Adverse Childhood Experiences

For my siblings


I am not our father. I’m just a brother, one of you. Just another child, lost like everyone else. I was the oldest of us, the one that everyone expected to look after the younger ones and no one thought to ask me if I could handle that responsibility until it was already too late to change anything. This is something I’ve needed to say for decades now.

I was expected by our parents to play the part of a parent, and yet I could never be the parent. Father needed to be there for you and wasn’t. Mother needed to be there for you, and she couldn’t be because father left her the job of earning a living when he left the family.

Father needed to tell you he was proud of you. Each one of you needed to hear that from him at the important first advances into adulthood that you experienced, and that bastard was never there for any of you when that job needed to be done. I was expected to stand in for one or both parents when those events occurred because either or both of them could not be there to say the things that needed to be said themselves.

It was because of the lack of adequate adult supervision that we found ourselves barricaded in a bathroom in Pringle-Morse, Texas while our mother beat the shit out of her then-husband’s new girlfriend, and drove them back off the property with her rage, the property that we had all once shared as a family. It was because of that experience and others earlier in my life, experiences that had convinced me of the meaninglessness of life, that I was sent away from Texas immediately following that incident. Sent away when I declared my intention to kill our stepfather. Mother sent me to live with my younger sibling’s father, my first step-father, so that I could be out of harm’s way and get the psychological treatment that mother thought I needed.

I was sent back to live with the used car salesman and his third wife. Had it just been my stepfather I was living with, that existence would have been worse on my mental makeup than actually killing my second stepfather would have been in my estimation. But his new wife was there and the counselors were there, so everything was all right. At least, for a little while it was alright.

I have been to counselors all my life, starting at the age of six when I was sent to them for testing. Testing for a learning disability that didn’t have a name that was communicated to my mother or my stepfather. It is because of these counselors that I know I need to say these things. It was because of my teenage experience with psychologists and psychiatrists, counselors, that I knew that Deanna Troi was needed on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. She was needed on the bridge because Captain Pickard needed someone who understood group psychology to confirm his suspicions about any new encounter the ship might have with aliens or other ships. Deanna was there to keep him from saying or doing this:

Ellen Ripley, Aliens

Without need. You don’t destroy the unknown aliens until after the entire away team has been killed and the aliens are ready to come up and destroy the ship. Then you nuke the fuckers from orbit. Every time I’ve watched that movie I’ve thought “they sent everybody down to the planet? Marines would never do that.” They’d leave someone in orbit to play the part of the dead man switch. Someone who could nuke the entire site from orbit without anyone getting back to the ship if the aliens proved to be hostile.

I know how to dissect a story in this fashion because I am a storyteller. This is one of the reasons this article is here. Another reason this article is here is because I know that all but one of you, my siblings, don’t give two shits about my writing or my obsession with speculative fiction. One of you has told me never to give you any of my writing to read again. I have honored their wishes until now.

Mother dismissed my desires as childish all my life. Dismissed my willingness to listen to doctors of any kind. My siblings echo the sentiments mother gave them on this score, for the most part. They echo what she gave them and give the subject no more thought when it comes to what I needed from life and what my interests were. It should bother me less than it does that they don’t care about me or what I enjoy, but that is yet another thing that I have a therapist to talk to about.

One of you suggested that we siblings might need group counseling a few months ago. I said “great. I’ll go with you if you want to set it up.” but I knew that most of them would never agree to it, and they didn’t as far as I know because the subject has never come up again. They don’t think there is anything wrong with them. They think everything is wrong with me or whoever else is in their face at the moment. That is the benefit of a lack of introspection. I have introspection to spare if they want any. This is me:

They usually struggle with having fun and are easily pulled into the caretaker role.

psychologytoday.com

You strangely seem to think I don’t try to lead or take care of everyone around me; and yet it takes a real caretaker to know when their direct involvement in a process is going to be detrimental. Then it becomes important that the caretaker not be seen to be the one doing the leading. This can pull the person expected to lead into some bad passive-aggressive behaviors as a result, but if you want whatever it is that you aren’t visibly leading to succeed, you have to let the events play out without your active involvement. This is our mother as she acted towards me, as she was treated by her parents:

Many kids grow up learning that their needs aren’t important or they need to squash them in order to survive. Listening to yourself and acknowledging your needs can be a totally foreign concept. What we did not receive from our caregivers as children is often exactly what we need.

psychologytoday.com

Our mother, who raised her younger brother in a two-parent household because her stepmother was the Wicked Witch of the West. There were deep wells of abuse in her home life. Some of that abuse was sexual based on her own admission to one of her children. While that abuse was from outside the home it was allowed to continue by her stepmother. My mother would never tell me what the abuse was. My sister, whom my mother confided in, also won’t tell me what happened to her. This treatment at home colored all of her life, bent her life in ways that did her no favors.

She did say, more than once, that what you wanted to do in life was not important. That it was much more important to keep working so that everyone can stay fed and housed. Survival should not be the baseline in any kind of functioning civilization. If you are alone, in the wild, having to hunt, kill or farm all the food you need to survive by yourself or with help the of your family, everyone must pull their weight in order for the family to survive. But there are many ways to pull your weight within a family unit in today’s world, and most of those ways do not require you to go out and work a paying job in order to keep the lights on.

Mother was obsessed with needing to provide. This was probably because she had four children to feed and there was never enough money for all of us to live on. There was sometimes barely enough food. If what I wanted to do wasn’t going to put food directly on the table or pay bills, it was work that she didn’t want me to be doing. She expected me to work in fast food service if that was what it took to keep the lights on that day.

I would have committed suicide before ever taking another fast food job after I was fired from the first one that I got. I am not fitted for food service of any kind, much less precise service done in a split second. It would be better to be dead than for me to be trapped in one of those kinds of jobs again.

Instead of killing myself I moved out of her house as soon as I could get the money together to do so, and I have never willingly shared a roof with her or my siblings since that time. The baggage is too heavy. The separation too extreme. The misunderstandings ever-present. This is the way my family was from the time when I left them at the age of twenty until today, three years after mother’s death. Today would be her 80th birthday, if she was still alive.

I usually spend a few hours talking to my siblings on the phone on Mom’s birthday. This year, I can’t even bring myself to do that much. The reason this article exists on this date and in this form is largely because of this fact. I need to dig these poisons out of my psyche. I need to expose them to the light of day, so that I can begin to deal with them, can begin to let myself heal so that the sickness that wracks me will possibly give me the space to survive a few more years.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are poisonous.

ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, as well as life opportunities such as education and job potential. These experiences can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems (including teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and fetal death), involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.

ACEs and associated social determinants of health, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, and experiencing food insecurity, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning, and response to stress.

Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.

cdc.gov/aces/fastfact

I started this article in October of 2020 by taking the ACE’s quiz in Childhood Disrupted, a book handed to me by one of my ever-present counselors, but the same quiz is available in many places, even interactively here (NPR) My informal ACEs score is between four and six. My current counselor and I have not gotten far enough into my story for this subject to have come up yet, nor am I seeking counseling right now just for the baggage of my childhood. This is just something that I’ve become aware of and feel I need to talk about now, especially since I know that there are four other people out there who have the exact same ACEs that I do, because I’m related to them as children of the same flawed parents.

To paraphrase one of the experts on this subject, our parents turned their failings into our shame, at our expense, and we have to sort out what this means for ourselves now. I will embark on this journey without them if they will not come with me, and I will be making updates to this article as my insight into what my ACEs mean grows deeper with time.

My First ACE

I was born overseas just outside of the Air Force Base my mother and father were shipped to. The base didn’t have neonatal facilities, but the nearby hospital did. So my mom was bundled in an ambulance and ferried to the nearest neonatal unit where the nurses somehow managed to give me the Herpes virus during delivery (my first gift. Thanks!) Mom swore to her dying day that she never had the virus, so it had to be the nurses who gave it to me.

Six months after I was born my mother and father were divorced. A year after I was born my Mom was remarried and we were living with her new husband’s parents in his hometown in Kansas. I had three half-siblings from that marriage and the baggage that comes from being the adopted child.

I was sickly as a baby. Mother told me more than once that I cried incessantly and that she didn’t know what to do with me for the first few months of my life. She also told me that I was given a Spanish-speaking nanny and that I responded to the words she said to me in Spanish as if I understood what they meant. I have often wondered what those and other early childhood experiences did to color the rest of my life.

My Second, Third & Fourth ACE

Dysgraphia separated me from my peers at the very beginning of school. The simple fact that I could not write things on the board, demonstrate knowledge to satisfy the class, made me different from the rest of the children:

The teachers demanded I conform and then punished me in various cruel ways that lingered for years afterwards, things that I go into in more depth in that article. All of my time in school in that small Kansas town is colored with the torment that I endured there.

The torment only ended when Mom divorced her second husband, a lifelong alcoholic, and married a third husband that drug us all to Texas where he promptly got drunk, whored around and made a general nuisance of himself. By general nuisance I mean physically assaulting me, belittling all of us for our failures, and being so unpleasant to be around that I would actively try to be anywhere he wasn’t for most of the time that mother was married to him. He wanted me to conform and be like him, which was a thing I would never consciously do, would never give him the satisfaction of doing for him.

It wasn’t long until she divorced him too and she never took on another companion for the rest of her life, to her own personal detriment. Her loneliness tormented me, but there was nothing that I could do for her. I could not be her companion, I was her son.

School in Texas was itself a whole new form of torture, but at least the children were not set on me by the teachers at any point during my years in school here. Don’t expect me to thank you for that, Texas.

Remaining ACEs

Mother’s obsession with productive life, father’s obsession with productive life, the United States’ obsession with productive life. I have been tormented continually since childhood by people who were unable to accept my limitations. As a disabled person, I will never be as productive as a fully abled person. I can, however, be superior to an abled person in areas where my disability has no impact. Things like computer assisted drafting, where my decade of experience hand drafting gave me a basis for leaping ahead of other new CAD draftsmen when my barriers to productivity, my poor hand-eye coordination, no longer kept me from producing all the work that I had in my head.

We were hungry a lot in Texas as children. I wasn’t always sure there would be a home to return to for most of my years after Mom’s second divorce. My siblings had it worse, living in a one-room apartment in Rotan, Texas for almost a year. They didn’t have hot water and were generally cold and alone with mother working nights at a convenience store to keep the roof over their heads.

Luckily they had a home in Kansas with their father to escape to, and so they took that escape with my persuasive help since I was already living under his roof at the time, and we left Mom enough space to briefly try to find another way to survive.

That respite ended too soon though, and she was forced back into the labor market to try to provide for all of us when we were kicked out of their father’s, my first step-father’s house. She did her best, but it was too much to ask of anyone. It is a crime that she was even expected to succeed under those conditions. Her suffering was not lost on us, and it never ended so long as she lived. The violence against her was never limited to her husbands alone. The state of Texas exacted as much suffering from her as her husbands did. The suffering proved terminal, as it always does.

Mother allowed herself to die rather than admit that she had cancer. Allowed herself to die when she became a burden. She never wanted to be a burden. I intended to die when I couldn’t work anymore after being bedridden with Meniere’s for years. I had it all planned out. The Wife talked me out if it. The children needed me. So I relented. I gave up my planned suicide and became what I am today instead.

Do I have no value because I don’t hold down a paying job? There are many out there, a sizeable minority of the population that even includes people I am related to, who will say that I have no value. I have precise instructions for them as to where they should place the part of their body that contains their sensory organs, when they tell me of my need to get a job. I have value as a storyteller, a value that I have yet to demonstrate effectively. But the value that I represent to my children is enough to keep me going, so I will keep going.

There are other things that I could drag out here that could qualify as ACEs. My first sexual experiences at the age of nine or ten. The fact that I have never been comfortable identifying as a man and yet was offered no alternative other than to try to pass for what everyone assumed I was anyway. The violent arguments between our parents. The hopelessness of being alone, uneducated, and the mother of four children that you cannot possibly support, a hopelessness communicated directly to her children. To us.

The petty viciousness of people who just know that it couldn’t have been that bad. Economize, make do! A stepfather that denied us child support, employers who denied us food, landlords who denied us shelter, a state government that would have preferred to see us out in the street rather than to have a roof over our heads as children, if the roof cost them one lousy nickel in the process.

All of those historical facts weigh on me to this day. The people that I still encounter who talk about social services as if they have to pay the cost of those services themselves. As if they could ever hope to be that important in their tiny, little, pathetic lives. It all offends me, and it cuts to the bone when I think of its effect on the lives of so many other children right now being raised under the same hateful system that I managed to survive under somehow. What is the societal cost of their ACEs? We will know this to the precise decimal point, eventually. Will this fact lead to social change? Don’t hold your breath.

I published this article and sent it to my siblings instead of giving them the usual phone calls that they received from me on Mom’s birthday. The call I made to Mom every year after I left home, but now have no one to call to wish Happy Birthday! to. A hole in my life that I have filled with this article instead of trying to burden them with my wants and needs. They can no more stand in for the absent parents than I could when it was expected of me. I release them from that burden, that expectation. Live your lives in ways that bring you joy. Rest assured that I will. May we all meet again under better light in the future.

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Author: RAnthony

I'm a freethinking, unapologetic liberal. I'm a former CAD guru with an architectural fetish. I'm a happily married father. I'm also a disabled Meniere's sufferer.

Attacks on arguments offered are appreciated and awaited. Attacks on the author will be deleted.