When O’Nesha Cochran teaches medical residents about adverse childhood experiences in patients, she doesn’t use a textbook.
Instead, the Oregon Health & Science University peer mentor walks in the room, dressed in what she describes as the “nerdiest-looking outfit” she can find.
And then she tells them her story.
“My mom sold me to her tricks and her pimps from the age of three to the age of six,” she begins. “I could remember these grown men molesting me and my sisters. I have three sisters and we all went through this,” she says.
When she was 13, some adults enticed her to start smoking crack cocaine. “They knew if they got me strung out on drugs, they could sell me easily from person to person and that is what they did,” she says matter-of-factly. For the next 20 years, she tells them, she stole things, beat up a lot of people, and was homeless and in and out of the penitentiary.
“I tell this story very plainly and you can see their mouths drop open,” Cochran says. It’s exactly the effect she’s aiming for – that her story doesn’t match the wonky-looking teacher standing in front of them. It’s partly a lesson, she says, about making snap judgments based on appearances.
And that lets Cochran offer a deeper lesson: “Nobody is born thinking ‘I want to be a dope fiend. I want to be a criminal.’”
Cochran asks the medical residents to consider that under the circumstances she was thrust into as a 13-year-old, using crack actually helped her survive her trauma. “It made me feel beautiful. It made me feel invincible, like nothing can hurt me!”
At that point she says, she can see a light bulb go on in the students. “They think, ‘Wow, this is a little girl at 13 making a bad decision, but with the best information she had available to her at that time.”
This is how Cochran opens the door to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, the groundbreaking research by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente that looked at 10 types of childhood trauma. This includes: physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who has mental illness. It also includes experiencing parental divorce or separation, having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing neighborhood or family violence, such as a mother being abused.