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As a child growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Dallas, I had what I thought was a relatively normal childhood.

Before I was even a teenager, I was mixing margaritas for my mother. By age 14, I was drinking them with her, or sipping moonshine at the table with my grandfather. Alcohol was ingrained in our family culture; I even routinely mixed a hot toddy with whisky when I was sick.

It was clear throughout my childhood that my mother struggled with alcoholism and drug use, including the use of valium, marijuana and heroin. I remember as a 6-year-old watching her get high while my dad went to work. And while I knew this was all very wrong, as a child, I felt bound by these secrets. If I told anyone, everyone in my family might end up going to jail. And where would that leave me?

My father was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD and schizophrenia, and much like my mother’s father before him, he was absent, drunk and abusive. My mother ultimately left him and moved us in with my grandmother. She was determined to show us there was a different kind of life. It wasn’t an easy life, but there was no addiction, abuse and incarceration. It was a life worth living.

When we were pre-teens, my sister and I were both sexually assaulted by a family member, who we later learned had a long criminal history and an even longer history of abuse. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned he was also sexually assaulted as a child.

When you’re surrounded by these circumstances (the families around us had very similar situations) it’s hard to admit there is a problem and that you need help. I, too, developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and began using it to cope with my unfortunate circumstances and to numb the feelings from my abuse and trauma. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I was experiencing generational trauma — also known as intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma — where the trauma is passed down by family members from one generation to the next.

If you’ve experienced generational trauma like I did, you must know that you’re not alone; in fact, it’s quite prevalent. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study found that two-thirds of adults had experienced at least one form of abuse, neglect or household dysfunction during their formative years. And of those, 41% experienced more than one.

Many people insist that the trauma, addiction, crime and overall struggle within minority communities is caused by a system that’s rigged against us. And while that may be partly true, I believe a lot of the issues stem from the failure of our own communities to stand up for our children and show them a better way of life.

The problem isn’t only about financial barriers, but also the emotional, social and cultural ones that we as Black and brown people have erected ourselves. When I was a child, our church provided a ministry for those struggling with drugs and alcohol, but no one dared take part because it was considered embarrassing and demeaning. We undermined our own recovery — and that stigma continues today.

These aren’t singular, standalone problems. They’re all connected, and as a result, our kids are stuck, unable to move forward because of the weight of the generational trauma that’s holding them back. But there are things you can do to break the cycle. 

1. Acknowledge the impact it has on your life.

As children, we may not have recognized that the behaviors we saw modeled by influential adults in our lives were wrong, but we do now. And, while we certainly are not responsible for poor parenting or the unhealthy living environments we grew up in, we are responsible for acknowledging the truth when we are made aware.

2. Get help.

Healing and recovery don’t take place in a vacuum. Sometimes help comes from outside of our biological family — from treatment, professional counseling or talking to others for support. You don’t have to go it alone.

3. Release and reforge.

Learn from and embrace the past but also adopt new thinking and behaviors that support healing and recovery. And, please, tell the secret. Share your story to help others who may still suffer in silence if it weren’t for your willingness to be vulnerable.

I’ve been very open about my history and the path I’ve taken to overcome it. If it wasn’t for the support of my grandmother, a dedicated high school music teacher, and the communities I built at Dallas Baptist University, I would not have been able to put my alcoholism aside and pursue a better life.

Today, as a therapist at Greenhouse Treatment Center, I believe strongly in the power of community to break the cycle of generational trauma for minority families. Generational trauma is real, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. My husband and I are also very active in our community. We regularly walk the block and talk with people around our neighborhood. We want people to know they can reach out to us if they ever need anything.

Of course, generational trauma doesn’t end easily or abruptly. Even today, despite my recovery, my children still deal with the vestiges of the life I lived before — mental health issues, anxiety, depression and even poor physical health outcomes. They struggle too, but it doesn’t define them. They have embraced the truth of their history and work hard to demonstrate that you can have life victories and be effective tools for recovery and resilience, despite past struggles.

Trauma feeds on silence and secrecy. We must not let it lurk in the shadows of our neighborhoods and consume us. Instead, we must be willing to share our stories, and in doing so, give hope to others that there is a better life — and that they can achieve it.


Marian Jefferson is a lead therapist at Greenhouse Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers Facility.