Almost a year ago, I wrote about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in one of the angriest posts I’ve yet written. That post has been private for months, but I’ll share portions of it here. Doing so is important for elucidating why one passage of a book I just finished moved me so deeply.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. ACEs are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan, including those associated with substance misuse.
Among others, these ACEs include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Abuse – physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
- Neglect – physical and/or emotional
- Witnessing violence
- Household mental illness
According to a Kaiser/CDC study of ACEs, “most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE.” Further, people with four ACEs “have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism.”
In my extra-angry post, I wrote that I’d experienced seven of the ten ACEs covered by the study. I felt frustrated and alone, surrounded by people–people I loved!–to whom the impacts of ACEs (virtually inescapable within the oppression of poverty) were invisible, because the ACE-ful were almost completely outside their line of sight.
It was as if, because I looked and spoke like them, some folks I love couldn’t fathom why I perceived the world, in many ways, fundamentally differently than they did. Why I was angry over things that seemed both distant and abstract to them.
I wrote, “I am one of the fraction of the ACE-ful who made it from daily trauma to something like success, so that most those who are successful have no concept how lucky they were just to be without ACE.”
And I was sad, because I knew from decades of experience that harsh words wouldn’t be heard. Only those words most tenderly and reassuringly expressed deserved hearing, thus excluding the possibility that well-to-do, ACE-less or single-ACE folks could ever understand the agony of ongoing, persistent poverty and trauma. That those folks could ever even begin to see how narrow was the sliver of the world they saw, and how vast was the suffering billions experienced outside that sliver.
In adulthood, I’ve added a couple of new traumas: that of witnessing the racism my Black husband encounters almost daily, and occasionally seeing some of that hostility evidenced against our beautiful little boys.
That of seeing how the U.S.’s systemic racism could make it easy for a state actor to take any of their lives. For little to no consequence to follow, thus perpetuating a system in which some lives are easier to steal than others.
In the almost-year since I wrote my post on ACEs, I’ve lost a lot of my anger. I’ve read a lot of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who’ve shown me the utter futility of changing the world for the better through rage-filled words and acts. I’ve opened room in my heart to love people exactly as they come, understanding each is doing the best she can with what she has.
The world’s beauties are so much clearer from this perspective, where I become less concerned with what others do and don’t see, and more concerned with increasing my own capacities to see and show love.
And yet, my heart fills when I find the evident compassion of one who understands the impact of ACEs, and who understands that looking alike is not the same as being alike. It is especially full when that acknowledgment comes when unexpected.
I was thusly surprised while reading Lloyd I. Sederer, MD’s The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs.
In an interview, the author was once asked what one thing he’d wave a magic wand to change if he could. He writes:
My answer was to eliminate ACEs. ACEs are “adverse childhood experiences,” which can usher in a lifetime of misfortune–and frequently then pass troubles on to succeeding generations. These are events beyond young people’s control. Through no choice of their own these youth are subject to powerful stressors that adversely impact their minds and bodies.
Soon after, he writes:
What is so troubling about ACEs is that they are additive. One is bad enough, but four, five, or more are a powerful prescription for illness and despair, often by adolescence. ACEs can lead youth in this or any other country to such problems, among many others, as alcohol and drug abuse; depression; heart, lung, and liver diseases; STDs; intimate-partner violence; smoking, especially at an early age; suicide attempts; and unintended pregnancies. As the number of ACEs youth experience increases, so too does their risk for multiple consequences.
His words filled my heart, and I was grateful to have read them.
For a couple years now, I’ve been devastated to see how many millions of youth suffer today as I once did, and to understand that none will escape enduring trauma as a result of these experiences. It’s been like living a slow-motion sequence in a horror film: seeing the monster of enduring suffering creeping up upon its victims, and being utterly unable to do anything to stop it.
My looking at things in this light improved nothing for anyone: not for me, nor my husband, nor my kids, nor any children out there suffering right now.
So I now look for seeds of a different, kinder possible world, and hold them in my heart with awe and gratitude when I find them.
For me, Sederer’s words combined with the fact he is out there living his compassion?
Those are seeds I’ll hold in my heart–releasing them only to try letting them spread and grow outside my heart–for as long as my heart keeps beating.