Mariam Vahradyan

Breaking the Uroboros

“Remaining silent about family pain is rarely an effective strategy for healing it. The suffering will surface again at a later time, often expressing in the fears or symptoms of a later generation.”

Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start With You

I shuddered reading those words.  I had just left an emotionally abusive relationship and had started a painful journey back to myself.  At the time, I was intrigued by the concept of intergenerational trauma and how the stories we don’t tell end up haunting our loved ones. Although I grew up in New York City, I was raised in an Armenian home where the warmth of family had a dark and private shadow where pain was shameful and remained hidden from the eyes of the public sphere. 

When I heard the story of Nana Mam (originally Nana Gyul which translates to Nana Rose in Turkish), my maternal great-grandmother, I knew I was meant to end a cycle of violence and suffocation in my family line.  Pregnant during the Armenian Genocide and the massacres that occurred after 1915, my great-grandmother lost her husband and was left with a young son, Khazaros.  Unable to financially care for herself and her son, she married an older man and moved to Gyumri in Armenia to start a new life.  Her new husband convinced her to leave little Khazaros behind while they settled into their new home and would return later for him.  “She never came back,” Khazaros later told his daughter, who sit silently on his lap, searching his eyes for tears that had long stopped flowing.   While Khazaros grew up in poverty with his Uncle and remembered shaking from hunger at night, he knew little about what his mother was experiencing on the other side of the border.  Nana Mam’s husband forbade her from ever returning back to her first son and consequentally, she cursed all of the children she bore from him.  All six died.  Five before they became toddlers.  The last one made it to the age of sixteen and passed away from small pox. 

Eventually, Khazaros and Nana Mam were reunited and apologies and tears finally communicated. 

While the center of this story seems to be the son’s abandonment and sorrow, I connected deeply to the utter despair and fear that his Mother must have felt while being tied to a man who controlled and restricted her.  Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”  The feeling of constriction in my throat, a pounding heart beat when I was around the man who isolated me from my friends and threatened to end our relationship if I greeted other men and threw cups and chairs when I protested.  These physical sensations of a frazzled and exhausted autonomic nervous system engulfed and numbed me and I felt as if I had lost my ability to speak.  I still experience deep feelings of shame around not reaching out for help and abandoning myself.  There’s that word again.  Shame. 

As a young widow in post-Genocidal Armenia, Nana Mam lacked the power and status to speak up against her husband.  Without access to transporation and money, she was fully under his control.  The feeling of contriction in her throat, the pounding of her heart beat.  “I’m stuck and I’m afraid” we both muttered.  Me in my apartment in New York.  Her a century earlier in a Turkish village. 

When I finally found safety and energy to leave a person who was chipping away at my soul behind closed doors, I felt that I owed it to Nana Mam to never go back and allow myself to feel so entrapped by another human being.  I feel that Nana Mam would’ve thanked me now for ending a legacy of pain and silence around mistreatment and control.  An uroboros of intergenerational trauma, feeding itself of silence and closed doors, finally erupting into a messy but freeing vertical line. 

Mariam Vahradyan is an Armenian New Yorker who works in children’s publishing and has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Skidmore College.  Her work focuses on the power of storytelling as a form of resistance and identity development.  Currently, she is a contributing author to the International Baccalaureate blog and her writing has been featured on EVNReport and HyePhen Collective.  Her research has appeared in academic journals such as the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  In her free time, Mariam enjoys reading picture books to children in schools (or online!) and learning languages on Duolingo.