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Two Texts Show a Difference Between a High and Low ACE Score

[Editor's note: Cissy White, who's the community editor for the Parenting with ACEs group, wrote this for that group. I thought that those of you who aren't a member of Parenting with ACEs might want to read it, too.]

I was leaving the house on the way to do something brand new and scary a few weeks ago. My two close friends, Heidi and Kathy, both sent me a text.

One has an ACE score of 10.

One has a below 4 score.

The text from Kathy reminded me that I am loved and safe. She sent me a sticky note with affirmations and attempted to calm my nerves by reminding me that humans are caring and curious and want to know what others have to say.

The other text was from Heidi. It said, "Beast mode today." That was her pep talk. Period. 


This is the same Heidi who shared a meme with me earlier that read: "I'm not a survivor, I'm an f'n warrior."

Guess who has the high ACE score?

Guess who has the lower score? 

Guess which one of these two feels the world is a fundamentally a safe and welcoming place?

Guess who feels that even a voluntary event is a fight and that life itself is a challenge, a battle and that we must fight, defend, slay or be conquered?

I love them both. I need them both as friends who support my own parenting with PTSD and ACEs, which decades into healing, safety and recovery I am still doing.

I need them.

I relate more to Heidi who has an ACE score of 10. She feels familiar and gets it and me. It's like we share the same homeland and lingo, know the same culture and rules and language.

On the other hand, Kathy is my tour guide in the new country, the place I hope to learn more about because it's where my daughter will call home. It's not my first language I speak with her but I"m trying to get fluent. I want my daughter to have all the feel-goodness about the world ways that Kathy has.

Kathy scans for safety. Heidi scans for danger.

Heidi scans for proof and evidence that the world is dangerous and Kathy seeks out all that will confirm her views.

We tend to find what we're looking for but how and why our eyes are geared towards what has lots to do with ACEs.

Heidi and I understand planning for danger and change and what to do if all goes bad or wrong or awful. We know people can lie, cheat, betray or get overwhelmed by stress or relapse or get violent. They have.

It doesn't mean people who hurt us don't love us or aren't trying. They do. They are. But things can get too much or too hard and can go bad, really bad. We know this because it has happened. It's been life. It's been true. It's been reality.

But I also have to remind myself that it's not always and forever true in every circumstance and with every person. I have to remind myself that other things are true too.

Life can be cruel and unfair to kids and adults and that's not a life sentence guarantee.

I try to hold knowing both things.

Kathy scans the world for proof of safety, good will and warmth and anchors herself in what she believes. That's mostly been her experience. That people and the world are decent. She's always been fed, housed and loved and assumes that that will always be true.

It's not that she's not known loss or pain, she's human and has been hurt. She's known loss. But Kathy's knowing of pain has always been coupled with the experience of being cared for by one parent and a larger community. She's been fed, housed and loved and taken care of as child and adult.

Her physical or emotional integrity or security have not been compromised by loved ones for long. Abuse and neglect weren't staples that she grew up with as regular parts of home or family or the world.

And so, of course, Kathy values and prioritizes that community and support that she knows is protective. Her kids know that there are many trusted loved ones looking out for them. And they are right. They have that. It's been their reality.

That's not true for all.

Not in the past. Not in the present. For us, to assume that in the future would be foolish.

If we had it rough, as kids, how can we not raise kids who are scrappy, self-reliant and tough? How can we not worry that they will get crushed if too tender or fragile - when chaos, injustice and cruelty come?

How can we not prioritize survival if we have known danger?

This is the challenge when it comes to changing expectations and reality. That's not always something we can do with wishful thinking or positive affirmations.

We live in different worlds at times as well as being shaped by different past experiences. That's what breaking the cycle means and it's work.

It's not even like Heidi is without a home or a job right now. She isn't. She has both right. But if she gets sick, or loses her job, she does not have extended family to turn to and her life could change radically and quickly. That was true when she was pregnant at 15, and on her own, and it would still be true, though she has many friends.

If chaos happened to Kathy, she would have more options, resources and people in her family who would help her.

That makes for different lives and a different way of life.

It's not because one of them is a nicer or better or kinder or more deserving person. Their lives were different. Are different and that's in part, because of ACEs. 

Not entirely but substantially.

So it makes sense for Heidi to scan for danger. She is the only breadwinner and nurturer of herself and kids.

And Kathy, who shares responsibilities, chores and worries with many trusted adults worries less. She has less to worry about. For herself. For her kids.

Kathy isn't more optimistic or hard working than Heidi is but she's got people who make her past, present and future easier than Heidi's whether times are good or bad.

This weekend, I was in Boston and a homeless man came up to the window while I was in the passenger seat. When he walked away I told my boyfriend that since my father died I come into Boston much more. I no longer look for my absent Dad in the face of homeless men. I told him how glad I am that my daughter never knew my father, or knew his violence, drinking, or raging. Or his loss as something she feels acutely.

I'm glad she doesn't have someone primal in her inner circle who has been ravaged by decades of untreated addiction and sickness.

The Gramp she does know, my step--father, isn't scary, volatile or a mystery. He isn't a predator sometimes and doting other days. That's made her childhood better. Her Gramp has shown up the same for all 14 years of her life. That is a building block set in childhood that she'll step up and on and over for the rest of her life. I'm glad it's not broken, shaky or crumbling.

That's what the absence of ACEs can give, security. A feeling that the world is safe.

As an adult I have to remind myself, and Heidi, that everything isn't a fight, a battle and a struggle. I have to remind myself that people can be reliable and trustworthy on a regular basis. I believe that at least some of the time but I don't always remember.

I still have to learn to scan for proof of kindness, security and good. When I do, I always find it but I don't always look.

Sometimes I can shift my perspective simply by changing what I focus on in my life and the world.

But healing isn't as simple as doing just that. At all.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself and Kathy that people with high ACEs or developmental trauma are not just clinging to a victim story of the past. We aren't stuck in a Groundhog Day of trauma that we refuse to outgrow. There are valid and good reasons we don't trust the world or others, easily or at all. It's not based on negativity but reality, our reality, a reality not everyone shares.

So to parent differently than I was parented I need both Heidi and Kathy.

I need to hear both "Beast mode today" from Heidi who is a peer who understands. And I need to remember that I'm safe and lovable and that others experience the world as safe and lovable.

When I need to feel unguarded and at ease and less crazy, I call on Heidi to share, laugh and relate.

But when I have parenting questions or need advice, Kathy is my go-to person. Kathy has three grown kids who talk to her, call her, ask her for help and are also happy and healthy and employed and pursuing dreams.

Kathy's relationship with her daughter is one I hope to have with mine. I hope my daughter feels the way Kathy and her kids do about the world. Loved and supported. 

My daughter might feel safe in the world even before I do.

My job is to get her there, but doing so while I"m not quite there yet myself, can be a challenge.

While I learn, I'm glad to have Heidi who scans for danger and threat. She is loyal and loving when life gets hard knowing not everyone has family. She opens her house up on Christmas Eve knowing not everyone has family to go home to.

And I need Kathy who scans for abundance and security and puts family first. She has traditions she's followed for decade after decade and that fills her time up for the entire month of December. Kathy is carrying on traditions.

Heidi is  recovering from not having good ones and creating news ones at the same time.

Neither one is smarter or kinder or more loving than the other. They just know different things about the world and life and family.

They have different traditions, experiences and perspectives. They both have things to teach and learn and to offer.

I need them both.


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Comments (11)

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Thank you Cissy for sharing this powerful reflection on love, friendship and the human capacity to overcome trauma with supportive, protective and trusting relationships.  We need all perspectives throughout our lives to help make us more compassionate and to strengthen our ability to be there not only for others but for ourselves in the face of adversity. Thank you again for your thoughtful post. Happy New Year. xoxo

Cynthia Birkeland posted:

Hello Cissy, What an incredible post! Thank you! I haven't stopped thinking about what you wrote since I read it last week. I've shared it 3 times. You keep me engaged and believing in this movement and hopefully in my recovery like nothing else including AA. I like the analogy that AA treats the symptoms while ACES treats the underlying (functional) cause. Much like traditional medicine. Doctors are trained to treat symptoms (with medications), not the underlying, functional cause. 


Thank you Cynthia for writing and I'm so glad you too are excited about this movement. I am so energized by where it allows the focus to be and how it has the ability to move the conversations forward in ways that hopefully get beyond symptom treatment or treating people with symptoms like a problem. Cissy

Hi Sarah:

Thanks so much for the feedback! Honestly. I have no idea sometimes if what I'm writing is so incredibly obvious that I'm the last one to know OR that it's so abstract no one knows what I'm talking about. my working assumption is ALL of us speak for and with and to someone so I try not to let that psych me out of hitting publish on anything. But I'm glad to know it resonates and thanks for info. / networking to connect more. Cissy

Cissy, what a powerful read. I had no idea I'd relate so much. I have always been able to "see" the two views, but never really had the words to describe them individually - scanning for safety vs scanning for danger perspectives. This article brings a lot of subconscious thoughts to the conscious, which enables healing. I would like to grow my network of healing friends. Feel free to send me a friend request on Facebook everyone interested in the ACEs community. I can be found by searching in the facebook search box.

Hello Cissy, What an incredible post! Thank you! I haven't stopped thinking about what you wrote since I read it last week. I've shared it 3 times. You keep me engaged and believing in this movement and hopefully in my recovery like nothing else including AA. I like the analogy that AA treats the symptoms while ACES treats the underlying (functional) cause. Much like traditional medicine. Doctors are trained to treat symptoms (with medications), not the underlying, functional cause. 


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