“It’s about so much more than childhood sexual abuse,” says Johnna Janis about her feature documentary, Invisible Scars, a remarkable film about her own sexual abuse and her journey of recovery.
Janis produced and directed the film with long-time friend, Sergio Myers, an award-winning filmmaker and owner of 7Ponies Productions. Together, they took on topics many would consider too triggering or taboo to address and did so without sensationalizing sexual abuse or trivializing trauma. The result is a personal, powerful and informative movie.
What started in 2010 as a “small little project” about one woman’s healing journey “expanded” when Janis learned about the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study).
The groundbreaking research links childhood trauma to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and becoming a victim of violence. The ACE Study measured 10 types of childhood adversity that occur before the age of 18. They are: Physical, verbal and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; exposure to a family member with mental illness, who is or has been incarcerated, or who is an alcoholic or addicted to some other substance; witnessing a mother being abused; losing a parent to divorce or separation. Of course there are many other types of trauma, such as witnessing a father being abused, seeing violence outside the home, witnessing a sibling being abuse, being bullied, racism, gender discrimination, living in a war zone, being an immigrant. Some of those experiences are being included in subsequent ACE studies, however they were not measured in the original ACE Study.
Of the 17,000 mostly white, college-educated people with jobs and access to health care who participated in the study, 64 percent had an ACE score of 1 or more; 12 percent had an ACE score of 4 or more (i.e., four out of the 10 different types of adversity). Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have done their own ACE surveys, with similar results.
The researchers found that it wasn’t the type of ACE that was damaging, or that one ACE was more damaging than another. The remarkable finding that it was the accumulation of different types of childhood experiences that caused the most damage. In fact, the higher a person’s ACE score, the greater the risk of chronic disease and mental illness. For example, compared with someone who has an ACE score of zero, a person with an ACE score of 4 is seven times more likely to become an alcoholic, and twice as likely to have heart disease. ACEs contribute to most of the burden of chronic disease in the United States, as well as to poor social, economic and physical health outcomes.
“It seems like such a simple formula,” Janis remembers thinking, “Why doesn’t everyone know this?”
As a result of her research, she asked Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the ACE Study, to be in the film. He agreed. During a brilliantly filmed scene, Felitti talks about ACE research in general and Janis’s ACE score in particular. Janis takes the test in Felitti’s office. On screen, all 10 questions from the ACE Study are displayed, allowing viewers to calculate their own ACE scores. Then Felitti shares research data and facts as Janis talks about her own depression and suicide attempt as a young adult.
The contrast is compelling and shocking.
Janis has an ACE score of 9; the only category of childhood adversity Janis did not experience is a jailed family member. In her conversation with Felitti in the film, she learns that the rates of attempted suicide with a score as high as hers (6 and higher) are “between 3100 and 5000 percent greater than it is at ACE score 0,” Felitti explains.
She’d known her childhood was “chaotic,” but “didn’t realize that I’d been in survival mode my whole life,” she says.
As a child, she survived by “finding love and companionship” with others such as her friend and their families.
While some with high ACEs use drugs, alcohol or food to cope, Janis used “staying busy” to “tune out.”
By her early twenties, she was married and had three young children.
She referred to her younger self as a “Tasmanian devil” and “a machine.” She would continually volunteer at various non-profits no matter how stressed she became.
“I would just spin and spin and spin – and juggle more and more – and take on as much as I could,” she said.
She also used exercise – in particular, participating in triathlons — to help her combat the depression and flashbacks caused by childhood trauma.
She couldn’t stop.
That changed suddenly in 2010 when she was in a serious car accident. “I ended up having a double discectomy and spinal fusion,” which required “cages, a steel plate and six screws,” she recalls.
She went from being a newly remarried mother competing in triathlons to a patient in terrible pain who had trouble brushing her own hair or teeth or sitting up for more than 15 minutes.
Running was no longer an option. Not in races. Not away from herself.
“The car accident, as crazy as this may sound, was the best thing that ever happened to me because it forced me to stop,” she says.
To heal physically and emotionally, she’d have to reckon with the impact of her ACE-filled childhood without running, which had been her go-to coping/numbing technique.
Instead, she’d have to go on a healing journey.
Luckily, she had a real-life role model – Linda Jeffers – who had “planted the first seed of healing” years earlier.
They met doing fundraising work for a local hospice. Jeffers, whom Janis admired, confided that she’d been sexually abused as a child. She told Janis she’d not always been in a healthy marriage or a job she loved.
She “shared how important it was to heal,” said Janis.
“She re-wrote her life story and she basically handed me the baton to do the same thing.”
Invisible Scars documents and demystifies this healing journey. Janis breaks the silence about childhood sexual abuse in particular and childhood adversity in general.
The documentary also expanded from only her story to include a group of diverse survivors whom Janis refers to as “The Fabulous Eleven.” They appear together in a powerful scene that demonstrates the power of survivor community and peer support.
In other scenes, Janis talks with them individually as she did with survivor-activists Matthew Sandusky (Peaceful Hearts), Bill Murray (Stop Childhood Abuse Now – SCAN) and ava Brooks (Educate4Change and Blátt áfram). They share research, stories and feelings to help viewers understand how survivors live through, cope with, suffer from and recover from ACEs.
They reframe coping behaviors as resiliency. They put the personal impacts of violence, neglect and dysfunction into a wider context to understand them as serious health and social issues.
It remains connected with Janis’ personal quest for health and healing – a process that moves in spirals rather than straight lines.
“My body kept relapsing,” after the accident, she said. She remembers “crawling on the floor” and “taking seven heavy pain medications” to function.
“Sage advice” from Felitti, who has become a father-figure friend, helped.
“Johnna, you need to look at your life and find out what is causing you to have stress,” she recalls him saying, “because that stress is affecting your body.”
What are you talking about? was her first thought. She assumed too much college homework was straining her neck while the accident-related legal battle going to trial took an emotional toll.
Felitti said, “Think about all of the things that are going on and figure out what you can eliminate to decrease your amount of stress.”
She realized that she was “trying to help everyone and taking on too much” and was living “in an environment that wasn’t healthy most of the time.”
She had to “whittle away at those chronic stressors.” It was a process that required her to “basically start over,”she said.
Her marriage ended and she relocated.
The results were dramatic.
She went “from being on the verge of having another surgery to being able to surf and bike and swim.”
“You want to talk about a miracle,” she said, remembering how amazed her neurosurgeon, Dr. Sanjay Ghosh, was by her transformation.
“He was like, I don’t know what you did but you figured something out,” she said.
She’s been able to wean off all heavy pain medications too, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not ever in pain,” she says.
It means she keeps toxic people from her life, eats well, does yoga and a careful mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. She also surrounds her family with role models and supporters.
She needs them. She has three teenagers and break-the-cycle parenting is hard.
“It’s kind of an experiment,” she said, “When you grow up in a toxic family” and “you think 1 + 1 = 3 …It’s not until you are around the right people or you go to therapy or you see how everything goes in alignment that 1 +1 = 2. How do you know that if you don’t grow up with it?”
In her parenting, documentary and life, the emphasis is not on pain, betrayal or abuse but on healing, recovery and healthy relationships.
She mentions the grandmother who exposed her to art and science. The friend (Sergio Myers) who insisted she go back to school to get her GED. The filmmaker (Angela Shelton) who mentored her as she made Invisible Scars. The woman, Linda Jeffers, who inspired her journey and will be at the premiere.
“All those positive people left that mark on me, the positive mark, not the scar…like medicine, so they are my medicine people,” she said.
As is she. “I know so many people are going to heal,” when they see the movie, says Janis.
“We all experience something in our lives that leaves a scar,” she said, and “Everyone is capable of healing. I’m living proof.”
The Invisible Scars red-carpet premiere will be at the Harmony Gold Theatre, in Los Angeles, on March 29. Tickets are $30 and proceeds go to PAVE: Promoting Awareness / Victim Empowerment (PAVE founder, Angela Rose, is in film).
Invisible Scars DVD is available for sale now at a discounted price of $16.22 (it increases to $24.95) on release date, and is distributed by First Run Features and available on Itunes and Amazon. Bonus footage is about one hour long and includes more from Janis’ interview with Felitti, and raw footage from survivors such as former NFL player Al Chesley and others.