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.

B is for Busy and Burling

My mother, Helen Burling Ottaway, was a very busy and prolific artist.

Every New Year’s, she would resolve to paint a water color a day. By March she would complain that she had only painted 25 or 30. However, she would also be doing birthday presents for me and my sister and our father, all in March, and crafts and etchings and pastels and a life drawing class and the sketchbook that she constantly carried.

B is also for baby. The etching is of my sister, Christine Robbins Ottaway, as a baby. The title is Chris I and she did this in 1968.

I have described the process for etchings here: Four Seasons.

My mother was a very busy artist.

#ATOZBLOGGINGCHALLENGE2022 # art # Women artists # Helen Burling Ottaway

first impressions

I am taking a writing class and our next book is on cultural appropriation.

This interests me. I tend to be a little gender blind and race blind when I meet people. I am using my super skill instead. My skill is developed from a really scary childhood: I read the stuffed emotions. The stuff people are hiding.

No way, you say. Oh, yes, I say.

My sister described coming home from high school and stopping when she walked into the house. She was trying to sense what was going on. Were our parents fighting? Was our father drunk? Yes, he was drunk, but which stage?

We talked about the stages and which we hated most.

Stage goofy/silly was annoying but not toxic. We said we had homework.

Stage asleep in a fetal ball in the upstairs hallway. My sister said she would step over him to get to her room.

Stage maudlin. We both agreed this was the worst. He would cry and say, “You can tell me anything.” Once he caught me in that stage and I was in tears by the time my mother got home. I left the room. The next morning mother said, “He said you two were discussing the cat’s disappearance.” I didn’t answer. We never said a word about the cat. I didn’t know if he was lying or was too drunk to remember it the next day, so made it up. Don’t care. Avoid.

He was never physically abusive. He and my mother would scream at each other at 1 or 2 am through most of high school. Reading her diaries, she writes that she drinks too much. I think they were both alcoholics, thought the family story is that he was the bad one. But I can’t imagine yelling with a drunk at 1 or 2 am for an hour. What is the point? They are drunk. So either she was drunk too or needed to fight.

Emotionally abusive, yes, both parents. My mother would take any show of fear or grief and tell it as a very very funny story to every person she ran into. Is it any surprise that I had to go into therapy after she died to learn to feel fear or grief? My sister would say, “She’s got her stone face on,” about me. Um, yeah, I am NOT going to let my family see my emotions…

Anyhow, that is what I read in people when I first meet them. It’s not the suit, the clothes, the make up, the race, the gender. I pretty much ignore those. I was fashion blind in junior high, a girl geek, could not read the code and did not care. I had given up on socializing with my fellow students. I was hopelessly bad at it. I did a lot better with the adults around my parents. I could have actual conversations with them.

I had one patient who was transgender where I couldn’t remember which direction. I didn’t care, either. That was a really angry person. Anger is always covering other emotions, so I avoided pronouns and tried to be as gentle as possible.

I complained to a counselor once that I can’t turn this “off”. And that it’s fine in clinic with patients, but it screws with my relationships with my peer doctors. They do not like it if I “read” them.

It took me years, but I finally realized that I have to use my clinic skills with everyone. I can’t turn off “reading” any more than you turn off your eyes when you meet a new person. But I can be as gentle with everyone as I am in clinic. I realized that as I started on a trip and the trip was amazing, everyone was so nice.

This reading is a product of a high ACE Score: Adverse Childhood Experiences. I score about a 5. One of my patients set off my ACE alarms on the first visit. I asked if he had had a rough childhood and gave a very short explanation of ACE scores. “Oh, I am a ten out of ten,” he said. He was, too. Ran away from home at age 6 or 8.

The ACE scores of all the children are rising from the last two years. The war will raise them even more, worse for the children there and the kids trying not to starve in Afganistan and Syria and world wide.

It will be interesting to read about cultural appropriation. But I don’t care much: I don’t “see” those things when I meet someone.

Hugs and blessings.

The photograph is me and my sister Chris in 1987, before my wedding. We were dancing before the wedding. She died in 2012 after 7 years of breast cancer.

Doctors and nurses and hospital staff are the last caregivers for the elderly alcoholics and addicts who are alone, whose families have finally cut them off. I think this song illustrates their pain. We try to take care of them.

Mitochondrial envy

Just think if Dr. Freud were alive today.

He’d be studying mitochondrial envy.

After all, the sperm have no mitochondria. Only the egg has mitochondria, so the mitochondria are matrilineal, from the mother only. And it is from mother to daughter to daughter that they are handed down.

I have a photograph of my mother’s mother’s mother. Mary Robbins White. She is looking straight at the camera, no smile, serious. Her thoughts are contained, her eyes give nothing away. I have photographs of my mother’s mother, my mother, me and my daughter, all with the same expression. On guard.

The mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells as well. They may have been a separate cell that moved in and made a deal with a larger cell: you take care of me and I will power you. An exchange. A bargain. A treaty. Sounds like a sensible female move to me.

My son has my mitochondria. His children, if he has them, will have his wife’s mitochondria. I think he has chosen well. I like her very much. I hope to see grandchildren.

Perhaps mitochondria are the magic that early hominoids worship when they make the earth figurine, the stone figure with generous breasts and belly and hips. The nurturer, the fecund mother, the destroying hungry mother who swallows her children and will not let them go.

I am reading Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 1972. I wonder what he would say about the matrilineal mitochondria, the second set of genetic material in each cell, the part that comes from the mother only. I think he would be fascinated and he would be writing another book.

Adverse Childhood Experiences 13: unsense

As a child in an alcoholic/addict household where you can not trust adults, who do you trust?

You either trust yourself or you buy in the alcohol story.

If you buy in, you have a high probability of either becoming an addict or marrying one, depending if you prefer the enabler or the enablee role.

If you trust yourself, you develop certain senses. You pay attention to people’s emotions. You pay attention to what people FEEL, what people DO and not what people SAY. You do not care what they say: what matters is what they do. My sister said she used to walk my parent’s house during high school and try to feel the mood. Did she need to hide?

The enabler role is trying to control the other person. There are amazing variations on this. I cared for a person whose sister would not take care of herself. Every time the sister is hospitalized, the person goes and cleans tons of garbage and rotted food from the apartment.

“Stop doing that,” I say, “You are enabling her. Call Adult Protective Services to go look at it instead.”

It can be very difficult to stop and can take years. People can change.

I have noticed that the enabler role is lethal. The enablers seem to die before the enablee. Certainly in my immediate family and with many patients too.

Enablee is the person controlled. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, anger, emotions. It is very very interesting to watch. I have read parts of my mother’s diaries. She was the enabler, with my father as the enablee. However, the diaries document them fighting in the middle of the night when he is drunk. And I remember high school, putting the pillow over my ears, because they were screaming at each other.

But wait. Why would she argue with her drunk husband? Why would anyone argue with a drunk person? You have to wait until they are sober.

And slowly I realize that my mother too was an alcoholic. I remember her drinking. Best cover for an alcoholic is a worse alcoholic, right? It’s fairly horrid. But it explains some stories and my food insecurity. They would not get up in the morning to feed me. My mother told stories of me trying to feed myself: cheerios and laundry soap. If my father was hung over, ok, but, why wouldn’t my mother get up? I think they were both hung over. That or else she really did not want a child. Especially a nine month old with opinions while she was trying to get over tuberculosis. She never got to hold me after birth until 9 months. And then I did not want her. I wanted her mother.

Trusting yourself, life can be a bit complicated. You sense the emotions others are hiding. Being a physician allows me to ask about the hidden things, very gently. Sometimes they come out right away. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes years and sometimes never. My sister and I discussed going to parties and thinking, oh, that person is the child of an addict/alcoholic. This person is in pain. This person is quite happy but hiding stuff.

I told a counselor I do not know how to turn it off. She replies, “Why do you think I am a counselor?”

I don’t see auras. I feel things: like a cloud. Like a tiger, like a bear, like a whale, singing.

I think I will go with the whale.

Baby doctor

I pick up a Steffi-baby doctor while I am in Michigan.

For whom, you say?

For ME. I collect mother/baby images and statues. I have photographs, statues and toys, of mothers and babies and of pregnant women. Some family ones too. I am a Family Practice doctor, after all.

The Steffi is in with a bunch of Barbies. I am glad to see Barbie Princesses that are ethnically diverse. Next I hope the Disney will decide that adult women who are not virgins are human too, but judging by the way the second Frozen was received, I am not holding my breath. The only good Disney Queen is a dead one. The ones who survive, well, sex apparently turns them evil. It is pretty consistent in the Disney animated movies.

So, Steffi. I was thinking of Skipper, Barbie’s friend, but I realize that Steffi is not Skipper. Note that the baby has a facial rash. This apparently resolves if a cool washcloth is used on the baby’s face. I wish all babies were that easy to treat.

I look up Steffi on the internet and she is German. The packaging confirms this, with an instruction sheet in German and multiple other languages. I like Steffi a lot better than the Disney Princesses. She has tools: a stethoscope and a bottle and an otoscope and a thermometer and a rather mysterious looking caliper set. She has a green version of the white coat and a dress with hearts to reassure the babies. And LOOK! Steffi is wearing a MASK!

I love it. Up with Steffi, who can do things. I am not totally against princesses, I am just against the whole princesses are waiting for some prince to arrive and then their life will… well, they will die in childbirth if they remain nice and they will turn evil if they live. It seems like a poor choice of careers, honestly. My favorite princess is the Dealing with Dragons series, because that princess decides not to follow the usual princess path. The first thing she does is follow a frog’s advice and runs away. And the dragons are wonderful too.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: worry. I worry about the message of the Disney Princesses.

The Introverted Thinker in New York

The Introverted Thinker is eight. Her mother takes her out of school for a week to go to New York City.

They leave her sister and her father behind.

Her mother complains about the school paperwork. “Never let school get in the way of your children’s education,” she says. “That’s what my father says.”

The IT is not sure what all this means. But she is excited.

They go on an airplane. She gets to sit by the window. She can see the ground and it is squares like a quilt with hills. It is so beautiful! She is amazed, magic!

In New York City they go to the house of an old friend of her mother’s. The old friend is old and wears dresses to the ground and a lot of jewelry. The house is dark and there are many things in it. The IT is told that the things are antiques and she must not touch anything. She walks around carefully in the dark places, looking at all of the strange things while her mother talks to the old friend. They talk about the past and people that she does not know.

Her mother takes her to museums on some days. Some are art museums. The IT is already used to art museums because her mother is an artist. The museum is like an art gallery only much bigger and the ceilings are very high. A lot of the art is very big too.

One museum is different. Natural History, says her mother. There are dinosaur bones. The IT can’t touch them either but they are wonderful. Huge animals from the past that are not here any more! She loves it.

They fly home. First she has to thank the old friend with the house like a museum, only darker. Then they go to the plane. This time there are some clouds so the IT can’t see as much, but she still gets to see the quilt of the land.

She decides that she likes museums and she likes natural history. Especially dinosaurs.

ring

I dream a night sky thick with stars

all the stars start falling

I think “That isn’t good.”
sore afraid

all the stars are angels falling

I think “That isn’t good.”
sore afraid

an angel falls close past me
in space
face at perfect peace

I think “Why do they fall?”
sore afraid

I am falling in space
head down
no earth beneath me
with the angels

crying, imperfect acceptance
sore afraid

I wake
I put the dream away

it comes back
in a decade

I write about wings
sore afraid

I try to understand
sore afraid

I am asked what my small self
my child self
wants

wings

I say yes
no longer
sore afraid

did you hear the bell?

yes

Advice to Michael

This poem is about a dream that helped me after my mother died and through a divorce. It was not an easy process, to look at my childhood and what happened. It can be a very frightening place to go. Good luck and health to everyone who tries.