My TEDx Day: Trauma, Resilience, ACEs, and Life

You guys… I had the most serendipitous day yesterday, you wouldn’t even believe it. I kid you not, by the end of the day I was shitting rainbows. Jake and I went to TEDx Charlotte, held this year at Central Piedmont Community College’s Halton Theater, in the Overcash building, and it was an incredible experience. We couldn’t get a babysitter for A, our youngest, so we chose which talks we were most interested in, brought her along, and swapped off during breaks. The food was great, the people were great, the weather was great, I couldn’t have asked for more, and yet I got so much more.

First of all, I made a few new friends. The diversity of the TEDx crowd was heartwarming, and there was this sprinkle of magic in the air that made all of our differences our strengths, and our similarities these invisible ties. It was lovely! The woman who sat next to me turned out to be right about the same age as me, married, no kids, working in the corporate world. While I tried to ask others “what brought you to this talk?” as opposed to “what do you do?” or “where do you work?”, I still got asked those a fair bit. I was there simply for the awesomeness of TED, but I decided this was my opportunity to pitch my latest idea to the world. My answer was, “Right now I run the house and take care of the girls, and I’m also working on this new trauma-informed parenting peer group idea I have.” I don’t know what response I expected, but that phrase, “trauma-informed parenting peer group” made everyone lean in. Their eyes widened, “Tell me more…”.

Anyway, that’s the reaction I got from this first new friend of mine, and we talked a lot about personal growth, and adversities. She told me she happens to be at the beginning of her own journey of self-discovery, thinking about how the past and her upbringing has influenced her, and suddenly we were elbow-deep in psychobabble. Then, she posed a question that made me stop in my tracks, she asked me: “Why do you think our generation is so determined to dig into our pasts and our traumas to fix ourselves, and why didn’t past generations prioritize it?” I know, the “generationl faults” talk is a sensitive one. Don’t run away yet! Stay, please. I thought about it for a minute, and then said, “Well, maybe it’s just because we can. Many of us now have the luxury of having our base survival needs met, so we’re not in constant fight or flight mode. Maybe it’s just Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” And we both froze. She knew the term, but for those who don’t, the Hierarchy is a pyramid of human needs, which goes from bottom to top like this: physiological (air, food, water, clothing, shelter, sex [for the survival of species – don’t have it if you don’t want to] ), safety (absence due to war, domestic violence, abuse, PTSD, personal security, financial security, health & wellbeing), love & belonging (family, friends, intimacy), esteem (confidence, self worth, respect of others, self-respect), and the top, self-actualization (realizing one’s full potential).

So, the idea is, if you can’t build the bottom of the pyramid, you will have a hard time moving up it, and if your base is unstable but you still make it to the top, you’ll be much more likely to have the entire thing collapse on you. I mean seriously, would you stand at the top of a shotty pyramid? It just makes sense that you’ll struggle to realize your full potential if you don’t have food or security or other human connections, because those foundational needs will be your brain’s major focus. Some of the Western world is seeing that they’re closer to the next step in the pyramid, so they’re reaching for it. Granted, poverty stunts this, and we have a system that keeps the lowest down, but for those of us above the poverty line, the idea that we could build our way to the top of the pyramid is starting to feel more tangible. Gen X and the Millennials are raising kids now, and thanks to the evolution of society, we are moving up the pyramid. The thing is, we’re only, by my estimation, just coming out of making “safety” our highest priority.

The Greatest Generation had it rough: When you’re worrying about the government taking your sons in the draft, or losing a child to polio, you don’t really have time for, “Hmmm, how do I make sure my child has enough fulfilling experiences today?” They yelled and probably beat the everloving shit out of them to keep them safe, because “Dammit, we didn’t manage to keep you alive through all of that to have you go do something stupid and end it early!!!” Was it right? Nope, but that’s the level they were working on. Then, you get a generation that was raised to believe you must hit and suppress kids to teach them and keep them safe, but they don’t quite know why. They faced their own issues as adults, like suffering through multiple financial crises, large-scale terrorist attacks, the invention of the 24hr news cycle (don’t kid yourself, that shit is damaging and devisive as hell), and a few of their own enlistment (yet highly expected and pressured) wars. On top of that, they fought to get us the human rights we have today. We wouldn’t be talking about anyone repealing Roe v. Wade without those actually involved. So now, those aren’t our (the middle-class Western world’s) problems anymore. Today, we’re worried about proper nutrition, but thankfully we don’t have to worry about a national shortage of food. We’re worried about safe brain development for our kids, but thankfully we don’t have to worry about having them eaten or mauled by bears. Hey, there was a time.

I’m not trying to dismiss the things our current generation is fighting for – just the opposite, I want to encourage them – which brings me right back to my new friend’s question: “Why do you think our generation is so determined to dig into our pasts and our traumas to fix ourselves, and why didn’t past generations prioritize it?” Because our generation can, and their generations couldn’t, but they got us to the point where we can, so we absolutely should. AND because, in lieu of the draft and famine and bears, our fight or flight brains are identifying and targeting new threats to our society and our children. To us, our own traumas feel just as threatening as polio or a bear because they’re working on the same pathways in our brains. For those not worrying regularly about actually being able to eat and feed our families, abuse is our bear. Those just trying to make ends meet can absolutely raise their children in a calm, gentle, trauma-free way, but they have far more obstacles to overcome, simply because their brains are prioritizing things like keeping a roof over everyone’s head, as they should be. Sadly, there are still too many people living that way.

My analogy about the bear comes from my new idol, Dr Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in California, and quite frankly, a superhero. Dr Burke Harris is fighting tooth and nail to bring something called ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) to the forefront of Western medicine. Very briefly (because she explains it better), in the late 90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente sent predominantly white, middle- and upper-class, college-educated, health-insured Americans a survey about their upbringings.

**Trigger warning, all the triggers, and I’m not trying to be funny**

They created a way to measure 10 ACEs:

1) Physical, 2) sexual and 3) verbal abuse.

4) Physical and 5) emotional neglect.

6) A family member who is depressed  diagnosed with other mental illness; 7) addicted to alcohol or another substance; 8) in prison.

9) Witnessing a mother being abused.

10) Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.

From Dr Burke Harris’ website, “The results of the ACE Study had two striking findings. First, ACEs are incredibly common—67 percent (2 out of 3 people) of the study population had at least one ACE and 13 percent (1 out of 8 people) of the population had four or more ACEs. Secondly, there was a dose-response relationship between ACEs and numerous health problems. This means that the more ACEs a child has, the higher the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression and cancer.” Let that sink in.

They’ve since added many more factors. The study also found that the negative effects on one’s health are not necessarily due to the fact that these individuals might drink, smoke, overeat, or do other drugs at a higher rate. No, it’s because, as you’ll see in Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk (yes, you will watch it), if you experience those things regularly as a child, your brain is stuck in survival mode, being pumped full of fear hormones, making your heart race, tensing up your body, and getting you ready to fight or run… as if you’re being chased by a lion. Every day.

There are also resilience factors that help mitigate the effects of ACEs.

1) Believing your mother loved you as a child

2) Believing your father loved you as a child

3) Having people other than mother and father, who you believe loved you, take care of you sometimes as a child

4) Hearing stories that when you were an infant, others enjoyed spending time with you, and that you also enjoyed it

5) You had relatives who made you feel better if you were sad or worried as a child

6) Neighbors or parents’ friends seemed to like you as a child

7) Teachers, coaches, youth leaders, or ministers were there to help you as a child

8) Someone in your family cared how you were doing in school

9) Family, neighbors, and friends talked often about making life better

10) You had rules in your house you were expected to abide by

11) When you felt bad, you could almost always find someone you trusted to talk to

12) People noticed you were capable and could get things done as a youth

13) You were an independent self-starter

14) You believed that life is what you make it

These are things we all need to be highly aware of because our ACEs are our new lions, our new triggers, our new threats. They will kill us young if we don’t deal with them ourselves, and we risk repeating the cycle with our children. It’s a hard road to go down, but if you can, you should. You can get your ACE and Resilience scores here.

Right, so that was all a product of one interaction I had. One. I had about six other conversations that were equally as enriching, and moved me more towards implementing this trauma-informed parenting group. I talked a LOT of trauma talk, which has been happening more and more with friends and strangers lately, and I think that’s a very healing, cathartic thing. Jake met another Canadian, who introduced me to his wife, who works with mental health and substance dependence patients to help them through their trauma, due to her own traumatic past. A (the toddler) befriended a bunch of young college students, guys and girls, who absolutely turned to mush when they saw her. They talked about their nephews and nieces and cousins and parenting, and they said how important they think it is to do it right and to know how to parent effectively and treat your child with respect. I was shocked! They held A, huge smiles pasted across their faces, and she was totally content. I ran into an old acquaintance (Tracey Moore, or Dr King himself, for those who know him) who works at CPCC’s main campus, and told him about someone else’s idea for a course we want to collaborate on. He walked A and I up to an office that he thought would like to hear the pitch, and they were intrigued so they sent me to another guy, who put down what he was doing and walked us over to a woman he really thought might want to hear what I had to say. She wants to get this other idea off the ground in the Spring, but more to come on that later.

Easily, the most incredible conversation I had was with one of the presenters. I got to talk to (well, ermm, I was pretty persistent) Charles Hunt, who was the only one to silence the entire auditorium with the power of his talk on resilience through childhood adversity. Charles founded Audacity Firm, where he does coaching and workshops to help people grow (either individually or for corporations bettering employee relations) through resilience, teaching you to have the AUDACITY to not let your trauma own you. Pretty bad ass, no? He took pictures of my notes, saying he was humbled, and that it would help him know what was really resonating with people. Smart guy. I’d been telling him about my course and I said, “One of the portions is going to include working through Nadine Burke Harris’ ACEs.” He looked at me, then shook his head a little. “Do you… know what ACEs are?” I asked him. He did not. Suddenly, I had something to offer HIM, something he didn’t know, but that wasn’t even the most… well, humbling part. When I explained it all and it sunk in, he said, “Wow, that would explain my [health problem, because I don’t even think he expected to say that, and it’s not my place to put it here].” Yeah, he may incorporate the statistics from ACEs into his strategy to help others, and that would be great, but I may have just opened a whole new path for him to research his own health, and change his life trajectory, so that he can live longer to help others, and continue to heal his own trauma. Now THAT was fucking amazing. Plus, he’s willing to collaborate, or help me a little with this parenting project. At the very least, we’ll pay him to be a speaker. So, there’s that.

Whew, I think that’s all I have to say right now. Here’s a link to all the talks. All of the speakers are local, and all are looking to share ideas and collaborate. Seriously, I talked to about 1/3 of them and they’re really amazing people. I know I’ll definitely be attending another TEDx. Now that I’ve dropped that huge mind bomb theory on you, try not to contemplate it too hard, and have a great weekend!

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Author: Barb Machina

I write a blog prompted by my wandering idealism, and relentless pursuit of justice. At best, I write evidenced-based pieces that focus on health, medicine, human rights, politics, science, parenting, and history... At worst, it's a stream of consciousness, fueled by wine and other.

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