by: Dr Dyann Daley
The taxi smelled like cigarette smoke and jasmine and all of the windows were rolled down. As I stepped out of the Southern spring afternoon into the taxi, the driver lifted his seat out of the reclining position and said, “I took a little nap while waiting.” He was about 40 years old and probably 100 pounds overweight. When we started driving he left all of the windows down. By the time we got on the freeway the warm wind was whipping my hair all around, but it reminded me of summertime teenage road trips so I didn’t say anything. Sitting there in the wind, listening to 90’s pop hits on my iPhone, I thought about the taxi driver.
Feeling Sherlockian, I deduced a number of things about him. He was sleepy in the daytime and morbidly obese so he probably had sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, and the beginnings of heart and kidney disease. By keeping the windows down he was creating a strong wind that probably made him feel like he could breath easier, a sign of lung damage from smoking and maybe asthma or COPD. Very long pinkie fingernails suggested cocaine use and supported the idea he was using drugs, cigarettes and food to cope with the stress in his life. He had an American southern accent, crooked teeth, and drove a taxi he didn’t own, so he probably grew up locally in poverty and had limited education. There was no ring on his finger, and I thought he probably had troubled relationships. All of these factors together pointed me to one sure conclusion: this man had experienced serious trauma in his early childhood.
I almost walked away from the driver when we arrived at the airport, but thought, has anyone ever told him how these things are related? He was a little confused when I told him I’m a physician and I was worried about his health, but he was willing to talk.
He told me when he was a little boy, he witnessed his mother murder his step-father in their home. He had suffered abuse and poverty as a child. When he had children of his own, the mother of his children physically abused them so badly they were removed and placed in foster care before moving in with him. Currently, he is a single Dad with two teenagers and they are barely making it. He does have sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart and breathing problems, but no doctor has ever told him all of these things are related. He asked me, “What is it about me that made you think I had these problems?”
All of these problems are directly related to DNA damage and brain development abnormalities commonly associated with childhood trauma and toxic stress.
We’ve all seen videos from African safaris showing a lion attacking a gazelle. When the gazelle smells a lion on the prowl, her ears perk up, nostrils flare and muscles tense. Sensing danger, her body releases adrenaline so she has more sugar in her blood for energy, raises her blood pressure and heart rate so she run faster, activates her immune system to heal if she is injured, and shuts down the areas of her brain not associated with her immediate survival. She becomes hyper-alert. At the same time, cortisol is released to calm those agitated body systems if she survives. In the videos when the lion does catch the gazelle, do you remember how her eyes will glaze over and she’ll stop fighting? As that gazelle is dying and can’t fight or flee, her brain floods with dopamine so she can detach from the trauma and float away. That’s the “freeze” response.
Children who suffer chronic abuse, neglect, bullying, or witness violence experience the fight/flight/freeze response over and over and over. It changes them. How can their brains develop normally when the parts that aren’t used for immediate survival are shut down a lot of the time? When they are frightened, in danger, or pain a lot of the time, their bodies will learn to respond quickly and strongly to anything that feels threatening. Remember how adrenaline make blood sugar higher, blood pressure higher, activates the immune system, and causes a hyper-alert state? When these kids grow up they are more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders. It’s highly unlikely that a child growing up like this is around adults who know healthy coping skills, so they don’t learn them.
By the time he was 5 years old, the taxi driver’s early childhood trauma had already changed his DNA and increased his risk for disease and early death. Even more frightening, this DNA damage can be passed down generation to generation.
Do you see yourself in this story? If you have ever wondered why you struggle with depression or anxiety, drugs and alcohol, obesity, smoking, problematic relationships, and health conditions, you may need to look at your childhood.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a quiz called the Adverse Childhood Event (ACE) study that you can view for free online. If you did experience the adverse events, find a TRAUMA INFORMED therapist to help you begin to heal yourself.
Take the quiz here: http://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/