While yacked out on stress-withdrawal

Adjusting to Normal Life with a High ACE Number

I watched this movie with my family a few weeks ago, and it reminded me of what it’s like to live with a high ACE score.

Jeremy Renner’s character is an expert in bomb disposal. (He also happens to be named after one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis.)

Anyway, he displays an uncommon gift for being effective under pressure. Not only does he rise to the occasion unraveling deadly handmade puzzles, but he shows fluidity, courage, and ingenuity while integrating perfectly digital sonic beeps, radio squawk, and the micro-expressions of a field of passersby and insurgents.

Then his tour ends, and he goes home to safety.

And lives happily ever after! HAHAHAHA.

Just kidding. When he gets home, he cannot function. His mind has adapted beautifully to the stress of combat, but un-adapting does not just magically happen. He cannot engage in his home environment and feel normal, comfortable, or even visible.

And while he’s in that state of complete disorientation, he is probably accusing himself of not really caring about his family, not really wanting to have a normal life, not wanting to be successful. Just a guess here…

So what does he do? He re-ups and gets the hell back to stress-town, where his brain can be comfortably bathed in anxiety, stress, and grief. Whew. That’s better.

Ok, but what does this have to do with having a high ACE score?

The Soup and the Bouquet

Even if your upbringing didn’t have any gunplay or big explod-y things, a string of traumatic events during the critical period (birth to 18) will get you hooked on a soup of nasty neuro-chemicals and a certain bouquet of primal emotions. When you inevitably make your way out of that situation, you may have serious trouble calibrating your engagement with the so-called normal tone of events.

It might even take you decades to recognize how much you relied on that the neuro-chemical soup and the bouquet of emotions you were raised on. The soup and the bouquet served as the fluffy straw in your cage, the tasseled handlebars of your self-motivation, and the primary building blocks of your emotions.

Now you don’t have them. And it takes a while to even figure out that they’re missing.

I have never disarmed an IED in the heat of an Afghan marketplace. But I do know what it’s like to be a kid sitting still while an adult is acting out preposterously.

And more importantly, I know what it’s like to try and make decisions while lacking any sense of internal familiarity.

It’s like being invisible – to yourself.

So what to do?

I have read lots of information by, for, and about people with high ACE scores. The things that resonate with me:

  1. If you take the ACE inventory, don’t forget to discover your Resilience score.
  2. Journaling. I have practiced different forms of journaling for decades, beginning with the excellent instructions from The Artist’s Way, by my good friends Mark Bryan and Julia Cameron. Even though I do morning pages pretty regularly, I have tweaked and enriched the process a good deal. To me, this is the sign of a really useful tool. I still think of Mark and Julia – and we touch base from time to time.
  3. Meditation. There are about a million ways to do this. I have tried like 8 of them. I am pretty sure I did 7 of those incorrectly. But I still try new kinds of meditation techniques from time to time.
  4. Yoga. My favorite quote about this comes from Parks and Rec. But in fact, I’ve been doing yoga now since right after 9-11, and it’s about the most reliable form of exercise I have found.
  5. Solitude. This one is a little like meditation – sometime you have to trick yourself into doing it. “It’s not meditation. It’s just a breathing exercise.” “It’s not solitude. I’m just doing something no one else wants to do.” The payoff is so big, anything you can come up with that has you spending time by yourself is pretty good. The one exception: For myself, I don’t count passive entertainment or gaming. Don’t get me wrong – I love being passively entertained – I just don’t count that as solitude.
  6. Self-comforting. I have worked with lots of folks whose upbringing could be described as heroic. I often suggest they go back and retrieve a sense of innocence, by remembering a cherished story or activity that enables them to feel powerful, innocent, creative. Two things jump out for me personally: throwing pottery on the wheel, and reading Farmer Boy.

Your turn

What strategies have you used to gain perspective on a high ACE score? Say hi in the comments to this page.

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