When I was 42, I landed on my butt so hard I couldn’t imagine how it had happened. I found out that the beliefs and relationships I had built my life on and around were all lies, and my world and worldview came crashing down around me.
From that place of desolation, at what was rock bottom for me, I had to figure out what was true and not true, what was right and wrong for me, who I was – not who I had become to be acceptable to others. I needed to figure out who was with me and to what extent they could be trusted and relied on. I needed to learn how to speak. I needed to learn how to think critically. I needed to learn how to make decisions. I needed to learn how to be and live as an autonomous human being, distinct unto myself - certainly in relation to others, but individual and separate - with my own values, perspectives, opinions, ideas, and ultimately, my own meaningful purpose.
Recovering from my past and reclaiming my identity and future took a lot of hard work, radical self-honesty, pain, isolation, researching, crying, trying, stretching, growing, and a lot of money.
In 2014 at the same time that I was reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, my psychologist suggested I look into the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. I remembered having read about that in Van Der Kolk’s book, so I went back to that chapter and read it again. I then began researching the ACE study, completed the research questionnaire, and found out that my score for adverse childhood experiences was uncharacteristically high for a white middle class female. What was even more disturbing was that the questionnaire didn’t even ask about a lot of the other types of threatening experiences I had had growing up.
I had long known that our early life experiences affected our development and I had accepted the common belief that once we are adults we can choose not to be affected any longer and can chart our own path free from our past. Yet here I was looking back at my adult life and the mess I had made of it inadvertently because I was still unknowingly affected by my past in spite of my belief that I wasn’t.
However it wasn’t just my belief. As a society we demand that adults be responsible informed decision makers and contributors to society as soon as we turn 18, and adults who can’t be that are deemed irresponsible or pathological (something is clinically wrong with them). The norm is to be a healthy adult. To be an affected adult is abnormal. Yet if children don’t have their developmental needs met, they can’t be healthy adults without making the conscious effort to understand, repair, and resolve those developmental gaps. Yet we blame and shame each other as adults for not knowing what we never learned and didn’t realize we needed to seek knowledge of for ourselves.
I had thought I was being a responsible adult. I had made very self-sacrificing responsible decisions throughout my adulthood. I was a trained professional; I was well educated; I was aware of and supportive of the need for and use of mental health services. There were no obvious legitimate reasons why I should have been an at-risk adult - until I found out about the ACE Study. That was paradigm shifting for me.
I was trained as an Early Childhood Educator in the 80’s. I understood child development and what was needed to nurture healthy growth in children. It was at that time that the poem Children Learn What They Live was broadly popularized. We collectively tried to be kinder to our children. Nathaniel Brandon launched the self-esteem movement. But we didn’t know that the actual development within our adult brains had been affected, historically and inter-generationally, as a result of our prior child rearing culture.
It’s only since the publishing of the ACE Study and the research on neuroplasticity that we have learned that threats to survival during development – without mitigating influences considered resilience or protective factors – actually affect the physical development of our brains – which cannot be fixed with willpower and belief.
As a result, many of us – even those of us with numerous factors of privilege – are walking around with ticking time bombs in our brains.
It is these unknown vulnerability factors that I want others to be aware of so they can proactively address them before they catch up with them, if they haven’t already. I was forced to shake my head and reassess where I had been and how I got there when the life I had sacrificed everything for proved to be a delusion. Yes I made it through, but not without huge costs to myself, and to my society.
I am passionate about helping others see the potential risk factors for collapse in their own lives so we can each and all address those hidden influences in our brains so we can make sure we’re seeing ourselves, others and nature as we are and not as delusion.
I know how beneficial it has been for me to learn how my childhood survival programming affected my adult decisions. I thought I had everything under control. I thought I was living a responsible life. It was shocking, embarrassing, shame inducing, and cathartic to realize it was all a sham. I don’t wish that pain on anyone, so I encourage people to do the work of checking and resetting their foundations under their terms, before the cracks in their basements expand and cause their houses to collapse like mine did.
That’s why I’m passionate about trauma awareness, recovery and prevention. I believe human beings have awesome potential to be responsible conscious members of ecology. I just don’t think we’re there yet, and to get there, we have to address the gaps we’ve created in our developing children.
There are many initiatives underway in Nova Scotia (where I live) that focus on creating safe and nurturing environments for children.
My focus is on helping the children who have already grown up to recognize their gaps as adults and to work to transform those effects so we can create a healthy society for our children and each other.
Understanding ACEs research can aid us in facilitating social transformation. It changed how I see myself, others and nature. I am convinced it can help each of us.