As I have mentioned before in these pages, my childhood was one of trauma, abuse and abandonment.
In the psychology of resilience a metric is used called ACE − Adverse Childhood Experiences (Experiencias Adversas Infantiles). The ACES score is a measure of the number of childhood traumas you experienced involving abuse, neglect, trauma etc. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences’ study, the higher your score, the higher your risk for later problems in health, addiction, social, emotional, and/or cognitive impairments. Long-term, ACES are a major determinant of your health and social well-being.
As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis − 240 percent; depression − 460 percent; attempted suicide – 1220 percent.
My score was a depressing 12. My life between leaving home at the age of sixteen and age 28 was what would be expected from a person with my ACE score. At sixteen I very nearly went to jail. Later in life I used many different types of drugs including alcohol. I was unable to sustain any type of happy meaningful relationship. I was a young man in horrific, chronic torment.
One of the questions that seemed relevant at the time, that I just couldn’t stop asking, was “Why?” Why did this happen to me? Why did my father abuse me the way he did? Why did my mother abandon us all (twice)? Why wasn’t I loved? Why can’t I be happy? Why is my life like this? These questions were of an all-consuming nature. A sad aspect of sexual abuse is that the victim, although only a child, feels somehow responsible – a feeling that can be very difficult to shake.
One day, after years of agonising over these questions, the profound answer came to me: “shit happens” (es lo que te toca).
I realised and accepted that I would never really know the why. I also realised that the bad treatment that I had received was largely impersonal. I was not treated the way I was treated because of some intrinsic quality in me. It was simply the bad luck of spending my childhood in the care of people who were narcissistic, violent and abusive, usually because they had suffered violence and abuse in their childhood. I realised that if it hadn’t been me then it would simply have been someone else unlucky enough to find themselves in the power of these people. It was not personal.
Once I had stopped asking that futile question my attention changed to the How. How do I change this? How do I overcome these difficulties? How do I find equanimity? How do I stop being so angry? How do I find purpose? How do I find love and make my relationships work? How do I like and accept myself? How do I control my emotions? How do I become the best person I can be?
Without actually realising it, by changing the question, I had changed my life. My attitude shifted from one of victim to one of a hero.
Previously my focus was on blame: the reasons for my unhappiness were always the behaviour of others. It was not “fair”; if only I had different parents etc. This was an outstanding waste of time. That left me stuck for years, spinning my wheels in suffering.
Asking the question “How?” meant that I started to take responsibility for my situation; I realised that I was the only person that could do anything about it. My life, my emotions, my feelings are my responsibility. Things were tough − so what! I can never change my past. My focus changed from blame to understanding and from objectives to processes. A key part of this process was learning to be kind to myself.
I started a journey that continues to this day. One of the most satisfying aspects is to be able to share what I have learnt from great teachers in different traditions, reading voraciously and my own experience, to ease the suffering of others.
Think of it in the following way: in a game of poker, if you are dealt a bad hand it is simply luck; it is impersonal. The very worst thing you could do would be to complain about your cards. I have found that even with crappy cards, if you focus on playing your hand the very best way you can, you can still win.
Once I accepted the cards that the universe dealt me (rather than complain), and started to focus on how to best play my cards, then things started to change. I have learnt to forgive, to love, to be loved. Compassion for myself replaced shame. Forgiveness replaced anger and vengeance. Gratitude replaced complaining. Acceptance replaced the harsh criticism of unreasonable demands for perfection.
This is still all “work in progress”. I have many failings which I treat with loving kindness. They are part of me; they are to be integrated, not rejected. I know I will die without having completed this work and I am relaxed about that.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. There is no way to peace, peace is the way. There is no way to enlightenment, enlightenment is the way.”
This is the power of “How”