I came out of the womb at a full sprint. An hour or two of sleep at a time was the norm well into my first year. Mom, who was just 20 at the time, still laments the fact that I had to be in constant motion even when I was asleep. If she stopped her efforts to soothe me for even a minute, I’d wake up screaming. Poor thing.
One time, she found me sitting cross-legged on top of the refrigerator like a monkey. I had pulled the kitchen drawers out like steps and climbed up there to find some sort of treasure. I was 18-months-old. True story.
In school, I was the “troublemaker.” You know, the bad kid who’s chronically late, horsing around in class and regularly sent out to the hall or the principal’s office? That was me.
I also had stomach issues and always felt sick despite being in good physical health. The doctors ran tests, hooked me up to electrodes, took blood, made me run on a treadmill, I believed I was some sort of human experiment. They told my mom it was just ADD.
What I didn’t tell anyone was that I was living in a constant state of fear. I concluded that I was sick with an incurable disease; I was paranoid that I was being watched and I was certain that at any moment someone I loved would die.
Wanting so desperately to feel “normal,” I donned a mask and became an expert at hiding my dysfunction from everyone. But what I didn’t know was that my negative thought patterns and behavioral issues were the direct result of the trauma I’d experienced — and I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.
You see, my birth father died by suicide when I was just 6, leaving mom alone to raise and provide for three young children. Prior to my dad’s suicide, he had been in and out of jail, often drunk and beer was regularly purchased before groceries. We lived in perpetual survival mode.
What I’ve since learned was that I was experiencing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) – stressful or traumatic events in childhood that can create less-than-desirable behaviors and often rob a child of their capacity for resilience. My ACE’s rewired my brain for a constant state of “fight or flight” that manifested in everything from gastrointestinal issues, fits of rage and hypersensitivity to low self-esteem and panic disorder. Something else I’ve learned is that ACE’s can even happen while still in the womb, so the fast track to mental illness was pretty much set before I was even born.
At age 26 and living in poverty, my mom was ill-equipped to handle the grief my father’s death caused, let alone navigate a world of limited resources with three children.
And yet, we survived.
Life moved forward. Mom remarried my steadfast and hardworking stepdad and we developed our own kind of coping mechanisms, though oftentimes they were disordered and unproductive. As I grew, so did my educational, behavioral and social difficulties. I like to say that I “time-traveled” through this period of my life. I retained little and remember less.
With high school came more than just the typical hormonal changes and teen angst — a lifetime of untreated mental illness caught up with me — over time I became depressed, despondent and I wanted to die.
My mom recognized the warning signs she’d seen from my father. She took me to the doctor, and for the first time in my 16 years I was treated for my mental health conditions. What my mom did for me that day saved my life.
The last 20 years or so have been a blur of treatment approaches, both doctor-approved and self-prescribed. I’ve spent years relearning elementary knowledge and social skills. Through therapy and a mindfulness practice, I’ve rewritten many of those negative scripts that my ACE’s taught me. It’s been a long and discursive road, but it’s led to a sustainable wellness plan.
But what if instead of being labeled as a “troublemaker,” a teacher — or anyone — would have taken the initiative to discover why I was acting the way I did? What if my mom had been equipped with the information and resources to find the support we needed? What could have been avoided if my father would have had early treatment or abuse intervention as a child?
For much of my life I never wanted to have children. I didn’t want to risk handing down the “mental illness gene” and putting my kids through what I went through — a lifetime of unravelling a tangled mess of dysfunctional neural pathways.
These days, I’ve taken a different view.
My 11-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with anxiety. She’s always been an empathic and sensitive child, but with her parents divorce came behavioral and physical changes: fear, agitation, stomach aches and intense emotions.
Her anxiety grew into panic disorder. Being away from her mom for any length of time would trigger full blown panic attacks. Car rides would result in frequent bathroom stops and vomiting. She stopped seeing friends, engaging in her favorite activities and would refuse to leave the house. She lost her enjoyment of life.
She said she wanted to die. Terrifying and eerily familiar.
My niece, like me, was likely predisposed to having anxiety. But fortunately, she was also born into a family who is now equipped with a wealth of lived expertise. My sister proactively took my niece to a counselor. My mom teaches her grounding techniques like breathing exercises and meditation. And, from afar, I connect with her on a peer support level sharing my habits for mental wellness. It takes a village, as they say.
Through much conscious effort and nurturing from her supporters, my niece is now able to take car rides again, spends the night at grammy & poppy’s and is excited to go to school. Her anxiety isn’t cured and she still has panic attacks, but she’s come a long way. She’s making progress and learning techniques she can use on her own, taking back what her ACE’s robbed her of for a little while and is beginning to enjoy life again.
While I certainly wouldn’t wish mine or my niece’s experiences on anyone, I feel like I’ve been left well-prepared to navigate whatever mental health challenges my future children might face. And maybe my lived expertise will help foster an environment where they can grow up free of ACE’s.
I’m certain I will be a far from perfect parent, but I can guarantee that I will never just write things off as “hormonal changes and teen angst.” Much to my kids dismay, I will poke and prod and dig until I find an answer. Like my mom and sister, I will unfailingly love, nurture and never give up until we discover a solution, because I know firsthand how life-saving this approach can be.
My mom is convinced that my first born will also be a sprinting-monkey-child. I suppose that would only be fair given what she went through with me.
Thanks, mom. Because of you, I am here and I am ready.
Early intervention and treatment can help prevent suicide. Learn the warning signs of a mental health crisis and take positive action.
If you or someone you know needs support, don’t wait, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “ALLY” to 741-741 right away.