Journey to Health After Childhood Trauma

The truth about childhood is stored up in our bodies and lives in the depths of our souls. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings can be numbed and manipulated, our perceptions shamed and confused, our bodies tricked with medication, but our soul never forgets. And because we are one, one whole soul in one body, someday our body will present its bill.

Alice Miller, Breaking Down the Walls of Silence

I’m often asked how I became a trainer and wellness coach after working in finance. “I love working with people and staying active” is usually my response. I’m not lying, but I’m not being entirely truthful either. My company, Radiate with Kate, promotes positive living, clean eating and kicking ass in fitness because I’m living proof that your organs can regenerate after proper nourishment. Ten years ago, I nearly lost my life to depression.

That’s so scary to see in writing and for some of you it’s scary to read. I’m going to try and deliver my message thoughtfully and honestly. I’m not a doctor and I don’t want this blog to mislead anyone to think I’m anti-pharma. I’m only speaking from personal experience. My goal is to inform others about holistic approaches to depression, anxiety, insomnia and other ailments that hold us back from being our most radiant selves. For years, I’ve wanted to share my health and wellness journey, but I simply was not ready.

In the mid-90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the study, the categories of adverse childhood experiences are abuse (psychological, sexual, physical), household dysfunction (substance abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse, incarceration), death of a parent, divorce, alcoholism, and neglect. For those with a higher ACE score, they have triple the risk of developing heart disease and lung cancer as well as a 20-year difference in life expectancy.

Many Americans have at least one ACE. Others have three or four. My ACE score exceeds six. The higher the ACE score the more likely you are to develop the seven of the 10 leading causes of death.

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., explains the study:

“The first time I heard Robert Anda present the results of the ACE study, he could not hold back his tears. In his career at the CDC he had previously worked in several major risk areas, including tobacco research and cardiovascular health. But when the ACE study data started to appear on his computer screen, he realized that they had stumbled upon the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States: child abuse. He had calculated that its overall costs exceeded those of cancer or heart disease and the eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism my two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters…”

In her Ted Talk, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explains childhood trauma and how it impacts the developing brain and immune system:

…Imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, Your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Since I was a kid I battled health issues (asthma attacks, ear infections, etc). A month prior to my high school graduation, I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease of the liver and acute hepatitis. I had no family history and wasn’t a drinker. I was an athlete, training for college ball. I had no idea what this diagnoses even meant. The whites of my eyes and my skin had turned yellow from jaundice (due to the excessive destruction of the red blood cells). My liver and spleen had become so inflamed they were visibly noticeable and painful to touch. After two weeks in the hospital, a liver biopsy, blood transfusions and a heavy prednisone prescription later, I left for college. I was told not to play contact sports, come in for blood work and warned I would likely need a liver transplant by 25. I was in shock. How could this be?

Against my doctor’s orders, I played college soccer and summer training and triple days began several weeks after leaving the hospital. By August of 2004, my freshman year of college began. I felt tired, distracted, depressed and had trouble sleeping. I didn’t know at the time that the liver and spleen are directly correlated to insomnia. When there is a blood deficiency or excess emotions affecting the heart, the body is restless, therefore, can’t sleep. In addition, prednisone, (medication I began taking prior to college) has very dangerous side effects including anxiety, depression (including suicidal thoughts), mood swings, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and rapid weight gain and acne. No wonder I was struggling so much.

I visited the campus doctor and told them my symptoms. I was sent home with anti-depressants and sleeping medication. I was now taking new medication to treat symptoms from other medications.

In my senior year of college, my depression became so unbearable that I considered suicide. Daily. Sometimes hourly. While I never attempted suicide I was certain it was my fate.

I felt broken. For years I suppressed anger and shame from years of childhood abuse by my biological father. He was a mean alcoholic and did things no father should ever do to his child. Even after my parents divorced, I was in survival mode more often than not. My body was always in “fight or flight mode” which directly impacted my developing brain and immune system.

From a young age, my mom encouraged me to play sports. Even if it meant she worked extra nights and weekends so I could travel to tournaments. I found solace on the soccer field — a sport I fell in love with when I was eight. It was my escape and where I felt happiest.

Playing college soccer was a dream of mine and I’m tremendously grateful for the experience I had playing Division I soccer. I loved my teammates like sisters. Despite this, I made the painful choice not to play my senior year. I was going through a lot in my personal life and my depression was getting the best of me. When I hung up my cleats, I felt like I had lost the part of me I loved most.

Once I quit, my sadness dragged me to a place I didn’t think I’d ever go and my immune system felt like my worst enemy. Despite healthier eating habits and daily vitamins, I was sick constantly, caught whooping cough and broke out in shingles during finals. I felt like a 20 year-old trapped in a 90-year old body. I returned to the campus doctors who prescribed more medication and by this time, I wasn’t surprised nor was I going to spend more money on meds that weren’t going to help me. I so badly wanted to get better.

One day in Berkeley, I rode my scooter to the local Barnes and Noble. I spent the entire day in the bookstore- mostly in the self-help section. I read about the immune system, the liver, trauma, and holistic approaches to depression. I was blown away at how much material I found on anger and the direct connection to the liver. I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was so excited about the material that I spent my entire grocery budget on new books and a Rodney Yee yoga DVD. Shortly after, I began taking yoga and meditation classes. On days I felt anti-social I made myself practice at home. I adopted a new vegetarian diet and became more mindful of what I consumed and how it made me feel.

Meditation and yoga have had a profound influence on my healing, both physically and emotionally. I grew up appreciating my body for it’s athleticism but that was about it. Very often for survivors of sexual abuse, you neglect your body. Some hide it with food and emotional eating, others numb the pain with drugs and alcohol or become promiscuous and set no boundaries to protect their body because no one protected them when they were most vulnerable. For me, I neglected my pain. I suppressed it deep down inside and felt weak for not being “okay”. When I began to suffer with depression, I sought help with medication but I didn’t seek therapy. In a way, the medication was just a band-aid when I really needed stitches. I needed to dig below the surface and acknowledge the root of the problem, the source of the chaos. Yoga helped me initiate the healing process.

In his book, Journey into Power, Baron Baptiste, discusses the magic of yoga:

“… the physical changes are only a by-product of a more empowering purpose. The physical magic just kind of happens as you go through the practice. The real miracle is what starts happening underneath, within you. We soak up life like a sponge, holding tensions, fears, and anxieties in our system. In yoga practice you reach down into all the nooks and crannies and hidden pockets of tissue, excavating all this clogging, unwanted stuff. Through the challenges on your mat, you step up to what I call your edge and pull up whatever is inside you that needs to be healed and released. You also discover how strong you really are, physically and mentally. Almost as if by magic, lifelong fears dissipate, your mind gets quiet and gains startling clarity, psychic wounds from deep down surface to be healed… You begin to understand on a deep level what is right for you and what to do.”

Not long after becoming a devoted yogi, and a very inflexible one at that, I began to feel a shift. My body began to rest after years of insomnia. I stopped taking all medications. My heart began to feel again. On days I could not focus or be present while meditating, I prayed. I found my way back to God, call it what you want, a higher power. For the first time in my life, my body was being cared for in a way that was based on self-love. I also found new ways to express my emotions. I began taking improv and acting classes. Acting was and still is an expressive outlet that gets me out of my comfort zone and brings me joy.

After a decade of a healthier lifestyle, I’m still medication free and my liver is in great health (didn’t need the transplant after all!). My health is still my greatest priority and I wake up each day loving what I do. I have the opportunity to teach others how to become stronger athletes, mindful eaters and happier souls with movement, nourishment and play.

I can’t predict the future and I’m not certain that lung disease or cancer aren’t in my cards. That’s out of my control. I do my best to make positive and healthy choices every day; that’s in my control. I don’t do it for external motives. I do it for my soul, my liver, my heart and my brain. I want to stay well and give my body a fighting chance in case I need to fight disease again one day. Because I’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the likelihood I develop another autoimmune disease is three times greater than someone without one. Because my ACE score exceeds four, my life expectancy is 20 years shorter than someone with an ACE score of zero. While these numbers frighten me, they inspire me more. I have crawled my way out of darkness. I want to live.

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