The past few weeks I have been getting to know a fellow named Jackson. Jackson suffers from a number of health issues which limit his ability to do the hard physical labor that has been his mainstay for employment. Jackson strives to keep a positive “can do” attitude, but has bouts of severe depression that often disrupt his ambitions. In Jackson I see a kind-hearted, sincere person, who has been impacted by loneliness and isolation through his years. He has aspirations of becoming a home-builder with the goal of building homes for those who need it the most. With a gleam in his eye, this man experiencing homelessness speaks with conviction about working with others to resolve the housing crisis for everyone around him.
One Saturday, I brought Jackson to my house to help me with some projects. He launched into his job with great gusto, and was very capable at handling any job we engaged in. As the day hit the half-way mark, he began to slow down, grimacing from severe back pains. He was determined to persevere, his pride pushing him beyond sensible limitations. I decided to break for lunch a bit early, paid him, and he chose to rest for the latter part of the day.
I got to know Jackson over several encounters, and he shared more of his life story. Jackson grew up in the Midwest, the middle child. He spoke of his childhood years when his parents were trapped in addiction and domestic violence. He found himself in the role of family “peacemaker,” a big job for a young boy. During the peak point of conflict at home, he could not stay focused on anything that happened in school, and could not participate in after school activities due to the unrealistic demands of his home life. This led to him being kept back a grade. The high stress he experienced during those unstable home years led to depression. Jackson said he felt some relief when his parents divorced, but he still can’t shake his depression or some of the memories that are over 30 years old.
It is clear the events of his childhood radically affected his education and social, emotional well-being. With no help during those critical times as a young boy, he was left to figure it out all by himself. During his early 20’s, addiction surfaced for a spell, but he says his strong will-power helped him push that back.
The more I learn about the struggles of the adults La Puente works with, the more I see the connections of how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) carry forward and impact their adult life. It’s been assumed that events of one’s childhood contribute to shaping the lives of who we become as adults. What’s new is the emergent research illuminating the many ways that Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)have impact throughout someone’s life. Below are some of the most common forms of ACEs.
*“Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or freeze mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, inappropriate sex, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.” This describes Jackson.
Some adverse childhood experiences occur commonly with children aged 0 to 18 years across all races, economic classes, and geographic regions; however, there is a much higher prevalence of ACEs for those living in poverty. While some stress in life is normal—and even necessary for development—the type of stress that results when a child experiences ACEs may become toxic when there is prolonged stress or highly traumatic experiences and the absence of a supportive, adult relationship. “Researchers have found many of the most common adult life-threatening health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, alcoholism, and drug use, are directly related to ACEs.”
ACEs research has helped us connect the dots of adverse experiences in our early years to where people end up in their adult lives. In our work at La Puente, we recognize that many of the adults we serve were children who lived through many unfortunate experiences long ago. This is crucial to understanding both ourselves and others as we strive to bring healing and wholeness to people like Jackson. Jackson has a long road ahead yet, given his spirit, I believe he will do well, providing he has support and a bit of luck.
*References: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
www.CDC.gov and www.acestoohigh.com