Childhood trauma’s lingering effects

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TURNER – Scott Perry was 32 years old when he suffered a heart attack. The doctors were baffled. Now, a dozen years later, Perry thinks he knows why.

He sits in the comfort of dark, cluttered rooms in a rambling Turner farmhouse he calls home. He’s well-spoken for a man who dropped out of school at age 14 to pump gas. He is blunt, almost clinical, when speaking about his past.

Over a span of about seven years when he was a child, Perry was forced to have oral sex regularly with three older boys.

Later, a year after he enlisted in the Army, a teenage Perry was on guard duty one night when two fellow soldiers raped him.

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He never denied the events or erased them from his memory. He’s glad now he didn’t.

It was only after Perry began studying psychology on his way to earning an associate’s degree this year that he started piecing together the puzzle of chronic health problems that plagued his life.

He believes the emotional trauma he suffered as a child and teenager steered his adult life over a medical cliff.

A new national study backs him up. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of 440,000 people found that children who suffer trauma, such as sexual abuse, are more likely to become unhealthy adults than those who didn’t.

Childhood trauma can cause social, emotional and psychological impairment, leading to health-risk behaviors, which can result in disease, obesity and social problems, according to the study.

Adult health-risk factors that are linked directly to childhood experiences include alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, obesity, depression, sexually transmitted diseases and heart disease.

A troubled youth

Perry thinks he was about 5 years old when the sexual abuse started. It lasted for roughly seven years, two years before he dropped out of school. Four years later, when he was 18, he was raped at knife point.

As a teenager, Perry had been typically rebellious. Only worse.

Almost overnight, he resisted authority – to the extreme.

Many times he threatened his family with violence. He told his parents he would “burn the friggin’ house down.”

He now understands that his anger toward his mother and father likely stemmed from the earlier abuse. He had learned not to count on them, or anyone else, to keep him safe.

“I realized I had to be 100 percent self-reliant.”

Perry kept the abuse secret until his late 20s.

He held a string of jobs, never lasting more than a year. He drugged and drank too much. He thinks back on it as self-medication.

Perry enlisted in the Army at 17. While stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, a year later, he was on guard duty one night.

Two soldiers in his unit came into the barracks at 2 a.m. They said, “Hey Scott, you wanna go up in the room and smoke a joint?” He accepted their offer. He had been doing a lot of drugs at the time. After entering the room, the two soldiers locked the door behind him and raped him at knife-point, he said.

He never reported the incident.

“There’s a huge amount of shame that goes with being a man admitting that somebody actually raped you, especially in the military,” he said.

“You’re trained to defend your country. You’re trained to know how to kill. You’re trained to know how to take care of yourself and I do know all those things. But it doesn’t make you infallible. It can still happen.”

He left with a “less than honorable” discharge after having been court marshaled for various infractions, including fighting and showing up in formation so drunk he couldn’t stand at attention.

Heart attack

In 1995, Perry was stricken by a heart attack. Despite knowing his family history of coronary artery disease and the three packs of non-filtered cigarettes he smoked each day, his doctors were dumbfounded.

“They couldn’t understand why somebody who wasn’t terribly overweight, wasn’t terribly out of decent physical shape would suffer a heart attack,” he said.

They looked for a link to drug abuse. There was none. He had left that behind in his mid-20s. He knew they were on the wrong track. They didn’t probe his past. And neither did he. Not yet.

Two years after his heart attack, he went to work for himself, starting a publishing business. It was the first step of many he would take toward improving his health.

Working for others was stressful because he didn’t perform well under their control. Later, he would understand why.

“All the angina-related stuff I had going on pretty much ceased within six months,” he said. “It’s still stressful; sometimes it’s even more stress, but I’m in control of it. Control is a huge issue for somebody who’s survived and trying to overcome a traumatic past.”

Problems diagnosed

It was a mid-life crisis three years ago that led Perry to start piecing his health puzzle together.

Despite the problems he’d encountered at school, he knew he wasn’t stupid. He was capable of doing more with his life than he had accomplished.

He’d had a lifelong interest in psychology. He even read textbooks on the subject in his spare time.

He enrolled in an associate’s degree program at Central Maine Community College, having gotten his GED in 1987.

The change opened his eyes to the world and within himself.

He had always suspected he suffered from attention-deficit hyperactivy disorder. After one semester at college, he started seeing a therapist at Tri-County Mental Health. He was seeking a definitive diagnosis. During those sessions, he started talking about the abuse.

While he was at school, a political science professor invited him to lunch one time. He said he wanted to discuss politics with Perry.

At first Perry was elated, then he became immediately suspicious. He didn’t believe somebody so expert on the subject could possibly be interested in Perry’s political viewpoint. He must have an ulterior motive, Perry thought.

“Is my sense of myself so low that nobody can want to spend time with me unless they want something from me?” he wondered. In talking to his therapist, he realized he had kept himself from getting too close to anybody for fear of becoming victimized again. He had grown used to consorting with people he couldn’t trust, but had no expectation of ever being able to trust them. It had been safer that way.

Results of the testing he’d done through the help of his therapist and a psychiatrist confirmed the ADHD diagnosis. It also revealed that he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

He takes medication for the ADHD and continues with therapy.

Perry had been popping pills to combat severe lower-back pain for years. “I would eat Ibuprofen like candy,” he said, though he had never injured his back. Doctors couldn’t explain it.

Once he started seeing a therapist, the back pain disappeared.

Now, when his back hurts, he can trace it to muscle strain during an engine repair.

‘We all have issues’

Perry said he doesn’t hate the people who abused him as a child. He suspects at least one of them, the oldest, himself might have been abused.

“I’ve dealt with it,” he said.

Perry said he’s spent most of his life misplacing his anger and fear. By attempting to cope through alienation, drugs and alcohol, he had been working against what was in his best interest. He had punished himself and his body rather than working to overcome the harm done by the abuse, he said.

Now, he’s making the best of it. He’s embarked on an educational journey into the nature of the psyche. He’s enrolled in a bachelor’s program at the University of Southern Maine for the fall. After that he plans to pursue a doctorate in psychology.

“I’ll probably drop dead a couple of weeks after I get my PhD,” he said.

Perry hopes to pass on the tough lessons he’s learned to his children. He’s never abused them, he said. He admitted he’s lost his temper and yelled at them. He also hopes they never experience the type or extent of abuse he suffered.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who goes through life trauma-free. I don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “We all have issues. It can be something as simple as an automobile accident when you’re a child all the way to having very violent, abusive parents.”

ACE Study on childhood trauma

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of 440,000 people found a direct link between childhood trauma and adult health problems. Dr. Vincent Felitti, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California and head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, spoke last month in Auburn about a greater need for medical professionals to probe their patients’ childhoods while treating adult health issues.

In Maine, the Department of Health and Human Services has teamed up with Tri-County Mental Health Services on a six-year project that includes a so-called “trauma-informed” approach to providing health care. It’s the first of its kind in the nation. Now in its second year, a $9 million federal grant pays for the effort that would help, among other things, train providers in how best to question patients about their traumatic pasts.

Anyone interested in joining a trauma support group can contact Scott Perry at: 514-7524 or owner@mainelypublishing.com

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