Date Published:

Feb 13, 2007 03:00 AM

Author: Bill Bishop

Source: The Register-Guard; Eugene, Oregon, USA

Even though Hannah Caron needed no proof that a traumatic childhood leads to serious health problems later in life, she got it anyway while studying psychology a few years ago at the University of Oregon.

That’s when the Adverse Childhood Experiences study came out, documenting the strong link between childhood emotional trauma and heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide, alcoholism and intravenous drug abuse decades later.

As the only child of a mentally ill woman, Caron bounced in and out of foster care, lived on the streets and experienced trauma firsthand for most of her life. “It was bizarre to me that people need that hard evidence,” Caron says. “That was my life. It was obvious to me.”

While working on a psychology research project in 2003, Caron met Elaine Walters, a Eugene social worker who was thinking about the ACE study and the obvious next step: finding what works to reduce or eliminate the physical and mental health consequences for adults who had suffered childhood trauma.

Walters told Caron about her work in forming a nonprofit called the Trauma Healing Project. When she asked Caron to attend some training sessions and join the project, Caron began to see her own chaotic childhood as a way to help others deal with theirs.

With sessions beginning next month to train counselors, mentors and volunteers, Walters hopes to have the Trauma Healing Project up and running in the fall.

“The ACE study put the numbers where our common sense took us,” says Walters, whose day job is statewide coordinator for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program of the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force.

The ACE study, a collaboration between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, showed that people with childhood trauma may, for example, self-medicate with everything from overeating and tobacco use to hard drugs later in life. Depression is another response to abnormal life experiences, according to Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the researchers who compiled data from more than 17,000 ACE participants.

The ACE study suggests that treating the core problem, rather than the person’s response to the problem, may be a more effective approach.

While the Trauma Healing Project has no particular ax to grind with conventional mental health treatments, it will follow the lead of local self-support groups such as MindFreedom International and Safe, Inc. They promote alternatives and run peer supported drop-in centers and other programs that embrace the individual, Walters says.

“One of the things you do is identify the survival strategies and strengths that someone is already using,” says Walters, who is the project’s director. “Tell me your story. Show me how the way you are coping makes sense. The starting point is making the connection.”

While every individual is different, the general approach would be to replace the harmful or ineffective coping strategy – such as alcohol or drug abuse, or other self-destructive patterns – with more helpful and healthful ways of understanding and resolving the person’s core issues, Walters says.

For example, some people use alcohol to keep from reliving experiences that they may not even consciously remember, Walters says.

The first step is to find safe ways to handle difficult feelings and to work through memories a little at a time, while learning new coping skills. Childhood trauma includes recurrent physical, sexual or emotional abuse; living with an alcohol or drug abuser; living with someone who is chronically depressed, suicidal or mentally ill; witnessing domestic violence; having one or no parents; or being neglected physically or emotionally.

As a trauma survivor, Caron ended up doing what the ACE study would predict – being suicidal and doing drugs. She grew up the only child of a woman who staunchly believed they were being pursued by a cult that had involved them in ritual abuse and had brainwashed them.

“It never wasn’t true for me,” Caron says. “It always was a component of my life. She wasn’t able to function because of her fears.”

Her mother changed their names dozens of times, applying for new Social Security numbers and getting by on disability payments from the government, Caron says.

Four file cabinet drawers and five paper boxes hold the compulsive notes and meticulous records Caron’s mother kept to document their lives, her fears, their counseling sessions, her delusions, their moves, her mental health status and their cover stories.

One document lists 52 moves made in a 15-year period. The two lived in almost all of the lower 48 states. Caron attended at least 12 schools, according to the records. She says she didn’t make friends, attempted suicide several times as a child and was placed in foster care four times when her mother’s condition deteriorated.

As a high school freshman, she ran away from home after she began realizing her mother might be seriously mentally ill.

Living on the street or with friends, Caron says she began using drugs. She says her life was so disorganized that she was committed to a mental hospital and put on medication.

Fortunately, supportive families took her in at times when Caron was desperate. While living with a Pennsylvania family at age 17, Caron says she and a friend quit drugs after concluding that there was nothing at all glamorous about using them.

With the support of distant relatives, Caron got an educational assessment. The evaluator suggested that she attend the Learning Center in Eugene, so she moved here in 2001 to get one-on-one tutoring in reading to prepare to enroll at Lane Community College.

“I think I put all my energy, all my focus, into school,” Caron says.

Caron’s mother committed suicide three years ago.

While Caron heals, there remain nightmares and questions about whether any of her mother’s beliefs were true.

But Caron says her life is much better. “I no longer live in a constant state of fear.”

Caron works with severely abused children as a treatment team member at SCAR/Jasper Mountain, and she teaches self-defense to women and girls. She plans to finish her psychology degree this year and holds a 3.93 grade point average.

She also volunteers on the education, research and youth services committees for the Trauma Healing Project.

“It is such an obvious way to make change happen, to listen to the voices of people who have been there,” she says. “I feel very lucky to have experienced everything I have experienced.

“I would not change anything I have been through.”

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