Saturday, October 24, 2015

What Happens in Childhood Does Not Stay in Childhood

Childhood is a relatively short period of time compared to the average lifespan.  And yet so much of  what happens during those formative years impacts the individual for decades.  A landmark study that actually began in 1995 illustrates this convincingly.  It is known as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study and is "one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.  The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego."  Source

The ACE Study has followed over 17,000 enrollees in Kaiser's health plan who underwent a comprehensive physical exam as well as completed the ten-question ACE Test.  Data from the study revealed "staggering proof of the health, social and economic risks that result from childhood trauma."  Source.  ACE scores can range from zero to ten, with ten reflecting the highest number of adverse childhood experiences by category.  It is important to note that the ACE Test does not account for the total number of adverse experiences in each category throughout childhood but rather the number of categories of adverse experiences an individual encountered.

The ACE Test asked participants about ten types of childhood trauma:
  • Three types of abuse (sexual, physical and emotional)
  • Two types of neglect (physical and emotional)
  • Five types of family dysfunction (having a mother who was treated violently, an alcoholic or drug addicted household member, family member imprisoned or diagnosed with mental illness, divorce or separation of parents)
The study revealed that childhood trauma is far more common than previously believed and that the consequences of the trauma last a lifetime.  Individuals with an ACE Score of 4 had increased prevalence rates for the following behaviors:

Source 1   Source 2 
Clearly, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood.  We focus a lot on the horrendous impact of child sexual abuse and molestation, as we should.  But there are other harmful experiences that negatively impact a child for life that we should be just as concerned about.  Improving the quality of the parents' marriage, making sure mom is not treated violently, dealing effectively with depression, addiction and other types of mental illness that may be present in the family as well as having a zero tolerance for abuse and neglect of any kind are all incredibly important aspects of a child's life that we need to pay critical attention to.  We can never give up on the important task of ensuring that our children have safe, healthy environments so that they can enjoy a long and productive life.

But what about those of us who are already grown?  We may recognize and acknowledge that the environment in which we grew and developed was toxic and we may already be struggling with some of the consequences that the ACE Study revealed.  Is there hope?  YES, there is.  Simply acknowledging that what happened in childhood happened to us, that we did not cause it, we did not deserve it and we were powerless to prevent it, begins the process.  We change the questions from "What's wrong with me?" to "What happened to me?"  There is power in naming our experience and acknowledging it as trauma.  And by dealing with the trauma, with the help of qualified individuals, we can change the outcome--we can minimize or eliminate the potential health and behavioral risks that our ACE's have created.  We commit ourselves to practicing good self-care, mindfulness and gentleness with that frightened, traumatized child within.  By re-parenting our inner child, we ensure that what happened in our childhood stays back there and does not continue to impact our present or our future.

Our goals when it comes to childhood maltreatment are twofold:  we must do all that we can to change the culture of violence, exploitation and maltreatment that exists today so that tomorrow's children fare better than yesterday or today's.  And, we must commit ourselves to caring for our first child--ourselves--and to healing those hurts of yesterday.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Reflections on Trust Post Betrayal

Under the best of circumstances, trust is hard but after a betrayal it is significantly more difficult to attain or to retain.  Recently, I set out for the park because my almost-three-year old granddaughter loves to go to the park and I love to make her happy.  I had never been to this particular park but her parents assured me that she was a great little navigator and could lead us right to it.  As we set out, I realized that I was placing the safety and security for both of us in her tiny hands--I hadn't a clue where we were going and the weight of that slowed my steps and caused me to cling to her just a bit more tightly.  But sure enough, she led us straight to the park where we had a lot of fun together.  While I was pushing her on the swing I contemplated yet again this thing called "trust."

Webster defines trust as the "belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest and effective."  Trust develops in infancy and is rooted in those first attachments with parents who consistently provide for the helpless child's survival and relational needs.  Childhood and adolescence offers multiple opportunities to learn that not all are trustworthy and to gain the tools to navigate the experience of broken trust.  However, if we have experienced "good-enough" parenting, we approach friendships and intimate relationships with a level of resiliency and an innate ability to trust.

But what happens when we have experienced a devastating betrayal of trust in a close relationship?  Is it possible to trust again?  These are critical questions because trust is essential in any relationship but particularly so in an intimate one.  Part of learning to trust again is learning how to hone in on indicators of deception.  Evasive "dodging" of poignant questions, "fuzziness" on key details and a tendency to fudge the truth on non-essential information are warning of potential deception.  My ex-husband and I once argued for hours on what constituted a lie.  It reminded me of Bill Clinton' famous "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," during his impeachment hearing.  To me, deception involves intent to deceive; my ex preferred to focus on technicalities, insisting that if it was technically true, even if the intent was to deceive, it was not a lie.  Deception destroys trust and those who have been betrayed are profoundly impacted by even the slightest "white lie."

A recent article in the on-line edition of Psychology Today addressed the epidemic of deception that exists in our culture and the impact that it has on an individual and on their ability to trust again  The author points out that deception "contaminates your entire sense of self.  It throws you off-kilter, makes you question your perceptions . . . [you] lose faith in [your] ability to determine what is real and what isn't."  Source  And compounding the betrayal of trust that deception creates is our culture's penchant for embracing the sinner and blaming his victim for falling prey to his deception.

We love the "bad boy finds Jesus" scenario and are quite happy to give perpetrators a second and third chance.  A "repentant" offender or perpetrator, is often welcomed back into the embrace of a church or community.  Like the wayward prodigal, his "return" is celebrated, his sins forgiven and he is restored.  His victims, however those he deceived and defrauded find that they are often blamed for being gullible and naive--for falling for the offender's lies.  This societal attitude taps into the inherent shame, embarrassment and humiliation a victim feels, fuels self-doubt and pretty much guarantees that she will remain silent about her betrayal.

Daring to trust again after profound betrayal is essential to wholehearted living and loving but it
involves the fiercest of battles.  The process of trusting again can feel like what I experienced recently when trying to return a rental car in a strange city.  I drove through dense fog and darkness relying solely on the step-by-step instructions provided by my smart phone.  Trusting again is taking that giant leap of faith, believing that there is still good in the world, that small electronic gadgets or almost three-year olds may know something that we don't We step out in faith that may feel blind, keeping an eye on the horizon looking for familiar "landmarks" (aka indicators of deception), listen to our gut, and cautiously move forward--one step or one mile at a time.  And hopefully, the destination that we arrive at is a relationship that can restore our broken trust and help to heal our wounded hearts.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Tale of Two Granddaughters

In a few days I will be getting on a plane and flying to an adjoining state to meet my newest granddaughter.  She, like her sister, arrived on a Sunday morning after a somewhat frightening pregnancy.  Unlike her sister, she weighed in at a whopping 7 pounds, 9 ounces and was screaming from the moment of her birth.  My son and daughter-in-love christened her "New Life," a name quite appropriate to where our family is in the healing journey.

"Grace" announced her imminent arrival just days after our world and our hearts exploded into millions of fragments.  Our family was forever changed but Grace came to remind us that as long as there is breath, there is hope.  Her coming was prophetic, though we did not know that at the time.  She announced the promise of a future to our family at a time when our past was disintegrating before our eyes.  She brought joy to our hearts and continues to be a constant reminder that grace is an undeserved and unexpected favor.

I must admit that when our family experiences a significant event, I still experience conflicting emotions.  Though I am happily remarried and very grateful that pedophilia and addiction no longer color my world, a new grandbaby is a poignant reminder of what we have lost.  Life is not the way I envisioned it would be at this point; my kids no longer have an intact parental unit.  My children's father and I will not share in this part of the journey that we began together; our paths have diverged, if ever they were really united.  So it is a bittersweet time.

The conjoined twins of pedophilia and addiction strike at the heart of everything that is good and sacred about the vows we make to one another.  They destroy truth with lies, fidelity with betrayal, and love with self-interest and self-gratification.  Survivors flail about in the debris of the destruction they bring, trying desperately to make sense of the senseless.  There seems to be no end to the suffering and pain they inflict on those closest to them, their primary and secondary victims.

But grace promises that there will be new life.  Grace proclaims that this is not the end of my story, that there is life beyond the devastation and destruction.  Grace points to a newness of life--a life that can be marked once more by truth, love and fidelity.  Grace provides the space for a resurrection to take place.  And our family is currently experiencing this resurrection:  new relationships (including remarriage), new jobs, new homes, new dreams, new adventures, a restored sense of hope for the future and a new baby, appropriately named "Life."

So this weekend as I tickle "Grace" and cuddle "Life," I will express yet another prayer of gratitude.  My two beautiful granddaughters are tangible proof that life is good, that hope is alive and that we have more than survived, we are thriving.