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Family Trauma

You will notice this: forgetfulness of the older person is based on problems related to childern’s behaviour or conflicts among families or communities. Sometimes I will find out that this forgetfulness is caused by drug-taking be the person himself/herself. […] But most of my patients are not taking drugs. Most of the time they [older persons who complain about forgetfulness] are worried about problems at home. Most their worries are home-based or family-based.

Mrs M, an isangoma

We are now starting to listen to and learn from other cultures, at last. For many years I have been wondering about the effect of family feuds on individuals within the family. I have seen families not talking to each other for years and years, my own family is no exception to that after an argument between siblings over an expected inheritance. (What else?)

Some family feuds run very deep as a result of incest, unwanted pregnancies and abortions, or infidelity to name but a few reasons. And of course money… These feuds are often so deep that they will never be resolved and are taken to the grave. How do they affect family members?

In my years of working with people living with dementia I have noticed that in families where there are these deeply rooted, almost generational feuds, there is often a parent or grandparent living with memory loss or what would be labelled as dementia. Of course, we know that a prolonged depression will present with exactly the same “symptoms” as dementia. However, I see this as something different and more complex than ‘just’ dementia or depression.

It is often so that someone can simply no longer deal or cope with the underlying hurt, anger, resentment, guilt, torture, etc of a family situation. When a child had to be aborted, given up for adoption, or killed or molested, a parent often sits with this pain for the rest of their lives. Our parents are not part of a generation that had the luxury of psychotherapy. They kept a stiff upper lip, and “got on with it”. As we grow older, our brains develop new neurological pathways that enable us to look inward, to re ect and to spend more time contemplating. It is this very gift that for some becomes a curse. In hindsight there are regrets, we blame ourselves for the mistakes that we made, regardless of the fact that often we had little choice in matters.

As we become more quiet, these thoughts will haunt us. We mull over them in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep, they lurk in the dark corners of our minds and crawl out when we are feeling lonely and vulnerable. Whilst it is not a term that I would ever use, these thoughts can literally “drive us crazy”. In order to escape from them we will withdraw, disconnect, disengage. If this continues for long enough, we will indeed become ‘demented’ and our brain function will be affected by our deep hurt and pain.

Many years ago I witnessed a Resident in a Care Home being given a “therapy doll”. The minute the staff left her room she took the doll by the legs and beat it repeatedly against the wall, screaming at the top of her voice “I killed my babies, I killed my babies”. She was beyond distraught, as was everyone around her. After much investigation and probing we found out that she had more than one backstreet abortion before getting married. This haunted her to the point that she ended up living with dementia.

Abusive relationships are often the cause of a spouse withdrawing to the point of becoming completely disconnected. A lifetime of being hen-pecked or bullied leaves deep emotional scars that affect our minds, and ultimately our brains (or the other way around).

The delicate nature of our ‘constitution’ must not be degraded to physiological brain functioning only. Our emotional and spiritual, social and ecological Beings are all intricately connected. If they are not in harmony, at risk or out of kilter, it will most definitely affect our being-in-the-world negatively.

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