I ACEd, but She Graduated
"I don't know, I feel silly. Maybe I shouldn't walk?"
"What do you mean? You've worked hard, you earned this."
"Yeah but, it's only my Associates."
If only I could say that, but I can't. My path took a much different turn than that of my oldest daughter. At 23, she is a vision of beauty and class, inside and out. A lover, a leader, a loyal ally who will show up and speak up because it matters. She knows there is strength in numbers, always has. She’s rallied protests and walkouts since elementary school and has had a way of luring me away from too much of the dark side because she mattered.
After high school, I was on my way out. Didn't know where, didn't care. All I knew is I had to get far, far away. The plans I was juggling were: moving to Los Angeles to work in a record store while pursuing my dreams of acting, or work on a cruise ship as an Activities Coordinator until I convinced the Captain I'd be the perfect musical act. Both were ways to leave where and what I was. Instead, I became pregnant while awaiting my cruise ship clearance which would arrive three weeks after my daughter's birth.
By then I wasn't going anywhere. I was head over heels in love with her and determined to give her a better life. I made a promise to never hurt her the way I was hurt. To always be there for her, no matter what.
And I was, but I wasn't.
Because before I was her mother, I was mothered by someone who yelled, belittled, and hit me into submission. In my mother’s presence, I wasn't allowed to be anything other than her expectations. And beyond wanting me to be another her, she didn't prepare me for much of a future.
Born and raised in Mexico, my mother had to drop out of school because she believed that women were supposed to cater to the men and children in their families by cooking, cleaning, and keeping the household under control. She learned it from her mother, who learned it from hers. My mother felt it was her duty to pass on the knowledge to her only daughter. But my American side wanted independence.
We had many wars, but I'd always surrender.
There was no winning because I was "a girl" and she demanded me to be one. I couldn't act "like a boy", and education was never emphasized. There was no encouragement to read or write, unless a teacher sent home an assignment. And even then it was only expected to be completed, because my mother didn't understand enough to correct it.
I understood plenty and was hungry to learn but was never given a reason. Whenever I applied myself, I'd read for hours, write elaborate stories, and ace any test I was given. The problem was I couldn't retain what I read or finish what I started because of the test I ACEd without trying.
The CDC's Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs) uncovered a link between childhood trauma and chronic illnesses people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional problems. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide. While ACEs was being done, parallel research on children’s’ brains found that toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain.
When children are overloaded with stress hormones, they remain in fight, flight or freeze mode. They can’t learn in school, and they often have difficulty trusting adults or developing healthy relationships with peers. To relieve their anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and/or inability to focus, they often turn to easily available biochemical solutions — nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine — or activities in which they can escape their problems — high-risk sports, proliferation of sex partners, and work/over-achievement. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes. I have a score of eight.
I didn't know my score or learn about ACEs until I was a 35-year old divorced single-mother. At the time I was taking a 60-hour Crisis Intervention Training course through Center for Community Solutions to become a volunteer for the non-profit. I wanted to give back to the organization that once provided me with advocacy and counseling services after I was a victim of sexual assault at 15, 16, and again at 22. Twenty years after being raped and fearing it was my fault because I flirted with the perpetrator, I learned that my reaction of "freezing" during the trauma was my way of surviving. The way I froze every time I was sexually assaulted by a stranger, and the way I froze whenever I was struck physically or verbally by my mother.
I learned to live by staying still.
Thankfully I learned all of this shortly after my oldest daughter turned 16. I had time to change, to unlearn what felt wrong and relearn what felt right. I had the opportunity to lead by a new example and be the parent I needed to my own children. I could no longer excuse my behavior or place the blame on my parents, I had to take accountability for what I could do about my behavior to have a better future for my children and towards myself.
Which is why when my oldest walked across that stage to receive her Associates, my lungs released the loudest, longest cheer they could create. Tears fell from my eyes reminding me that every tear I had shed was worth the moment when the product of parents with high ACEs took hold of her diploma and broke every transgenerational traumatic belief that education is ever only secondary.
Next... she's off to UCSD to earn her Bachelor’s, because it matters.