When I was twelve, I was coming home from swimming at my neighbor’s dock when I saw an ambulance’s flashing lights in our driveway. I still remember the asphalt burning my feet as I stood, paralyzed, and watched the paramedics take away my father. It was as if I knew those flashing lights were a harbinger that my childhood was over.
At the hospital, a surgeon performed “minor” elective bowel surgery on my young dad. The surgeon made an error, and instead of my father coming home to the “welcome home” banners we’d painted, he died.
The medical care system failed my father miserably. Then the medical care system began to fail me.
At fourteen, I started fainting. The doctors implied I was trying to garner attention. In college I began having full seizures. I kept them to myself, fearful of seeming a modern Camille. I’d awaken on the floor drenched in sweat, with strangers standing quizzically over me. Then, I had a seizure in front of my aunt, a nurse, and forty-eight hours later awoke in the hospital with a pacemaker in my chest.
In my early forties I developed Guillain Barre Syndrome, a neurological autoimmune disorder that causes paralysis from the neck down. I found myself in Johns Hopkins Hospital, on the exact anniversary of my father’s death, in the same hospital wing where he had died, unable to move. I was a few days shy of turning forty-two, the very age at which my dad had passed away.
I recovered, only to relapse, falling paralyzed again. Many of my children’s early memories revolve around my bed, where we played board games and read books.
It wasn’t until I was fifty-one-years old that a physician sat me down and asked me the most important question of my life – one that would lead me to better health than I’d had for decades: “Were there any childhood traumas or stressors that might have contributed to the extreme level of inflammation you’re experiencing as an adult?”
My physician explained that ongoing adversity in childhood leads to a chronic state of “fight, flight or freeze.” Researchers at Yale had recently shown that when inflammatory stress hormones flood a child’s body and brain, they alter the genes that oversee our stress reactivity, re-setting the stress response to “high” for life. This increases the risk of inflammation, which manifests later in cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases like mine.
As a science reporter I was shocked to discover that research linking childhood stress to adult illness began in 1996 with the Kaiser Permanente-CDC Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). Since then, over 1500 peer-reviewed studies have replicated these findings.
The research was stunning. Two-thirds of Americans report experiencing Adverse Childhood Experiences. These include obvious sexual and physical abuse, but also stressors that many consider to be normal — growing up with divorced parents, living with a depressed or alcoholic mom or dad, having a parent who belittled or humiliated you – or simply not feeling as if your family had your back. People who’d experienced four such categories of childhood adversity were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and depression as adults.