own family, and whether or not I had dealt with any of it by the time I turn 30. Turns out I have not! So, now, instead of sailing freely into this age bracket on my own, I find myself in deep contemplation over a past from which I thought I’d moved on, a past riddled with unexplained deaths, mismanaged grief, and a lineage of women who never let any of that shake them.

the behavior is not [from your] trauma. It’s a traumatic reaction that has now become a habit in [your] life

As with everything in my life, my internal search led me to my mother, Cindy. Personality-wise, we are polar opposites, but one of the traits she passed on to me, her only child, is how we handle difficult situations. Cindy addresses problems with surgical precision, 10 backup plans, and an unwavering faith that everything will work out as it should—which is exactly how she handled the unexpected death of her husband in her early 30s. Overnight she had to navigate my grief, her grief, our new family dynamic, her own desires as a young woman (which I prefer not to think about), and her church obligations. And she had to do it all while keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. A few years before any of this happened, her father had also died, and she took on the responsibility of caring for her own mother. All I could do was watch and absorb all that went unsaid between us.

“Generational trauma is really a reaction to trauma experienced by previous generations,” explained Shirin Zarqa-Lederman, a counselor who specializes in trauma. “So if you have, let’s say, a generation that went through historical trauma like, for example, the Holocaust–that’s kind of where generational trauma actually came from. Back in the 60s, what [psychologists] found was that there was a large portion of Jews in the Diaspora that had psychological issues. And that’s kind of how the idea of generational trauma came to be.”

It wasn’t until I was a teen that I finally hit a cement wall of full-blown anxiety, which saw me miss school and struggle socially — all the markings of past trauma I had yet to grasp. Underscoring all of that was anger at myself for not maintaining a firm grip over my life and my emotions in the same way my mother, my grandmother, and many other women in my family had in the wake of tragedy. My only frame of reference was a family tree of self-sufficient people who took care of entire communities without so much as a single complaint about being tired. I come from a family of farmers and factory workers: My great-grandfather singlehandedly weatherproofed our family home in Puerto Rico, and it was still there after Hurricanes Andrew and Maria. What did it say about me that in this lineage, where I saw nothing but strength, I was an anxiety-riddled weak link?

The sort of behavior I exhibited, and continue to exhibit, is not uncommon for people with a history of generational trauma, who lack the understanding of the root of that trauma. Zarqa-Lederman explains, “the behavior is not [from your] trauma. It’s a traumatic reaction that has now become a habit in [your] life. A lot of [generational trauma] is manifested through behavior. Sometimes it’s anxiety, panic attacks, trouble socializing,” Zarqa-Lederman explained.

It’s also not an uncommon occurrence in the lives of people of color. “Intergenerational trauma is experienced, not in more frequency, but definitely with more severity in BIPOC and immigrant families, because we’ve been experiencing long legacies of systemic violence and trauma that stems from historical conquest, displacement, white supremacy, and patriarchy, and this tends to compound personal and relational trauma,” Arreola-Hillenbrand explained.

Both experts agree that there is no specific age or age range in which the average person begins to acknowledge their own generational trauma. So despite all of my fears being wrapped up in the ominous odd number of 30, I am neither late nor early to the self-discovery party. After learning all of this and identifying another layer of bullshit I have to work through if I ever want to be “30, flirty and thriving,” I find myself asking the same question once again.

How exactly will I discover, unpack, and resolve my generational trauma in the few months before my 30th birthday? I probably won’t. Self-healing isn’t a sprint through your worst memories; it’s a lifelong commitment, and if I’m still unpacking all of this in a few years, then good for me. It means I’m still alive. One thing I will certainly do is follow the sage advice of Arreola-Hillenbrand and do it slowly: “Remain patient with the process…healing never happens in isolation, it can only happen in community.”

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