Why Dig Up the Past?
I'm buying coffee at Saxby's awhile ago, and the owner/barrista, a friendly guy, asks me what I've got going for the day. "I'm driving over to PA to give a presentation," I say. "Oh, what are you talking about?" I look him in the eye and say, "How childhood trauma affects peoples' health across their lifespans." Pause. "What do you mean?" "Well, research is showing that what happens in childhood profoundly affects how our brains develop, how our immune systems work, and even how our genes are expressed. And it's helpful to know this so you can shift from asking 'what's wrong with you,' to 'what happened to you?'" (my best attempt at an elevator speech!)
I watched him take this in and apply it to whatever his story is. His smile dimmed and he said, "that's heavy dude. I don't envy your line of work," as he turned to the next customer.
As a culture, we are categorically afraid of emotional pain.* Frank Ostaseski, in his book, The Five Invitations, writes, "Especially in Western culture, we are taught that if suffering exists, something is wrong. It is a mistake...When we believe that, it's no wonder we do everything in our power to steer clear of it." We also don't see suffering as having value. So when I teach adults about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), I am sometimes asked, "why do you want to go digging that stuff up?"
Because here's the deal: hurt people hurt people. And trauma that is not transformed is transmitted. This is a part of the intergenerational cycle of trauma - people who have experienced childhood abuse are more likely to become abusers in adulthood. And to be triggered by stress more easily, which can look like withdrawing, or explosive anger, or coping by smoking, drinking, overeating...pick your poison. These are coping mechanisms that helped someone impacted by ACEs survive...but patterns in childhood don't always serve us well in adulthood.
And making connections between what happened in your childhood and how life is playing out can be healing. In an unpublished study of 125,000 patients at Kaiser Permanente, medical office visits went down by 35% the year following ACE screening. Early research is beginning to show that when ACEs are addressed, physical (and mental health) begin to improve.
No one should ever be forced to share a painful story. But we are wired for connection and sharing what happened in a safe relationship, then being affirmed in that suffering, can help to remove the shame and stigma of something that happened in childhood, when we all lack both control and context over situations. Plus learning about this ACE science is likely to increase your own empathy and compassion for others! And that is what this world needs more of in my humble opinion. May it be well with your soul.
*(Soul Injuries, lessons learned from dying veterans, AANP conference 2018)