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.
Welcome to the dark, everyone.
When you think about it, all the children in the world are adding at least one Adverse Childhood Experience score and possibly more, because of Covid-19. Some will add more than one: domestic violence is up with stress, addiction is up, behavioral health problems are up, some parents get sick and die, and then some children are starving.
From the CDC Ace website:
“Overview:Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. However, ACEs can be prevented.”
Well, can they be prevented? Could Covid-19 be prevented? I question that one.
I have a slightly different viewpoint. I have an ACE Score of 5 and am not dead and don’t have heart disease. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about ACE scores and that it’s framed as kids’ brains are damaged.
I would argue that this is survival wiring. When I have a patient where I suspect a high ACE score, I bring it up, show them the CDC web site and say that I think of it as “crisis wiring” not “damaged”. I say, “You survived your childhood. Good job! The low ACE score people do not understand us and I may be able to help you let go of some of the automatic survival reactions and fit in with the people who had a nice childhood more easily.”
It doesn’t seem useful to me to say “We have to prevent ACE scores.” Um. Tsunamis, hurricanes, Covid-19, wars… it seems to me that the ACE score wiring is adaptive. If your country is at war and you are a kid and your family sets out to sea to escape, well, you need to survive. If that means you are guarded, untrusting, suspicious and wary of everyone, yeah, ok. You need to survive. One of my high ACE Score veterans said that the military loved him because he could go from zero to 60 in one minute. Yeah, me too. I’ve worked on my temper since I was a child. Now it appears that my initial ACE insult was my mother having tuberculosis, so in the womb. Attacked by antibodies, while the tuberculosis bacillus cannot cross the placenta, luckily for me. And luckily for me she coughed blood at 8 months pregnant and then thought she had lung cancer and was going to die at age 22. Hmmm, think of what those hormones did to my wiring.
So if we can’t prevent all ACE Scores, what do we do? We change the focus. We need to understand crisis wiring, support it and help people to let go of the hair trigger that got them through whatever horrid things they grew up with. 16% of Americans have a score of 4 or more BEFORE Covid-19. We now have a 20 or 25 year cohort that will have higher scores. Let’s not label them doomed or damaged. Let’s talk about it and help people to understand.
I read a definition of misery memoirs today. I don’t scorn them. I don’t like the fake ones. I don’t read them, though I did read Angela’s Ashes. What I thought was amazing about Angela’s Ashes is that for me he captures the child attitude of accepting what is happening: when his sibling is dying and they see a dog get killed and he associates the two. And when he writes about moving and how their father would not carry anything, because it was shameful for a man to do that. He takes it all for granted when he is little because that is what he knows. One book that I know of that makes a really difficult childhood quite amazing is Precious Bane, by Mary Webb. Here is a visible disability that marks her negatively and yet she thrives.
A friend met at a conference is working with traumatic brain injury folks. They were starting a study to measure ACE scores and watch them heal, because they were noticing the high ACE score people seem to recover faster. I can see that: I would just say, another miserable thing and how am I going to work through it. Meanwhile a friend tells me on the phone that it’s “not fair” that her son’s senior year of college is spoiled by Covid-19. I think to myself, uh, yes but he’s not in a war zone nor starving nor hit by a tsunami and everyone is affected by this and he’s been vaccinated. I think he is very lucky. What percentage of the world has gotten vaccinated? He isn’t on a ventilator. Right now, that falls under doing well and also lucky in my book. And maybe that is what the high ACE score people have to teach the low ACE score people: really, things could be a lot worse. No, I don’t trust easily and I am no longer feeling sorry about it. I have had a successful career in spite of my ACE score, I ran a clinic in the way that felt ethical to me, I have friends who stick with me even through PANDAS and my children are doing well. And I am not addicted to anything except I’d get a caffeine headache for a day if I had none.
For the people with the good childhood, the traumatic brain injury could be their first terrible experience. They go through the stages of grief. The high ACE score people do too, but we’ve done it before, we are familiar with it, it’s old territory, yeah ok jungle again, get the machete out and move on. As the world gets through Covid-19, with me still thinking that this winter looks pretty dark, maybe we can all learn about ACE scores and support each other and try to be kind, even to the scary looking veteran.
I think I finally understand what I have been doing in clinic all these years. And not just in clinic. As a theory it explains both why patients, nurses, hospital staff and specialists really really like me and my fellow Family Practice doctors, particularly the males, and the administrators, really really do NOT like me.
I am on a plane flying to Michigan a few weeks ago. Double masked. N95 with another mask over it. Sigh.
A friend keeps saying that he can see into me. He can, but he can see thoughts. Not feelings. I am wondering if I see feelings. But I see the stuffed feelings particularly, the ones that people keep hidden. They are like clouds.
And then I think, oh.
I automatically scan any new person for their small child. The inner small child, who is often damaged and hidden. The small child is hidden under those stuffed feelings, which I think of as monsters. In Ride Forth, I am writing about pulling every monster feeling that I can find stuffed out and letting myself feel them. And that people do not like seeing me like that. Their monsters attack me!
Except that the monsters don’t attack. The monsters come to me and say, “Please, please, help me. I want out. The small child needs to heal.” The monsters lie their monstrous heads in my lap and weep.
Now WHY would I develop this skill? That is weird.
I develop it because my parents both drink. The myth in the family is that it was my father. But my mother’s diaries and also her stories make it clear that she drank heavily too. I think they were both alcoholics. And she told two stories about me trying to get someone to get out of bed to give me food as a toddler. As jokes. But it is not a joke. I have food insecurity. At every meal, I think of the next one and whether there is food available. My daughter has it too….. epigenetics.
I think that the only way I could love my parents was to have compassion for them. Once you see another person’s damaged small child, then how can you not feel compassion for them?
With patients I learned to be very very delicate and gentle about asking about the cloud. Just gently. Sometimes people open up on the first visit. Sometimes they shut tight like a clam and I back off. Sometimes they return the next visit or the 3rd or the 8th or after a couple years… and say, “You asked me about this.”
It’s nonverbal communication. The reason why I take the WHOLE history MYSELF at the first visit is for the nonverbal communication. When the person doesn’t want to answer a question, veers away from a topic, switches subjects: there is my cloud. That is where the hurt is. That is where the pain is.
The first cracks in the United States medical system collapse are appearing. Not doctors quitting, not nurses, but medical assistants. Here is an article about how clinics all over can’t hire medical assistants. Because there are tons of jobs, employers are offering more money, why would you do a job where you may well be exposed to covid-19 if you can do something else? And make as much money or more….
The cracks will widen. Ironically doctors are doing what I have done for the last ten years: “rooming” the patients themselves. Ha, ha, good may come out of it, after the disaster. Which is getting worse fast. If people don’t put their masks on and don’t social distance and don’t get vaccinated, I predict more deaths in the US this winter then last winter. Sigh. And in the US we will run out of medical assistants, doctors and nurses.
It is ok to gently ask a patient about that cloud. It is not polite to “see” it in a Family Medicine colleague or and administrator. I can’t “not see” it. I can’t turn it off. However, on the plane my behavior changed even before I could put all of this into words. The words are that I have to be as gentle with everyone as I am with patients.
And the trip felt so odd. I was putting this into effect before I had words. That is how my intuition works. But everyone, absolutely everyone, was kind to me on the trip. A Chicago policeman helped me in the train station and was super kind. It was weird, weird, weird, with bells on. It took me a few more days to be able to put it into words.
Problem intuited, after 60 years of study. Implementation of solution proceeds immediately. Logical brain struggling to catch up, but results satisfactory long before logical brain gets a handle on it.
Pretty weird, eh? I think so. My doctor said that an episode of Big Bang Theory could be written just by following me around for a day. I think it was both saying that I am smart AND that I have no social skills. But I have implemented the social skills program already. She’s just upset that I gave her justifiable hell two visits ago and also…. I do hide my brain. Because sometimes colleagues are jealous.
But maybe they should not be jealous. Maybe they can learn it too. Maybe I can teach. Maybe….
the virtue of the disconnect
as a child
they say we are broken
he wakes at night
what was your childhood like?
how did you sleep?
it was not safe
we had to get up
leave in the night
you survived your childhood
yes, I did
sleeping lightly saved you
yes, it did
you could rewire that
it takes a lot of time
to change the childhood wiring
or you could just
with sleeping lightly
For the Daily Prompt: loyal.
I am thinking of the men working with the Weinstiens and the Cosbys. They might have heard a rumor, but they ignored it? Women are free to speak up if there is a problem?
No, gentlemen, actually women are only “free” to speak up if they are rich and in massive groups.
Otherwise, we are dismissed, silenced, disbelieved and ignored.
For me, it was at age 7. Are you going to say I was dressed wrong? I was too sexy? I should not have been alone with him? It’s my fault?
The water is beautiful and reflects the sky. What do you think is there beneath the surface in the depths?
She’s listening to the radio
her mother would say with half an ear
if they had done something different
not THAT dress
not that date
too many drinks
did she flirt?
THAT college has statistics
would not have happened
if if if
she is holding a spatula
riding the school bus
age 7, second grade
look at the other kids
the only girl
who is not a virgin
the high school senior next door
she loved when he would push the swing
trade: lie down here
I won’t hurt you
she got scared “stop” ran
asked her mother what it meant
worries until the doctor
surely the doctor
would notice if she is pregnant
her sister is four
never ever go near
the boy next door
her sister cries
she keeps an eye on her
she’s different now from other girls
should have known
never speak to him again
the bacon burning on the stove
cry, throw the bacon out
is never acceptable
it is not the woman’s fault
nor the child’s
previously published on everthing2.com in 2010
Yes, that is a house burning down. The owner and cats got out. Barely.