This is the piece of the puzzle from my childhood that I’ve been missing.
This is the secret I’ve been hiding behind my smile.
This is what countless children and adults in every zip code, every corner of your life face while navigating learning, relationships, careers, and even their long-term health. Exposure to adversity in childhood by trauma or chronic stress actually changes our physiology, affects our brain development, and even alters our body’s transcription of DNA.
Childhood trauma does NOT just go away as we grow up.
As an elementary teacher for fifteen years, yes, I have lived, experienced the hardships trauma and chronic stress cause for a child.
I have seen children struggle to learn, battle for impulse-control, toil to maintain friendships, all while suffering tummy aches, headaches, lack of sleep.
But that’s not the end of their struggle.
These children left my classroom, having learned to read and add and subtract. But what about their tummy aches, headaches, and chronic deprivation of sleep? What happened to those beautiful souls ten years, twenty years after they had left me?
I can answer that.
I am a survivor of childhood trauma.
Adverse childhood experiences can occur in any zip code.
In fact, they are common – 57% of our population has at least one adverse childhood experience.
Physical, emotional, sexual abuse
Physical, emotional neglect
Parental mental illness, substance dependency
Parental separation or divorce
The link below to the info graphic from the CDC explains the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE Study demographics visually, as well as explains the correlation of ACEs to adult behaviors, health, and economic toll on our society: https://vetoviolence.cdc.gov/apps/phl/resource_center_infographic.html
I grew up privileged, in a two-parent, college-educated home and attended great schools.
But, as a child, I suffered in silence, keeping our family portrait perfect. Trauma and chronic stress causing “normal” childhood ailments – complaints like tummy aches, headaches, night terrors. But years later, thirty plus years later, I am no longer able to suffer in silence. My long-term health has been comprised.
Watching my thirteen year-old brother’s muscular system deteriorate, becoming skeleton-like from Muscular Dystrophy was terrifying. This traumatic exposure on my pre-pubescent, developing brain caused my response system to release fight or flight stress hormones.
This muscle deterioration was happening to my big brother, my constant companion whom I loved, relied on. Helplessly, I grew stronger while he became weaker, unable to lift his own hand and simply wipe a tear or blow his nose. He struggled to swallow food that my mom had pre-mashed-up for him. As he battled for each breath, my body was also raging a war – I was in a constant fight or flight response – helping him fight to survive, or remaining in a state of denial, constantly in flight from the thought of death.
And then he died. In his bed while he slept.
And no one talked about it. He was buried in the ground under a headstone that we visited every Sunday before returning home to a life that no longer recognized the child I grew up with who had required constant, daily care. His wheelchair was gone. The original kitchen chair pushed in where the empty space for his wheelchair once was.
And that was it. Twelve years of my life with my brother gone in the middle of the night.
My body and brain’s stress response system facing his death, his permanent absence went into overdrive, flooding me with stress hormones, driving my fight response (I was angry…) and my flight response (I wanted to disappear, join my brother again…) all wreaking havoc on my developing immune system.
Thirty years later, people don’t realize how much an event that occurred when I was twelve years old still affects my every day existence.
I am learning how to comfort my altered immune system that has given rise over the years to chronic pain and inflammation, feelings of depression, and anxiety. Through nutrition, physical activity, motivational reading, meditation, and hobbies like journaling and writing novels, I am retraining my response to stress, finding my way back to calmness.
But the most valuable source of healing was rediscovering my voice, speaking the truth of adversity and shining a light on the secret I kept behind my smile.
Because life isn’t as scary when you speak up and find others are just like you.