Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and Chronic Illness

aces and resiliencePart One

The first time I read about the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Events) by Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), I became enraged.

It felt like they were talking about me. Or my psychological slip was showing. Vulnerable. No clothes on naked. Unmasked every time I needed medical care. With multiple rare chronic illnesses, I need care a lot.

I didn’t want to face this.

The ACES study connected childhoods spent in abusive and dysfunctional families to adult risky health behaviors, chronic illness, and early death. People are getting a lot of hope knowing that their illnesses are related to their earliest childhood experiences. It leads to solutions at any age. Solutions such as building your resilience. I’ll write about that in another post.

In this writing, I want to discuss their original underlying research assumptions. That ACEs lead to risky health behaviors. And risky health behaviors lead to poor health.

Sounds logical, right? Logical but not really very helpful.

My rage turned into denial. I pretended I didn’t read that, feel this, see whatever, or understand what I had read. I acted like the mythical three monkeys covering their eyes, ears, and mouths. I forgot all about it. With a pout face.

But the issue kept popping up in my mind. Nagging me to deal with it. I’m a specialist in recovery from childhood abuse. First my own, then the schooling, and finally other peoples.

Recently, I kept stumbling over rocks and boulders named ACES.

ACES include psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence. Also included are the experiences of having people with the following problems live in your home: Substance abuse, mental illness, suicidal impulses, or being incarcerated.

I’ve written before about my childhood full of sexual abuse, bullying, poverty, my gentle father’s mental illness, and my mother’s dislike of me. The gaslighting, isolation, and rejection. What I’ve resisted, except for a few articles and some poetry, is writing about my health.

I’ve had two rare chronic illness since I was a child: Hyperinsulinism and Common Variable Immunodeficiency (CVID). I repeat these are rare diseases that require special knowledge to diagnose and treat. They were never diagnosed until I was an older adult.

I’ve always been sick a lot. This became another aspect of my abuse experience. My mother took minimal physical care of me, but took me to the doctor. She yelled viciously at me for needing her care. She accused me of being a hypochondriac, running away from life, and of wanting attention.

As a child, the medical profession became an extension of her abuse.

We were scary poor. My Dad was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. My mother, whatever her many and multiple faults, begged for whatever services I needed.

Just imagine the reactions of an overburdened physician who would not get paid. Presented with a child he couldn’t diagnose. Most doctors in this situation judge harshly and reject the patient (See Kaye & Groves, The hateful patient, 1979).

Kaiser & the CDC looked at adult risky health behaviors and disease. This is the blame game. Where care stops and judgment starts. It’s called ‘blame the victim’.

Most abused children believe they are at fault. Besides being told they are wrong, it’s easier to think everything is your fault than to understand you have no control over events. I know I did. Judge me. Judge myself harshly.

When I was studying the literature on childhood trauma for my graduate degrees, I saw that people cope with their horrific childhoods in the only ways available to them. They do what they know until they learn better.

Sexually abused children become hypersexual to master and gain control over their abuse. Other people sedate themselves with drugs, alcohol, food and cigarettes. And gambling, spending, stealing, all addictions.

Being trapped in a severely dysfunctional and abusive family leads to, guess what, feelings of being trapped. Depression and suicidal impulses are natural outgrowths of a reality that includes hopelessness.

Risky health behaviors were listed in the research as excessive drinking, depression, suicide attempts, unrestrained smoking, multiple sexual partners, STD’s, lack of exercise, and morbid obesity.

As an adult, far from my family of origin, I’ve worked diligently to not be who everyone told me I’d be. Not be a waste of space. Not the cause my own problems. And certainly NOT a victim. Not even a survivor. A THRIVER.

I’m a sober alcoholic, clean drug addict, abstinent food addict, and former smoker. I have personal boundaries, great friendships, and a loving husband. I eat organic food as available. And until my second cancer, I was a vegetarian.

I alternately use stress management, self-hypnosis, assertiveness, and healthy communication skills. I implement positive thinking and affirmations daily. I meditate, do deep breathing and whatever else will help me.

I’m still stuck with chronic illness.

It’s the underlying judgmental assumption that denies people the medical care they need and deserve. If medical people assume that patients are choosing to be unhealthy, they can easily write people off or give minimal care.

The ACES research found what behavioral researchers have been saying for decades. People from severely dysfunctional families lack healthy habits and indulge in destructive behaviors that impacted their health. The more exposure people had to adverse childhood events, the greater chance they had of developing risky health behaviors.

It’s a leap from blaming people for their problems to seeing their problems. But the research courageously made that leap. People with childhoods full of adverse events had serious health problems in adulthood. Problems such as heart and lung diseases, cancer and liver disease. The more adverse events people experienced, the greater their health risk.

There is much more research on this today. Studies on the physiological impacts of childhood trauma on the brain and the body. Some of it is beyond my psychologically trained mind. Other more accessible research is on resilience as a counter to adverse childhood events. And still more work is being done to change the institutional systems that interact with children and adult victims of abuse.

All of this made me angry. Very, very angry. More writing on these topics in the future.

Your feedback is important! Please let me know your thoughts and feelings about this writing.

Just scroll a little further down the page and use the “Leave a Reply” box to add your opinions. Make your suggestions and let me know what your needs are.

If you wish to say more, e-mail me at or by using the contact me box below.

If you like my writing and are interested in applying some of these ideas, subscribe to my newsletter.


email:                                         Telephone: (615) 464-3791

Credentials verified by Psychology Today




Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., … & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.

Kaye, B., & Groves, J. E. (1979). Taking care of the hateful patient. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 63(1), 149.

Stevens, J. E. (Ed.) nd. ACEs Too High (J. E. Stevens, Ed.). Retrieved June 5, 2017, from

©2017 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.                    Privacy Policy


Leave a Reply