I have also referred to the chapter by Lorraine Peeters, Shaan Hamann and Kerrie Kelly in the excellent publication Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice which focuses of the Stolen Generations. The Stolen Generations were the Indigenous children of Australia who were deliberately and systematically removed from their families using laws, policies and practices that relied on compulsion, duress or undue influence during the years 1910 to 1972.
Here is a moving piece of writing from this chapter about the experiences of disconnection, as felt by members of the Stolen Generations. It gives insights into what trauma does to people. The chapter also makes reference to the healing of trauma. Thank you Lorraine, Shaan and Kerrie for these powerful words. They should be read and reflected upon by all practitioners working with Indigenous people.
'Although the means of removal may have varied, most of us shared some common experiences. We were deliberately and systematically cut off from our families, our culture and our Aboriginality. We had our heads filled with negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people; we were told our mothers and families did not want us, and were forced to act and speak like non-Aboriginal people.
We were punished if we acted ‘naturally’ - that is, if we spoke, felt and thought like Aboriginal people. I would like you to take a moment to stop and think about this. What if this had happened to you or your children? How would you feel now?
Many of us were also subjected to a range of abuses: physical, emotional and sexual. As kids, in order to survive, many of us had to detach ourselves from what we really felt and thought, and try not to feel anything at all. We were powerless. To be fully present during those times might have destroyed us. It was as if we had to play dead, emotionally and spiritually, in order to survive. Our spirits had to hide.
As a result, many of us left important parts of ourselves behind, and have paid, and continue to pay, a high price in our everyday lives. Disconnection of mind from body, thinking from feeling, and spirit from mind and body are core issues that many removed people struggle with inside themselves, as well as the more obvious disconnections from family, country, language, history, culture and spiritual heritage.
Many of us have lived lives of fear, and have been running from ourselves - and sometimes our Aboriginality - ever since. Some of us don’t trust anyone, including ourselves. Many of us who grew up in institutions feel most comfortable with each other. Others have become good at putting their feelings on hold and withdrawing when life gets difficult.
Some use alcohol and other substances to drown the pain and anger inside. Feeling like an outsider is common to all of us. Many still don’t know who they are, where they have come from, and where, if anywhere, they ‘belong’. Many say they feel ‘empty’ inside.
Despite this, those of us who survived have developed an incredible strength. When the chips are down, we know we can do whatever we need to do, to survive.
Although we have this strength, many of us also have special vulnerabilities. Every removed person has their own set of triggers, shaped by their experience of removal, and these can tap into the pain buried deep inside and unleash strong reactions. At certain points in our lives, usually in response to certain events, these triggers can lift the lid on our pain and destabilise us.
Whether a trigger will set off a healing journey will depend on what else is happening in the person’s life. If they are not safe enough or strong enough to face the pain of healing, they can just close down and keep going. It is very dangerous to push someone to heal before they are ready to do so. No one has a right to set another person’s healing agenda.
Nor is it possible for one person to ‘heal’ another. Each of us needs to be recognised as the expert of our own healing, and it is crucial that we are able to control the speed, direction and outcomes of our own healing journey. This includes the right to refuse to look at any removal issues at all until we feel ready to do so.
Today we have a better understanding of what happens when you isolate Aboriginal children from their families and forcibly remove their Aboriginal identity from them and replace it with another. No one warned us what we might go through as adults, that something might trigger our trauma and set off a volcano of feelings and memories that would shatter the identities that were imposed on us as children.
For many of us, our healing journey will be triggered by an event in our lives. This may take us by surprise. We might have thought we were okay and did not have any Stolen Generations issues to deal with. Some might not even identify as Aboriginal people. But once our memories start to resurface, our healing journey has usually begun.
Once a healing journey begins, it cannot be stopped. Memories that had to be ‘disremembered’ in order to survive come flooding in, accompanied by a volcano of emotions. We see this as the spirit coming back to life to reconnect with mind and body.
The first stage of our journey can be a stage of crisis. For example, I started crying and couldn’t stop - I cried for days on end. We might be full of anxiety, fear, grief and loss, and think we are losing our minds.
It is important that good quality support is available to help us through this stage of crisis, to reassure us that many other survivors have successfully used this time to begin a healing journey, and to offer us some guidance as to what to expect.
Often there are spiritual dimensions to this part of the journey that only other Aboriginal people people can understand. It is important that Aboriginal counsellors are available to explain these things to us, and to non-Aboriginal if they are involved, so that we are not diagnosed early on.'