Thriving Despite Adverse Childhood Events

Or, how the fuck am I still alive?

Tons of triggers and the like are discussed here. Take care of yourself when reading.

A few days ago, I came across the piece I saw things children shouldn’t see” — surviving a troubled childhood from Lucy Maddox on Mosaic Science.

As someone who has survived a myriad of traumatic and scary situations beginning in childhood, the title immediately caught my attention. While reading, I began to really identify with much of what was discussed therein:

The researchers expected to find that the “high-risk” children would do less well than the others as they grew up. In line with those expectations, they found that two-thirds of this group went on to develop significant problems. But totally unexpectedly, approximately one-third of the “high-risk” children didn’t. They developed into competent, confident and caring individuals, without significant problems in adult life. The study of what made these children resilient has become as least as important as the study of the negative effects of a difficult childhood. Why did some of these children do so well despite their adverse circumstances?

 Three clusters of protective factors tended to mark out the children who did well despite being “high-risk”: aspects of the child’s temperament, having someone who was consistently caring (typically but not necessarily a family member), and having a sense of belonging to a wider group.

 It seems blindingly obvious that how we are cared for by our parents or primary caregivers is crucial, but the growing realisation [sic] of just how important love and affection are to children has only come about in the last century.

 Studies of war veterans as well as maltreated children reveal that areas of the brain involved in processing threats, such as the amygdala, are more responsive both in the soldiers coming back from war and in children who have experienced early abuse. It makes sense that if you have been in danger a lot, then your brain may have adapted to be very sensitive to threat.

This is not surprising to me because the amygdala is more activated in general for those of us who live with post traumatic stress. It is a part of how we experience our flashbacks and hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance is basically the feeling of being consistently on guard or prepped for a fight. It’s helpful when in a traumatic situation because we notice things that others may not notice, from the man staring at us and then following us out to the parking lot to the baggage left unattended to someone’s emotional response.

I will admit that, on a personal level, even subconscious threats trigger my fight, flight, or freeze response because of my hypervigilance. People yelling at their kids in a grocery store can be triggering even because I have to be ready to hide or fight or I simply emotionally shut down to protect myself.


ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, have been recently studied. There are many types of ACEs, but they tend to fall under three main categories:

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & CDC by way of NPR

Here is the short questionnaire as listed on ACES Too High:

Prior to your 18th birthday:
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was your mother or stepmother:
Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a household member go to prison?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score

My ACE score is 6, meaning I am in the 12.5% as of the completion of the original study. It’s a wonder that my brain developed as well as it did, given the fact that childhood adversity, neglect, and abuse all lead to the stunting of our brain’s development. Even without directly taking years off of our lives, ACEs can impact our mental health, decision making, emotions, and relationship skills… leading us to dangerous situations without the ability to recognize them or find a way out.

Other areas of our lives affected include epigenetics, the size of our hippocampus, prematurely aging cells, neural connections, the potential onsets of post-traumatic stress and fibromyalgia, and more.

When we take this all into account for someone with a high ACE score such as myself, we find that I could die around 20 years earlier than my counterparts with small ACE scores.


The researchers in this study determined that having one person who cares helped to improve how people reacted to these experiences.

For Mirena, the vital thing is still “that there’s somebody they know cares about them. Just one person, it can make all the difference.”

For me, that was my great grandma, Katie Mae Balmain Webb.

No one is perfect. There are criticisms of her that can be said for others invested in public service types of activities — she wasn’t always there enough for her children, etc.

I was her first great grandbaby, though, and we were very much kindred spirits.

She had Multiple Sclerosis, which was diagnosed late during a period of crappy medical options. During my lifetime, I watched her go from walking around a bunch to using a scooter all the time. She eventually passed away as a result of a stroke caused by her MS.

She was my role model for much of my youth. When I was diagnosed with Systemic Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis after months of misdiagnoses, she and I grew closer — we already had as she watched me deal with the diagnosis process just as she had.

At the time I was diagnosed, the prognosis is that I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was eight — and I had just turned six. I watched her deal with her scooter and was afraid of what we were told was a sure thing. She tried to help me deal with that anxiety and did wonders for it. She worked hard on snuggling me and making sure that I felt okay emotionally despite my pain.

She’s the biggest reason that I survived my childhood.


Aspects of a child’s temperament are also a determining factor in positive outcomes despite a shitty childhood.

This part was not easy to write, honestly.

I have always been caring. Growing up in my household, I had to be simply in order to survive. My mother expected me to anticipate her every need emotionally.

I had to care for myself and my sister. I did not, by any means, always do a good job of the latter. A lot of that is how I was manipulated by my mother into emotionally tearing down my sister. It became our familial past-time in a lot of ways.

I want to throw up right now.

I think being sick as a child has helped me, too. I ended up being very introspective simply because I had to be.

A connection to the wider world…

I’ve always been focused on how I can help the world. As a child, I got into politics during the Clinton presidential reelection thanks to Nickelodeon. Their news shows for kids at the time were informative and allowed me to develop a curiosity to learn more. This, combined with the fact that I had to educate myself (being ‘homeschooled’ for years with a neglectful mother doesn’t really work), have led to some amazing research skills.

Most of all, I’ve just always wanted everyone to be happy and healthy — to a fault.

I used to give money when I really didn’t have any to give.

I wouldn’t change any of that, though, because helping others gives me life.


Kirsten is a writer and chronic illness activist living in Madison, Wisconsin. She is currently working towards her Master’s degree in Health Care Administration and Patient Advocacy. Currently, her hair is blue.

This year, she is launching an organization called Chronic Sex, highlighting how chronic illnesses and disabilities affect Quality of Life issues such as self-love, relationships, and sex. If you’re interested in helping with this project, please check out their Medium page or find the project on Patreon.