Ever since she could remember, Vivian had a phobia of birds. She would see them on the road and would be paralyzed with fear. Most times she’d call for her mom to help shoo them away. They would always come back. She wondered why they always seemed to follow her. And they always seemed to make such a fuss when she was around, as if they knew she was terrified of them.
In her young life, her earliest memory of rage was when she was 4. She lived with her mom and step father in Anvik. She learned to cover her ears as he beat her. She didn’t want to hear the screams. Her mom would tell her to run to her auntie’s to get help. She ran down the road and there they were, the birds. She stopped, cries stuck in her throat as they looked at one another. Suddenly, to her amazement, they flew away, they made a way for her to pass. It was as if they could sense her urgency. Vivy, as they called her, she got to her auntie’s house and they called her grandma in Shageluk. Then the plane came and there they were, her grandparents, her safe haven. They picked her up, hugged her and she immediately felt the sobs in her throat go. She cried all the way home.
As she got older, the beatings became normal. Vivy and her sister knew the signs well and when a fight was coming, she’d take her upstairs, put music on and busy her with toys. It was easy to tell when the storm was brewing, there was the seeming laziness by the stepfather to help out around the house. After his two-weeks of working ‘up north,’ he would sit in front of the tv for days at a time. Her mother worked as a general store owner (which Vivy helped with for most of her pre-teens years), a tribal leader, the mayor, and everything else you can think of that ran a small rural community. She was always leaving for some crisis. Vivy learned how to watch the store, make dinner, keep the house clean, and take care of her younger sister. The burden of her life never really phased her at the time because that’s all she knew. When Vivy’s mom returned home, she would see him sitting in the same spot, and they’d just glare at one another. Vivy did her best to say how well behaved her little sister was, or how many customers came to the store that day or how she already did the dishes, look at how clean the house was, anything to divert her mom’s attention. But it was inevitable. The snide remarks would begin then the yelling to see who could be meaner, then the hitting. It was normal.
The thing that was understood in her home was that ‘the girls’ were seen and not heard, meaning they were to never say anything about what went on in their home. “What happens at home stays at home,” was the family motto. So from the outside, they were the perfect family. The Dad worked up north and the Mom worked as a pillar of the town, they participated in community events and were always kind and gracious to others. They weren’t alcoholics, they provided for their kids, and they had many friends, near and far. The perfect family….from the outside.
There was never any ‘talking’ in her household. It went from holding the contempt in until one couldn’t hold it in anymore to an ultimate full on explosion. It was always the same. The one time Vivy got caught in the crossfire when I was 12. Her mom was 8 months pregnant and she had just gotten home with a load of laundry. Vivy was bagging groceries for a customer at the front of the house, and she heard her mother yell and she knew that things were going to escalate. After the customer left, she went to the back and there was her step father, holding her mom by the hair and she was bent over protecting her belly. Her mom had the knowing look of pure fear. Vivy snapped. She ran at them and started hitting him with all her bony self could muster. In that moment something changed in her, she knew that she could either continue to be the ever so obedient one who feared her parents or the one who would finally stop it. She had enough. In a blink of an eye she saw all the times she made excuses for the fights, the bruises, the yelling, her mothers beaten face, the blood, the parties that ended in terror, the broken bones, the vicious cycle of break-up and make-up. Through her eyes, she just wanted it to stop. At 12 she was tired of being the adult child.
She also got hit so hard that she slid across the floor and slammed into the kitchen cupboards. She almost blacked out. But it was the cawing that kept her awake. Outside the kitchen window there was a raven cawing so loud that everyone stopped and looked at him. He was looking right in the window. She swears he said, “Get up!” Vivy stood up and looked at her step father and said that he will never hit her again.
Later, Vivian left for boarding school. She only returned for summer breaks. By then the family had moved to the big city of Anchorage. It was a time of great freedom only to return to a home of obligation, strict rules all about honor and respect. Things never changed, just where they lived. At times the home felt downright cold. It was as if there was no love there. It was just sucked out along with any sense of warmth and kindness. It was a place where respect for one’s family was held as the highest regard. It was a place she always dreaded returning to. But that was all she knew. It was home.
After high school she went many places, first to a college outside the state where she had her first taste of discrimination at an all white, mostly lutheran college in the midwest. After her last final was taken, she went to Washington state, and that was an experience. She later returned back to Alaska, and her parents home. Back to the being 12 and living under their roof of rules and respect. It never changed.
One day Vivy had an epiphany. One of her aunties was in town to visit and shop. There were a lot of people at the house she was staying at and many conversations were about. Vivy always knew that sitting and listening to her aunties gossip about the latest going-ons would pass the time. In one particular conversation she heard the words, ‘domestic abuse,’ and ‘she should leave him.’ From what she gathered it was about a relative living with a man that continually beat her. Without thinking, Vivian blurted out, “Well maybe she deserved it, she was always pushing him.” Vivy doesn’t know why she said this, but she immediately regretted it. Her aunt, who is a teacher by trade, leaned over and said, “Vivy, NO ONE deserves to be hit, EVER.” Hot tears immediately flowed down her face. ‘Why would you ever say that?’ said her aunt. She knew her auntie was right. But she also knew that it resonated with her on a much deeper level. It was a moment that she knew that if she ever had a relationship, it would not include anger and rage. She wanted the opposite and she would never settle for anything less.
Upon years of reflection and therapy, Vivian realized that the anger wasn’t in a partner, it was in her. It was so ingrained in her that she gave it to her eldest child. Going through it though, one doesn’t realize it. But like the birds that she thought were there to scare her, she learned that they were there to protect her. They always returned, always watched over her, they reminded her that trauma can stop. “If you feed fear with fear, you only get fear.” This is what she says repeats daily. Vivy takes it in waves, and every day she chooses joy and is one day further in breaking the cycle of generational trauma.
Break the cycle.