“What is Wrong With You?” is the question many of us are faced with when we seek understanding or assistance while navigating life’s challenges. But it is known that survival skills learned in our youth – often in order to weather difficult situations we have faced – often do not transfer in a healthy way into adulthood. In many cases these previously adaptive behaviors become problematic, then end up pathologized and diagnosed.
What Happened to You? is a documentary film that explores the proven fact that events experienced while growing up have a cause & effect relationship on our later lives. The film explores how the labels given to us by others – while helping them to feel that they understand behaviors that don’t quite make sense in the “normal” world – make total sense to someone like me.
I score a 9 (out of 10) on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (A.C.E.) Study. For the uninitiated, the ACE Study is a long-term research study of over 17,000 participants, conducted by Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization and the Centers for Disease Control. The study demonstrated a link between adverse experiences in childhood (ACEs), and medical and social problems as an adult. The study is frequently cited as a landmark in epidemiological research.
When I took the test after 20-plus years of both therapy and work as a Licensed Social Worker, I nearly collapsed in joy. Finally; something made sense. I began to understand why I was doing what I was doing. I was reacting and creating conditions for a quality of life I desired. So what if there are bells tied to every door and window in my home? Some call that OCD. I call it protecting myself and my children from the harms that were a reality in the world I grew up in.
So I don’t trust easily? It’s not “antisocial”; it’s normal for a “9.”
When we change the question from “what’s wrong with you” to what “happened to you,” we remove the stigma and shame. Most of us seek to understand ourselves, and for those of us who have experienced childhoods that were without the safety that many have had the good fortune to experience, the mere QUESTION “what happened to you” is a relief. Shame is replaced with understanding when events – and the lack of safety that made them possible, and that they made explicit – are identified.
When I believed that this chaotic nightmare that I endured on a daily basis since age 5 was not, in fact, my fault, I took a breath that felt like my first. I was 51. I finally understand myself, and why I have done the things I have done.
Does it excuse any bad choices I have made, and make it all my family of origin’s fault? No. It is not about blame. It is about finding a place to start understanding who we are, why we have taken the path we have, and why we made the choices we have made. It is about a place to see myself clearly and to accept what I couldn’t control. And, like other humans, it is about accepting what I can do now to live my life without the constant shadowy ghosts of my past.
No model, no system, no amount of empathy or understanding erases the depths of these traumatic events. But what helps is self-awareness, and trying to make sense of it yourself: These things happened. They happened to you, and you still matter.
I’ve learned to integrate the traumatic stimulus; often to my advantage. Some people call me a hippy, a gypsy, a groovy chick, and the bells on my door add to that quality of my home’s ambiance.
I have let go of the multiple diagnosis I had been handed. I focus on the truth. And now I do it with the prowess that the ACE study gave me, instead of thinking I was stark raving mad. It helped me to realize I was traumatizing my own children with protective measures that were outside of regular parenting parameters. It eased my mind. It helped when I thought all help was lost.
I like to think, I like to feel. I like to live and laugh and love fully and completely. I’m enthusiastic, not manic. I’m complete. I’m a trauma survivor. I’m alive and not drugged or therapized to the point where I’m trying to figure out what is wrong with me. I am living life to the fullest each day and making sense that I am brilliant enough to equate making the film “What Happened to Me” to hanging bells on the world’s door.
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What Happened to You? is a half-hour documentary produced by the Central Mass Recovery Learning Community. The film explores the cause and effect relationship between trauma, childhood trauma in particular, and major public health issues.