Addressing ACEs as a Social Transformation Initiative 

Addressing unresolved ACEs in our adult population will help us make more life sustaining social decisions.

In 1998, the ACE Study was published, outlining extensive lifelong effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

I had been accessing mental health support for 12 years before I heard about this study. After reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score in 2014,[i] I started talking with other people about this research, trying to muster excitement and engagement with addressing this prevalent social issue.

The resistance I met was explained after watching Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s Ted Talk explaining ACEs. She belied not being able to get people excited about addressing the issue as well, and concluded that it isn’t because it doesn’t apply to many of us. We’re resistant because it’s all too familiar. [ii]

The study was done in the US and the minimum effect of ACEs was identified to affect 64% of the primarily white, middle class respondents. [iii] Data on ACEs in Canada is scant,[iv] but an adapted study conducted in Alberta in 2015 found 56% of respondents reported at least one experience of abuse or household dysfunction. [v]

When I talk about trauma I get the response of nodding knowing heads, or redirected eye contact, bowed heads, and avoidance. The head nodders tell me they know all about trauma – that the ACE research has provided the basis for the increasingly popular trauma informed practice talked about among human services providers. The avoiders don’t want to talk about it – it’s too raw, too socially brash, too taboo – too personal.

When I hear the data and I observe the predominant nature of our society as well as recall my own upbringing and adult challenges, I am compelled to conclude that as long as we continue to avoid addressing the effects of ACEs in the adult population, we will never make the necessary changes we need to make in our society to reduce their incidence in our descendent children.

There is a strong movement in the US to address ACEs. That movement has not yet gained traction in Canada. Rather the emphasis here has been to use the more subtle terminology of Trauma Informed.

Trauma Informed Practice is an essential lens for those of us working in the field, but in the general public, the terminology creates distance from the personal connection to the topic. Also the over use of the word trauma provides a false sense of awareness.  I’ve heard people try to shut me up by saying, “Everyone has experienced trauma.” Another person optimistically informed me, “The greater the trauma the greater the opportunity for growth.” I have heard many people say in reference to daily experiences, “I’ve been traumatized.”

The significance of ACEs is trivialized by these perceptions of trauma. ACEs describe experiences of childhood that undermine the holistic healthy development of the human organism for the lifetime if intervention is not provided.

What I’m talking about here is how we as a society have raised our children throughout the generations. This continues to inform our worldview as affected adults influencing how we make decisions in our own lives and in the lives of all those we are associated with.

Until we are willing to acknowledge that we collectively have not fulfilled the needs of developing humans throughout our evolution, and therefore as adults we are not operating at our optimal capacity as human organisms, we will continue to perpetuate the social conditions that hinder optimal development, all the while pretending that we adults are unaffected and traumatic childhoods are normal.

Increasing emphasis in our health care and education fields is being placed on building resilience in children to prevent the long term effects of ACEs. Although this is beneficial, we are still not addressing the causes of ACEs directly – the affected adults in society. Additionally, resilience training has its own underbelly – it can create the precedent for victim blaming if people are still affected by their experiences even though they’ve been trained not to be because the overwhelming causes persist.

As long as we continue to make decisions as adults that undermine the long term habitability of our environment, disadvantage others disproportionately to fill our own greed, discredit the legitimacy of others’ perspectives and needs because they seem different from our own, and fortify our perceptions of self-righteousness and superiority – perpetuate inaccessibility to SDOH – we’re never going to make the substantive changes necessary to build a just, equitable and healthy society.

So why do we make these self-destructive decisions?

The answer comes from trauma research.

Trauma impairs brain development as a result of overwhelming stress that is not recovered from.

In a society that has normalized war, poverty, oppression, misrepresentation of the facts and consequent betrayal, and pathological posturing and denial and rejection of reality as perpetual elements exhibited and educated into our young, it’s no wonder few of us see clearly our role as one species among many in the cosmic ecology.

The human organism is not built to withstand such constant and repeated threats to its survival.

For generations we’ve exponentially piled on overwhelming experiences to the point where our current generation has the highest incidence ever recorded of anxiety, depression, obesity, suicidality, and bullying. [vi]

Advances in understanding pediatric mental illness are valuable. What concerns me is the fact that we are celebrating being able to diagnose mental illness in young people, but we’re not publicly talking about why our children are developing mental illness.

I think this is the real question of our time.  We are still too politically challenged to ask.

We’re not supposed to ask why our children are experiencing mental health crises because to answer that question we have to look at our adult selves, and we refuse to look at ourselves and the society we’ve brought our children into because we would have to admit that we are affected too and our society is a reflection of that.

In fact, the lead researchers in ACEs lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to include a diagnosis for developmental impairment as a result of childhood trauma and in spite of significant clinical research corroborating the legitimacy of such a diagnosis, in the 2013 DSV – 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) the psychiatric authority refused to endorse a diagnosis. The condition is too pervasive in society. To endorse a diagnosis would be to admit that what we have deemed normal in our society is actually illness. [vii]

Many professionals in the field talk about Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Development Trauma Disorder and serve their clients through the lens of these informal diagnoses. They operate from a trauma informed practice, acknowledging in their work, even though it’s not endorsed by their leadership, that childhood abuse, neglect, and household and systemic dysfunction adversely impact the optimal healthy development of human offspring.

Bessel van der Kolk has been a leader in trauma research, education, and advocacy. He is a child of WWII, as am I. We both grew up subjected to the effects of war on our parents and society and have spent our lives trying to recover ourselves and change the prognosis for our collective children.

The developing human organism has certain requirements for healthy optimal development.

Most of us have known forever that we weren’t getting our needs met. As children our default setting is to think we’re the problem. To avoid being the problem forever we adopt facades of functionality and protect those vehemently throughout our adulthood to prevent the truth of our inadequacy from being revealed.

Some of us have been fortunate enough to land on our butts and be motivated to figure out the truth of ourselves. Many of us still diligently block out the early life subconscious messages that we don’t want to be true but that we can’t seem to shake and they’re too scary to face.

But we’re running out of runway. We’re destroying the habitability of the planet. We’re increasingly unable to convince others we’ve got everything under control. Our society is unsustainable. We don’t have enough money to provide for everyone what they’re calling for. We can’t afford to provide everyone with the necessary health care. People are going hungry and without shelter while a few continue to siphon off wealth and resources and sock them away – isolated from collective access, for no measurable benefit.

It’s time for us adults to put on our big people pants, to face our demons, to heal our psyches, to own our own pain and stop passing it on to others.

It’s time to build a society where everyone’s basic needs are met, starting with safety and security – food, shelter – where we and our children experience genuine belonging and our families get assistance when they need it to provide healthy psychological environments where we develop our autonomy and experience opportunity to achieve our potential.

If we address ACEs head on, identify them in our own pasts, recover proactively from them, offer compassion to each other in light of their likely existence, we can stop them from continuing to influence ourselves negatively. We can stop ourselves from passing them on to our children. We can adapt our social systems to eradicate them from our society.

Unresolved ACEs are serious risk factors for developing addiction, depression, suicidality, obesity, chronic heart, lung and liver disease. ACEs have also been identified as significant factors in violence, criminality and unstable economic conditions creating poverty and homelessness.

The negative effects of ACEs can be reduced throughout childhood by the presence of resilience factors including a strong social context and support, secure attachment relationships, reliable sources of food, shelter and comfort, as well as opportunities to learn and contribute.

They can be reduced in adulthood by understanding the context, assigning accurate accountability, intentional processing both cognitively and emotionally, in order to fully integrate the hurtful childhood experiences into the shame free stories of our lives.

Avoidance of the pain and confusion we experience is our default approach as children in order to enable us to survive with those we rely on who are the causes of our pain. As adults, avoidance becomes a dysfunctional coping mechanism, because by adulthood we have developed more cognitively to now be able to intellectualize our situations and access resources for ourselves.

Unfortunately as a society we have belittled the value of mental health support for many generations. Although we talk about mental health more frequently in our society, it is still stigmatized.

I still hear comments such as “Get over it. The past is in the past – leave it there. Stop whining. You’re an adult now. You have choice. Choose your destiny.  Don’t be such a negative Nelly. Stop being a Debbie Downer. I got over it. Look at me. I’m living in a million dollar house. I don’t have any issues, except that I can’t seem to help my son get over his addiction.”

On Twitter the other day I saw a post where someone was suggesting that rather than studying people who don’t do well in adulthood we should study the people who do manage to be successful in spite of their early beginnings. Of course many of the posts agreed and made claims of being unaffected. But the question that must be asked is:  How do we define success?

If we define success by creating social systems that create and serve only cream at the top and subjugate and starve the masses beneath, then I think that proves my point. The accumulation of wealth and resources for no substantive benefit to oneself while causing existential threat to all others does not sound like a healthy consciousness to me. People who hoard do so to fill perceived needs that they fear were not or will not be met. They avoid the origins of their fear of not having enough by over accumulating at the expense of others. As a society we have normalized this behavior economically.

Justin Trudeau in his town hall meeting in Hamilton said we have to find the balance between protecting the environment and having a healthy economy. We could do this much easier if we didn’t enable wealth hoarding and in fact encouraged addressing underlying misperceptions of our identity, worth and true value in the world by addressing the pervasive effects of intergenerational adverse childrearing.

We’re at a crisis in our society and evolution. We are running out of runway. We are not addressing the root causes of the dysfunction in our society. We are perpetuating them and allowing ourselves to dig ourselves deeper into self-destruction.

As children denial is an effective coping mechanism. As adults utilizing denial forever has created the conditions where the long term existence of our species is questionable.

I could conclude that humans are simply stupid. I prefer to conclude that humans haven’t known better, and now that we do, we will change our priorities and start dealing with our issues and stop enabling disconnection from ourselves, others, and nature.

Children are naturally resilient, because they find a way to survive.

We shouldn’t perpetuate a society where as adults we must also simply find a way to survive, instead of taking full command of our circumstances and creating conditions where we can all thrive – nature and humans in harmony.

That’s my vision. That’s my hope. Time for adult children to fully recover from the lies they learned about themselves and others when they were developing, and adjusting the norms in our society to ensure the healthy development of our descendants and the health recovery of the adult affected.

I’ve been working to inspire this vision all my life. Adults must take responsibility for being healthy themselves so they don’t pass that on to their children and others.  As a society we must prioritize this to stop our devolution to self-destruction.

[i] van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.

[ii] https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime/transcript

[iii] Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults Felitti, Vincent J et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine , Volume 14 , Issue 4 , 245 – 258

[iv] http://prevailresearch.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2017/10/PreVAiL-ACEs-Panel-Afifi.pdf

[v] http://www.foothillsnetwork.ca/files/file/2015-06jun-10-sheila-mcdonald-and-suzanne-tough-ab-ace-presentat.pdf

[vi] https://lop.parl.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2014-13-e.pdf

[vii] van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.

Elizabeth Perry is an educator, counsellor, coach who is passionate about being a responsible cosmic citizen. She has an academic background in child and human development, early childhood and adult education, and linguistics. She is a recovering adult child of ACEs and adult spiritual abuse. She is a mental health and wellness, and self-help advocate.

Forgiveness isn’t my thing

This morning I received a video posting in my Facebook feed from a colleague. It showed a woman describing her holocaust experience and explaining how she came to forgive her Nazi abusers.

Although I admire her resilience, optimism and largeness of character, forgiveness isn’t my thing.

I hear about forgiveness almost every day, and for a few years now I’ve really been wondering if it’s time for me to forgive the people who hurt me – if I would really benefit from forgiving them – if that’s what I need to do for myself and my own ability to move on in my life.

The thing is, I don’t think forgiveness is within my authority to give. Jesus is reported to have said about the people who crucified him, “Father forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.”

Rather than forgiving people, I think my response ability is to accept what has happened, to understand the factors at play when it happened, and to have faith and trust that the truth will be revealed in time.

One of the most difficult truths I had to hear and eventually accept during my recovery was my complicity in my hurtful experiences. One of my most sensitive triggers to this day is when I hear people say “we always have choice.” The choice we make when we submit and keep secrets is that we choose to survive the threat we believe to be real. That’s tough to think of as choice, but it is.

That’s such a difficult fact to accept about myself – that I accepted my abusers’ explanation of reality over any perspective I had of my own – and I acted on their instruction, guidance and demand, even to my own detriment.

If I can accept my unawareness of the truth of what was going on in those relationships, then I can accept that the people I was involved with were unaware also. Nothing about their behavior corroborates a theory that they deviously did what they did in all consciousness, every step of the way.

People are for the most part bumbling around in life, trying to do the best they can, to secure resources to sustain their lives and sometimes the lives of their group members. I don’t observe much conscious, intentional, informed activity at all, in spite of the lofty claims a lot of people make to justify their actions.

It is blatantly incongruent to me to hear humans claim to be the superior species while I watch us exhaust and destroy the source of our survival – the natural world – as well as repel, isolate and if necessary destroy other humans that are different or a perceived threat to our territory.

I get that it’s difficult to be human and to navigate the myriad of experiences and explanations of reality that abound. It seems even more difficult now with access to infinite sources of knowledge at the ends of our fingertips.

Actually, we have a great advantage now with access to all knowledge. In the past we only had what was immediately available to us in our nearby environments and groups. Now we can learn from other people everywhere, and have access to historical knowledge and the full breadth of wisdom that has been conceptualized and passed down through the ages.

If we’re open minded, we can search for trustworthy guidance to being a decent human. It exists in the similar conclusions determined by meaning explorers throughout time.

Those meaning explorers include some spiritual leaders as well as philosophers, scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and naturalists.

When the reality I had dedicated 42 years of my life to crashed and crumbled around me and left me standing alone and naked in the ashes, I had to embark on a journey of discovery to find the ingredients I could use to construct a reliable foundation upon which I could build the rest of my life.

I have learned what I know from every person, experience, and text I have encountered since I began this concerted effort to discover the unquestionable foundation I can stand on.

I have also discovered that it’s the same foundation for everyone, and it’s accessible to each one without the necessity of interpretation from other humans.

As long as Life courses through my body, and I am standing on the planet, I have the response ability to be a conscious human being.

It is not my right nor is it my response ability to define or determine the reason for another’s existence or the purpose of their mission.

I do know however that each human exists as an opportunity, and each one does make the choice whether or not to fulfill their potential.

I especially understand how difficult it is to accept that even in the face of extraordinary barriers, each one still has choice available to them to survive that moment and find a way to thrive in different circumstances.

I don’t forgive. I don’t think that’s within my realm of authority.

I do accept that hurtful human behavior occurs, but I don’t accept it for or from myself anymore.

We’re all trying to do the best we can with what we have to work with, and unfortunately we’re doing a terrible job. We’re destroying the habitability of our home and each other now and for future generations.

We have a choice. We can see the fallacy of the reality we have constructed to explain our self-serving behaviours and open our eyes to the trustworthy foundation we’re standing on.

The blueprint for best human practice has been revealed many times through many lenses. Knowledge and wisdom are available at our fingertips. Some individuals gather in communities for mutual support. There is hope, but no assurance.

We must choose, through our own free will, to commit to fulfilling our individual opportunity and supporting all others to fulfill theirs in harmony with all other manifestations of Life on Planet Earth and in the cosmos.

I for one don’t want to be part of the generation who had the opportunity but instead had to require creative cause “To forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Racism is unnatural

 

I attended a forum recently on the topic of the Elimination of Racism and was very thankful to hear what each of the speakers had to say. Hearing people’s personal stories was a privilege. Hearing other people’s rebuttals of why some solutions aren’t applicable for all was also valuable information providing deeper insight into cultural differences.

Unfortunately not everyone who attended that forum was there to combat racism. Some attended to perpetuate and justify it. When that perspective was presented unscheduled, it set off a chain reaction of visceral responses that prolonged the gathering 1.25 hours past its advertised end time, and at times devolved into mutual bashing. The powder keg of pain was ignited, and various people’s trauma responses exploded, as trauma responses will, uncontrolled.

That’s what sticks with me most about my experience in similar settings. Huge volumes of us seem to be walking around embodying the pain of disconnection from our nature, and our consequent inter-generational experiences of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.

At this specific event, the white supremacist perspective presenter’s body language in no way revealed confidence and security in what he was saying. Those who presented in the controlled format appeared confident and secure in that context, but lost control when their trauma had been triggered. I had a couple buttons pushed myself, but I realize that was because my perceptions of what we were doing there together were challenged and the people saying things that I felt hurt by were trauma responses on their part. I can relate to the idea that when you just can’t seem to get ahead, no matter how hard you try, having to try again is even a trigger.

I’m thankful to have had this experience. I’m immeasurably thankful for those who are willing to have the conversation. Humanity has huge issues, and if we don’t deal with them they will absolutely get worse. We see this trend gaining momentum around the globe.

Where I envision real change will come is when we individually stop seeing ourselves as separate from the whole – of nature, not just humanity – and see humanity as one species – of many species within nature – where nothing and no one has more of a right to exist and thrive than anything or anyone other. That to me is a clear conceptualization of our nature, and the perspective that we have to get to in order to survive and thrive.

The days of human beings of any type presenting themselves as superior to anything have got to be done. And the days of hoarding resources to create the illusion of security at the expense of others and their ability to survive and thrive is way past due. Our structural constructs within which we operate society are all based on false reality. As long as we perpetuate that and remain disconnected from our nature, we will continue to devolve as a society. The trauma will continue to accumulate and the results will be collective self-destruction.

As my new favourite thinker these days Brian Cox asserts, we exist in this ever so slight and unlikely time in the existence of the universe. Physically we haven’t evolved significantly for millennia in spite of the changes we have experienced societally. So the evolution I see humans participating in is the evolution of consciousness, and at the very least, that involves accepting our place as biological members of the natural world, completely integrated with all other elements, not superior beings after all.

The question we need to ask each other is “What do you need?” Each person needs adequate clean air, water, food, and shelter, as well as respect, dignity, belonging and a clear path to fulfilling their potential. Until we as a society are ensuring that for each other, things are destined to devolve to even greater chaos and structural disintegration.

The structures in society that perpetuate some people having at the expense of others not having will be dismantled. The choice we face as humans is whether we choose to accept our nature consciously and stop pretending we are superior to all and any others, or we choose to perpetuate our illusions and have them disintegrate outside our control.

Our security is inherent in our nature, and all elements in nature are equal, interconnected and interdependent. It pains me to observe and experience humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. I truly believe we are better than we have demonstrated. And the trauma of that inhumanity impedes our ability to demonstrate and see that better. That’s why it is so important to stop pretending now, and start mending because the longer we perpetuate the lie of superiority, the more disintegrated humanity will become and that result will be catastrophic.

So I’m thankful to all who participated in this forum, because it clearly exposed that we still have much work to do, and I am keenly interested in doing whatever necessary to help humanity become one and be healthy members of nature.

What’s it all about?

I don’t know about you, but the following questions dominate my thinking.

What’s it all about? Why? What’s the meaning of this situation? What’s actually happening here? Why did he/she/they do that? What’s the best response from me?

My goal in all my interactions is to be honest and helpful. Honest – from the deepest possible informed position; I say what I know when I know it and if there’s something I don’t know about the situation I appreciate being respectfully educated. Helpful – I believe we have enough problems already in the world that I want to ease people’s challenges, not add to them, so my intention is to be helpful – not just for the people I’m interacting with but for all of us impacted by my contributions. That doesn’t mean I make people comfortable. Oftentimes it takes discomfort to establish ultimate security. Helping people figure out who they are authentically and how they fit essentially in our cosmic ecology is my passion.

What are my strengths?

I’m actually really good at simplifying complex concepts into core elements and processes. I’m an experiential learner so in retrospect I have been able to identify where I have consistently demonstrated this strength in business, education and social justice contexts. Many of us tend to think life is very complicated but I see it as otherwise. I think we intentionally obfuscate the simplicity of life so we can confuse each other and therefore create advantages for ourselves over others. I prefer to accept people as they present themselves to me, but I’ve learned that most people are not authentic. So I help others disentangle themselves from the complicated identities they’ve developed to survive and help them build their abilities to self-determine, self-assert, and self-actualize – in concert with others rather than in competition against them.

I’m also a very good teacher. I’ve repeatedly proven throughout my life that I have immeasurable patience, resourcefulness and innovation which I use consistently and persistently to find a way to support and lead others to learning.

I have an insatiable interest in learning for myself. As a divergent learner I have explored knowledge in innumerable fields. When I make connections about some new realization these are informed across multiple contexts. I appreciate being able to understand everything as much as possible (of course that’s a pipe dream but I keep working on achieving that goal) and consistently I have found the underlying drivers to be simple, integrated within the whole, amazingly intelligent, and progressively creative. I’m open to learning something that doesn’t fall within this criteria, but I’ve yet to come across anything at it’s core level.

I love nature and all her inhabitants and am passionate about supporting all of us living harmoniously on this orb spinning in space. I believe there is a natural purpose and value to humanity but I believe we as a collective are off course from that natural design. I believe as we see ourselves as separate from our environment we make decisions that are bound to cause trouble for ourselves ultimately. We are part of nature but nature is bigger than us. My focus is always to discern how I can be that which I exist to be and how to help others find their optimal place also.

In this blog I will be introducing unconventional perspectives on common themes in our society in order to inspire and stimulate interest in perceiving ourselves, others, and behaviours through a different lens to contribute to discovering our individual and collective harmony for the benefit of all of us.

From the Desiderata: I believe that each of us is a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. That we each have a right to be here and to sing our song. But I don’t believe we have any more right than anyone else or the trees and the animals. I believe we’re all here together for a holistic and beneficial purpose and I dedicate my life and work to discovering how we can live harmoniously together.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. I look forward to learning and creating together.

Elizabeth Perry, ECE, BA, MEd