My father was many things: an alcoholic, a violent angry man, a criminal and a racist. When I was five years old, he joined the Ku Klux Klan; eventually, he became the North Carolina faction’s Grand Dragon.
Sometimes, in the dead of night, my father would load me and my mom up in the car and drive around committing heinous crimes—turning us into accomplices. On the first such occasion, he told me to lay down in the backseat floorboard and instructed my mother to hold the steering wheel. I heard a barrage of gunfire; scared but curious, I rose up to look out the window and saw him riddling a car parked in front of a house with bullets. Another night, I rose up to see him lighting a rag that was tucked down inside a glass bottle filled with gasoline on fire; once ignited, he threw it through the front window of an apartment, and the curtains went up in flames. Later, I would overhear him admit that it was the home of a white lady who had a Black baby.
My father’s violence wasn’t just reserved for “others;” he also terrorized me and my mother. Once, during an argument with her, he shot a very large tree limb out over our heads. I was so shaken, so afraid that he would kill me, that later that night, when I needed to use the bathroom, I was too afraid to go down the hallway. Instead of making my way to the bathroom next to his bedroom, my mother sat an empty lard can down on the kitchen floor for me to defecate into.
These memories may be difficult to read. They’re difficult to write. But I acknowledge that my suffering pales in comparison to the hurt that was suffered directly by people of color and their supporters and loved ones in the community in which I lived because of my father. My heart aches for the long-term suffering that was incurred at the hands of people like him.
My experiences of growing up in a violent household of racist indoctrination caused long-term damages to my health and well-being. For decades, I had panic attacks and an increased heart rate; every muscle in my body constricted with the memories of fear, and from there, I developed stomach problems so intense that I would’ve sworn I was dying from something eating me up from the inside. I faced chronic and repetitive infections—bronchitis every few months, and trouble urinating without pain and burning sensations. My body would break down out of nowhere, for seemingly no present reason. I felt sick and exhausted from head to limb to toe.
I am 44 years old now, and to this day I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the trauma that came from my father’s hateful beliefs and behavior. My body experiences constant, chronic pain and ailments.
In 2002, when I finally got health insurance, I began to get diagnoses. I discovered that I had premature ventricular contractions of the heart—an irregular heartbeat that can cause you to feel like your heart stops and catches, affecting the breath. Next, I learned that my autonomic nervous system was shot; my cardiologist explained that my adrenal glands “got stuck on ‘fight or flight’ response and broke there.” The constant vigilance of my nervous system, the act of constantly looking out for the next threat, had caused them to shrink and wither up. My blood stream was filled with cortisol, a steroid hormone that acts as an immunosuppressant, and the chronic and repetitive releases of the stress hormone was causing widespread inflammatory pain in my whole body.
On and on I went, collecting further diagnoses. All in all, I suffer from nine diagnosed diseases and syndromes, all tied together in the package known as PTSD. On top of the physical illnesses that incapacitate me, PTSD is like a mental prison that I take spontaneous, unexpected trips to against my very own will. Triggered sometimes by the seemingly most insignificant things, broken by the “war” that is now over, the battles rage on inside me—in my memories and at the cellular level.
I was lucky to survive. I was lucky to extricate myself, little by little, from situations of violence and hatred. But although I now live in peace, much physical healing still lies ahead. Anyone who has been through the things I’ve been through—including spousal abuse at the hands of my first husband, and sexual abuse in my childhood—suffers like I have and do, and so do their loved ones.
My story is a stark reminder that the impacts of violence and hatred are long-lasting, and that they span generations. In these times, that’s also why I feel the need to tell it.