The Hamster Wheel of Trauma

© Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015

“I can’t handle the horrible images.”
“I need to protect my mental health.”
“That dysregulates my nervous system.”
“I don’t follow the news. I’m so much happier for it.”

These are actual comments that have been said to me amidst genocide in a land where more than 1 million children live, where famine is imminent. Babies and children are starving to death. 

As a mother, and frankly as a basic human being, I simply cannot look the other way knowing about the atrocities happening RIGHT NOW and especially to children. All children are innocent, full stop. 

I have obsessively been trying to understand how people can possibly remain silent or otherwise rationalize what is happening when it comes to children being bombed, maimed, orphaned, and starved. When it comes to the larger geo-political framework — though it is clear to me through the lens of colonization — I can understand the divisiveness and the confusion. This is, after all, by design. I also think that with a moderate application of one’s critical thinking, it becomes a lot less confusing. Still, I can understand that piece. 

But refusing to pay attention and refusing to use your privilege to speak up for children is inexcusable. Through my personal experience and study of racism, I know that this apathy is rooted in white supremacy. And if you’re reading this thinking you aren’t in any hate groups and therefore you couldn’t possibly be upholding white supremacy, I implore you to see where you need to take more accountability. 

White supremacy is not about white people. White supremacy is an ideology, one that our entire society here in the US is built upon. I would argue this is true for the entire world.

Save the Children and UNICEF list the countries where 11 million children under the age of five are at risk of extreme hunger or starvation. Every single one of these countries are in Africa and the Middle East, meaning these are black and brown children that are starving to death, in a world with more than enough food for everyone. The US alone wastes between 30-40% of our food supply. 

I grew up knowing that “there were children starving in Africa.” It was something that everyone knew was happening, but I know I myself didn’t really know what it meant to starve to death. How painful it is to die this way. How the body consumes itself. I understand now that this ignorance was by design. The starvation of people of color has been normalized in our white western society. The headline of an abc news article from 2018 reads: 85,000 children in Yemen have starved to death. 85,000. Children. Died. Of starvation. 

No wonder people are carrying on with business as usual as we hear that 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza where there are over 1 million children. No wonder we choose self-centered silence over speaking for those who need our voices as we hear that more than 10 children a day are losing limbs in Gaza. 17,000 Gazan children are orphans. Babies are dying of starvation and dehydration — babies who are no different to our babies aside from where they were born.

The fact that these children are not white has to be the underlying reason so many people seem immune to their suffering. It makes me sick. I am enraged; I am disgusted.

As I learn more about the roots of Z!onism and the so-called question of Palestine, I see how deeply scaffolded the settler colonial project has always been. This did not start on October 7 or in 1967 or even in 1948. This started before the signing of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. What we are seeing is the culmination of plans that were laid in the late 1800s. Which means the creation of Israel could not have been directly intended to be reparations for the Holocaust (1941-1945).

For those of us that went to school in the US, we all learned about the Holocaust, as we should learn about all global atrocities so that we know not to repeat history. There are 16 Holocaust museums in our country. We’ve seen the Jewish culture and religion represented in film and TV. In fact there were often strong storylines about Jewish characters, such as in Sex and the City when Charlotte, an “Episcopalian princess,” converts to Judaism in order to be able to marry her Jewish husband. Even for those of us who celebrate Christmas, we’ve always known at least the basics about Chanukah. 

I believe this tolerance is important and beautiful. Whether across religions or ethnicities, we absolutely should respect and learn about people that have different identities. It’s what broadens our minds and deepens our humanity. What I initially found confusing and contrary to our Jewish education and exposure was the instant explosion of accusations of antisemitism, even at the simple mention of “Gaza.” I noticed my own panic in being labeled antisemitic when I know in my heart that I am not. Why would so many of us just suddenly be revealing some heretofore hidden antisemitism, when we had all learned about and knew to condemn the horror of the Holocaust and love and celebrated Jews like Jerry Seinfeld? 

With my critical thinking hat on, I started to deepen my questioning. Why IS the US so fiercely loyal to the state of Isr@el? Why DO I know so much more about Jewish history than my own Korean history? 

As much as antisemitism has been on the rise since October, so has Islamaphobia. As a person of color who has never felt fully accepted in American culture, the immediate dehumanizing language from the 7th towards Palestinians felt blatant. The news instantly returned to their post-9/11 anti-Arab sentiment. Stories that have since been debunked painted the picture of unimaginably barbaric violence, with a focus on systemically brutalizing women and (40) babies. Ironically, according to the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Israel has killed a majority of women and children in Gaza: over 25,000 of the 30,000 that have been killed. 

I thought that civilians, and especially women and children, were meant to be protected during “war." We were conditioned to believe that sure, sometimes civilian death could not be avoided and we must accept these as casualties of war. But 86% of those killed being women and children? The indiscriminate bombing of a region where we all know that over 1 million children live?

How are people not paying attention?

Part of the answer to this is that yes, we have been indoctrinated. We have been indoctrinated to pledge our allegiance to our country. We have been indoctrinated to believe that we are the good guys. We believe in the equality of all. We are a democracy. We have the New York Times. 

Americanism has made us focus on individualism. Everything centers the self. Who gets to be Valedictorian? Who gets into the Ivy Leagues? Who gets promoted? Who will make their way into the 1%? Who will get 1 million Instagram followers? Who will have the most impressive yoga practice? Who will get the skinniest on Ozempic? Who will be the first to get the latest iPhone, Tesla, beachfront property? The capitalist competition — the rat race — never ends. 

Playing this game is costly. And I don’t mean financially, although that is part of it. I mean that it costs you your humanity. 

Not unlike being immersed in a video game, when you are so focused on your own wins, you are distracted from the world around you. You are also constantly rewarded for playing the game, with little wins here or there that give you that temporary hit of dopamine, but inevitably, you’ll be back to chasing the dragon. 

And you’ll feel allergic to anything that causes you to deviate from this pursuit of more. Look at photos of dead babies? No way — I need to stay positive so I can manifest the life of my dreams. Bear witness to genocide? No thanks — I have my own personal traumas to heal. Take time to interrogate why there are 11 million starving children in the world? Nah — I’ve got to focus on my own clean eating so I can stay healthy and keep my own nervous system regulated. 

I believe that this centering of the self is actually what keeps us unwell. We are being sold the idea that the more we achieve, the more we are paid, the more we prioritize our own self-care, the better off we will be. But look at the statistics: 29% of US adults report having been diagnosed with depression. More than 50,000 Americans died by suicide in 2023 alone. Nearly 70% of Americans are on at least one prescription drug and more than 50% take two prescription drugs. Of these medications, the second most common prescription is for antidepressants, suggesting that mental health is a huge issue.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with medication. I am grateful that medicine and medical care exist. But what does it say about our baseline of wellness that the majority of us are on prescription medication?

The wellness industry is worth $5.6 trillion, and growing. Shouldn’t we be seeing a decline in mental illness and dependency on medication? I barely graduated with my Econ major but even I can see that this looks to be a pretty shitty ROI. Who is this industry ultimately serving?

As I’ve been learning from anti-Zionist Isr@elis and Jews including rabbis, I’ve heard over and over again that Judaism is not Z!onism. In the same way that many US Americans plead with the world to remember that people are not their governments, not all Jews support Z!onism, the secular state of Isr@el, or the Isr@eli government. And it feels questionable to me that a Jew that does not equate their Jewish identity with Z!onism is automatically labeled as self-hating.

Dr. Gabor Mate, frequently referred to as a self-hating Jew, is a trauma expert, Holocaust surviver, and former Zionist Jew. Long before Oct. 7, he was helping the world understand the impact of trauma. He was interviewed on many popular podcasts, such as Armchair Expert (incidentally, silent on genocide), while promoting his book from 2022 — The Myth of Normal.

I’ve personally been in therapy for the better part of 8 years in an effort to heal from my traumatic childhood with a mentally ill and abusive mother. I have been through severe symptoms of panic disorder and I had resigned myself to always needing to manage my generalized anxiety disorder. I have seen the way the imprint of my mother lives on in me when I am triggered, most commonly by my son, the one who made me a mother and whose birth excavated all that I had successfully repressed up to that point in my life. The loss of patience giving way to unhinged rage, the shouting, the seething, the flaring nostrils… it is all her living on in me. It is my trauma taking control of me. 

In those moments, I am irrational and cruel. I have lost all credibility as The Adult. In hindsight, all of this is abundantly clear. But in the moment? I am blind with rage. 

Through therapy, I’ve learned to create more space between me-me and traumatized-me. I’ve learned to mother the child in me the way she had deserved to be. I’ve learned to repair with my son, who will always tell me “It’s okay,” to which I always say, “No, it is not and I am sorry.”

This repair, this accountability — this is where the alchemy happens. When I have revealed my inner monster, when I have met it with an equal measure of validation and rejection, and when my son meets me with acceptance, forgiveness, and love. 

It is in these moments that I am no longer acting from my trauma wounds. I am no longer on the hamster wheel of trauma.

Jewish trauma borne of centuries of persecution, punctuated in the most horrific way by the Holocaust and sustained by the ebbs and flows of antisemitism is without a doubt real. I know I cannot speak for Jews, but I know that Jews deserve to live in safety, as do all people regardless of ethnicity or religion. But does it not seem that the legitimate trauma of Jews is being fermented by the political movement of Z!onism to rationalize land grab, collective punishment, systemic starvation, genocide? Does this violence and hatred not perpetuate trauma? My putting my rage on my child has never, ever been healing for me.

When it comes to my anxiety, a technique I learned was to talk to it when it was triggered. I had come to understand that my anxiety thought it was helping me. It was my body sounding an alarm, alerting me to danger. I had needed to brace myself through childhood; I had never felt safe with my own mother. As irrational as my anxiety in adulthood has felt, usually coming from seemingly nowhere, it was actually how my body had learned to keep me safe.

So when anxiety would arise, I learned to connect with it. I would acknowledge its presence and I would say, “No, thank you. I am safe. I am not a child anymore. I am not in danger right now.”  

As much as my anxiety thought it was helping me, it was actually lying to me. It was telling me I was not safe when in fact, in these moments as an adult, I have been safe. At least from the threats of my childhood, I am safe. 

My example of my lived experience of trauma is different to generational trauma and no solution is formulaic. What I’m speaking to is the lie that Jews can only be safe in one place, in the nation state of Isr@el. How does this make sense? Jews deserve to be safe everywhere and anywhere in the world. 

And this is why the fight is for collective liberation — the liberation of all. Jews, Palestinians, all people of the global majority, all religions, all genders, all identities. Any ideology or movement that centers a particular group over another is ultimately rejecting the true freedom and safety of its people because liberation cannot exist in a VIP vacuum. 

We are meant to feel like we can’t handle horrible news. We are meant to feel like we don’t have the power to effect change. We are kept focused on ourselves, our self(ish)-care, our accolades and accomplishments. We are meant to other each other. We are kept in a constant state of agitation so that we funnel more money into the wellness industry and more medication into our bodies. We don’t truly heal our traumas — lived or generational — because these systems rely on the energy we generate from endlessly running on our hamster wheels. 

Our trauma wounds are what causes responses like, “but there are poor white people too” when someone is trying to explain systemic racism. It’s the fuel for oppression olympics, for our confusion, rationalization, willful ignorance, and silence during a live-streamed genocide. And while it may seem like you’re protecting your nervous system in the moment, you’re ultimately stoking the fire of your own pain.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.


Welcome To

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

Twitter icon Twitter Facebook icon Facebook Pinterest icon Pinterest Reddit icon Reddit
Thanks for Subscribing