I’m sitting on the floor with my back against the bed and my head between my knees on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. In a few minutes a car will pick me up to take me to the Lady Gaga concert at the Forum in Los Angeles, and I don’t want to go. I can’t stop shaking. I pick up my phone several times to cancel, but it’s a writing assignment for work so I keep telling myself that everything is going to be fine even though I am going alone, I’ll be on the floor smashed into a crowd full of devout Little Monsters – an imposter among loyal super fans – and I have no idea what’s going to happen – all things that send me into an anxiety spiral.
If I can keep myself from hyperventilating and crying I know I’ll be able to get into the car. When my phone vibrates with a text letting me know that the driver is outside, I take a deep breath, pull myself off the floor, smooth my hair, and try to unclench my shoulders to ease the pain that always accompanies my anxiety. You will be fine, I tell myself. You are lucky. A million people would love to have this opportunity to have a free VIP ticket to see Lady Gaga. Intellectually, I know this is true, but all I can muster is dread. Despite the anxiety that often descends before I have to go on a trip or attend an event, nine times out of 10 I enjoy myself, and once it’s over I’m usually glad I went. However, this does nothing to stop the anxiety and panic from coming in waves that threaten to drown me.
At this point, I don’t know much about Lady Gaga. While I’ve always been aware of her, my musical tastes tend to trend toward artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s like the Rolling Stones and Stevie Nicks. I don’t expect this concert on a chilly August night to be a sea change in my consciousness; to awaken a new understanding about my depression, anxiety and chronic pain, but that’s exactly what happens. The new album, Joanne, is about Gaga’s aunt Joanne who died 12 years before she was born. Joanne is Gaga’s middle name – a tribute to her father’s sister, and the aunt she never met. Before she launches into the title track, Gaga holds her guitar protectively against her chest and explains how her aunt’s death traumatized her family. How her father was never the same, and how she took on his pain as her own. She talks about transgenerational trauma, and in this moment I have never felt so understood.
“I always wondered if I got to meet my real dad because he went through such a trauma in his life,” Gaga says on what would have been Joanne’s birthday during the Dec. 18, 2017 show in Los Angeles, which I also attended. “And, I started to wonder about myself and where my pain came from.” Hearing this was a lifeline for me. My father was drafted for the Vietnam war 10 years before I was born, and the horrors he witnessed never left him. For as long as I can remember I’ve had dreams of a thick cloud of rolling darkness chasing me. And, to this day, I can barely stay one step ahead of that pain in both my waking and sleeping life. During a lifetime of trying to navigate the darkness, I’ve often told myself, this pain can’t all be mine.
“Transgenerational trauma, like any type of trauma, is a very complicated thing,” Dr. Lindsay A. Henderson, PsyD., a psychologist who treats patients via telehealth app, LiveHealth Online, tells me. “It is difficult to separate who we are from who our parents are, and to identify what thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors we inherited from our parents versus what we have developed on our own.” Like Gaga, I didn’t fully grasp the extent or root of my dad’s trauma until I was in my 20s, and during Mental Health Awareness Month (May), I feel like it’s finally time to talk about it. By the time I was able to understand that my dad’s behavior wasn’t about or directed at me, he was already well on his way to drinking himself to death, and I’d already been carrying his emotional burden for 27 years.
During his time in Vietnam, my dad was shot in the neck, caught an infection that almost cost him his leg, and narrowly escaped death when another soldier who took over his night-duty post on his 21st birthday was killed. He never got over the guilt that it should have been him. He told me about his paralyzing night terrors and the constant anxiety that assaulted him like a firestorm. The only way he knew how to stop the reel of horror that constantly played in his head was to drink until he passed out. He had chronic PTSD, but there wasn’t a word for it back then, and I absorbed his guilt, anxiety, and depression into my own body, which manifested as chronic migraines beginning when I was 6. I carried what he worked so hard to numb. He died at age 59 while I was holding his hand. And, when he left his body I continued to shoulder his trauma alone.
Remembering my #dad today. He was #drafted in 1968 and never really came back. John M. Neal Jr. May 11, 1948 -- March 8, 2008. #veteran #memorialday #nowar #MD2017 - @ladyfaceblues
“While not all parents who are traumatized will pass this trauma down to their own children, transgenerational trauma can be a rather common phenomenon. These cycles of anxiety, depression, or abuse occur when a family lives through a traumatic event or situation, such as extreme poverty, war, natural disaster, abuse, terrorism, slavery, crime, or a sudden or violent death,” Dr. Henderson says. “Most commonly, the symptoms of transgenerational trauma can look like post-traumatic stress disorder and/or anxiety disorders, such as hypervigilance, hyperarousal, negative core beliefs, and emotion dysregulation.”
This is me all day, and my taking on this trauma is the reason I was so anxious before going to the concert. I don’t like surprises. I like to know exactly what’s going to happen. I need to be able to see everything that’s going on. I need to know where all of the exits are so I can leave. I’m terrified of being trapped, and of being seen. Despite all of this, those who know me would tell you that I appear to have it all together. However, inside my head there’s a war going on and blanking out is the only way to halt the fighting. Gaga describes this in a personal letter she posted on her non-profit’s (The Born This Way Foundation) website as having your “head stuck in a cycle,” which she sings about in her song “Million Reasons.”
“My body is in one place and my mind in another. It’s like the panic accelerator in my mind gets stuck and I am paralyzed with fear,” she says about living with PTSD. “When this happens I can’t talk. When this happens repeatedly, it makes me have a common PTSD reaction which is that I feel depressed and unable to function like I used to. It’s harder to do my job. It’s harder to do simple things like taking a shower. Everything has become harder. Additionally, when I am unable to regulate my anxiety, it can result in somatization, which is pain in the body caused by an inability to express my emotional pain in words.”
What’s more, people who identify as empaths are more likely to have trouble separating their own anxiety and trauma from that of others, which studies have shown might be due to differences in the brain between empaths and the general population. It’s still not clear if these differences develop from being exposed to trauma as a young child or if empaths are born this way. Regardless, it does make you more likely to take on other people’s trauma, even if you’re not aware of it. “When empaths absorb the impact of stressful emotions, it can trigger panic attacks, depression, food, sex and drug binges, and a plethora of physical symptoms that defy traditional medical diagnosis from fatigue to agoraphobia,” Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, explains on her website.
Other people are also more likely to subconsciously seek out empaths and dump painful problems at their feet. I once sat next to a stranger at a bar who turned to me and proceeded to tell me that he was adopted in the U.S. as a child after his entire family was killed in Serbia. He said it was his fault because he’d unknowingly led soldiers to their location. As he gulped the last of his drink he quietly said, “I’ve never told anyone that before.” One of the reasons empaths can develop mental-health problems from taking on this kind of trauma is because we don’t know how to get rid of it. When someone else unburdens themselves, we effectively accept their burden as our own. And, while they might feel better, we feel worse. Oftentimes, the trauma doesn’t even need to be expressed verbally. Empaths can also pick up and internalize non-verbal cues, and relieving someone of their pain by accepting it yourself can be debilitating. As Gaga says in the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, “That’s not why I’m here, I’m not a receptacle for your pain. I’m not just a place for you to put it.”
If you’re not sure if the pain you’re carrying is your own or if you’ve inherited it, Dr. Henderson has some advice. “You may start to ask yourself questions like:
What are the ideas of the world that I learned from my parents?
How does my family tend to see the world differently than other families, and why may that be?
Who am I, as a member of this family but also as the individual I may want to be?
What are the narratives or stories that I’ve heard from my parents throughout my life and how have those stories impacted me?”
“Examine the ways in which you may see other individuals and families behaving different, or having different values, particularly those that seem to be healthier than that of your own family.” Dr. Henderson recommends seeking the help of a therapist who has expertise in dealing with trauma, and says it is possible to shed this painful skin. “Awareness and identification of problematic behavior is the first step toward making behavioral changes, which is entirely possible and the way to breaking the cycle of trauma.” It’s also important to be kind to yourself, and to know that you’re not alone. I’m right here with you.
I am forever grateful to Lady Gaga for openly sharing her story and her struggles, and for being a tireless advocate for mental-health awareness. I had the opportunity to speak with Gaga’s mom Cynthia Germanotta, co-founder of The Born This Way Foundation, about mental health first aid for Bustle. If you’re interested in learning more about how to identify mental-health issues in yourself and others, you can sign up for a free mental health first aid class, and if you do it before May 31 you’ll be entered into a drawing to win free tickets to the musical Dear Evan Hanson, and dinner with Gaga’s mom.
Even though I am still working on offloading this burden that feels like carrying a rucksack full of rocks on my back, I am making progress. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I listen to the Joanne album – a lot. It’s an anthem that makes me feel like it is possible to heal from transgenerational trauma, and to turn these painful experiences into something positive that can help others, which makes walking through the darkness seem worth it.