Photo of my mom Joanne Petrangelo in her childhood home on First Avenue in Hibbing, MN estimated as close to the time period when she moved out in the late 1960's.
I remember a class project in elementary school when we put items and memorabilia related to our school in Chisholm in a time capsule box for others to discover and dig up in 50 years. Many movies and televisions shows have story lines where someone created a time capsule and hid it or someone found one. Hollywood movies in particular have portrayed time capsules as floating glass bottles in the ocean, with a cork and a note inside that was written many years ago with an important message from the past.
The idea of storing, hiding or locking away memories is not a new one. However, for those who have experienced traumatic childhoods, they have created a different type of time capsule, one filled with traumatic experiences. Their time capsules of traumatic experiences cannot be thrown into the ocean in a glass bottle or put in a wood box buried under dirt. Theirs has been stored within their body. Many people have tried to “lock the door and throw away the key” in an effort to forget or disassociate with their traumatic experiences of their past. The signs and signals that someone has experienced trauma is not always visible. When a memory has been suppressed or locked away in the mind, powerful images, feelings, and sensations do not just go away once the signs of danger have passed. When I recently indicated that I was writing a book inspired by my mom's life, including the childhood abuse she faced, many were surprised to hear this. Previously, only her family members and a few close friends knew. Traumatic memories are more deeply imprinted than normal everyday memories. For many people, the trauma manifests into behaviors and feelings of anger, rage, sadness, mistrust, fear, or shame. For my mom, she never transferred her trauma in that way. That is why people were surprised to hear this about her because she always was kind to others, had an infectious smile and was so giving.
It is important to me that I begin this blog by stating that my mother, Joanne Petrangelo, received high-quality, personal, and compassionate medical care from Dr. Mitch Cardwell, Dr. Mary Boylan, Dr. Paul Lindholm, Dr. Basem Goueli, Dr. Harmony Tyner, Dr. Dornfeld, Dr. Burns, and registered nurse Melissa Kriske. I watched them care for her in gentle, compassionate, and extraordinary ways in the last year. My mom often praised and thanked them for their care. This blog is not about them.
The purpose of this blog, and my forthcoming book, is to highlight the solid scientific link between childhood trauma and serious physical illnesses in adults. The book will be inspired by the life story of my mom, Joanne Petrangelo. My motivation for writing this book is to share her story to help encourage others who have unhealed childhood trauma to begin the process to address it in an effort to prevent them from developing serious health conditions as adults. I am also motivated to write this book as a story of inspiration for those who have had similar experiences and to exemplify that childhood trauma is not always transferred to the next generation. So many people adored my mother. As a longtime business owner downtown Hibbing she got to meet and interact with many community members. My mom’s smile, sense of style and warmth attracted people to want to be her friend and spend time with her. When I found out about my mom’s childhood abuse less than 10 years ago, I was shocked when she told me because she never transferred her pain onto me, my brother, my dad, or herself. My mom gave no outward or obvious indicators that she had experienced such awful experiences as a child. Instead of transferring her childhood trauma onto us, she internalized and essentially “locked” her traumatic memories away until a triggering event occurred when her brother Garry Edmonds died less than 10 years ago. Her brother Garry also died at a young age from cancer. He was 49 years old. Garry and my mom were very close growing up and often provided emotional support to each other.
When I look back in my family history and interactions with my mom’s side of the family there were definitely a number of times when I would overhear family members and friends describe events and situations from her childhood that did not “add up.” My intuition often wondered what my mom’s childhood was really like and why certain things occurred. The first indicator of this was when I found out that my mom moved out of her childhood home at the age of 14 to move in with her best friend. I also had a lot of questions about why my mom got married at 16 years old to my dad who was 21 years old at the time. My mom’s childhood experiences growing up on First Avenue in Hibbing, MN are filled with traumatic, crazy, and sometimes wildly humorous events. By breaking the silence on her childhood abuse, I seek to let others know they are not alone, that there are therapeutic treatment options available, and lessen the chances of trauma’s ability to grow into serious physical health problems for others.
Many people experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. For many children, like my mom, their childhood is riddled with traumatic experiences. Too many children grow up in a world where their parents, caregivers, older siblings, other family members and family friends were themselves traumatized and then transferred their trauma onto other children when they were adults. In general, a life experience is often described as traumatic if it:
There is an extensive body of research that shows that trauma, long term emotional pain and mental health does affect our physical body. Trauma that is unhealed makes you more susceptible to physical illness and it creates an enormous amount of stress, depression and anxiety. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is a well-known study that was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. The ACE study is highly regarded in the social sciences and human services fields of study and work. It is less known in the medical field.
In the ACE Study, over 17,000 patients were interviewed to determine whether they had experienced any of ten traumatizing events in childhood:
The study found that amongst these patients, traumatizing childhood experiences were not only prevalent, but commonplace. Two-thirds reported at least one traumatizing childhood event, 40% of the patients reported two or more traumatizing childhood experiences, and over 12% reported four or more. The researchers then correlated the physical health of the interviewed patients and discovered that trauma in childhood was linked to adult disease in ALL categories — cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, bone fractures, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, depression, smoking, and suicide. The average age of patients in this study was 57 years old, which means that childhood trauma can have a delayed effect on the body, making it entirely possible that something that happened 50 years ago may be predisposing someone to illness in the here and now. The study also found that the more Adverse Childhood Events an individual reported, the sicker and more resistant to treatment they were.
It used to be believe that treatment for this level of trauma was unavailable and unsuccessful. However, recently discovered methodologies for treating trauma have been successful. Trauma treatment such as Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT) are being utilized with great success in many cases. About 8 years ago, my mother Joanne Petrangelo, underwent treatment for the trauma she experienced in her childhood. With the help of a skilled and specially trained therapist in Duluth, my mother successfully completed EMDR. I was there with my mom on a number of those days when she underwent her treatment. Part of her treatment plan was to make sure that after her EMDR session that she not return to work but instead go somewhere that she could rest and recoup. I remember one of those days in particular. I had undergone a neck surgery and was home on medical leave from work. I did not go to Duluth with her that day but she came to my house after her session. She literally looked like she had been “hit by a truck.” Her hair was disheveled, her eyes were puffy and she looked very weak. I remember exactly where I was standing on the lower level of my house, where she was standing and how she looked and talked. I asked her, “What happened in therapy and EMDR today?” She replied, “Today I got ‘stuck’ on a series of incidents in particular that occurred during my childhood. I simply could not finish talking about those events during the session today. The impact on me physically was simply too draining. What I learned from this though was that these incidents were particularly traumatic for me and my body.” In these particular incidents she was referring to she sustained an injury, thus the reference to her body. She needed someone to be with and talk to that day. Her emotional and physical pain was palpable and present. I will never forget that day. I remember thinking, “The pain of what happened to her is going to affect her physical health.” I remember thinking this because of the state of her appearance after this session of EMDR. In the next few years my mom began losing a significant amount of weight even though she was eating mostly the same food and amounts. She attributed it to the stress of her traumatic events being “unlocked” from their hiding place in her body, the grueling sessions of EMDR, the death of her brother, and her stressful and lack of relationship with her mother. Moving ahead to last year in 2016, at one of my mom’s early doctor appointments with Dr. Basem Goueli the Oncologist, he told her that the size of her tumor that was removed in her lung was significant in size. He believed that it had been growing for a number of years. The tumor in her lung was over 8 cm in length and located in the middle of her lung and not attached to the outer lining. Dr. Basem Goueli said that because of that, it was allowed to grow for a number of years before being detected.
To my knowledge, my mother experienced at least 4 of the Adverse Childhood Events listed above. She “locked away” those ACE events for approximately 40 years in her body until the triggering event occurred in 2007 when she was 52 years old and was approaching her 53rd birthday. She started EMDR in approximately 2009. She was then diagnosed with Stage 3 Lung Cancer in 2016 with her Oncologist theorizing that the lung tumor had been there for a “number of years” before it was detected.
Many people are resistant to considering treatment of trauma. As one family member recently said to me, “The pain of my childhood is so deep that I think that I might actually die if I have to talk about it or deal with it. I think my body would actually shut down.”
As strenuous and stressful as it may be, treating the unhealed trauma can lead to a healthier physical body in adulthood. Some questions to consider:
A stigma is still attached to trauma in our culture. We are often told to “get over it” and “move on.” For many, the stigma is that trauma is attached to shame, embarrassment and some sort of perceived weakness to have experienced a traumatizing event. The concern is that shame can cause someone to bury their trauma in a “trauma capsule” in their body that they never touch, and then that trauma can turn into a major physical illness such as cancer. Each of us can be part of cultivating a culture that is resistant to shame related to trauma for ourselves and in our support for others that they can be brave and vulnerable enough to enter the trauma capsule locked in their bodies. When that happens, miraculous effects will affect masses of people. There is absolutely no rational reason to be ashamed if you were sexually abused, abandoned, beaten or neglected. The young minds of children often translate the trauma that they experienced into self-talk that they deserved what happened to them, were weak, unlovable, or not good enough.
When children are traumatized their innocence is kidnapped. The innocent spirit of a child that has been traumatized needs our collective compassion and nurturing. Those who brave the daunting task of unlocking their trauma capsule cannot do it alone. They need the help of loving and supporting family members and friends. How will you work towards unlocking the trauma capsule within you or your family member to begin healing and stopping the growth of physical illness it is creating?