Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.
The ACE Study is probably the most important public health study because, for the first time, modern medicine really began acknowledging the underlying emotional aspects of our health problems. Particularly, how childhood trauma affects the mental, physical and spiritual development of a human being.
What Are ACEs?
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are events in a child’s life which are stressful. The types of experiences which could cause a child traumatic stress are physical, sexual and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect. Violence against a loved one – mother or sibling, substance abuse – alcoholic parents or parents on drugs, mental illness, death of a close family member, divorce or separation of parents and a parent in jail.
Besides these, there is neglect – both physical and emotional which may not be so apparent, nonetheless are deeply wounding. ACEs are seemingly unending series of negative situations in a child’s life with no resolution in sight. There is no escape.
My traumatic story
I am an ACEs survivor. I grew up in a middle-class home. We were fairly well-off. Life changed when my mother died after years of battling cancer. I was an innocent 11-year-old struggling to cope with human evil. My father who always had anger issues became the sole caretaker of my brother and me.
He hated it. He would threaten to throw us out of our home daily, even though it still belonged to my grandfather. I became scared of the thought of us having to live on the street. Every time we ate, he would start off on how he was doing us a favour. Anything was enough for him to fly into rages that meant he’d violently attack you.
Trauma of sexual abuse
Just one month after my mother died, a cousin 10 years older than me attacked me and tried to get me to into bed. I screamed and when my paternal grandmother who lived below us heard my screams, she called out, “What was the matter?”
ACEs are seemingly unending series of negative situations in a child’s life with no resolution in sight.
At this, the cousin went rushing down to my grandmother telling her that I was just screaming. That was my first experience of being gaslighted. My grandmother’s response was “just like her mother“. Even at the age of 11, I knew what she meant.
My evil grandmother had this view that her daughters-in-law were “loose” women. This was not true at all. My cousin was emboldened to continue with his abuse while I slept and when I’d wake up, he’d run off. His behaviour further affected my sense of reality.
Finally, I caught him with his hands in my panties, while I slept on my father’s double bed. I woke up my father, who then kicked him out. But on the cousin’s next birthday, I was made to kiss him as though what happened was all right. It was like putting salt on my wounds. It totally destroyed any feeling I had that my father cared about my well-being.
The cousin not only molested me, he destroyed what relationship I had with my brother by alienating him from me. In response to all this stress, I began bedwetting, not once, but twice in my sleep. My trauma was further exacerbated when my brother told the cousin about this issue and he wrote a very sarcastic article about me being the ‘Susu Queen’ of the family. I never hated anyone as I hated him then.
Trauma of neglect
While this horror was going on in my home, I’d escape to my maternal grandmother’s home which was close by. Most times she’d be cold and rejecting. Hiding food she cooked. This was new because when my mother was alive she was the best grandmother in the world.
Her changed behaviour made me feel that I had done something wrong. Of course, she wanted me to help her when her son’s wife came and threatened her with divorce if she did not take care of her kids. So, I was put to work to take care of a two-year-old and one-year-old who had severe attachment issues. Crying and clinging all the time. I was 12-years-old.
Then another ‘Aunt Marriage Encounter’ (she and her husband were the leaders of the Marriage Encounter Church group) would land up nearly every weekend and take me to her home when she had work to do. So here I was a young girl having to take care of myself, do my own housework and plus be the unpaid domestic help cum psychotherapist. I had to listen to ‘Aunt Marriage Encounter’ spew hatred for her husband.
The trauma of false sexual accusations
The final straw that finally destroyed me was when my Uncle Woody (who looks like Woody Allen) began lusting after me. His wife, my mother’s sister, accused me of trying to seduce him. What was devastating was that this was the sister my mother had entrusted to handle her financial matters and take care of us.
Further, my maternal grandmother was present while I was accosted with this lie. What could a 12-year-old do? I collapsed on the floor and when they picked me up, I felt like the life had been sucked out of me. From a healthy, bright young girl who was at the top of her class, I became the girl who developed severe scoliosis. Even though I did graduate, I barely scraped through.
When I finally left my home because my brother really became abusive as I was not married and he became convinced that I was the reason for his rejection in the marriage market. I escaped to shack up with a man who was going through a contentious divorce. Thankfully he died but left me with a 2-year-old child with no house and money. That is another story
The trauma of shame
I did not discuss all my experiences because I felt shame, that maybe I was the bad person. That I was not good enough was the reason I was the scapegoat and picked on.
Finally, I opened up to one of the church women about being an unmarried mother. The next thing I know is they were counselling me for being a sinner. No one asked the real reason why I left my home. She later told me that she had to tell the pastor.
I did not discuss all my experiences because I felt shame, that maybe I was the bad person.
Another counsellor I talked to about my abusive childhood just brushed it aside like it was unimportant. Even the people close to me have asked me to just get over it. But you just cannot get over years of being traumatized. From my own experiences, I know without a doubt that ACEs changes your brain and consequently affects your body.
I have spent my entire adult life struggling with the after-effects of childhood trauma – complex-PTSD. There was the continuous depression, hyper-vigilance, obsessive thoughts and continuous back pain. It has affected my life and I till today struggle to deal with everyday issues. Small things trigger me.
However, life has improved now with my son becoming an adult. I no longer am solely responsible and am not alone. I feel supported, loved and cared for.
Healing from trauma
The last 2 years I have totally taken a break from work and worked on my healing. Yes, one can triumph over childhood adversities but it takes time, love, safe spaces and a stress-free environment.
In the Western world, ACEs has become an important criteria in public health, social services, education, the justice system, mental health and even at the workplace. When will India wake up to the corroding effects of childhood trauma?
As a survivor, I’ve spent the most productive years of my life battling the effects of childhood abuse and don’t wish this legacy on someone else. It is up to all of us to become aware of child development, both positive and negative.
Featured Image Source: NPR