Content warning for sexual assault and molestion.
I’ve forgotten much of my childhood, but I can remember feeling connected to my culture, and the feeling of peace I found underwater, standing in the rain, or in wide open spaces.
This feeling of connection between nature, peace, and power was explained by my grandparents as a gift of being Navajo.
They taught me and younger sister, Isabella, that the elements were ours to guide and we found beauty in it all. Every breeze was a message, every raindrop a love letter, and every sunset a friendly wave from the powers that be.
When we were young, our grandparents — our Abuelo and Abuelita — taught us how to summon a storm through a rain dance, and they would take us powwows to celebrate our shared magic.
When I was a child, being Indigenous felt like our secret superpower. I clung to this secret until I was forced to hold another that destroyed both my family unit and my relationship with my heritage when I was 14.
My mom valued family over everything, consistently reminding us that “blood is thicker than water.” My two sisters and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents during our childhood, and I was especially close to my Abuelita.
When I was in high school, my mom insisted we make time to see my grandparents every weekend, seemingly valuing family time over schoolwork and our individual friendships.
But, this dynamic changed halfway through my freshman year of high school when I came home late one day to find my mother crying at the kitchen counter.
She broke the heavy silence in the air by telling me that my Abuelo had been inappropriate with Isabella, the middle sister. Through tears she shared that this meant we weren’t going to see my grandparents for a while.
She further explained that his actions hadn’t been intentional, and he didn’t even remember the incident due to an episode of PTSD. The source of the reported PTSD wasn’t explained, but my mother assured me he would start therapy.
I remember being shocked and consoling my mother. When I got up to go to bed, she said,
“Never tell anyone. This is not your story to tell.”
Renetta Weaver, LCSW, shared that after years of working with adults, she discovered how common situations like these were.
Many of her clients’ issues in their adulthood were connected to unresolved childhood trauma that was covered up in family secrets.
“You do not have to continue to suffer in silence even if you’ve been keeping secrets and shame from the past,” she says.
Nightmares as a Trauma Response
Years later, Isabella shared that when my parents questioned Abuelo about his actions, he admitted to acting inappropriately with me and my sisters while we slept.
Before, my nightmares had little to no recognizable memory associated, but now the visuals began to take form. Being detached from my identity led to feeling worthless, contributing to trauma-fueled nightmares that I now understood the origin of.
According to RAINN, nightmares and sleep disorders are common responses to the trauma of sexual assault. Other common symptoms include:
- Panic attacks
Our youngest sister is still unaware that one of our primary caretakers assaulted us, a truth I’ve been forced to hold for a decade.
I struggled with depression and suicidality during my formative years, partially due to feeling isolated in my identity.
Growing up in a primarily white suburb of Orange County, California, I didn’t have many other Indigenous friends.
Weaver says, “It [can be] very damaging to not have a reflection of your culture or to have a reflection that you are ashamed of.”
On multiple occasions, my Navajo and Mexican identity was questioned or used to be condescending. I was told I was lucky because I would be able to get into any college I wanted.
“I’m so jealous! You’re so lucky you have affirmative action on your side,” a friend said.
The only Indigenous people I knew were in my family.
Rainy days lost their meaning, the trees didn’t send me messages, and the world around me felt barren — my connection to the magic of my culture was tied to my relationship with my Grandparents, who I’ve since become distant from.
Intergenerational trauma is prevalent in BIPOC communities, and data suggests that Native Americans suffer from intergenerational post-traumatic stress disorder at disproportionate rates.
Sexual assault is one example of the trauma that can occur through generations, with
After some time, Isabella told me the full truth about my Abuelo — it was not a one time incident. The abuse spanned years.
The first time she told my parents, they instituted a rule that Abuelo and Isabella were not allowed to be alone in a room together, merely putting a bandaid on the situation.
Both my mother and father confessed to experiencing similar abuse from different family members in their youth.
Clarity rained down: this was an example of generational trauma within my family.
Abuelo hurt me and my sisters, Abuelo didn’t protect my mother when she experienced abuse, and he destroyed our family and my parents still let him enter our home and dine at our table.
Weaver shared her experience working with women who had experienced sexual assault within their families.
“I explained that their mind has associated the pleasurable act of sex into one of pain. That is why so many of my clients have to drink, use drugs or be in some other altered state when they are intimate,” she says.
“That one incident of assault/molestation created an experience of trauma that grows up with the person, effects their relationships with their sexual partners…”
Guilt From Survivors
Less than a year after the abuse was disclosed, my grandparents returned to our lives.
I didn’t understand at the time, but Isabella later shared that when my Abuelo was diagnosed with cancer that year, she felt obligated to open our doors to him, and felt like it was her fault for “destroying” our family.
Weaver says, “It’s important to know that sexual assault [and] abuse are not your fault. Even if someone else is not acknowledging what happened to you doesn’t mean it’s not true…even when others downplay your experiences,”
“Please know there are safe spaces where people will believe and are to support you by holding space for you as you unpack and share what happened to you.”
I’d been diagnosed with Dyslexia at a young age, but my ADHD was undiagnosed during my adolescence. This and the ongoing depression caused my academics to suffer, and when I was 17, my parents sent me to therapy, avoiding mentioning Abuelo’s abuse as reasons I was there.
Weaver speaks to how untreated mental health concerns can snowball, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms. “…undiagnosed mental health conditions such as ADHD and anxiety [can lead to] our behaviors being misunderstood by ourselves and others,” she says.
“When mental health conditions aren’t diagnosed, we may resort to self-medicating… the feelings that could be managed with prescribed medication and mindfulness practices.”
After four years with my therapist, I finally broke down and told her what happened.
Healing is Non-Linear
I still look at my parents and my grandparents and I feel fear because I’ve never seen a healthy relationship in my life, and I fear the future of my relationships.
8 out of 10 sexual assaults are caused by people that survivors know, and Weaver shared that complicated feelings surrounding family who’ve caused us harm is common.
“Our relationship and experiences with our families form our perception of ourselves and the world around us,” she says.
“The ones who said they loved us while simultaneously hurting us causes us confusion.”
According to Weaver, effects of abuse from family can lead to long term issues within relationships, including:
- A skewed view of how we should be treated, often leading to unhealthy relationships
- Trouble with setting boundaries
- Blaming ourselves for the trauma
- Sabotaging positive relationships
“I recommend working with a licensed and trained trauma therapist who can help you to do that deep root work,” Weaver says, citing techniques such as IFS, tapping, EMDR and BSP to address healing from traumatic experiences.
“Coping skills are important to help you manage challenges as you heal. Just using coping skills won’t choke the weeds. The weeds will always grow back until you dig up the root.”
Speaking with my therapist, finally allowed me to place the root of my anxiety. She reassured me that my mom asking me to keep the abuse a secret was unfair and cruel to a 14-year-old.
I’ve also worked with my psychiatrist to lessen my nightmares stemming from PTSD and it’s been a Godsend to have mental health professionals validate and help me through the intense moments.
Coming back to my heritage came piece by piece, starting with taking classes on Indigenous history in college.
I struggled to respect my Abuelo, and this caused internal conflict because culturally, I was raised to revere my elders, and I wanted to search for ways to bring the magic back.
Learning about Indigenous history, whether it was specific to my tribe or others, aided in this quest, reminding me of the overwhelming sense of pride for my ancestors.
Studying the history of my roots helped me regain perspective on the resilience of my people. My respect for my culture swelled inside me once more and I finally felt comfortable claiming my heritage, and the anxiety I felt about claiming my culture lessened.
The school I attended was predominantly white, but I found a small group of people that validated my identity.
For the first time, I had people in my culture who willingly supported my heritage. We could openly discuss our different relationships with generational trauma and anxiety.
I’ve found a partner, and though it took immense trust and a willingness to communicate, I am grateful for my partner. And, he loves a rainy day almost as much as I do.
I leaned into creative outlets, writing stories using my perspective as an Indigenous woman, and I continue to feel joy when it rains.
I ultimately made the decision to move 3000 miles away from home, and I am not going back for Thanksgiving this year.
The decision brought deep anxiety, but as I heal myself I hope that I am setting an example for my sisters and cousins that it’s ok to move away.
“If we do not deal with our trauma, we inadvertently hand it down to the next generation. We often take out our pain and hurt on those we love the most – which is ourselves and those closest to us – our family,” G. Phillips said in his book, How We Heal.
“If we ignore each other and deprive each other of love and affection in our relationships, our kids see and feel that deprivation of love and might think it’s normal.”
I haven’t completely escaped feelings of guilt, as I’m visiting my family for Christmas and my Abuelo will be present.
“It’s difficult to communicate boundaries with a family who doesn’t have any,” Weaver says.
“However, you can create boundaries for yourself by identifying and participating in family situations that you are comfortable with and giving yourself permission to no longer be in environments and situations with family that do not feel comfortable.”
My sister and I have aligned on this decision, banding together by swearing to support each other during these visits and break unhealthy cycles in the future by not letting him near our children.
I am fortunate enough to see these patterns, as my mother never spoke her truth or placed boundaries between her and those that hurt her.
Sexual assault is extremely common and can have damaging emotional and mental health effects.
Trauma is heavy, and you don’t have to carry it alone. There are several resources available, and you can always consider reaching out to mental health professionals in your area or connecting through a virtual platform to get the support you need.
It’s important to remember that if someone violated your boundaries, you are not to blame. If you were assaulted by someone within your family or someone your family and friends are still close to, it can be difficult to navigate those dynamics.
Determine what your boundaries are based on what’s best for you and your mental health, and make decisions accordingly, regardless of how it may make others feel.
Weaver says, “I tell my clients that you can be the cycle breaker in your family by doing your own healing work.”
“We can’t choose the family we are born into, but as adults we can choose who has access to our space — even family.”