Adverse Childhood Experiences 14: Hope

I keep reading bits about despair and about how a generation of children is being “ruined” by the pandemic.

Not so, I say. There is hope. We need to support each other to survive and then to thrive.

This generation WILL have a higher than average ACE score. If the Adverse Childhood Experience scale is from zero to eight, children in this time period will have at least one higher point than average and many will have three or four or more. Loss of a parent, a sibling, beloved grandparents during covid. Increases in domestic violence, child abuse and addiction. These are all part of the ACE score.

What does this do to children? They have survival brain wiring. They will do their best to survive what is happening. A friend and I both have high ACE scores, 5 or more, and we are both oppositional defiant. We showed this in different ways. He grew up in the same community. He escaped from home and knew all the neighbors. He walked to the local church and attended at age 3 or 4. He has lived in this community all his life.

His oppositional defiance showed up at home, where he consistently refused to obey. And in school, where he confounded and disobeyed teachers and passed anyhow.

My family moved every 1-5 years. I hated moving. I wouldn’t talk to kids in a new school for a year. It was very difficult. So my oppositional defiance was very very internal. I hid in books and in my head. In 6th grade I got in trouble for hiding novels inside the school book I’d already read. I also would just not listen and my respect for the teacher got even lower when she would be angry that I knew the answer to the question once she’d repeated it. I wasn’t listening because I was bored. She was the first teacher that I thought, well, she is not very bright. The next year they stuck me in the honors class and I stopped being bored, though I still questioned practically every opinion every teacher had. I wanted evidence and I did not believe it just because the teacher said it.

I am not saying that oppositional defiance is in every high ACE score. I don’t know that. Why oppositional defiance? Imagine you are a small child and you are beaten. There isn’t rhyme or reason. You can’t predict when the adult will be out of control. Why would you behave “well” if it makes no difference? You might as well do what you want, because nothing you do will change the adult. Or imagine you are a small child who is with one person, passed to another, then to another. You may not exactly trust adults after two or three repetitions. And you want to survive.

There is an increase in addictions, behavioral health diagnoses, and chronic illness in adults with a high ACE score. A researcher when I first heard a lecture about it said, “We think perhaps that addiction is a form of self medication.” I thought, oh, my gosh, how are we ever going to treat THIS? Well, we have to figure that out now, and we’ve had 30 years to work on it.

I was very comfortable with the oppositional defiant patients in clinic. I got very good at not arguing with them and not taking their behavior personally. They might show up all spiky and hostile and I might be a little spiky and gruff back: sometimes that was enough. I think the high ACE score people often recognize each other at some level, though not always a conscious one. With some people I might bring up ACE scores and ask about their childhood. Sometimes they wanted to discuss it. Sometimes they didn’t. Either was ok.

One thing we should NOT do is insist that everyone be “nice”. We had a temporary doctor who told us her story. Her family escaped Southeast Asia in a boat. They had run out of water and were going to die when they were found by pirates. The pirates gave them water. They made it to land and were in a refugee camp for eight years or so. She eventually made it to the US. She was deemed too “undiplomatic” for our rural hospital. I wondered if people would have said that if they knew her history and what she had been through. It’s not exactly a Leave it to Beaver childhood, is it? When she was telling us about nearly dying of thirst in the boat, my daughter left her chair and climbed on my lap. She was under ten and understood that this was a true and very frightening story.

We can support this generation of children. This has been and is still being Adverse Experiences for adults as well. Family deaths, job loss, failure of jobs to support people, inflation. Remember the 1920s, after World War I and the last pandemic, of influenza. “On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, which provided enabling legislation to implement the 18th Amendment.” (wikipedia). There were forces trying to legislate behavior, as there are now. The result in 1920s of making alcohol illegal was speakeasies, illegal alcohol, and violence. Some people acted wild after WWI and the influenza pandemic and some people tried to lock down control, by controlling other peoples’ behavior. It did not work then and it will not work now. The wildness is out of control grief, I think, grief dysfunctional and drinking and shooting and doing anything and everything, legal or not. We remember how the 1920s ended too. Let us not repeat that. Let us mourn and grieve and support each other and support each other’s decisions and autonomy.

Blessings.

Adverse Childhood Experiences 13: on gratitude

I saw a meme today about gratitude. It is saying that some people look at a garden and see thorns and weeds, but others see the roses. That we need to have gratitude. I think this is simplistic and papers over the trauma and grief that some people have. If they have endured a highly traumatic childhood, who am I to say they should focus on the roses? They may have a very good reason to see if there is something like a thorn that can hurt them before enjoying the roses.

I work with many patients with high Adverse Childhood Experience scores and mine is high too. I don’t tell my patients that they should have gratitude. I tell them “You survived your childhood. You have crisis wiring. Good for you. Some of your learned crisis survival wiring may not serve you as well now as it did when you were a child.” Then we discuss whether they want to work on any aspects and the many many different approaches. One example: a man who sleeps very lightly. He said that it was lifelong. When asked about his childhood he says, “We would have to leave in the night when there was shooting in my neighborhood. It was a very dangerous area.” I said, “I am not surprised you sleep lightly. You HAD to in childhood to survive. Is this something you want to try and change?” He thought about it and decided, no. Once it was framed as learned in childhood to survive, he stopped worrying about “normal”. He was satisfied that the way he slept was “normal” for him and he wanted to wake up if he heard shooting.

I think we have to ask why a person sees thorns and weeds in a garden before we judge them. My first thought with a new and angry or hostile patient is always, oh, they have been badly hurt in the past. What happened? I don’t worry that the anger is at me. I know it’s not at me, it’s at the system or a past physician or a past event. Under the anger there are other emotions, usually fear or humiliation or grief. I have brought up Adverse Childhood Experience scores on the first visit sometimes. One person replies, “I am a 10 out of 10.” The score only goes up to 8 but I agree. He was a 10. He stated once, “The military loved me because I could go from zero to 60 in one minute.” Very very defensive and very quick to respond. The response may seem extreme and inappropriate to other people: but it may feel like the only safe way to be to my patient.

I grew up hiding any grief or fear in my family, under anger, because grief or fear would be made into a story told for laughs. In college, a boyfriend told me I was an ogre when I was angry. I started working on it then and it was difficult to tame that. The person who took the longest was my sister: she could make me explode until I was in my residency. Medical training was excellent for learning emotional control, at least, on the surface. After my mother died, I had to do the next piece of emotional work: open the Pandora’s Box of stuffed emotions, mostly fear and grief, and let them out. It was such hard work that my day where I saw the counselor for an hour was harder than my ten hour clinic day. I did the work, for two long years. Blessings on the counselors who stood by me while I worked through it.

I do not think we are ever done with that sort of work. I think, what do I need to learn next? What is this friend teaching me? Why is this behavior frustrating me and I have to look in my inner mirror. Why, why, why?

Blessing on your healing path and may you not be judged.

Link about ACE scores: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/about.html

Sometimes I do feel like a fossil, now that I am middle aged. For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: fossil.

rural doctoring

I read Grampa’s Solo Visits this am and it makes me laugh.

Since I have been a family doctor in my town of 9000 for 22 years, the grocery store and coffee shops can be interesting. When I moved here, my daughter was two and my son was seven. We have three grocery stores. I usually go to the one 7 blocks from my house. I would see patients. My diabetics would sometimes look guilty and scurry away when they saw me. Another patient comes to peer in my cart.

“I want to know if YOU are eating healthy food.” he says.

I laugh.

“I don’t see any vegetables.” he says.

“I am in a CSA,” I say. “I get a box from the farm once a week.”

He frowns. “Do you get to choose?”

“No,” I say. “But since I hate throwing vegetables out, we eat more vegetables. Also, we eat ones that are unfamiliar. The first time I got celery root, I had to look it up. I didn’t know what it was.”

He nods. “Hmmm. Ok. We want to be sure you practice what you preach.”

I laugh again. “I sneak in to get the ice cream at midnight, ok? And where is YOUR cart?”

“My wife has it,” he says. “You don’t get to see it.”

“Ok, then. Have a great day.”

When we were first in town, occasionally someone would come start talking about their health in a store.

“I can’t discuss your health in front of my children. HIPAA.”

“Oh,” they’d say, “Uh, yeah. I should call the clinic Monday?”

“Yes, please.”

We had a coffee shop that made the best pastries that I’ve had since I was an exchange student in Denmark. I wished they’d make tiny pastries, bite size, for the diabetic folks. Those folks would slide a newspaper over their plate when I walked in with my family. They looked terribly guilty. I might nod, but I wouldn’t say anything. Sometimes they would confess at the next visit.

There are lots of jobs in small towns where people are very much public figures. Not just doctors, but the people who work for the city and the county, the ones who redo the taxes for homes, the realtors, all sorts.

After I was divorced, another doc at the hospital asks, “Dating someone new?”

I frown, “How do you know?”

She grins, “He lives on my street. I saw you.”

Dang it. The rumor mill is very very efficient and can often be fabulously wrong. That time it was correct, though I don’t think she passed it around. Other people live on the street.

A few days ago someone that looked familiar walks by me. “What are you doing with so-and-so?”

I laugh. “Rumors abound.” I say. “You would not believe the rumors!”

I took the photograph of the coyote yesterday, driving home. Stopped dead in my lane, no one else on the road. People will be stopped in the road here, talking to each other in two cars going opposite directions, or talking to a friend on foot.

the dark things in the world

When my son was about 12, a friend called and asked if he could babysit.

I froze up, silent.

He got it very quickly. “Um, we often come home really late, staying out until 3 am, so would it be ok if he stayed the night and we brought him home in the morning?”

“Yes,” I said, with relief.

What was I worrying about? Alcohol. I knew he and his wife drank far more than I approved of and the thought of them driving my son home drunk was NOT ok. I think that sometimes they took a taxi home. I hope so. I suppose they could send my son home in a taxi, but by having him stay the night, he would sleep too. Their children were five and six years younger than my son.

So I would take my son there, or they would pick him up, and he’d go to sleep when the kids did. I don’t know how late my son and the kids stayed up in that house. I do know the household reminded me of my childhood home, where the adults stayed up and partied. I did not party in high school at all. I didn’t want to. I was not interested in drinking alcohol illicitly. I could perfectly easily have drunk it at home: my parents were too tuned out by then to notice. I knew what people were like when drunk: why would I explore that with my peers? My father would break things in the house when he fell, there were burn marks in the floor from cigarettes, my parents would scream at each other at 1 am. I kept my head down and did very very well at school: I wanted out, even though it was not conscious. I loved my parents. Home was chaos and I escaped into books and schoolwork.

Parents need to think carefully about babysitting. Do they know the family? Do they need to drive their child to the house and pick them up? Once I went to babysit and the family had two enormous St. Bernards. The male growled at me. The owner said, “Don’t worry, he will attack anyone who tries to get in the house.” I was quite terrified of the dogs, and the male trailed enormous strings of drool into my lap. That night at 1 am I found Monty Python on cable and wondered if I’d wandered into another universe. We didn’t have cable, so it was surreal. I didn’t tell my parents about any of it. These were not people we knew: friends of friends.

Parents need to be careful as well to tell teens that adults can behave inappropriately and that a normally nice adult might behave badly when drunk. Many babysitting friends told me about the father of the kids they were sitting making sexual comments or putting a hand on their knee driving them home. This is not ok and teens need to be warned. They also should be warned about signs of drinking and inebriation and have taxi money or be able to call for a ride if they are not comfortable with the adult driving them home. And if the adult makes any sort of inappropriate remark or touch, they should NOT babysit there again ever. I would tell the offending adult why, though I think that would often get an angry or denial reaction.

I have various friends with 9 year olds. One parent made a comment that they don’t want their children to know anything bad about the world until they are ten. Another didn’t want their child to know what the term domestic violence meant.

I disagree. I would respond saying, “If your mother doesn’t want me to discuss that, then we will leave for her to talk to you about it later.”

How can we shelter our children with the magical childhood until ten and then send them to babysit at twelve? How can they recognize an adult is impaired or inappropriate behavior unless we talk about it? I have been asking adult smokers what age they started smoking for years: most of my older men started at age 9. The other day a woman said she’d tried cigarettes by age 7. Our children are not stupid, they hear things, they try to puzzle it out with each other: they deserve honesty from the start.

For a small child, that may mean a very simple explanation. My mother died of cancer when my daughter was two years and six months. By age four she had processed it to where she asked me “How old was grandmother Helen when she died?” I said that MY grandmother was 92 when she died, but grandmother Helen was 62. She asked, “How old are YOU?” I said, “I am forty. I hope to live as long as my grandmother, but none of us know how long we will live.” She studied me for a while and then went off.

They say that small children can’t process death. Clearly my daughter could! Maybe children can’t because we do not talk to them about it. We aren’t respectful. We try to hide all the dark things in the world, we try to keep them in a fairy tale. I feel angry on behalf of our children. To me it feels like parents lie: they will not tell their children what is going on. It’s not okay. And how can they handle the dark if no one will discuss it until they are ten?

 

Adults can be pretty weird sometimes, right? The photograph is from this year’s Kinetic Sculpture Race.