On the 9th July 2021 my tía (aunt) messaged our family WhatsApp group to comment on how she was feeling. She mentioned that when she woke up for her daily morning walk, her heart began to race as she closed the front door behind her. The streets of Fairfield, a suburb located in South-West Sydney, were empty, she described. Helicopters surveyed from above, their rotor blades roared and her palms became sweaty.
My tía is an intellectual and cultured woman, she reads widely and keeps herself up to date with global politics, arts and general knowledge. Hence, my tía knew why she was feeling unhinged that particular morning. NSW Police, had sent an extra 100 police officers to patrol the streets of South-West Sydney and her body was innately reacting to the added law enforcement.
My tía messaged our family WhatsApp group with a link to a neuroscience journal which explained how trauma shapes your brain, in particular the brain areas implicated with stress response, such as: the amygdala (emotional processing), the hippocampus (memory processing) and the prefrontal cortex (planning behaviour).
This is because traumatic stress is associated with the increased release of stress hormones such as cortisol (activates survival mode) and norepinephrine (increases awareness) resulting in long-term changes to these specific brain areas, including the increased function of the amygdala and decreased function of both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The article further explains how, "...failure of inhibition of the amygdala by the medial prefrontal cortex that could account for increased PTSD symptoms with traumatic reminders."
Police and in particular the military have always made my relatives feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. This is because my family migrated to Australia from Uruguay in 1975, and the reason behind their migration was the civic-military dictatorship, beginning on 27th June 1973 lasting until 1985. During the dictatorship, a friend of my tío, my tía's brother, was shot by the military during a peaceful protest.
My tía was only 10 years old when this traumatic incident happened. For many years over the dinner table, they talked about the people who were arrested, the people who went missing. My abuelos constantly warned their children including my tía, to be very careful whilst at school. All of these experiences have made my relatives create negative connotations towards law enforcement agencies.
After sending the article to our family WhatsApp group, my tía added that even though she knew she was doing the right thing, exercising with her mask on within the kilometre restrictions placed by the NSW Government, she still felt a sense of guilt like punishment was soon going to come. She shared with us that on her walk, she had made eye contact with one of the police officers. The lock of eyes involuntarily made her recall the day when she sat on her balcony with my abuela and my mamá and several tanks crawled right past their family home in General Flores, Uruguay, she remembered counting 11 tanks. That memory, triggered by this police officer, made what was meant to be her relaxing walk, her exercise for her much-needed mental health relief during lockdown, into a stressful and retraumatising experience.
The lock of eyes involuntarily made her recall the day when she sat on her balcony with my abuela and my mamá and several tanks crawled right past their family home
And my tía who is usually a warrior when it comes to facing adversities, like when she confronted my enraged papá once during an argument, telling him to leave my mamá alone. However, since the 9th July 2021, my tía has become passive and weak which she confessed over a phone call with me later in the day, that it made her feel like she was back in her 10-year-old body, frightened and fragile.
Now my tía who resides in Fairfield and is currently living the hardest lockdown alongside eight other NSW LGAs, has decided to exercise within the confinement of her home, punishing herself, instead of enjoying nature because her mental health has now become more vulnerable.
When my tía told me about her decision to further lock herself down to protect herself from the triggering of past trauma, it made my own lockdowns in Western Sydney feel even harsher, tighter, claustrophobic. Immediately, I wanted to drive to her home and give my tía a big hug but current restrictions wouldn't allow it. So, our family did the thing we know how to do best and organised a big Latino Zoom fiesta because mental health and safety of marginalised communities matters.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, edited by Winnie Dunn.