“What is your ACES score?” This question sometimes gets bandied around the internet along with other popular quiz questions like “What color is your aura?” or “Which Disney princess are you?” Indeed, the first time I heard about the ACES study, I was quick to look up the questions and get my number. I wanted to know how I ranked with other people. On some level, I think I even wanted the validation of a high score. Acknowledging trauma and adversity did not feel like acceptable patterns of communication in my family of origin; being assigned a number that would scientifically categorize my childhood distress seemed like a powerful tool by which I could claim ownership of my experiences.
What I was not prepared for was how difficult the questions would be to think about – the memories and feelings they would trigger simply in the asking. I wasn’t prepared for the psychological fallout of how different my number would make me from my current peers. Nor was I prepared for the flood of shame that washed over me in facing my apparent success at not having succumbed to addiction or suicide. My ACES score is 8… 9 if you don’t adhere too strictly to the age parameters on question #3. No one in my family ever went to prison. That is the one question on the ACES questionnaire I could comfortably say “no” to – my one claim to “normalcy.”
In the months that followed my new awareness of ACES, I spent hours upon hours researching and thinking about trauma and its impact on development. I wrestled with the dichotomy of cognitively understanding basic brain science versus emotionally accepting the magnitude of my own experiences. I gave extensive consideration to how my past influenced my present world – my relationships, my work, my day-to-day interests. As a foster/adoptive parent, I understand on a deeper level some of the struggles my children experience in trying to adjust to and fit in with mainstream society. As a partner, I both provide and count on receiving profound understanding and intense conversation from my partner, whose ACES score mirrors my own. As Associate Director of Janus Youth Programs’ Washington Services, my ability to connect with and fully comprehend the complex needs of disenfranchised youth gives me an edge, both in working directly with youth, and in interfacing with funders and community partners. Within the framework of my day-to-day life and interests, I find that I have created much of the structure and relational connection I so desperately longed for in my younger years; I derive immense pleasure from the simple act of enjoying a homemade meal with my family every night.
Through the process of exploring ACES, what I have learned about myself – and by extension about others – is that resilience has the capacity to win every single time. Adversity creates opportunities to practice strength, passion, empathy, and forgiveness. It challenges us to grow spiritually and emotionally as a means of coping with complex trauma and toxic stress. With adequate support from someone who cares, adversity can teach us that hope is real, and that it is a compelling avenue for positive change. ACES may influence who we are and how we engage with the world around us, but resilience is what defines who we become.