Fall 1986 Oakland CA
………Already 2 years into awareness of myself an an adult child of alcoholic parents, the effects of my dysfunctional upbringing have been re-ignited by the break-up of my relationship. I realize I’m overwhelmed. I check myself into a residential treatment program at Merritt Peralta Institute (MPI) in Oakland, CA along with 14 other struggling ‘adult children.’
Rae Ellen Holland, MFC (Masters in Family Counseling) is our group therapist. She is to lead us in 30 hours of group therapy, spread over 6 days. It will be the central focus of our treatment.
In the first therapy session, she says gives each of us a large sheet of white paper and a black magic marker. We are directed to immediately create one sketch emblematic of our childhood in our dysfunctional family. These are not to be works of art. We are to draw quickly and spontaneously, and she collects each of them just as soon as soon they seem adequate for her purposes.
When it’s time for my role play, she pulls out my sketch and asks me to tell her the story I’d wanted to capture. I explain I’d drawn myself as quite young, cowering under the kitchen table while watching yet another of mom and dad’s lengthy shoving, screaming and slapping battles rage around me.
But she goes over my drawing carefully with me and points out that my dad isn’t even in my picture, that the ‘table legs and floor’ look like a glass jar holding me and the ‘table top’ is the jar’s lid. My scene shifts within me and I realize I feel like a small bug trapped inside the jar. My legs are drawn up against my oval body and my wispy arms clasped round them. My mother is giant. She towers over me and my eyes are huge, protruding from my head as she reaches down for me.
Then, with the masterful timing of her craft, Rae Ellen points out I haven’t drawn hands for my mother at all.
In fact I’ve drawn massive crab’s pincers on the ends of her stick arms.
The emotions of moments when she would reach for me like that can still course through me. They’ve long since lost their hold on me, but they remain at the very core of my being.
And throughout my time at MPI, I remember Rae Ellen repeatedly asking us, “How are you FEELING?”
Summer 2005 California
………Alone. Scorching hot. Grocery shopping done. Headed home on clogged multilane streets, I progress at whatever pace is meted out to me.
Approaching yet another red light, I hear screaming and swear words. Has my disengaged car control unknowingly offended?
The yelling localizes to a car to my left. The driver is a short obese woman who’s twisted her bulk rearward, while still driving and screaming. There’s a baby in the front seat and a pre-teen girl sitting behind the driver, but I barely notice them.
Fully stopped, I’m side by side with its 4th occupant, a young teenage girl in the back seat – the eldest daughter. Windows open, separated only by our car doors and the lane markings on the pavement we share, I can hear her stifled sobs as she gushes tears.
Fate has put me directly in the mother’s stream of curses as their ever vivid scene winds down.
I immediately and fully identify with the daughter.
She sits bolt upright, her face bright red with humiliation. Already matted by the day’s heat, her longish blonde hair is streaked wet by her crying.
I know she’s endured screaming attacks like this before, and she has learned to stifle her reactions. There are no retorts or gesticulations. Fight? There can be no victory. Flee? Where would she go? Frozen as best she can manage, she stares straight ahead at the nothingness far beyond our windshields.
The traffic light turns green.
I never seen them again.
But once in a while, when I’m thinking back to my own childhood agonies, I remember that twisted dysfunctional brood.
And I compare.
………My own mother never would go so far out of control as to be seen publicly firing on me. But then she could slash me with a tightening of her voice as she walked beside me, svelte well dressed woman in heels in another busy downtown in another state and era.
And at home, there was that same ‘stop at nothing’ glare and hot breath hissing out similar venom, but quietly from inches away. When I was small enough, she’d add a dimension by shaking me. Worse yet, as I grew and the actual shaking ended, she’d squeeze my sides, one in each hand, and growl “Oh, I could just…..” and leave it to me to imagine how thin the unfathomable ice I’d somehow blundered upon might be this time.
Explanations or promises? They inflamed her further. I could only freeze and hope to minimize my tears.
You understand of course; she hated to see me cry.
What I saw in that car beside me a half century later would have been a medium level of traumatic stress in my younger world, but it remains the only other actual family I’ve witnessed playing out its own dysfunctional scenarios in real time in my presence.
Is that young girl still suffering. Could she now be on the other side of the drama with her own children?
Could she somehow be content and happily married?
Have I been over reacting to my own childhood ‘difficulties’?
Am I whining even now?
1995 through 1997
………The first study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their effect on adult health outcomes takes place at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. 26,000 newly enrolling members are asked “if they would be interested in helping us understand how childhood events might affect adult health.”* Of those, 17,421 said Yes. They were the basis of the initial study, and hundreds of additional studies of their developing heath histories were conducted for more than 15 years.
The negative effects on the offspring of “dysfunctional” families is brought into the realm of hard science.
………Whatever doubts I may have had at times are laid to rest as I begin to read some of the results from the 100‘s of published ACE studies and reports. The answer is now scientifically well supported, the effects are measurable, they are extensive and the studies show negative health outcomes along with positive interventions. And more Universities, Institutes and Public Health Agencies are getting on board with ACE studies of their own.
………There’s a beautiful documentary coming out this year about ACEs and how they’ve been used to turn around the failing Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla WA. The movie is called Paper Tigers, and you can see a trailer / preview for it here. In it, one of the ‘Trauma Aware’ counselors who is a key part of the team effort changing the lives of the students there explains the philosophy she comes from is, “.,…..I know why you fight…… you don’t want to feel, and the big challenge is I’m asking you to try feeling for a little bit because sometimes when you feel, it guides you in the direction you should be going, not where you are.”
The Science of ACEs and Traumatic Stress and Brain Development and Resiliancy have come into my life and helped me realize I am wired to respond to stressful situations that come about as I go about my business before I even recognize that I’ve reacted by feeding into the stress level. So now when I feel that, I can remind myself to wind it down and take a deep breath and respond from the more peaceful side of me that I’ve been able to nurture within myself over the years by becoming my own loving parent.
I continue to feel more of my feelings in real time and to be guided by them. It helps me stop my conditioned reflexes of feeding into my trauma steeped reactions that have undermined so much of my life.
As I learn more and more of the science of what happened to us as children and how it changed our adult lives, I get ideas of how the science offers new ideas for what may well be the last few generations of adults needing to work through the guilt, self doubt and trauma that was ‘baked in’ to us as children.
And I continue to recover
by Steve Murtaugh, blogger for MURTAUGH.com & ALLACAandACE.com
Copyright March 2nd 2015 by Steve Murtaugh. All rights reserved. First publication on March 2nd 2013, rewritten form earlier copyrighted pieces expanded and incorporated here. ALLACAandACE.com