When I was ten years old I met a little girl who was one year younger than I was. You know when they talk about love at first sight? Well, this was something similar. We looked at each other and recognized something in each other’s eyes. At that point in time we were both going through some pretty traumatic adverse childhood experiences. Her situation was totally different to mine, but at nine years old she had already had to grow up, just like me.
The wonderful thing is that when we were together we could let our guard down and be children again.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that can have a lasting, negative impact on a person’s physical and mental health. ACEs can include abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or substance abuse. Exposure to these types of experiences can lead to an increased risk for developing physical and mental health issues throughout the lifespan.
Examples of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Physical abuse: Unwanted physical contact with a parent, caregiver, sibling, or other person causing injury, pain, or emotional distress.
Sexual abuse: Unwanted sexual contact with any person. This can include inappropriate touch and exploitation such as pornography or prostitution.
Neglect: Failure to meet basic needs for nutrition, shelter, clothing and care. This can also include abandonment or lack of supervision resulting in unsafe conditions.
Emotional abuse: Verbal attacks that may involve humiliation, intimidation and criticism on an ongoing basis or threats of violence or harm.
Domestic violence: Exposure to physical violence between adults within the home setting, such as between parents or adult siblings.
Substance abuse: The presence of drugs or alcohol within the home environment; this includes witnessing substance misuse by an adult caregiver in the home setting.
Mental illness: Exposure to a mental illness in a family member or caregiver; this includes witnessing mood swings and aggression by someone within the home setting who suffers from an illness such as depression, anxiety disorder or schizophrenia.
Parental separation/divorce: Split families due to divorce proceedings resulting in multiple households for children with shared custody arrangements; this can lead to confusion about roles and expectations within each household setting due to constantly changing dynamics between primary caregivers and other family members involved with visitation rights during holidays and special events throughout the year
Incarceration of a parent/caregiver: Imprisonment of either biological parent leading to frequent transition periods between incarceration and community settings for many years; this type of instability results in confused loyalties between both parents leading to additional psychological stressors for children exposed to parental incarceration consistently over time
Bullying/victimization at school: Exposure to peer-to-peer victimization causing physical injury or emotional distress which can lead to feelings of social isolation due to fear associated with attending classes over an extended period of time
The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Research conducted by the Kaiser Institute in the US has shown that the impact of ACEs is lifelong. Individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences are more likely to suffer from health and mental health issues throughout their lives, leading to a diminished quality of life.
ACEs have been linked to a number of physical and psychological difficulties in adulthood, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obesity, cardiovascular disease, asthma and diabetes.
Furthermore, the long-term effects of ACEs can be passed down from one generation to another. This means that the trauma caused by these experiences is not only felt by the individual but also reverberates through families for decades after it occurred.
What was the impact on my friend and I?
My friend and I had serious trust issues. The people who were supposed to protect us were either hurting us, or were depending on us to protect them. As I said earlier our situations were different. I was dealing with some intense psychological abuse from my narcissistic father. She was living through a very acrimonious divorce between her parents.
We had to grow up before our time. We became our mothers’ confidantes and protectors.
Growing Up after ACEs
For over 35 years my friend and I have been there for each other through thick and thin. She was the maid of honour at my wedding, while I was the matron of honour at hers. At every step of the way we helped each other overcome obstacle after obstacle, until we finally got to where we are today.
She knows how much I have struggled and what keeps me up at night. So when she called me to say that she had just sent me something wonderful I immediately dropped everything and checked my inbox. I found a link to the following images, published by an organisation called Children’s Mental Health CMH Workshops . By the time I got to the tenth image I had started to cry.
You see for years I had told her that I felt like I was made out of higgledy-piggledy unmatched Lego pieces. As I got older I had to pull bits of me off and then replace them with the right blocks, until finally I could function like a normal human being.
The story in the images she sent me is my story. As a child my main focus was on survival. When I grew up, I too had to learn how to trust and to love, just like the cat in the pictures. And like him, it was my friends, and later my husband, who gave me the love and acceptance I needed in order to finally fight off the darkness.
I hope my friend knows that she is one of the most important people in my life, and she is in my heart forever.
Though adverse childhood experiences can have long-lasting effects, it is important to recognize that there is hope for healing and growth. Through therapy, community resources, and other forms of support, individuals who have experienced ACEs can work towards regaining their sense of self worth and reclaiming the life they deserved all along.