Virgie Townsend is a senior editor at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
When I was 15, I attended a writing workshop with a girl who had been sexually abused by a family member, trauma that she explored in her poetry. She said she was offended when people told her: “I’m really sorry that happened to you.” She felt like they were saying they wanted to change her, so she’d reply: “Don’t be. It made me who I am today.”
I also grew up with violence, terrified of a parent who was verbally and physically abusive, and drove drunk with me and my siblings in the backseat. Sometimes this parent would threaten to choke me with a dog collar or would fire off shotgun rounds overhead for the fun of seeing the rest of the family cower. I am glad my classmate found a way to cope with her past, but I can’t be grateful for mine.
I would have been better off without that dog collar, without those years of fear. After such episodes, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t concentrate on my homework. I repeatedly failed state math exams. My immune system was weak. As a child, I had frequent, unexplained fevers, which baffled my pediatrician and led him to test me for cancer.
It was difficult for me to make friends because of the pressure I felt to keep my home life a secret. Between the abuse and my innate shyness, I mostly avoided other kids, which was easy because I was home-schooled until ninth grade. I tried to stay quiet around my peers; I didn’t want to draw attention. And I constantly second-guessed how I acted around them, afraid that I might disgust or anger others, too.
It’s human nature to believe that our difficulties carry extra meaning, that they are not in vain. Although suffering is undesirable, it’s supposed to help us grow. We want our pain to make sense, to somehow be edifying. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
This sentiment goes back to our country’s founding, with Pilgrims arriving on these shores only to struggle against disease, hunger, rough weather and difficult terrain. In school we’re taught that they were tenacious, learned to live off the land and became our forebearers. We hear less about the Native Americans and colonists who died to make that victory possible. History is written by those who survive to tell it.
This road from suffering to strength appears in our tales of redemption, from the mistreated Cinderella to the sickly young Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller to current celebrities such as Drew Barrymore and Oprah. “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet,” Keller wrote in her 1936-1937 journal. “Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
It’s true that we benefit from life’s normal and healthy challenges: We may learn how to resolve disagreements with loved ones or be inspired by teachers who push us to do our best. However, I cringe when I hear the same idea applied to deeper suffering: the emotional or physical experience of being harmed or threatened.
Researchers have found that, far from being empowering, traumatic incidents often have long-term negative consequences. Adverse childhood experiences — which health professionals define as poverty, abuse, neglect and other traumas — can result in toxic stress, which wreaks havoc on the body. In work published in 2012, Harvard researchers found that people who had been mistreated as children had, on average, a 6 percent loss in volume in their hippocampi, a part of the brain involved with learning and memory. Toxic stress also damages the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to social behavior and decision-making, and the cardiovascular and immune systems.
The result is that childhood traumas increase risks for cancer, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, sexually transmitted diseases, poor school performance, substance abuse, fetal death and teen pregnancy, among other problems. According to the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, more than 22 percent of U.S. children have dealt with two or more adverse experiences. In 2014, the Center for Youth Wellness released a report finding that more than 61 percent of California adults had at least one adverse childhood experience — and that those with four or more were five times as likely to suffer from depression, three times as likely to binge drink or engage in risky sexual behavior, and almost two times as likely to get cancer. And a 2009 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that people who had six or more adverse childhood experiences died, on average, 20 years sooner than those who had none.
These findings cut against the belief that good things must come from bad. Not only do terrible things happen to people, but those terrible things trigger biological responses that often set people up for more problems.
I’m fortunate to have survived my childhood, and that my parent sought help and eventually apologized. Additionally, I was fortunate that my parents could afford to send me to therapy, SAT tutoring, and a private school where a thoughtful teacher offered me guidance and encouragement.
Some of my friends were not so privileged and, therefore, not so lucky. One grew up poor and suffered repeated sexual abuse. She developed an eating disorder, which resulted in the beginning stages of heart failure when she was in her early 20s.
By perpetuating the belief that pain is edifying, we place the onus on survivors to heal themselves — and we deemphasize the value of prevention and support services. Suffering is not what fortifies the soul or clears our vision. What makes people stronger is working with others to overcome trauma. Giving and receiving help gives suffering meaning, not the suffering alone.
Psychologists have found that crafting stories of redemption and triumph out of negative experiences can help people become happier, healthier and more interested in helping others. We tell ourselves that we have overcome adversity, and in the telling, we begin to believe it. In the believing, we begin to make it true.
But this is not a process that happens naturally: Researchers say children build these skills through conversations with parents and other trusted adults, such as teachers and mental health professionals. Our communities need better strategies to prevent the effects of violence and counter poverty. Increasing access to affordable child care, quality parenting programs, and mental health and substance-abuse services would be a good place to start. As individuals, we can push for those changes.
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if my siblings and I had grown up feeling loved and safe. I’ll never know, but I’m deeply grateful to the people who helped me begin to heal. So I tell myself the following story: I was once a kid who both loved and feared a parent. I could have been killed, but I wasn’t. Instead, enough people helped me that I grew up to have a happy life. Maybe one day I’ll have to fight a serious disease that stems in part from my childhood terror; perhaps it’s brewing inside me now. Until then, maybe I can do something that helps someone else. Maybe that will give that dog collar a new meaning.