Speaker: Childhood trauma can lead to health problems

What if health issues, addictions and premature death are caused by the role of repressing childhood trauma?

Vincent J. Felitti, M.D., made this case to a packed room at the Walter Soboleff Building Tuesday, backing up his assertions with decades of study, research and analysis. His conclusion was that repressed adverse childhood experiences can manifest in adults by altering their well-being, causing disease and even premature death.

“Addiction is the unconscious, compulsive use of psychoactive materials or agents,” Felitti said during the noon lecture sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute. “In plain-speak, it’s hard to get enough of something that almost works. … Maybe the next mouthful, maybe the next drink, the next cigarette, the next woman, the next man, the next dose of whatever I buy on the street, and if not, surely the one after that.”

Felitti brought up example after example of the importance of asking the question ‘why’ to get to the root of the problem, something that’s often overlooked in the medical field.Often in medicine, symptoms are treated and not the root cause, Felitti pointed out. He said we don’t treat house fires that way — if so, we would simply try to blow away the smoke instead of putting out the fire.

One example was a real-life patient of his: an obese woman who weighed around 400 pounds. She lost the excess weight, and due to the change in her appearance, said she was asked out by a man which mad her feel uncomfortable. She rapidly regained the weight that she lost. After determining she was sleep-eating, she finally revealed to Felitti’s team that she was sexually abused as a child, and she felt the extra weight was her protection against male attention.

“Addiction, traditionally, is thought due to the characteristics intrinsic in the molecular structure of certain substances. … Sounds pretty reasonable, but it turns out not to be true,” he said. “… We found that addiction highly correlates with characteristics that are intrinsic from that individual’s childhood.”

“It was like I had lost my solution. I was having a hard time finding other solutions,” the woman said in a video Felitti showed, adding that she was “using my obesity as my wall.”

In other examples shown, similar stories were told about addiction, from food to drugs, using these things as a comfort or coping mechanism despite the “solution” causing additional harm.

“Nobody smokes to get lung cancer or heart disease,” Felitti said. “People smoke to get the short-term benefits which are strongly needed and in spite of the long-term risks.”

Felitti and his team of researchers performed multiple studies, one with over 17,000 respondents who agreed to be studied for 20-plus years to monitor the effects of their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), including but not limited to psychological or physical abuses, parental loss, household drugs use, incarcerated family member, etc. The form has been used on a massive scale to collect data. Felitti said while he has been told he should not ask people such personal questions from other professionals in the field, he has not received a single complaint but instead, thank-you letters from people appreciating they had been asked.

There’s no way to prevent ACE from occurring, Felitti said. However, there are effective methods of treatment such as psychotherapy, medical hypnosis and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.

But sometimes, just the act of listening to another person validates their experiences, he said.

“Perhaps more importantly, they are unconscious and the solutions on the part of the individual involved in personal problems often date back to childhood but are lost in time and then further concealed by shame and by secrecy and by social taboos,” Felitti said. “We have all been taught very effectively as little children that nice people don’t talk about certain things, and my god, certainly don’t ask.”

At the end of the lecture, feeling moved, one woman stood to address all present to share her own history of ACE and how she has recovered, encouraging others to seek help.

“There is healing,” she promised those around her.

Like a ripple effect, others spoke. One man in the back of the room with a little girl on his knee said he also experienced problems, and he thanked those who came to the lecture.

“I’m taking steps to prevent this in my daughter,” he said. “Each one of us can be of counsel to another. It doesn’t require a PhD or a group study. We each have a problem and we also possess the solution to support each other. We need to sit down and talk, become close, take the time to listen to each other, cry with one another. We will find solutions. One by one, I don’t know the time, we can change it. I am doing everything I can that is necessary for my daughter to see that this world is not bad, this world is not evil, it is not full of mishaps, mistakes and diseases and pestilence. There are good things still in this world. It’s you, and you, and you,” he pointed to the people in the room. “We are all the solution to our own problem.”

Patrick Anderson, a Sealaska Heritage trustee and senior research fellow, said in a prepared statement that the message Felitti shared is relevant to Alaska Natives, whom he said shares a “long and dark history of historical trauma.”

“We now know, because of Dr. Felitti’s research, how this trauma is passed on from generation to generation,” he said. “Poor health and behaviors for many Alaska Natives can be traced to adverse childhood experiences. We need to make this knowledge available to our community and political leaders. Dr. Felitti’s visit to Juneau will help do that.”

For more information about Felitti’s research, visit ACESConnection.com, ACEStudy.org or AVAHeatlh.org.

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

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