Death. Sickness. A new baby. Maybe a bad car accident or even a house fire. Public pain. Shameless pain. Polite pain. When these things happen, the troops rally and the fridges and freezers fill. Nobody goes hungry. Nobody goes it alone.
But what happens when the husband leaves or a child goes AWOL? What happens when the wave of depression comes crushing down and you can't get out of bed? What happens when you have to spend time and money and more emotional resources than you even thought you had in the lawyer's office? The therapist's office? The pastor's office? More often than not there is silence. No acknowledgement. No support. And certainly no casseroles.
I remember this well in my own life when my father left. There was no public acknowledgement of his leaving. No obituary of the marriage. No neighbors rallying around. No extended family rushing in. Because of the shame surrounding the whole thing we weren't even allowed to tell but one or two people from the time he left until 3 months later when the divorce was final. It was a death with no grieving. A burial done alone.
In the 1990s Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a study looking into the correlation between childhood trauma and health problems across the lifespan and the association is staggering. They pulled together a list of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and your ACE score is an indicator of your risk for all sorts of issues well into adulthood. You get one point for each "yes" to the following questions:
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
- Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
- Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
- Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
- Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
- Was your mother or stepmother:
Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
- Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
- Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
- Did a household member go to prison?
When I first read these questions I found it baffling that the death of a parent or sibling was not included. Or a major accident or perhaps a natural disaster. A dear friend had just lost her husband and I was well aware of the intense pain and trauma that she and her children were going through. The explanation is that the list comprises the most common traumas of childhood mentioned in the survey. But I think there is something else to it as well. The Casserole Rule.
Death and accidents and natural disasters are one time incidents that garner much social support. But look at the above list. These are all private traumas. Ongoing traumas. Shame-filled traumas. Traumas nobody wants to talk about. Traumas that, if talked about, make the conversation uncomfortable. And that is part of what makes them so very damaging. That a child enduring these kinds of traumas must do so alone.
I don't have an answer, really. I wish we could talk about things. About the hard things we face or have faced in the past. I wish people didn't get so uncomfortable about it all. Shuffle their feet and laugh under their breath and change the subject. Or worse, put a smiley face on it. Tell you to be thankful. Pat you on the head. Find a way to tell you what you should have done. Or lob a scripture bomb your way.
I wish that divorce, abuse, depression, wayward children, addiction, job loss, bankruptcy, special needs children got the same support as the more public and polite traumas.
Perhaps it starts with being able to share these hard things in life openly, without fear of judgment or scorn.
How can we do better?