I have been studying trauma and its effects on our health. There is troubling and compelling evidence that adverse experiences—especially in childhood—hurt us in the long run in every way imaginable.
I see more women in my practice than men by about a ratio of about 2 to 1. I see illnesses that are complex and multi-system in nature. For example, many of my patients have both headaches and digestive problems that don’t get better with medication. I see patients who don’t sleep well and have disabling fatigue. I see people who gain weight and can’t get it off. Often these individuals don’t remember much about their childhood. Often what they do remember makes them feel sad or angry or helpless. Often among the remembered are invasive and persistent memories of abuse—mostly by family members (but not always). Sometimes there are only hints that “something” is there. One woman I see shakes when she comes to see me. One woman has ground her teeth flat since childhood. One woman can’t fall asleep until the sun starts to come up.
Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, makes compelling arguments that abuse and repression of women is everywhere, every day and the suffering is suffocating all of us, except possibly the perpetrators.
When I go back to some of the recent research on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), I see that the rate of incidences between males and females is not too different—54.6 percent of women report exposure to more than one category of adverse exposures compared to 46.3 percent of men—not different enough it seems to explain why I see so many more women than men. However, looking further, as the number of categories of “bad things” happening to children increase, the rate of women having experienced them increases. It turns out that 8.5 percent of women have experienced bad things in four or more categories but only 3.9 percent of men have. That pretty nearly matches the ratio of women to men who come to my practice.
I’m becoming persuaded that the heart of the matter for many, maybe most of my patients is ingrained fear. My working assumption is that some frightening events in our childhood are survivable, and if we are surrounded by some level of stability we find our way and regain wellness. However, the recorded evidence does not seem to support that idea. There is, in fact, a graded relationship between ACE’s and bad health as an adult: as the number of bad things a child has experienced goes up, the likelihood of adult bad health goes up.
To return to the male-female ratio, as the numbers of bad things happening to individuals increase, the population of those having experienced numbers of bad things is increasingly female. Why would boys be protected from this phenomenon? The image that comes to me is that boys are encouraged to range more than girls. I can’t find any evidence to support this explanation in the research. I suppose young girls are not encouraged to explore out of the immediate home environment because we want to protect them from bad things “out there.” Research shows that most sexual and physical violence perpetrated on children is inflicted by family. Is it possible that the dangers are really in the home?
The other unhappy difference between boys and girls in this domain of adverse experiences is the higher incidence of sexual abuse for girls. It happens about twice as often in girls as boys—again, about the same increased proportion of women that report puzzling illness in my practice. Of course it would be wrong to draw conclusions about the need to protect just girls from this data since both boys and girls are vulnerable, abused and need protection.
Occasionally I meet a person with a history of abuse who has survived with boundaries and health pretty much intact. These seem to go together—a sense of good boundary, the ability to feel safe, and a healthy physiology. I am struck by how often these individuals have had an incarnate angel. Sometimes this is a grandparent, aunt, teacher, neighbor, coach, or family friend. All are people who take an interest, are kind and gentle and respectful, and often help the person find their own voice.
It seems possible to me that the essential damage inflicted by adverse experiences is the destruction of the child’s healthy boundary. The person who makes a difference, regardless of how the relationship manifests, helps the child repair and grow his or her own healthy boundary.
Look for a chance to be kind to a child today.
To your Health!