From hell to healing: A survivor’s journey

Malcolm Aquinas

It was a sweltering day in the summer of 1987 in Limestone County, Alabama. The air, thick with humidity, sapped what little strength remained from already heat-wearied bodies; the chittering of bush crickets rose as the sun sank.

Following 11 hours of clearing hillside with a sling blade at the Elk River State Park, I let my thoughts wander while resting my right arm on the window frame of my father’s pickup truck, grateful for the air rushing against me. He and my stepmother, Louise, were continuing a disagreement they’d begun some time earlier about the whereabouts of a frying skillet.

The combination of fatigue and stifling heat dulled my usual hypervigilance around my father, so my response to Louise’s seemingly innocent question, “Don’t you remember your Daddy using the skillet last?” was unusually honest and unfiltered.

Absentmindedly, I replied, “I think so.”

Suddenly, the lap-belt compressed against my waist as my body lurched violently forward, then quickly snapped back. My dad, trying to hit me while leaning over Louise, screamed, “You calling me a liar! I’ll f—ing kill you, boy!” Louise pleaded with him to calm down, and screamed at me to get out of the truck.

Fueled by adrenaline, I hopped over a roadside fence and ran at breakneck speed across a heavily vegetated field. I could hear my father screaming obscenities and threats as Louise begged him to stop. I heard Louise’s panicked cry, “Run! Run! Oh my sweet Jesus, he’s going to kill you! Run!” The next sound I heard was bullets flying past me.

Louise saved my life that day; of that, I have no doubt. She would lose her own life, violently, seven years later, shot twice.

This traumatic experience, and others too numerous to recall, left an indelible mark on me. Two and a half decades later, I filled out the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire and began to understand trauma’s enduring impact on my life.

The questionnaire was derived from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in which more than 17,000 members of Kaiser Permanente in San Diego participated. It asked participants if they had experienced abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction prior to their 18th birthday. Scores range from 0 (no ACEs) to 10 (each ACEs), and the results were used to determine if there was any correlation between adverse childhood experiences and adult physical and behavioral health difficulties.

My ACE score is 10.

How has that score played out in my life?

I was expelled from the fifth grade for repeated schoolyard fights. I was arrested for arson at 10 years old. I was arrested for assault at 14. I dropped out of high school at 17. I abused alcohol my first two years of college. I attempted suicide five times. I was diagnosed with major depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a few other diagnoses along the way. I was hospitalized, voluntarily and involuntarily. I was placed on numerous psychiatric medications. I also underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

None of these behaviors, diagnoses, or treatments would surprise experts in the field of childhood trauma. It was, in fact, one such skilled clinician who helped me continue my long, but rewarding, journey of recovery.

How has a trauma-informed approach paved a healing path for me?

My therapist, Paula, recognized the effects of my experiences as adaptations to extreme circumstances, not symptoms of a disease. She realized these were normal responses to abnormal situations; they once served an important role in keeping me alive, but now they were preventing me from living successfully. Moreover, she recognized the tell-tale signs of ACEs by “thinking trauma” and responded to my treatment and care needs based on this understanding. Finally, she actively sought to avoid circumstances that might lead to my retraumatization.

Paula practiced the Six Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach developed by SAMHSA (the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

  1. She worked with me to establish a sense of safety in the environment, between us, and inside of me.
  2. She practiced transparency—sharing what she was doing and why she was doing it—which built a trusting relationship.
  3. She encouraged my use of peer support, connecting with others who have had similar life experiences to decrease my sense of isolation.
  4. She identified the cultural context and intergenerational aspects of my trauma to increase her sensitivity and deepen my understanding.
  5. She explicitly recognized my expertise and leadership in the healing process. From day one, she made it clear that therapy would be a collaborative process, something we did together, not something she did to me.
  6. Finally, she maintained a focus on empowering me to make my own choices and to express my voice in every step of the healing process.

Adverse childhood experiences or later-life traumas can leave a lasting impact on our lives, but they don’t have to dictate our destinies. People need to understand that we are not broken people, damaged goods, or inherently flawed. Rather, we are affected by past events not of our own choosing. Through this mindset we can begin to write a new narrative, a narrative based on empathy, compassion, acceptance, and nurturing.

This is where healing begins.


  1. Thank you so much for this. I have a score of 10 as well. And as a mom of 3 on a journey in and out of therapy, finding what is helpful… this gives me breath in my lungs. Thank you.


  2. Thank you for this article. Along with corporal punishment ( by hand or belt) from before we can remember, we grew up in a strict religion. 4 of us 5 children survived with zero self esteem or confidence, smothered intuition, suicidal thoughts, and constant terror. My recovery has been long. I am now in a relationship with another survivor, and will use the strategies to enhance our communication.


  3. So sad to hear how much Malcome had to go through to get the focused, care, compassion, and respectful support, for his healing to take place. Timing is so much, and as far as getting the kind of healing available to people dealing with PTSD, it took American to have to have the attack of 9/11 for the study of trauma on people, pregnant women at the time etc, in such a big way, that it is now, at least recognised the effects of trauma on the system, in such a wholistic way, that we need no longer just label people, and here is light at the end of the tunnel. So something positive at least came out of something so awful. Imagine a world where any stress was picked up and cleared from utro through life, what a different world this would be, our interactions, relationships, child rearing. I prey for this time. What for me is added sadness is that for people like me still caught in my multipal complex trauma, and not being in the States I am English, unless you have mega bucks to go see a therapist, your stuck with it, I am studying best I can but the stories retraumatize and the added frustration of knowing there is something to heal you but unless you have the money to do so your lost….. So I am ecstatically happy for Malcomes story of liberation to a world he wants to live in, it is fantastic and I cried with joy, which then sadly turned into self pity because my door is firmly locked and liberation out of my hell is just a dream I tourcher myself with, because every time I believe I can do it, and I fall back in the hole, it is worst than the last time…. I have now been saying ok maybe this is it for ever how can you live with it…. Truth is I can’t my body is reacting to this prolong life of stress, being held down, my heart and lungs are suffering…… Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could get help, so we can get on our feet to get out there, then when we were on our feet and able to make an income we could pay back…. Like a health mortgage, for me I think it is sad and unjust that only the people who have been in some group tragity get offered help, it is a two way street to because the therapist get real experiance… When you think about it, it is a strange thing for people to make money out of people who have suffered so much abuse at the hands of adults, and then because of the low self worth created thought that, the rest of there life, attracting more of the same in adulthood like the ACE study indicates, my life is text book in line with how it has panned out with the early experiences…. Sorry I hear my frustration and sorrow, and yes, I hear myself screaming it’s not fair, I think of the thousands of people sitting alone somewhere on earth going through what I am going through and the thought of the waste of life is devistating to me, we all worry about recycling plastic bottles what about recycling broken Spirits liberating them to help others, who are still caught there, nothing so powerful as the wounded healer…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susie you wrote this in 2017, and I am just now reading it in 2022. Are you still out there somewhere? I hope so. Your words struck me like a gut punch – we recycle plastic bottles but not broken spirits. Ugh. And you’re right, getting real meaningful help is expensive and the problem is that so many people who are dealing with severe mental health crisis due to childhood trauma are not well-employed, do not have health insurance because they cannot afford it, and therefore cannot get the type of therapy that would help heal them. I hope you’re still fighting for your life out there, you’re worth fighting for Susie. Merry Christmas, and a very happy and healthy 2023 to you.


  4. Wow, first time I heard of ACE. What a great testimony you have. There are SOOOO many children these days who are suffering from traumatic childhoods as well. Both my mother in law and father in law also came from tremendous dysfunction. Then they found each other and made a great life for their two sons. There is hope that people can survive and thrive!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can relate to this story. My own mother tried to stab me directly in the heart in front of my 3 and 7 year old children. My brother was also physically abusive but this was the only time he ever helped me. He grabbed the knife out of my mother’s hand, first with her trying to stab him. My husband at the time was stationed overseas. My mother and brother were my terrorists throughout my life until I cut both of them out of my life about 20 years ago after my disabled Dad passed away.

    I realize veterans can suffer from PTSD and I feel for them but no one ever mentions that PTSD can occur in children that come from abusive homes. It seems veterans get free support for their PTSD but people like us may not have the money to get treatment.

    Liked by 1 person

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