Epigenetics, Can We Heal Our Genes? – July 2013
My mother, Irene Rose Peyton, died 3 weeks ago, on July 1, 2013, at the age of 87, after being diagnosed with cancer and choosing not to undergo treatment in 2011. Her great passion was exploration, and she continued to travel the world despite tremendous pain, until she was entirely confined to her room only a few weeks before she finally left us. She was born in 1926 in Brockton, Mass, and was only 3 years old when the Great Depression started, and 14 years old when it ended. Like so many others, she suffered during those years: she lost her home to arson; lost her father to divorce and disappearance; saw her mother remarry; and was hired out as an au pair in her early teens. After the country started to recover, she came of age. It was the eve of World War II. She married her first husband at age 18, was a waitress in Florida, a secretary in Mexico, inspected gyroscopes in the naval shipyards in Bremerton WA. She adopted her younger half-sister June, got divorced, and moved with June to Hawaii and then Alaska, working and travelling and seeing the world. She was a woman with an indomitable spirit of discovery, loved new places, and had a survival instinct that moved her forward without looking back.
Moving forward without looking back is one way to survive trauma, and in a world without commonly available healing support, it is very effective. In IPNB terms, if we can do this by staying in our left hemisphere as much as possible, so we can avoid the hell of painful memory and unlivable emotional pain. We survive, but when we stay in our left hemisphere and stay out of our right hemisphere, we cut ourselves off from our bodies, from our emotions, from our autobiographical memories, and from our warmth. I myself have been spending these weeks since my mother’s death playing solitaire compulsively, and it has kept me out of my pain. Like my mother, I have survived, but I have kept myself away from myself and my people. I have had a continuing flow of support, (despite the solitaire) and have been able to take small sips of the huge grief. How do I take the nourishment and leave behind the pain, letting my mother’s life energy fuel me, as it needs to do, on a cellular and metaphorical level, so that I can thrive and pass the energy on to my children?
Dissociative coping strategies cut us off from our bodies, from our autobiographical memories, from deep and intimate friendships, and from our capacity for warmth and relationship with those we are closest to. It also leaves our children profoundly alone. My mother, surviving by leaving herself behind, also had very little ability to remember who I was. She could track things that were written on the calendar, and plan, but she couldn’t remember what I liked or didn’t like, or remember what had happened to me. In my twenties, when I would call her from my own world travels, I had to say the full sentence, “Hi, Mom, this is Sarah,” in order for her to know who was on the telephone. I came of age in pieces, unknown to my mother and to myself, not quite suicidal, but imagining that death would be a beautiful, clean place of rest and quiet, where there wouldn’t be any pain any more. It took years for my nervous system to calm enough in her presence to be able to hear the care and worry and tenderness that lived behind the criticisms and the sudden expressions of discontent. It was in these last two gift-years that her warmth was able to surface and she was able to express affection directly, and even to touch me once in a while. It is stunningly unfamiliar and very welcome.
Grieving her passing is elemental. There are long periods of blankness punctuated by moments when the air itself turns to pain. I have had a continuing flow of support, (despite the solitaire) and have been able to take small sips of the huge grief.. It’s very different than losing my father, which was so exhausting that I slept for a month. From the reports of others, the losing of parents is as individual as their lives.
I survived my childhood without her because other people were able to know me and give me the gift of myself and the gift of healing, both of which continue until the present day, from my father, my aunts, my friends, my partners and my children. So here I am, my mother’s daughter after her death, with her unadulterated dna fueling my mitochondria, my maternal line’s engines converting the chemical energy from food into a form that my cells can use. And my questions may be shared by many — how do we cleanly and with respect receive the gifts of life that have come at such a cost to those of us with a confused relationship with our parents? How do we acknowledge the good that came mixed with the disconnection and the intergenerational pain? How do we return the pain that we tried to take from our parents out of love, and just accept all the gifts and sweetness of their lives? Can I now share in my mother’s energy and love of discovery, my father’s passionate interest in the world of nature, my mother’s longing for a better world for humans and her capacity to keep faith and advocate for positive change, my father’s steady loyalty? How do I take the nourishment and leave behind the pain, letting my mother’s life energy fuel me, as it needs to do, on a cellular and metaphorical level, so that I can thrive and pass the energy on to my children?
In a way, this is the healing that many of us need to do, even those of us who have had more untroubled relationships with our parents. We need to find the love and care wrapped up in our parents’ survival techniques. In a way, we learn as we heal not to take our parents’ wounding personally, in the most personal of all relationships. We learn to let the energy of life contribute to us fully, without fighting it and without saying “but…”
And delightfully enough, being nourished heals us on every level. Supportive, warm relationships create epigenetic healing. Being in touch with needs energy, mindfulness practices and empathy create changes in the way that our genes express to help us deal with stress. Nourishing, nutritious and clean food helps our health and well-being, and will support the health of our unborn children, even reversing genetic damage that we are carrying. And big-picture healing for our entire family line frees everyone, dead, alive and as-yet-unborn.