I almost felt slapped in the face – a wakeup slap; not a punishment – when I read Cissy White’s groundbreaking post describing her joy in finding out her “ACE score.”
Her writing about her elation at learning about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and questionnaire was an unintentional throw-down on her part. As I read her post I was compelled to reframe my shame, fear, and overall sense of dread about my own high ACE score. (Cissy has given me permission to use her name and to mention her writing.)
For Cissy, learning her score helped explain her depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Prior to reading about her happiness in learning about ACEs science, I had run from my own ACE score of 7+. (The score represents the number of “yes” answers one has on a 10-question test. Most Americans have a score of 2. The greater the number of childhood traumas experienced, the higher the score.) The test is central to a groundbreaking study of more than 17,000 Americans done by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. Among the big takeaways from the study? The correlation between higher ACE scores and increased rates of chronic illness, addiction, divorce, and premature death.)(acestoohigh.com) CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
Perhaps I ran from my score because I didn’t want it to become an excuse. Or I didn’t want to own it. Or I didn’t want to think about what my adult children would say their scores were, despite my dedication to giving them what I hope will be viewed as a more stable childhood than mine had been.
On a call with Cissy several days after reading and marinating on her post and what it meant to me, we shared a bit about our respective lives, and Cissy said something that hit me even harder. She said financial instability was a factor in her experiences and that her mom had started borrowing money from her when Cissy was just 12 years old. The alarm bells went off in my head.
Cissy said that her mom, who had a high ACE score herself, had never managed money well. I heard empathy and love in Cissy’s voice when she said her mom grew up in a lot of chaos and trauma and didn’t really have a childhood.
I’ve been around long enough to know: Most of us who didn’t have a lot of a childhood as children do some childish things as adults. I felt my cheeks get hot with shame as Cissy shared more. Some of what she said was information about “adult children of alcoholics” and trauma survivors that I’d read and written about for years. Yet this time there was a bigger “aha.”
“Do you think, possibly, that people with high scores who have money issues could be spending money quickly because we think, on some deep level, we might not live to see the next day?” I asked.
I heard the words come out of my mouth, and realized I was not asking about Cissy’s opinion of ALL high ACE scorers with money issues. I was asking about myself.
It was a soul-searing moment, as I let what I had asked sink in. The resulting pain and my awareness of it led to the realization that I needed to do more work on my trauma issues and start managing my finances in a “trauma-informed” way, as I realized, on a deep level, that have been a fear-based spender and under-earner most of my life. How to get to the solution? Sometimes we have to look backward to go forward.
I was born into a lot of trauma. My dad could have easily been prosecuted for a violent act he committed just before I was born had his family not had a bit of power in my hometown; more power than the man he’d almost killed. In pictures of my mother and me when I was a newborn, she looks completely shell-shocked. She is thin, almost gaunt. She is far from being a happy young mother.
I didn’t learn until I was an adult that her mother had died just six weeks after I was born. My grandmother had come to help take care of me, gotten sick, and died of endocarditis. I recently pieced together the fact that mother had gone back to work just six weeks after having me. So here she was, in fear of her hard-drinking and violent husband, trying to care for and arrange care for a colicky infant, and having to go back to work just after losing her mother, whom she absolutely adored.
It is an understatement to say my mom was stressed, tense, and fearful a lot of the time when I was growing up. She might have been able to breathe at choir practice and when she was gardening. But having brought my brother and me into a violent world left her terrified and riddled with guilt and shame. She worked hard, saved her money, and contributed to her community. All the while she endured violence and humiliation at the hand of my father. Finally, when I was 14 and threatened to leave home if she didn’t make him leave, mother divorced my dad. That brought more shocks when my brother left to live with my father, causing my mom to be even more depressed, and to lash out at me. We were depressed together. And we were clueless as to how to connect in the face of so much anger and despair.
I believe she was afraid of my depression, afraid that I might hurt myself or end up “running with the wrong crowd.” So instead of allowing met to hit bottom and learn to deal with my own pain, she often bought me something to “cheer” me up. Or gave me a “little something” so I could “go get something new.” Or bailed me out financially. She did it out of love, fear, and pride, and probably self-protection. I believe she would have died of shame, pain, and embarrassment had I gone off the deep end. And I know she was doing the absolute best she could do. This is no indictment of her; she and I talked through a lot of this before she died. And those talks helped me take a look at the root cause of my money mismanagement (spending, debting, underearning, hoarding). Using money as a drug helped me avoid pain. The deep pain of not being enough.
Some people might have been able to accept the gifts my mom shared and not become wired to need some type of “buy high” to avoid the pain of loss or disappointment. Others of us learned to use a little “money fix” the way some people use food or sex or alcohol to achieve a chemical change in our bodies. Her gift or bail out would calm me for a while. But then when the calm wore off, there was usually more damage to deal with than there was before, as I almost always spent more than I had. And the need to soothe myself with externals instead of learning how to accept disappointment just made that wiring stronger and harder to break.
I am not alone. I’d love to compare the percentage of people with an ACE score of four or more who have severe stress around money management with the same criteria for the general population. I know the percentage of “four-plus ACEs” having issues with unemployment is 2.5 times higher than that of the general population, and that 90 percent of us are on antidepressants. If I wonder how many of us are compulsive spenders – spending money to feel better; or under-earners – people who don’t value their skills and talents realistically or have the self-confidence or motivation to secure and keep a job that pays them fair market value for their skills and experience?
As an under-earner I would supplement a low salary – and avoid looking for another job if I didn’t get anticipated raises – by using money I’d inherited to make ends meet. Of course I could have lowered my standard of living, but other aspects of having a high ACE score involve depression, denial, and people pleasing. Depression keeps us stuck. Denial is avoiding reality. And people pleasing in the form of spending more on rent so the children were happier and safer? Guilty as charged.
So I am plowing new territory here to use my experience, strength and hope to help raise awareness of what I will call trauma-informed money management.
Trauma-informed money management looks like being able to feel the discomfort of disappointment and disruption, rebalance the nervous system to endure the upset, being proactive and prepared, and setting some boundaries with ourselves and others about not hurting ourselves financially. In fact, I believe overspending is kind of like cutting oneself with money instead of a blade. Psychically, living in a constant state of lack and stress cuts the soul. It is not the vibration that attracts joy and prosperity.
I cut myself for years, wasting thousands of dollars on fees and high interest and paying for things that could have been free. The emotional costs of living through two failed marriages (both failing, in large part, due to very different financial issues) and one very special and dear relationship which failed in large part because I was afraid to share my financial flaws. The problem with finances also led me to try to save money ($300 a month!) by switching to a generic antidepressant. The consequences of that switch affected me slowly but searingly. It was the equivalent of my brain being hit by a slow-motion chemical busload of fear and depression. I didn’t know why I was so depressed and didn’t want to reveal how far down I had gone it to him as I didn’t want to cause him pain, or risk being rejected. So I ran. I couldn’t accept myself in that state so I didn’t believe anyone else could either. Trauma survivors, I have learned, will do anything to try and control a situation. Even if it means destroying themselves and something they hold dear. Even if the pain almost kills them. In avoiding pain, we oftentimes create more pain.
I am grateful I made it through those dark months. And to have pushed the hell out of my doctor to get the brand anti-depressant approved for me when I finally found out, online, that many other people have had a similar experience when switching from brand medication to generic.
In the depths of the depression I joined a recovery program with multiple tools and structure to help plan and track spending. Coming out of vagueness did help with the depression, as did following the daily disciplines to manage money. I gained a sense of greater personal efficacy, something else that had been sorely lacking.
The depression also sent me back to ACEs literature, to see if there were clues there to help me feel better. That is where I found Cissy’s post, and had the idea that if Cissy could feel better by knowing her ACE score, and using the information to become a healthier human and a better parent, so could I.
In this round of exploring ACEs resources, I realized that there is a need for more information about what I am calling “trauma-informed money management.” We need solutions that will help us know when we are spending from a place of fear and people pleasing, or from a place of debting ourselves because of a sense of inadequacy. We need a place and a way to connect on this topic.
The ACEs and other communities dedicated to truth and healing are vitally important to people who’ve survived trauma and are recovering from addictions. The spiritual aspect of our collective courage is restorative. It is healthy for us to connect. Even if our connections are “virtual,” there is still communion, the chance to be fed and not eat alone.
At age 61, I know my a high ACE score makes me, and others who join me in having a high score, likely to die 20 years earlier than people with lower scores. I may already be on borrowed time. So to help myself heal and be of service to others committed to having a great Third Act, I am going to do what Cissy says to do and “write to heal.” I wrote my first book on parenting to teach myself what I needed to learn to re-parent myself, to be able to model self care for my children. While there was a chapter in that book on spending money, time, and energy wisely, I believe a deeper dive into trauma-informed money management will be a help for me, and I hope it will be helpful for you.
In short, a new layer of my lifelong challenges with managing – or not managing – money has been revealed. Stress and grief have propelled me into greater awareness, honesty, openness and willingness to track my spending and breathe through the fog of past overcommitting, mainly on education and medical issues. With help I can be realistic about the losses and pain caused by my stress-induced spending. And I can plow my way back to solvency, as I know millions have: one day at a time.
I know this today: building the resilience that will afford us a Third Act does take a village. It takes our being checked into the collective energy of a group of people who are dedicated to truth, self-care, and healing.
Without this help we may well die early due to stress and the resulting disease states.
With this help we may remember to breathe, eat healthy food, exercise, sleep eight hours, pay our bills, connect with others, and have some fun.
Without this support we may end up in a deeper mess than the one we were born into. And we may take some people we love down with us.
With this help we can reframe almost anything, turning problems into challenges and opportunities to connect and succeed, instead of problems leading to blood pressure hikes leading to heart attacks and strokes.
I might have been born of trauma and into it, lived in it through childhood, and created it for myself in myriad ways. But today a new level of healing begins by claiming my ACE score, truly joining this ACEs Connection “village” of people dedicated to helping prevent and heal trauma, and practicing a new level of financial, emotional, spiritual, and physical self care. I hope I’ll open a path for others to share about their challenges and solutions, to see if we can’t save younger ACEs some of our pain. And help heal ourselves in the process.