I’ve worked with a lot of people with addiction (and I’ve struggled with addiction myself). At some point I realized that among the people I knew well with addiction, the only ones who hadn’t told me about awful things that happened to them as children were the ones who hadn’t told me anything about their childhood. That thought got me interested in childhood trauma, and I began reading and trying to learn more, as well as listening (which I’d already been doing). I then ran across the ACE Study.
ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences. This study took the medical records of over 17,000 people and correlated them with the results of a survey. The survey asked them questions about negative things that may have happened to them as children. The negative things were actually categories of things. They involved physical, verbal or sexual abuse, neglect, divorce, having a parent die, seeing your mother struck, living with a person who had a mental illness or substance abuse problem or who became incarcerated. They counted how many categories (of the 10) that each person had experienced. Then they looked at the medical records.
The results were a bit stunning. The main finding was that the higher the person’s ACE score, the more at risk they were for developing a host of physical and psychological problems as adults. That’s right, physical problems. Not only were the folks with higher scores more likely to fall into addiction, anxiety or depression, they were also more likely to develop heart disease cancer and obesity. Now, this data has been looked at very closely and many research papers have been written about it. Problem after problem, condition after condition, including antisocial behavior–all are more likely to befall people who had painful and awful things happen to them as children. It’s pretty shocking.
It’s also terribly unfair. Unfortunately, we all often participate in making it more unfair. Every time we think that addiction or overeating is about willpower, every time that we assume heart disease is all about diet, we are neglecting one major thing that (for many people) can cause or worsen all of them: adverse childhood experiences. Trauma and loss. Bad stuff.
What to do?
We go to doctors to get better, to feel better, and they often give us pills. Not just pills for heart disease, but pills for anxiety and depression and many other things. But there’s often a missing piece–the unacknowledged and untreated pain and damage created a long time ago by overly stressful and traumatic experiences. If there was ever an argument for the need for trauma treatment, this study is it. (I’m not at all putting down the good work doctors do–and I should note that the principle investigator on the ACE study–the one who first studied this connection–is a medical doctor. Many of us get significant help through medical treatment. But many of us also need more than that.)
Of course, not everyone has a high ACE score. But a lot of us have a few, and a few of us have a lot. The impact of childhood trauma is something we should acknowledge, something we should look at. It’s something we should try to address.
A Personal Story
How to do that? Well, we can start by not blaming children for what happens to them. Years ago, I was teaching high school, and I had a student who “gave me a lot of trouble.” I sent him to the office a lot. Over and over. Then one day I was talking with the assistant principal about him, and I found out what had happened. My student, 16, and his 15 year old brother had been abandoned by their parents. Just left by themselves. They were living with their 19-year old brother who was working and trying to keep it all together so his brothers could stay in school. How’s that for an adverse childhood experience? After I learned that, I had a bit of a different attitude about my student. I started trying to connect with him a little more. I was young and didn’t know a lot about how to do that, but it was something. So things went a bit better after that. I didn’t stop enforcing rules, and he didn’t completely stop breaking them, but things got better.
We’ll keep talking about this problem. And about what can be done to address it.