ANZAC Day: Lets talk about war trauma

War hero and Victoria Cross medal recipient Willie Apiata recently expressed in the public that he is accessing professional healing services to help him come to terms with his war trauma.

“People think I’m this tough Special forces soldier, but I feel and hurt just like everyone else, I cry and I just don’t want to be judged”
Willie Apiata VC 

Bravo to that. Bravo to bringing the issue forward and into the light. But this does get me thinking of both my grandfathers this morning and what it must of been like on their return from the war. Did they have the opportunity to bring their dark war experiences  into the light – probably not.

On my mums side (North Island Maori), my grandfather was blown up in battle and sent back quite early. He lost fingers and had bodily and burn injuries. Nearly 40 years after the incident, little bits of shrapnel were still coming out of his body.

On my dads side (South Island Pakeha), my grandfather was made a prisoner of war. I never heard what it was like. His stories are buried with him. But my uncle told me that my grandfather would wake in the night screaming that someone was coming for him. Night terrors.

Both never spoke of their experiences. Both drank heavily.

In my family we inherited that heavy drinking. Research overwhelmingly proves that trauma can be passed on intergenerationally. It is passed on in a number of ways;

  1. Some fascinating epigenetics studies are now beginning to show that trauma is passed on through our DNA.  This means the children of the traumatized are already predisposed for inherited high levels of stress. Which from an evolutionary point of view makes sense. The next generation is automatically and intuitively on high alert and primed to extreme environments. They develop the physical and mental  attunement to highly charged environments.
  2. Family studies show trauma is passed on through parenting. Traumatized parents have a harder time deeply connecting with their children. The children of these parents become disconnected adults, and the cycle is set for the next generation, and the next.
  3. Society also passes on trauma. Our institutions, and culture that kept war trauma as a as a nothing or a non-thing, doesn’t allow for its healing expression and grief to emerge.

Trauma is insidious. Inherited trauma creeps into the next generation in ways we do not even realise. The body does its best to hide itself from re-living the experience. The experience gets split off and hidden in a dark corner of the mind and the soul. But it takes the body a lot of work to keep experiences hidden. As author Bessel Van Der Kolk writes, “the body keeps the score”. There is a lifelong cost of burying traumatic experiences. Numbing, dulling, disconnecting, disassociating, drinking, addictions, aggression, depression – trauma manifests in many different ways. Most of which is done in the unconscious. Behaviours are unconscious because the trauma doesn’t want you to know about it, doesn’t want you to remember it. But, what we keep silent and hidden, we again pass on – in one way or another – to our loved ones. Some people are carrying, what their loved ones could not. I like this quote given by Molly Castoelle,

“What is overwhelming and un-namable is passed on to those we are closest to. Our loved ones carry what we cannot. And we do the same.”

What we cannot cope with, what we cannot identify, is picked up by our children.

So the question is, do me, my family, my community drink because of war trauma? Are we all just burying inherited pain by searching for the bottom of a steinlager bottle? Its probably not a straight yes or no answer, but the war did our communities no favours. It ripped out the best, brightest and strongest of our men and sent those that survived back with dark stains of blood on their hearts and hands. And the war most definitely brought a rigorous drinking culture upon the soldiers return.

I challenge all readers to question how trauma has been passed on to you and your families. Trauma doesn’t just sit in the past. We are still bloody living the effects of war trauma in the present. It time for us to talk about the trauma.