By M.K. Styllinski
“I’ve always thought that we are what we remember, and the less we
remember, the less we are.”
— Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author
“The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the
power to transform and resurrect.”
— author and creator of somatic experiencing, Peter A. Levine
Reading time: 25 mins
The above photo illustrates well the relationship to healing and the mind-body complex. We often place useless band-aids over the wall we have erected within ourselves and the promise of a more fulfilling life. Trauma, hurt and an array of psychic wounds are bricked up and plastered over so that we might pretend all is well and struggle on regardless. After all, it can be frightening to address deep-seated issues we know are holding us back. It can be even more disruptive to acknowledge we need help or that we need to go beyond just surviving. (Assuming that is, that such a wall hasn’t blocked out any awareness that there is a problem).
The triumph of the spirit over adversity resonates to everyone because we admire and relate to the person who has faced seemingly insurmountable odds and returned from the Dark Night Of the Soul to offer healing redemption for all. They become beacons of guidance that lights the way on our own path so that we may learn from and thereby transcend the trials and tribulations which emerge in our own lives. When someone is not only victorious but shows how we can be the same, they become an example.
One of the very first things we must do to obtain a more fulfilling and meaningful life is to heal the past. It is our accmululation of knowledge which allows us to “anticipate, protect and know ourselves.”  The will to survive and those survival mechanisms – our in-built means of protection against the threat of death – can then be placed in proper context so that they do not overwhelm us; where our views of the world are not violated through a lack of knowledge and adaptation. We can reduce the propensity for trauma in this trauma-inducing world. Without understanding this we cannot move ahead. Without seeing challenges as opportunities to grow and develop a creative complexity that enriches life. We must simplify our lives so that greater complexity can eventually arrive when we have the character to handle it. The “bliss” of chosen ignorance numbs the pain but stagnates potential.
The nature of trauma is a complex one. It is not just children who suffered from abuse or grew up in dysfunctional families that take on post-traumatic stress and the continuance of dissociation in adult life. There are many incidences in the lives of young children which induce trauma purely due to the fact that they are here, existing in this beautiful and horror-laden material world. Parents are often entirely clueless that their children have even suffered trauma that has overwhelmed any capacity to cope and laid down potential problems for the future. What’s more, infants and children do not have the mental or emotional maturity to mak sense of or communicate what has happened to them. At a certain age, they must stew in the juices of trauma and survive as best they can.
Take these imaginary examples:
Jenny is four-years-old. She has had an operation the evening before to remove her tonsils and has woken up in a strange room all alone. She vaguely remembers something about an operation and her parents reassuring faces that it would all be okay. But it’s dark and an odd blue glow envelops the room. Alien noises come from the large window to her right and a low hum to her left. It smells like the bathroom, and when she’d cut her knee her mother would put a plaster on it. She is scared and her throat is very, VERY painful. Such pain is entirely new to her and she feels a rising panic. Why is she alone? Where are Mummy and Daddy? Her heart rate rises. She hears voices outside and sees a yellow-orange glow spilling through the bottom of the door. She doesn’t recognise the people. Why is he alone in a strange room? Why isn’t the light on? Shadows leap and twist and turn in the corners. Her heart beats faster still. She tries to move but she can’t. The blankets and sheets are so tight and he feels so weak. Tears begin to stream from the corner of her eyes and he starts to sweat. Maybe he was naughty too many times and didn’t pay attention to what Mummy said. Maybe they decided to leave her here? She would be a good girl in future…She would be good…If only they would come back…She tries to cry out but only soft gurgle escapes.
After twenty minutes Jenny is beside herself soaked in sweat and salty tears and the pain-killers administered by the nurse on duty have worn off. It is only when the nurse arrives to check on Jenny at the allocated time that she calls the parents in. Amidst the jolly, cheerful atmosphere of relief and the complete ignorance of this little girl’s hour and a half of emotional and physical trauma goes unrecognised. Her mother mentions that her daughter’s face and hair is damp, her eyes red and that she looks very hot. The nurse takes her temperature and finds it a little above normal. “No worries. It’s all good. I’ll top up her pain relief and she can go home before lunch.” The nurse adjusts the drip and strokes Jenny’s forehead. Her parents sit on either side of the bed holding her hands. The father stares at his daughter. “She seems very quiet. Are you sure she’s okay? Jenny? You all right sweetie? On her way out the nurse responds: “She’s bound to be a bit groggy and spaced out. She’ll be fine.” Jenny stares ahead, pale, glassy-eyed, unresponsive … and traumatised. Where once distant voices seemed reassuring they would now signify loneliness, pain and abandonment.
Six-year-old Jonah and his parents are visiting Auntie Janet and Uncle Bob on their dairy farm in the country. Since they live in the city this is a trip Jonah has been looking forward to. He loves the countryside and his Aunt and Uncle. He has been mucking around with his cousin Jimmy who is 12 years old – much older than him. Jonah had never felt very comfortable around Jimmy and he was always so rude to his parents. He didn’t understand why Jimmy was always so mean. Jimmy has been told by his parents to show Jonah around the farm, very much against his will. Reluctantly he takes his cousin along who follows behind struggling to keep up.
They look at the tractors and all the farm equipment and he shows Jonah the cows in the milking stands and a warehouse full of corn feed. Then Jimmy has an idea. “Want to see the hay-loft?”
“Sure!” Jonah replies, trying to appear enthusiastic and unafraid.
Jimmy takes him to an old barn and stands in front of a long ladder attached to the facing wall stretching up about 15 ft up into loft full of sweet-smelling hay. From Jonah’s perspective, the ladder might as well reach to mars.
“Get up there”. Jimmy suddenly barks.
“Get up that ladder!”
“I — I can’t climb up there.”
Jimmy draws closer. “Chicken. You’re just a weak little chicken. Get up that ladder NOW! If you don’t I swear to God…” He shoves his fist in front of the little boy’s face. Jonah’s eyes widen. He is shocked at the anger from his cousin seemingly from nowhere. Why is he being like this? He hesitantly places his hands on the ladder and slowly begins to climb, his fear rising at each step. Jimmy is behind him. “Faster!” he bellows. By the time Jonah reaches half way his mouth is dry and he is shaking with fear. He has never felt this fear before, his whole body shivering like he is very, very cold. But he doesn’t want to show Jimmy he is so afraid. He can’t show his fear. When they reach the top. Jonah unbuttons his blue duffle coat and sits on a hay bale. Jimmy sits on another opposite and fixes him with a malevolent gaze. Jonah looks at the floor and tries to recover. Jimmy produces a knife from his pocket and turns it over in his hands.
“I could kill you up here and no one would ever know.”
Jonah feels cold and stares at his cousin incredulously. Jimmy suddenly throws the knife just to one side of his leg and it sticks in the hay-bale with a “thunk”. Jonah feels the world shrinking, he can hear the blood rushing in his ears and his heart beating as if it would break through his rib-cage. Then he begins to feel nothing. He is numb, switched off and nothing matters anymore. He can hear Jimmy yabbering obscenities but he, Jonah has gone somewhere else. Soon, Jimmy forces him down the ladder again, and this time, though Jonah is afraid and he begins to sweat, something has broken inside and he doesn’t really care if he lives or dies. Jonah manages to tell his parents what happened. But it doesn’t come out right, sounding like a mischevious game. When he tells them about the knife however, their smiles disappear. They call for Jimmy but he is nowhere to be found. By the time they have reached home they have forgotten the incident. Jonah realises that his parents don’t consider it important enough to follow up, so Jonah convinces himself it didn’t mean anything. He would never mention it again. He goes to bed early that night feeling very tired and lays in a fetal position under the covers. The little boy doesn’t know that he is traumatised the effects of which will remain in his unconscious and locked into his body for decades.
Sarah is four-years-old and its her first time on the school mini-bus. She started kindergarten this morning and is on her way home. She has a backpack and an extra sandwich provided by her mother whom she knows that she will be there to pick her up. He mother told her it would be a very short trip and that she would have picked her up if she’d had a car but there was no other way around it. Sarah didn’t like to be away from her mother and would rather be playing with her toys in her comfy, cosy bedroom. Tears were just below the surface. She is surrounded by a lot of big, noisy school children and she is afraid. Everything is so loud! She looks out of the window and thinks about Alfie her dog and his big pink tongue. She wished he was here with her – he would make it all right. It isn’t long before the bus judders to a halt and everyone piles out in a mass of shouting, bustling bodies. Sarah remains in her seat not sure if she should follow. Her heart begins to thump and she wanders down to the driver and pulls on his sleeve.
Hey, sweet-pea, this your stop?
Sarah stares at him wide-eyed. She nods…”Mom’s coming to pick me up.”
Well, okay then, you better get out here. You don’t want to be going into town.”
She nods again, brushes the hair from her eyes and adjusts her Power Rangers backpack. Turning to the doors she gingerly clambers down the steps and onto the warm pavement. The mini-bus pulls away. The other children have departed and there is not a soul to be seen. Sarah find herself alone.
Her heart begins to thump faster and her breathes become shorter. Sarah wanders over to the bus shelter and waits. She sits on the long plastic seat her legs straight out in front of her. Her mother will be here soon and the the thought calms her down. She bobs her shiny shoes up and down as if in happy confirmation. Sarah absently looks at the occasional passer-by hoping that the person is her mom. Each time, it is a stranger and each time she is disappointed she becomes more agitated. After half an hour Sarah’s chin begins to wobble and she calls for her Mom. She breathes rapidly looking around wildly in the vain hope if spotting her mother. Everything looks so strange. She doesn’t recognise anything or anyone. She frowns and screws up her face and begins to cry punctuated by cries for Mom. After one hour Sarah is calling her mother’s name only occasionally and plaintively between wracking sobs. But still no one comes. The street is empty.
She goes and sits on the side of the pavement as the sun begins to go down in the hope that someone – anyone will take her to her home. She sees a man walk hurriedly past on the other side of the street and is trapped between desperate wish for him to help her and her equally desperate fear of a stranger. She looks at all the homes and doesn’t even consider knocking on someone’s door. Everything is alien and therefore threatening. After an hour and a half, Sarah has cried herself dry. She is fiddling with her backpack and tracing her finger around the stitching repeating the process again and again. She barely looks up when her mom arrives and gathers her up weeping with relief. Sarah has been collected at last but this little girl has transported her mind somewhere else. There are no tears and not much recognition. She is in a state of detachment and drowsy acceptance of her fate. She is traumatised. The next morning Sarah will appear much better but the trauma of that event will have etched its itself into her mind and body with repercussions for the future.
These examples illustrate how precarious and vulnerable children are to the everyday trials of life growing up. It is impossible to avoid negative events as they are simply a part of what makes us human. But what we can do is build our knowledge base so that these inevitable challenges do not define us in later life, where traumatic experiences lie undetected and unresolved, keeping us unnecessarily locked in within the confines of the traumatic memory that claimed us through no fault of our own.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
Fully remembering our personal history can be a painful process – almost unbearable for some. But it must be done to bring us back to ourselves. As that wise old bird Hippocrates noted: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Depending on the level of repression/suppression of emotions, time may heal. But trauma and adversity may just “freeze” the system in complex ways. As co-director of the The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) Vincent Felitti MD notes: “Contrary to conventional belief, time does not heal all wounds, since humans convert traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life.” 
Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s book Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal is an excellent place to start in discovering how to evaluate ACE and to implement the solutions provided. The studies and their questionnaire scaling shows, with surprising accuracy, that the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences an individual had, predicted the amount of medical care that person would require as an adult:
- Individuals who had faced 4 or more categories of ACEs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as individuals who hadn’t experienced childhood adversity.
- For each ACE Score a woman had, her risk of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease rose by 20 percent.
- Someone with an ACE Score of 4 was 460 percent more likely to suffer from depression than someone with an ACE Score of 0.
- An ACE Score greater than or equal to 6 shortened an individual’s lifespan by almost 20 years. 
So, why such dramatic results?