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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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?