Holding your ACEs

ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) refers to negative experiences children and adolescents go through such as physical abuse, neglect or household dysfunction. Since the original research was done in the late nineties further studies have been conducted showing the negative impact they can have on the adults. Unsurprisingly, for children who go through some really fucked up shit they have some problems as adults. Those with a ‘high score’ (i.e. have experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences) are more likely to suffer from chronic depression, more likely to smoke, more likely to experience sexual assault and attempt suicide, there are a whole range of increased risks which (if you are in the mood for a downer) you can read all about here.

I never really accepted that my childhood was really fucked up, I went to a school where I could hide in plain sight. I was poor but there were poorer kids. Parental separation was really common by the time I got to secondary. A lot of my friends’ parents were alcoholics, used or sold drugs and only a few people outside my immediate family knew my mum would beat us in mad rages, but I knew my friend’s parents did the same sometimes.  Being surrounded by it normalised it, I didn’t know until I was much older that these were not the experiences most children lived through. I also had nice memories from my childhood, summers spent with my cousins at the beach and sleepovers with friends. As an adult, I used these to minimise the darker aspects of my childhood, focusing on what I did have and blocking out what was too difficult to deal with. Blocking the memories didn’t stop me struggling, I just didn’t make the link between them and my poor mental health.

Now as an adult I have found myself in a sector that supports children going through even worse things than I did. It sounds strange but it wasn’t until about 12 months ago that I realised why I might have been drawn to this kind of work. It doesn’t pay well, it is really hard and it is emotionally draining, but I have always wanted to help people. The irony is I didn’t want to help myself, I never looked after myself, I didn’t think I deserved it. Being beaten and threatened scared me into silence and made me believe I was a bad person, who must have done terrible things, to be treated like that. Combined with the neglect and deprivation that I lived through I didn’t have a healthy sense of what I need and deserve.  One of the most detrimental aspects of ACES is that often those who experience them internalise them and they manifest in a lot of self-hatred.

For anyone who hasn’t experienced it, it might be hard to understand why you would hate yourself because someone else violated you. For so long I was ashamed of my upbringing, I didn’t want people to know how poor I had was and the rest of my family didn’t really know how bad it was with my mum. I felt isolated by what I had been through which meant I wasn’t able to reach out to people for the support I needed. I didn’t know what being cared for was. I was too ashamed and shut down to address it even when I found myself in therapy.

My therapist tried and failed to get me to recognise that these experiences had moulded my mental health and perspective as an adult. Being confronted so forcefully and trying to stifle the memories and emotions exacerbated my problems, I internalised the conflict and went back to the coping mechanism I had relied on as a teenager – bulimia. It was after a lot more individual therapy, that I came to family therapy with my brother, where I finally felt safe enough to speak about and accept that the stress of my childhood was not my fault but had real affects for on me now.

But now that I am working to accept and properly process what I went through I feel so much freer. More open to admitting to people how hard it was for me growing up and accepting that I need to deal with it. Different experiences will manifest themselves in different ways but holding your ACEs (whatever they were) with care and compassion can help you manage where you are now. You are still that child, you need to give yourself the love and care you were denied in the past.

So, although I am still very early into this process I have found a few things particularly useful.

  1. Read “The Body Keeps Score”

If you are like me and you love a bit of context for your mental health, then you will love this book. Not only does it outline the physical impact of a huge variety of mental illnesses it also discusses different non-traditional treatment approaches. It was incredibly informative and opened me up to different therapeutic approaches, beyond traditional therapy. Big trigger warning though, it is not an easy read, it has taken me months to finish this book. If it isn’t safe for you then you can also access author Bessel van der Kolk through interviews like this one or message me and we can discuss the treatments without the case studies

  1. Do your research and look into specific therapies

I didn’t address my childhood experiences until I got into family therapy. It was not a purposeful decision, I went into it to find a way to discuss my eating disorder with my brother but the sessions became a space for us to speak about the trauma we had experienced. We had both shut it down in different ways and this was one of the first times we could speak about it in a healthy way. Therapy is sadly still a luxury not everyone can access but doing your research can avoid you ending up with the wrong type.  If you don’t have the means or motivation to get into therapy, then you can find lots of information online on ways to resolve or heal your childhood experiences.

  1. Don’t feel guilty about avoiding/removing toxic people

Whether this is someone from your childhood who you need to shift away from or someone you have met as an adult who triggers you, don’t feel guilty about taking space from them or removing them from your life. My guilt around doing this myself still surfaces, it is natural, but ultimately it is the healthiest choice for me. If I don’t put myself first then who will?

Books and Bulimia

On Monday I got an email reminder that it was Eating Disorder Awareness Week.  I haven’t written about this before but thought this week was as good as any to give it a go.

Although, I have a lot of friends who have experienced depression or anxiety I don’t have anyone else in my life, who I know of, who has struggled with disordered eating. As a teenager and in my early twenties I felt completely alone with it, the only one who spent every day battling with my body and food. Of all the problems I have had with my mental health my experience with bulimia is still the one I struggle to speak openly about. It took years for me to feel comfortable to admit to even having a problem.  I was so ashamed of myself, angry that I couldn’t just snap out of it and scared of being judged for something I thought was disgusting and reckless.

Shame is a common emotion associated with mental health problems. For people who don’t understand them eating disorders are a skinny, teenage, white girl’s disease. These two factors make it hard for people who suffer from bulimia or binge eating disorder to seek or receive the medical support they need. Not looking completely emaciated can make it hard for people to get the help they need. Some GPs and treatment centres still use weight as a diagnostic criteria for treatment and most people will be complimented by friends or family if they lose weight. I first sought treatment when I was 19 and was seen by a counsellor who told me it seemed like I was looking for attention. I didn’t seek help again for years. By staying quiet (and not telling my doctor the counsellor was an idiot) my shame took a greater hold of me and I told myself I wasn’t strong enough or deserving enough to get better.

My route to recovery was not smooth, I had many more problematic responses from medical professionals before I found a team who supported me how I needed. I didn’t go from actively bulimic to recovery overnight and it took time for me to feel comfortable enough to speak to people about it.

Before I could speak about it, I read about it and listened to other people talking about it.  Finding other ‘normal’ people who understood the shame and isolation of an eating disorder, people who like me didn’t ‘look like they had an eating disorder’ helped me to find a way to speak about it with non-medical professionals and accept it as part of me but not a shameful defining factor.

download

Eating in the Light of the Moon This book genuinely changed my life. Author Anita Johnston uses fables and fairy tales from around the world to create metaphors for disordered eating. Reading it helped me realise how isolated I was, by hiding my eating disorder I was blocking myself off and ensuring I could never overcome the shame I had about having the eating disorder in the first place. It has activities and strategies to help understand the roots of your disordered eating and how to combat them.

You can access more information on the Light of the Moon Café website, which has blog posts, resources and free books all aimed at helping you tackle your issues with food.

download-1

Sensing the Self This book was recommended to me by a therapist. It is quite academic but hearing testimonies of women who were in the middle of or in recovery from bulimia definitely helped me feel less alone. Seeing myself in other women’s experience was so powerful, hearing their shame made mine feel less scary and it helped me visualise a place where I could be free from my eating disorder.

So the blog title says books but I am also a big radio/podcast lover and my recovery has really been boosted by shows which promote body liberation and mental health.

fullsizeoutput_d0d

Food Psyche Moving on from my eating disorder wasn’t easy and maintaining it while surrounded by messages which promoted weight loss and thinness was a real struggle. I tried a few different podcasts about eating disorder recovery, and although they had good advice, I didn’t enjoy listening to them. Food Psyche has a really diverse guest list; activists, dieticians, psychologists, yoga teachers, Instagram influencers all speaking about their relationships with food and being happy with the shape, size, abilities and colour of their bodies. I’m far from a beacon of body positivity but this podcast has really helped me feel ok with not being ok.

fullsizeoutput_d0c

Getting Curious I was already in a stable recovery when I found the beautiful sunshine that is Jonathan Van Ness but this episode fully made me cry. Hearing someone who I looked up to and admired so much speak about suffering with and recovering from bulimia was incredibly powerful. The podcast in general is fantastic, and definitely a good shout for feel good listening, but this episode was a nice reminder that eating disorders effect all sorts of different people who go on to be successful and brilliant!