The Effect of Childhood Trauma

A lot of years ago a girlfriend told me to think of the mind as a mould being filled layer-by-layer. In this vision, what happens as a child sets deepest in the mind, the layers that come after lie on top of that underlying shape and either fill or follow its kinks and defects. Quickly the mind fills, the fundamental nature of the mature mind is built on either the solid foundations or the rubble of what has happened to that young head. I’ve never seen reason to disagree with this vision.

The above report was published just before Christmas on BMJ Open, a well-respected and important online medical journal, and ties in neatly with the material on Kurt Cobain’s living arrangements pre-adulthood. It comes to various conclusions but the essential one is that childhood trauma and adversity is a key factor in premature adult mortality. Essentially, while people would recognise the limitations of a child missing a limb or having a physically limiting characteristic as an acceptable reason (not excuse) for later limitations, people still find it extremely difficult to understand something in the head as a mental wound or injury that can create similar limitations. One would recognise the relative futility of saying “just get over it,” to someone who was visibly disabled; by contrast, unless someone is notably mentally incompetent, the illusion of ‘normality’ leads to frustration among observers in the situations that expose that mental disability to full view. Instead of realising that someone basically can’t act normally we observe their unremarkable physical appearance, verbal communication, basic functioning and decide they’re just like us, capable of making the desired decision, doing the desired act, if only they would try or choose to. It’s hard to recognise the indents in our own ‘mould’ that predispose us to refuse certain ways of living — unless a mental dysfunction steps over the bounds into what is deemed socially unacceptable, we consider it normal, rather than the injury (minor or otherwise) that it is.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, it’s remarkable he functioned as well as he did. Many people get over a parental divorce with no adverse effects; it’s unreasonable to demand though that the event mean nothing to anyone — Kurt Cobain was one of the ones for whom it did have meaning. Similarly many families move around (I lived in six homes as a child) but his was an extreme case — a direct consequence of the divorce and one that brought with it additional challenges in terms of shared accommodation and temporary living. From the time of his parents’ divorce to when he was fifteen he went through three homes, by age seventeen he was temporarily homeless and had been dumped from home-to-home like package. His puberty, a crucial period of development, was heavily insecure, loveless, abandoned.

This isn’t a plea or an excuse; don’t confuse a reason (i.e., why someone does something) with an excuse (why someone does something and therefore they’re not responsible or it doesn’t matter). In the case of Kurt Cobain there were good reasons for him to grow up a less than secure adult. His family history (multiple suicides of close blood relations, etc.) suggests there may have been a genetic factor predisposing him toward depression also. The study used a standard and approved questionnaire for measuring adverse childhood experiences (ACE) — Kurt Cobain would have ticked boxes for four of eight markers; substantive verbal abuse, living with a depressed person, a separated family, domestic violence.

Under a third of deceased stars possessing no ACEs died through substance use or risky behaviour, this increased to 41.9% for those with one ACE…Then 80% of those with two more more. Kurt Cobain fit firmly into the latter category. Combine that with the overall pattern identified — that music stardom does increase mortality above that of the general population — and in the specific case of Kurt Cobain there’s an individual with substantial indicators of likely risks as an adult, who goes into a profession that increases the risk further.

Later in the report a separate study is cited, one looking at the general populace and which concluded that adults with four or more ACEs were at “7.4 times greater risk of alcohol addiction, 4.7 times greater risk of illicit drug use and 12.2 times greater risk of attempted suicide.” Again, all we’re seeing is that childhood trauma embeds tendencies in the mind that are hard to overcome or simply ‘shake off.’

We are not dictated by our past, our reactions are not preordained — this is a positive, we do have choices. The majority of people, however, do not live lives that are the exception to the patterns set by socio-economic circumstance, parental income and situation, or the traumas that burrow deep into the clay of the mind with successive years flooding but never erasing the hole. I take it as an inspirational example that Kurt Cobain achieved world-bestriding accomplishments during his brief time on the planet, in spite of the recognisable and clear reasons (multiple childhood traumas, homelessness, medical issues, dietary issues, poverty for all but the last two years of his life, escalating drug use, the stresses of unstable living conditions) why he could have simply disappeared into the places society reserves for our injured; a combination of jail, living on the streets or simply being forgotten all life-long. He was an exceptional human being, who made something of himself on top of and in spite of and because of what had hurt him…It didn’t mean he had the means or the opportunity to survive the injuries he carried with him.


2 thoughts on “The Effect of Childhood Trauma”

  1. Ah! Brilliant! 🙂 I hadn’t known that fella – I’ve got no granularity on the ebook side. You’re a Nirvana fan…? Now this I was sure I could believe – but it really does make a difference hearing there’s stuff I’m doing that pleases people. That’s such a cool way to finish a Friday! Erik, every best wish to Minnesota, I hope I can entertain a while yet. Oh, if you ever get a chance to put a review on I’d welcome it (or any thoughts you’d wish to share on email to me.)

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