Photo credit: Somer Kreisman
When I submitted my article topics to Trail Sisters for consideration, I quickly realized that there was going to be a LOT to unpack. The topic that was at the top of the list was “Using running as a way to navigate through life as a second-generation Filipino-American.” How do I even begin to distill what running means to me in this context? I was grasping at straws until I remembered what resonated with me after watching Pixar’s Turning Red. After reading multiple articles, the term that stuck with me came out time and time again.
Transgenerational or generational trauma. The definition of generational trauma is broad. Melanie English, PhD, clinical psychologist, and parenting evaluator stated, “It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone’s life from an early age onward.” Examples include growing up in a household where there wasn’t a space to speak kindly/gently/lovingly due to stressors and yelling and shouting. Some symptoms of generational trauma may include high anxiety, issues with self-esteem and self-confidence.
The thought of using the word “trauma” as one descriptor for my upbringing seems utterly inappropriate. After all, they provided SO MUCH for us to have a better life. My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 80s from the Philippines so that they could save money back home to support their families and raise their children to have amazing opportunities. We lived in what could be considered an upper middle-class neighborhood. My parents, especially my mom who is a recently retired OR nurse, worked hard to send me and my older sister to private colleges to attend nursing school. I remember the nights that she took call; me and my dad sleeping in the car in the hospital parking lot in the early morning, waiting for her to finish her cases.
While watching Turning Red, I saw a lot of myself in Mei. The conflict of being raised as a second generation Filipino-American and having cultures collide made my upbringing somewhat tumultuous down the road. The need to be the model student. Doing extracurricular activities. Partaking in all the traditional Filipino activities: Simbang Gabi, Noche Buena, church on Sundays, getting confirmed as a Catholic (albeit late because I did sports in high school). Being naive about topics surrounding puberty because it was inappropriate to talk about certain things like periods and how to use a tampon. The only resource I had being a book from American Girl titled “The Care and Keeping of You”. Being nervous to talk to my mom because I wasn’t sure how she would react. Not knowing how to navigate dating and relationships. Asking about having “the talk” before I went off to college and the only answer being “Wait until you’re married.”
“A minus?! How come it’s not an A?” Failing one nursing class and feeling like the world was crashing down because it would mean I’d be held back one quarter. Lying about how everything was fine, even though I was literally in the back of an ambulance about to be sent to Harborview Medical Center for a psychiatric evaluation due to a potential for “self-destructive” behavior. Having one wrist and one ankle restrained to the stretcher in the ER hallway, staring at the ceiling, thinking how much of a failure and disappointment I must be to my family as the youngest. Them walking on eggshells for months around me after that because they were worried, I was a ticking time bomb. The skin on my wrist becoming red from the rubber bands and hair ties that I aggressively napped against it every single time negative thoughts or anxiety wormed its way into my mind. It was better than the alternative.
The healing process being a slow, but steady one. This is not to demonize my family. They gave me the tools that I needed to become the strong, independent woman I am today. They meant the very best of intentions when they raised me the way that they did, because that’s how they were raised back in the Philippines.
I learned to bottle up my emotions when I moved back home after college, crying because I didn’t know when I’d see my best friends again. The first thing my parents said when I walked through the door was, “Stop crying. You should be grateful that we’re throwing you a party.” I gave up on venting about little things because “I had it worse than you, so you shouldn’t be complaining.”
Instead, I started ducking my head down to get through day by day. I studied hard to pass the NCLEX and get that nursing job. I work hard every day because in my mind, everything that my parents have done was for their daughters to prosper and have a bright future. If that suddenly went away, I would be letting everyone down, and their sacrifices would be for naught. Being a failure and a disappointment to them is my biggest fear.
And it still is, even as a 30-year-old. From post-college to now, I’ve used running as a way of healing from the trauma that I’ve experienced. The way that it has healed me has been a transformation that has grown as I have.
When I was running through my neighborhood in the month that I took off from studying for the NCLEX, it was a time for reflection. I used the “Zombies! Run!” App to guide me through the mistakes that I made when studying for my first two attempts by letting my mind run free, pun intended. The music that played between audio segments also helped me reflect on the devastating breakup that I went through.
I used it as self-care. I’d studied myself into the ground for months, barely taking breaks during study sessions. While I was self-aware that it wasn’t the healthiest thing to do, I was stubborn and rationalized that I needed to grind.
Those runs were my escape. Fast forward to now, having been a nurse for almost 7 years, half of which have been in the operating room. You can imagine the stress that I was under when the pandemic started.
The biggest stressor was not knowing how we were supposed to perform urgent surgery while waiting for test results to come back. We were learning on the job how to don and doff our PPE in the safest manner without potentially exposing ourselves to this new virus. We had to adjust to a different way of interacting with the world and our loved ones. And while we’re slowly adjusting to a new “normal”, two years later, things still aren’t the same.
When I’m running in the mountains, my mind and the world go quiet.
I’m not a nurse who spends her days either being pulled in a million directions as the circulating nurse or as the scrub nurse in the field, having to know what her surgeons need before they know they need it, and staying alert if things go sideways. I’m not a daughter who has to make the sacrifices that she must take care of her family. I’m not a wife learning how to be a new homeowner with her husband, figuring out how to balance work, and personal time, and how to make the house a home. I’m not bound by societal and cultural expectations.
I often reject compliments and praise because in the darkest part of my mind, I don’t feel like I deserve them. I feel like there’s someone who can do it better than me or IS better than me. That there’s always something to criticize, and that I’m not good enough. I have a surprising amount of deeply harbored self-loathing and insecurity that creeps up from time to time in my lowest moments.
But while I’m on the trails, nothing matters.
The mountains and the trees don’t care how I feel. They don’t care how much I curse and yell at them when my body is begging for reprieve. They silently challenge me to become stronger than who I was before. They say, “I’m the boss. What are you going to do about it?”
My response is to grind it out and conquer because when I feel like I’m stripped raw, I’m the only one who can count on me to get me through it.
I wouldn’t change my upbringing one bit. It made me who I am today and for that, I’m grateful!