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Marie moved to Montana to escape.

She ran from the anguish of her East Coast home. Under the Big Sky she sought to take a break, sort out life and ground herself.

What she couldn’t run from was her smoking habit and her early onset diabetes. She couldn’t run from the liver disease caused by heavy drinking that started at age 14 or her high blood pressure.

Marie, a pseudonym she asked the Independent Record to use in order to protect the relationship she is building with her family, didn’t know that in Montana she would find knowledge that would give her the motivation to face those struggles.

Since moving to Montana in September 2014, the 24-year-old ended up volunteering at a variety of organizations, one of which was the ChildWise Institute, a nonprofit aimed at educating people about childhood trauma.

She sat through a seminar in which the presenter discussed Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Organized into categories of abuse, neglect or household dysfunction, ACEs are the source of toxic stress and chronic trauma.

Marie had heard of ACEs before, but as she listened to the speaker talk about adults with high ACE scores turning to vices like smoking to cope, it struck a chord.

That was her. But it didn’t have to be.

“Bad things happen,” Marie said. “It doesn’t define you as a person.”

Understanding Trauma

ACEs can lead to lifelong physical and mental issues, and according to one survey, 60 percent of Montana adults experienced at least one ACE.

Conducted in the late 1990s by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health care nonprofit Kaiser Permanente, the ACE study set out to solidify what everybody suspected: Kids who grow up in a tumultuous home environment are worse off than those who don’t.

“If you get hit a lot when you’re a kid, you’re probably going to have problems later in life, we all know this,” ChildWise Institute Executive Director Todd Garrison said. “What the ACE study showed was there’s a direct connection between childhood adversity and a lot of negative health and social outcomes.”

The study is cited as a conclusive source because it was a massive undertaking. It surveyed over 17,000 Americans; 40 percent were college graduates and 36 percent had at least some college education. Fifty-four percent were female and 46 percent male. Three-quarters of the participants were white.

The researchers identified 10 scenarios, including being physically abused, emotionally neglected and witnessing substance abuse, that counted as an ACE. Participants then acknowledged which scenarios they encountered and were given an ACE score of zero, if they didn’t undergo any, to 10, if they endured every one. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents identified as having at least one ACE.

The results showed that individuals who experienced ACEs were more likely to suffer from heart disease, lung disease, alcohol abuse, illicit drug addiction, depression, smoking, early pregnancy, attempted suicide and other health problems.

The CDC website states, “… some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences.”

“This is probably the most important public health discovery, certainly in centuries, maybe of all time,” Garrison said.

The 2011 state Legislature mandated that Montana undertake its own ACE study.

Questions about childhood trauma were included in a survey that was answered by 5,855 Montana adults. Three out of five of them admitted they had at least one ACE.

The CDC identified four ACEs as a tipping point at which the risk of negative outcomes soars.

Seventeen percent of respondents, which could be extrapolated to over 135,000 Montana adults, identified themselves as having four or more ACEs.

“ACEs know no boundaries. They’re in all of our communities at some level,” Garrison said.

In early October, Robert Redford’s son, James, came to Helena to screen his documentary about an alternative high school in southeastern Washington and the students who were there as a result of their ACE scores.

The film explained that when children experience chronic stress in a home environment, their brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. When the brain stays bathed in cortisol, its growth and development are stunted. Someone who experienced more ACEs actually has a smaller brain, and they establish a permanent fight or flight response.

“We’re not talking about moral development or character development or psychology. We’re talking about biology,” Redford said in early October. “We’re talking about kids who are now unfortunately left to make sense of the world with some strikes against them because their brains are now wired differently.”

Building a Future

At just 6 years old, Marie went through the effort to find out what it would take to kill herself and considered following through with it.

After she was struck by the ChildWise presentation and discovered that she had an ACE score of seven, Marie reflected on what kept her alive through the dark times.

She said it was the relationships that she knew were safe. Her neighbor who always smiled and asked her how she was feeling. A teacher who said she believed in Marie and knew she was smart enough for college.

And though she wasn’t looking for them, Marie was able to foster more healthy relationships in Montana.

“I wanted to take a year off to better the world. … Montana wound up helping me more than I could ever help it, and Helena especially,” Marie said.

Now Marie has quit smoking, she’s stopped the progression of her liver disease and is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology at a university in England.

“I feel like I’m beating the statistics in my own way,” she said.

Cathy Huntley, communications and project manager at ChildWise, said she watched Marie make the personal discovery.

“I really saw her confidence level going up,” Huntley said.

When Marie shared her story, Huntley knew it was a powerful account of how learning about ACEs can shift perspective.

“You can’t change what’s already happened to somebody, but you can help them deal with what happened,” Garrison said.

“Adversity is not destiny,” he added.

This article was previously published by Alexander Deedy on helenair.com.

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