Asphyxiating Toxic Cycles

As a childhood trauma survivor, I learned some years ago that we often hold our breath. It’s a way of not feeling when so much of what we feel is bad. It’s a way of disconnecting from our body because our bodies were hurt and abused. For me, it was due to incest, terror, humiliation and more.

Breathing has been recently highlighted in horrific ways including Covid killing nearly 4 million people by turning their lungs into cement, the breath being snuffed out of Black men by police officers, and the continued destruction of our coral reefs, rainforests, and oceans that are the lungs of the plant.

What can we make of these global messages on breathing from so many sources?

Breath denied cuts us off from ourselves, even from life. We have polluted parts of this earth to the point where people have great difficulty breathing there. I saw it in the slums of Kenya where many have eye and lung problems from the huge dumps like Dandora and Kibera. As director Peter Sellars has noted, we see the state of injustice is so bad that breath itself is denied as in the cases of Eric Garner and George Floyd, along with those unfilmed. Child abuse traumatizes us to the point where we deny ourselves breath — just enough to stay alive but not enough to feel or be in our bodies.

This pandemic ‘time out’ we’ve been given isn’t looking like it’s going to make as much of a difference we might have hoped when it began. We seem incapable of breathing together, of realizing we need to work together, of loving together. But love, work together, and breathe we must.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that when we make the choice to heal ourselves and our family line, to break toxic familial cycles, it matters, it makes a difference. It can mean one less incest survivor, fewer child abuse victims, which leads to fewer problems down the road for all of us.

To break these cycles means facing your own shadow and we humans are generally loathe to do that. As a society, we’re even worse at telling ourselves the truth about the atrocities of the past. This means first we must tell the truth which violates Rule #1 of a dysfunctional family: Do Not Tell.

I never said any of this would be easy. Most of it is hard as hell.

These are some of the things that helped me break the cycle for me and my children:

  • Make the decision to do things differently, not perfectly, just better
  • Tell the truth
  • Do your shadow work
  • Breathing exercises will strengthen your diaphragm and intercostal muscles that have likely been underused. This can be triggering, so proceed with caution.
  • Learn your triggers
  • Get trauma informed therapy and try different approaches for what works for you. EMDR works for some, not others.
  • If you cannot afford therapy, read Pete WalkerPeter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Pat Ogden and others or watch them on YouTube. There are also interesting episodes on This Jungian Lifepodcast.
  • Return to your body: somatic work, yoga, breath work, grounding, qigong, etc.
  • Try medication and be aware you may be hypersensitive to it, so discuss this with your trauma-informed psych. There is no shame in medication.
  • Eat clean and exercise
  • Sound baths
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Explore support groups online or as things open up, in person, including 12-step, DBSA, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, RAINN, and more
  • Journal
  • Do something to improve society, whether it’s getting out the vote, cleaning up a beach or park, food drives or something else. It feels good to help others, get out of yourself for a bit, and it can keep you from ruminating
  • Realize the shame belongs to the perpetrator

I also have spent much of the past six or seven years writing my trauma memoir — after a couple of years of trauma therapy and more years off and on in regular therapy — which allowed me to see recurring patterns, including dates, ages, anniversaries of events. I was also finally able to see my parents more fully as damaged people — in my mother’s case severely damaged — at a time when there was no trauma-informed therapy or medications. They were mostly reactive rather than relational. Writing BAGGAGE CLAIM was the hardest thing I have ever done and I pray that it helps others.

Instead of holding our breath, instead of suffocating each other metaphorically or in reality, let’s instead cut off the oxygen to bad behaviors of all kinds. If we reduce child sexual abuse by only 5%, that is over 2 million people. 2 million who will have a better quality of life with better mental and physical health. There are similar statistics for the environment and social justice. We all benefit, but we will have to give up some comfort and considering the current political discourse, we will have to give up a lot of fear.