Who Am I?

Childhood – Just Get Over It?

Posted: May 21st, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Comments Off on Childhood – Just Get Over It?

The things that happened in childhood are all in the past, for some of us the ancient past, right? We just need to put it behind us, focus on the present and future. We can’t change the past. We need to direct our mind toward the things we can do now. On some level, the underlying, relentless mantra is a simple one: Just get over it.

Don’t be a victim. Don’t let it control you. Don’t let it define you.

Don’t be weak.

I know those messages well. They are the air we all breathe every day. I absorbed them. They became my mantra. And they fit in a way. From my earliest life, I always picked myself up, worked to figure out what when wrong, and tried again. That make it sounds more organized and rational than I’ve ever been. Nevertheless, I’ve always had a relentless will. Somehow, even during my worst experiences, I found a way through. I found a way to get back up. I wouldn’t say I found some mythical best way. But I got through it and began moving forward again. Often it involved simply taking the next step. And then the one after it. And then another until I could take that next step without intense focus and effort.

There’s an exercise I hear people doing all the time in many settings and contexts. An adult reflects on the wisdom or encouragement they would share with some version of their child self. I’m not sure what they gain from that exercise, but the fact that so many do it means it has some widely shared value to people.

Whatever it does for most people, I don’t share their experience. When I gather my scattered childhood memories and reflect on what that child version of Scott was experiencing and how he was responding to it, I have no advice or encouragement I would share. I feel and see how determined, resourceful, and strong he was. And I feel how alone he felt, but kept trying again and again and again to find and connect with others.

In the face of young Scott’s effort and will, if anything I feel weak. I tried to keep putting the past, my reactions, my failures, and the things I experienced behind me. I’ve focused on the now. I’ve gotten through each day. And I’ve accomplished a great deal by most measures. But as I moved into my 40s, I began to be increasingly overwhelmed by life every single day. Undiagnosed sleep apnea and celiac disease made things worse, but addressing those gave me no more than a short term bump in resources and energy.

I’m good to have around in a crisis. People have even told me as much. I don’t get thrown into emotional and mental disarray. I begin focusing on the things that need to be done. I constantly assess the situation and change tracks when needed. But I maintain my equilibrium in no small part because I live every moment of my life physically and mentally prepared for the next crisis, whatever it might be. I live each and every moment of my life in a form of crisis mode. Over the course of decades, it seems that such constant vigilance exacts a price.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been studying and treating adverse childhood experiences as a national health problem since the 1990s. I stumbled across that work through an NPR story, Take The ACE Quiz — And Learn What It Does And Doesn’t Mean. I took the quiz on impulse before reading the article and it ended with a screen displaying the number ‘9’ without context or explanation. I then went back and read the article and found the CDC page on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

The study focuses on 10 comparatively common adverse childhood experiences and their impact on the health and well-being of people throughout their lives. My score of 9 means I experienced 9 out of the 10 they include at some point in my childhood. The list captures some of the more common shared experiences, not all the adverse experiences a child might have. I can easily expand that list with other childhood experiences from my personal life that were also very challenging.

The CDC studies ACEs and how to improve outcomes because as the list of ACEs a child endures grows, so does the list of negative health and well-being outcomes throughout their life. There’s a strong correlation between the two. In many ways, it’s a national health crisis in the United States, and one that’s almost invisible to most people.

That makes sense. We are beginning to understand how our environment creates epigenetic changes that alter the ways genes are expressed. One effect of severe or chronic childhood stress is that the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor becomes inactive, disrupting feedback inhibition. Stress hormones continually flood the system. That matches my lived experience; I’m hypervigilant and always living in a type of crisis mode. It’s means I’m useful when an actual crisis does occur. But it also means I experience normal disruptions that aren’t objectively all that major as if they were an existential crisis.

Moreover, those experiences seem to be somehow stored in my body. It’s a struggle to let myself feel much at all without being overwhelmed by tidal waves of emotions unrelated to my present condition or stronger than current events explain. My muscles are always tight, protective, and ready to respond. Based on my stiffness and soreness when I wake up and get out of bed, they don’t seem to relax much even when I sleep. My interoception, the awareness of my body, its state, and how it feels, is extremely poor.

It would be nice if I could somehow ‘just get over’ my childhood experiences. I’ve certainly tried to put it all behind me my entire life. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. I’m trying to recognize and believe that I’m not weak, that I’m really very strong. I’m trying to believe I can be loved, that I don’t deserve to be rejected. But again, that’s easier said than done. I’m trying to tell myself I’m safe, but I never feel safe.

I would love to ‘get over’ the past. But that’s hard when the past has written itself in my body. Mind over matter creates a false dichotomy. After all, my mind is itself formed of matter. My brain is part of my whole body and all its component parts interact and shape each other every single moment of my life. I am my body. That has always been true and will always be true.

Just get over it‘ is a condemnation and judgment lodged against every human being who might deeply desire to do precisely that, but fails again and again.

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