Can Therapy Help You Overcome Your Adverse Childhood Experience?
The Sins of the Father are Still With Us
Photo by Tammy Gann on Unsplash
One. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
The domestic violence in my house at the hand of my father was terrifying for me, as a small person. I remember my father spitting on my mom, pulling a door off its hinges, punching me in the face, slamming my sister against a wall, ripping the phone from the wall. I remember the fear I felt being home. I remember the stinging words he called me- “Shit Ass!” as he turned over the yellow formica kitchen table, crashing a full meal with a rare treat of strawberry shortcake, to the floor, when I dared to mumble something about him ruining a nice dinner. My mother so quick to pick up the already chipped, now-shattered plates, embedded in whipped cream.
The worst part, after my fear and trembling, was that he would take to his bed, sickened by his violent outbursts, and my mother was forced to wait on him, bringing him food, massaging his red, psoriatic legs, and trying to explain his point of view to her daughters.
That flipped the switch inside me to revulsion and repulsion, and hatred. I would never be that weak and compromised, I vowed to myself privately.
One of my therapists used to remind me that the way I survived those years was behaving as if I was in a war zone. She would quote “Intermittent reinforcement is the biggest predictor of behavior.” That saying meant that walking on eggshells- because you don’t know what might blow up or when- is way more unsettling to the nervous system than what you do know what to expect, even if it is bad. I still struggle to free myself from ‘freezing’ but then I took to running to my room when I heard his car on the driveway.
My father was always so proud of his tools, with designated spots on the pegboard he confidently installed in his workshop in the garage. He could make and fix anything and his ‘man cave’ was proof enough. When it came to family life, that gray space of emotions and needs where communication matters, he had absolutely zero tools. He would have been just as likely to meet a Martian as to say aloud, “I am scared,” or “I need your support,” or “I feel so much pressure.”
He was a rough and tumble kid, raised in the Jewish ghetto in the Bronx, poor and equipped with an 8th grade education. He felt so trapped at home with his third wife, my mother, who could not pretend to adore him and daughters who quaked in their boots at the sight of him. Yes, he had honed survival skills, but he was completely undone when it came to the realm of emotions and communication.
Two. Breaking Free
For the first half of my life, I was completely obsessed with overcoming the shameful residue of my dysfunctional childhood.
Beginning as a young adult, I spent a small fortune on therapy, joined 12-Step programs, and found oh-so-many psycho-spiritual-somatic paths to healing. Pretty woo woo, I know. But I was absolutely, positively determined NOT to repeat the familial dysfunction I grew up in; I would break free and chart my own wild and love-filled path.
After all those years of ruminating on and healing the pain within, I found that, starting in my thirties and then on into my forties and fifties, things shifted with me and I rarely felt haunted about my childhood. I felt the lifting and clearing out of a lot of shame and pain. I felt a calmness and freedom about my childhood trauma that I fully embraced. Was I getting free from the burden of my ACE (adverse childhood experiences)?
I had no time to dwell on the trauma in my past. I had a full career in the arts and college-level teaching, a husband or two, and the gift of all gifts, my twin daughters. I was busy doing, caring, earning and my focus was on giving all I could to my girls, so that they could emerge from childhood with good self-esteem, autonomy, ethics and a sense of their lives’ wondrous and awesome possibilities.
Becoming a parent was a gift on so many levels; the unanticipated one was the way it involuntarily lifted up, up and away old thoughts, beliefs, and pain and landed me in the realm of forgiveness and acceptance. Mothering my children was so healing to me.
Three. Acceptance of Questions.
My father died when I was pregnant with my girlies; my mom and one of my two sisters are also long gone. I think about my mom, the willful victim, ill-equipped to stand up to the emotional and physical abuse of a stunted, hard-knocks man. I remember a birthday card she had displayed on her table from him, where he wrote inside that she was a foolish woman who would never find happiness. I shuddered with rage and pain for her and made her throw it out.
She went on to find love and happy companionship with two good men. Her girlish giggles over decadent chocolate desserts, her loving heart and utterly pragmatic smarts are how I remember her.
I vividly recall my vow that gray afternoon when I was five years old to never be financially dependent on a man. How did I have this thought at that age? Did my childhood trauma force me to have adult awarenesses because I felt so unsafe?
I remember that same girl lying in bed at night, bewildered by why I was born into this family, and how I reminded myself that nothing could happen to me that I could not bear. I still believe this. I know for a fact that ACEs can direct us to our brokenness and thus our healing. They can reveal our inner strength and tenacity to our selves.
ACEs also point us to where the multigenerational familial healing needs to occur. What if the quotas on Jews in college had been lifted and my father’s violent, womanizing, gambling father had put some money into his son’s education, rather than losing it all on craps and running away with another woman? What were my father’s options as he unconsciously carried around his unresolved ACE’s?
ACES impact our choices in life partners. I could describe my domestic partner of 23 years similarly to my father in some ways. He was more fun and not violent, he was loyal and could be loving, but that explosive anger, emotional stunting, lack of communication tools and personal awareness were all too familiar. Or was he just like most men, especially of his generation, when it comes to toxic anger issues and lack of tools in the emotional and communication realms?
Having now entered the years of my wisdom (ahem), I ponder how to put my adverse childhood experiences in to perspective. Have I healed? After all those years in therapy and healing and living, did I achieve freedom from my ACE? Or do the sins of our fathers still limit me and all of us?
I sit with these questions and mull, knowing there are no clear cut answers. I feel satisfied that I did a lot of healing and worked hard to find personal freedom from the shame and abuse in my past.
Maybe I am not 100% free but I am a whole lot freer. My daughters are even freer than me and their children will be freer.
If you are struggling with healing from Adverse Childhood Experiences, there is hope. After a while, you will know that they don’t define you and that you are bigger than them.
Here’s to the soft tools of communication and emotional intelligence.
Here’s to human resilience and tenacity!
Here’s to radical, incremental, iterative change!