I never realized that my crappy childhood might kill me off early.
But then I went to see James Redford’s Resilience tonight. It’s a documentary about childhood trauma, how it damages health in adulthood—and what some communities are doing about it.
I hope the community action gets the same traction as seatbelts and second-hand smoke because a lot of kids are dealing with abuse, neglect, and violence in and around their homes, and the toll it takes can last a lifetime.
The movement started with research published in 1998, which used a 10-question, yes or no quiz about family dysfunction, physical, and sexual abuse as its baseline tool.
That quiz became known as ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study).
Its startling conclusion was that more than 3 “yes” answers indicates poor health outcomes in adulthood. 6 or more yeses predicts a reduced life expectancy of 20 years. I scored a 7. (You can take the quiz too. Just follow the link above.)
20 years! That got my attention. As payback for my lousy childhood . . . I should expect to live 20 years less?
I’d thought that childhood trauma victims do poorly because it’s hard to land on your feet after a rough childhood. You don’t feel so good about yourself. Nobody’s paying your way to college. Addiction disorders are common. The smokes, the booze, the pills—they all take their toll. I thought I was safe because I’d avoided the usual bad habits. I thought I got points for clean living.
But it turns out there’s a biological response, not just behavioral. Stress built into your organs as they’re developing can make you sick later. Childhood trauma victims have much higher rates of heart disease, strokes, cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, etc. My salad and hiking habits can’t prevent something that formed in childhood.
The research offers one hopeful note: Good relationships and experiences in childhood can help offset the bad. In my case, I had one set of lovely grandparents, and I found a substitute mom in an ex-girlfriend of my dad’s. So, maybe I’m not doomed.
Coming home from the film, that 20 years was on my mind. I noticed the congratulatory letter from last month’s mammogram, still on my desk. This time I read past the first line.
The letter said I have “dense” breasts which might hide abnormalities. Was this just “CYA,” or something to pay attention to?
When I was undressing for my mammogram, I’d read the self-exam instructions posted on the wall of the changing room. I’d vowed to do better.
With the threat of losing 20 years, it seemed the right moment.
I lay down on my bed, raised my right arm, and used my left hand to circle my right breast. Boom. There it was, on the armpit side of my nipple. I circled around again, hoping maybe it was cartilage or bone, but the placement was all wrong. It felt like a small marble.
Two months ago, at my physical, my doctor checked my breasts. Besides pressing them in multiple circles, she’d stared at them from across the exam room as I raised first one arm and then the other. Had she missed this? Or did it grow that fast?
Whatever happened, I’m not about to surrender those 20 years without a fight.