You Call Me Crazy.
I Call Myself a “9”

Brenda Vezina
8
195

“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.

* * * * *

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.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful and heartfelt story, Brenda, I so admire your self-awareness, courage, and determination.

    When I look around in the world, I see evidence of childhood trauma just about everywhere I look; people are really on the defensive these days, very competitive, to the point of being sabotaging. I feel that this is one of the main reasons we are in such global turmoil in this society, because many do not recognize their wounds and their potential impact on our well-being, as you have.

    At this point, I feel it’s a call to some kind of global transformation, with focus on heart consciousness and healing heart wounds. Then, our minds can become clear and focused, and we can know our truth and embody it as such. The process of manifesting what we need and want is so much easier, as we follow the path of least resistance. This was my experience, in any event.

    My very best wishes to you as you continue on your path of personal evolution, and keep up the amazing and very admirable work!

  2. Trauma, chronic stress (especially social stress), abuse and neglect, domestic violence – all the biggest “risk factors” for mental illness, however defined. Yet I don’t see many psychiatrists talking about that as opposed to happy pills and genetic problems.

    • This is because they don’t want to deal with anything that is messy, horrible, difficult, or anything else that reveals how inhumane people can be to one another, especially to their own children. They don’t want to admit anything about the reality of life. Most of them live in their own little fantasy worlds with their easy answers for everything. I also believe that all to often, the trauma they see in their “patients” stirs up their own stuff that they’ve never worked on or looked at. Psychiatrists are notorious for knowing little about self-reflection and doing the Work that life hands to each of us. So, rather than having their “stuff” stirred up by the people they deal with, they drug them into oblivion.

  3. Brenda,

    Great post! (Short but sweet.) Your story is poignant, and the brief trailer to “What Happened to You?” is very promising.

    I have occasionally mentioned, in my MIA comments, that, at age 21, I threw a bunch of cheap plates from the kitchen cupboard, at my parents’ garage door, in their backyard.

    I have described, the next morning I consented to allow myself to be driven by my friends to a nearby E.R., where I’d have my first encounter with medical-coercive psychiatry.

    I was quite nervous and somewhat sleep-deprived, but in no way whatsoever was I being combative, nor would I become in any way combative in that E.R., but I would eventually be tied down there, on a gurney, to be forcibly injected with so-called “antipsychotic” drugs (nueroleptics).

    I was then swiftly carted off, in an ambulance, to a nearby”hospitalized” against my will… and, just hours later, forcibly drugged again — no one ever asking why I’d thrown those plates.

    Days later, as they were having me pop a variety of pills (more neuroleptics mainly) in that “hospital,” I’d beg to be provided a therapist to speak with, but that would not be allowed.

    I’d wind up, from that point forward, “hospitalized” in two settings — for nearly two months altogether… and would never, in all that time, be provided even a moment of personal ‘talk’ therapy.

    Years later, my mom would explain that she was told by her contacts, in that “hospital”: I could not receive therapy then, because therapy could not help me.

    She was told that, before any therapist could work with me, I’d need to be “stabilized” with “medication”. (She said they called it “sealing the patient.”)

    In fact, I would eventually be provided a bit of ‘out-patient’ therapy; but, that was mainly designed to acquaint me with my newly discovered ‘need’ for constant “medical” help, in the form of daily pills… and designed to ‘help’ me to fully accept this supposed ‘fact’: I was now known to be afflicted with a serious “mental illness” — a “disorder” widely considered to be genetic in origins.

    I’d soon hear from one friend of mine, that his older brother (a massage therapist) had suggested to him, that, probably, something had happened in my childhood, which led to my eventual moments of personal crisis.

    Such a notion was completely at odds with everything that I and my family were being led to believe, by psychiatry.

    For years, no one ever asked me why I’d thrown those plates.

    I rarely speak of why I did. Sometimes, in my comments, on this website, I’ve mentioned why…

    But, there were a number of combined reasons, and I’ve only shared some.

    I hope you will please excuse the indulgence of my sharing all that, about my own story, here.

    And, please, excuse me, as I’m going to post even more… because, “What Happened to You?” is such a compelling question, and only moments prior to logging on to this website and seeing the brief intro your post (which had apparently just appeared at the atop the Home page), I’d been writing and sending, in an email message to fellow psychiatric survivor friend, the following recollections [note: here I’ll formally sign off, respectfully, saying thank you, Brenda, for posting such a wonderfully inspiring blog post):

    …surely, WWII provided a most outstanding case of victors writing history, here in this country.

    Here, we are all taught, from a very early age, that we were ‘The Good Guys’ — period — case closed. (Just forget about the all that firebombing we did, in Germany and Japan. Forget about the two atomic bombs we dropped…)

    (Note: As it happens, i grew up in a house where U.S. ‘American’ History books of all kinds were standing around, on shelves…)

    Really, ever since i was a very small child, it has struck me as incredibly bizarre (truly, outrageous) that we ‘Americans’ are taught, by our school systems, that we’re the world’s ‘knights in shining armor’ …because (i can recall) my earliest half-way conscious exposures to the ‘news’ on television (i.e., memories from age two+) that led me intuitively to sense (and, i well knew, consciously, by the time i was just four years old) that, the Vietnam War was nothing more or less for us than the purest folly, ideological and needless, a devastating exercise in futility.

    Of course, it helped that my parents were opposed to that war.

    Back in those days, ‘body-counts’ were reported, in the evening news broadcasts, on network TV, in this country, as though the scoring of distant sporting events.

    ‘We Americans’ were expected to approve of the jobs our leaders were doing, as long as considerably more Viet Cong were reported killed than South Vietnamese and U.S./American soldiers.

    Fortunately, my parents were wise enough to oppose that war.

    But, i should point out: they were not inclined to have us watching those news reports during dinnertime.

    I watched those daily death tallies in TV news reports, only when i’d eat over at the house of this one-and-only neighborhood friend i had — a schoolmate who lived a few blocks away.

    As we ate his mom’s mac and cheese or hamburger dinners, I was always attempting to understand why it was happening; why was that war happening?

    Eventually, it was, in large part, that same very same sort of — really quite deep and persistent — questioning (and, really, also quietly perplexed horror), but with respect to my pondering the nuclear arms race, at its height (30,000 nuclear warheads on each side, by the time i was twenty-one years old), which would lead me to ‘explode’ momentarily (throwing plates against my parents’ garage door), at age 21.5.

    No less, in those moments, i was quite aware of my coming to simultaneously (at last!) rebel against the way i’d been raised, during that above-mentioned time…

    Such is to say, i had, in my mind’s eye, been going back in time, for a number of weeks, late at night; these were deliberately conjured ‘age-regressing’ efforts, leading me to re-experience sensually feelings i’d had throughout the height of the Vietnam War (as a kid, in the late Sixties and early Seventies); i was listening to a lot of old Dylan music — and Joan Baez, then… and began conjuring, unexpectedly, an unending sense of being overwhelmed by my older brother at home, threatened and humiliated, almost constantly… and the sense of futility… in that there was so much contradictory ignorance and just plain incompetence coming from our Dad, who had never had any dad around when he was a kid.

    My brother was four years older than i, he knew how to find my weaknesses and push my buttons… and did so for a number of years, back then, non-stop, day and after day.

    My dad’s interventions were entirely ineffective, and often he was just not around… because, of course, he was working.

    My mom could protect me — but only when i was able to stay by her side; so, i was “Mamma’s Boy” (according my brother).

    I had always been far more frail than he — skinny as a rail… and was in all respects “the easy kid” in our family (that’s how my mom described me), as i was so quiet.

    Sometimes, my mom would encourage me to “get angry” at my brother, but she never told me how (i guess, in saying “get angry” she was hoping i’d find a way to voice some direct opposition to him, as opposed to my just plain hiding or whining to my parents, about his behaviors); but, as a kid, i only got angry at him one time: I was either ten or eleven years old and a was finally feeling totally fed up with being humiliated by him. He was going at it, pushing my buttons, and i suddenly picked up my plate of spaghetti and meat sauce and tossed it, hard as i could, in his direction. It hit the opposite wall, in the living room.

    As the plate was flying, i shouted at my brother, calling him “N—-R!!!” (Note: There are no African Americans in our family; but, you should know, i come from a family of ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ …all who fully supported the Civil Rights movement; hence, in those days, the “N-word” was, as far as i knew, the very WORST possible label that anyone could ever use to describe anyone else.)

    My dad wasn’t around, at that time. My mom immediately sent me to my room — which was not a harsh punishment, of course, but it was unheard of, because it was not my nature to require ‘punishing’ of any kind…

    I mean, my brother was sent there (to our shared bedroom) not infrequently; it was not a horrible punishment for him; it didn’t modify his behaviors; and, i wasn’t to be kept there long very long after throwing that plate of spaghetti…

    But, should i have been ‘punished’ at all, I wonder?

    As a parent, now, I can’t help but think about how I would have parented myself differently.

    In retrospect, i think my mom should have just had me cool off, in there, for a brief bit of time, sure — but then should have come in and praised me.

    She could have docked me somehow very mildly (maybe taking 50 cents out of my allowance) for using the “N-word”; she could have then suggested some better words to use while explaining it was wrong to throw the plate. But, no less, she could have praised me for finally getting clearly pissed. (Then, after praising me, she could have told me i had to clean up the mess i’d made.)

    I actually think it would have been good had i been taught how to effectively ‘fight’ my brother — with words.

    In those days, he was always putting me down with the most humiliating terms, which left me feeling small and degraded.

    (I strongly feel that the psychiatric labels eventually used to describe me were quite like ‘medical’ versions of my brothers terms for me.)

    Indeed, like my later being told of the theoretical genetic defects that had supposedly created my supposed “mental illness,” my brother, when we were young, would frequently tell me, “You were never supposed to be born” …because he well knew that my mom had had miscarriages as well as still-births before i was born; she’d had a number of them… and there were complications with my birth, which required special medical procedures; i would not have survived otherwise.

    In retrospect, i think i should have been led, by my parents, to realize, that: i could well have chosen to counter my brother’s arguments against my existence, with the fact that he was adopted.

    I.e., to his “You were never supposed to be born,” i could have countered “You weren’t supposed to be a part of this family,” but i well understood his sensitivity to that subject; indeed, even the suggestion of such, now, seems taboo; the nature of such a suggestion seems too cruel…

    But, would it have been any more cruel than what he was getting away with, really?

    From a very young age, much as my brother was inclined to taunt me and overwhelm me with half-veiled threats of violence, i felt sorry for my brother, that he was adopted, so i would not have countered his taunts by referencing the fact he was adopted; and, my parents would have never allowed me to get away with repeating such a phrase as, “You weren’t supposed to be a part of this family.”

    He he’d receive years of therapy, to deal with his anger around that issue. (It’s quite common for adopted kids to hold a lot of anger, considering their feelings that they were rejected by their ‘real’ parents.)

    And, there was our younger sister (who, like my brother, was also adopted by my parents as a newborn infant); i would need to consider how any expressed negative attitude toward adoptions could effect her, and she came along when i was not quite four years old.

    By that point, had i in any way slighted my brother for his being adopted, it would have been a slight of our younger sister, too, and, as a kid, i always felt very protective of her.

    • Jonah,
      I suspect that a lot of children who don’t know how to express anger end up with a psychiatric label. These are usually the good, thoughtful, and quiet children. Life begins to get tough for the child around the age of leaving home (17 -21). I assumed my son would learn how to stand up for himself eventually, but I was wrong. It never occurred to me that being good and kind was a mental health problem. (Doctor, can you please see my son. He’s just too “nice.”)

        • I think being “too good” is an under-reported harbinger of earning a label later on. Seriously. Why aren’t we talking about this? The “bad” children are dragged by their parents to see psychologists (e.g. my second son) and they’ll probably turn out fine. It’s the ones with the harps and white robes that pass under the radar. But who takes a child to a shrink for being nice and dutiful? On the other hand, if you believe in shamanic ways, the “good” children are healers. They have a special mission in life to help others. They have to go through a crisis, though, to find their mission.

  4. Ah we are on the same wavelength Brenda! I posted a comment about trauma and multiple diagnoses and straight after your article appeared! You are one beautiful, strong lady! 🙂 I agree… we always need to ask” What happened?” and then we can start healing. I find Kristin Neff’s book “Self-Compassion” to be a great first resource for that. Thanks for posting!