The Foundation: 004

"The Deepest Well"

Sleep has been a source of anxiety for me. Started on nights. I’d lay down after work, unable to sleep. Get up, fuck around for a couple hours, sleep for a couple, then go to work without rest.

The intensity would keep me up overnight but I’d get stressed out in the morning, knowing I’d hit the bed and not be able to sleep for a few hours. The anxiety kept me up. Back to work a zombie after that.

Getting ready for sleep became a stressor outside of whatever I’d encounter at work and outside of work. This repeated itself until I found ways to ease into sleep every morning.

I don’t sleep regular now, because of the schedule changes. That’s fine. I woke up last night for no reason I could make sense of, and while I was trying to go back to sleep (breathing exercises, positive imagery, body scan), I fell into a dream where I opened my laptop, checked my email and had a tip to check the Facebook page of a victim from a quadruple homicide I covered last year.

In my dream, it was 0845. (I’m never in bed that late.)

As I opened the email, the fire alarm in our apartment hallway went off (in real life) and I jumped out of bed and checked the kitchen, the hallway, and found no fire and the alarm stopped beeping on its own after two cycles. PJ didn’t wake up, Erin knew there was an alarm but trusted me to check it. No problems.

It was 0220. (I couldn’t go back to sleep.)

When I can’t sleep, I read. Sometimes I clean. I’ve been trying to make use of that time, instead of fighting. Writing more. Listening to music. The not-sleeping part usually messes with my day, and I go back to sleep after the sun is up, but there’s no point in fighting it in the middle of the night.

I finished “The Deepest Well” overnight. It’s required in one class, recommended in another. It’s been hard for me to sit with a book for a few hours at a time because I’m not used to having the time to dedicate to reading. I have a hard time focusing. But when you can’t sleep and your son won’t be up for three hours … might as well.

This book was wonderful. A lot of my reading this semester has been research papers - they’re dense, they’re written for an informed audience, in language they speak … they’re informative but it’s a big ask to get someone outside to digest one of those papers.

(I’m not usually that guy, I’m not usually sold on stuff like this but - watch the author’s TED Talk.)

“The Deepest Well” is written by a someone who’s out there, and she summarizes the research in a really accessible way. (I struggled in high school science and that’s the extent of my science background — this book, along with The Body Keeps the Score - have both been very helpful in tying all the science together.)

The author focuses on toxic stress and the Adverse Childhood Experiences study from 1998 - the study that established a connection between childhood stress and common causes of death later on in life. More adversity means greater likelihood of death by common disease. Adversity, early on especially, affects brain development, hormones, immune system, and “even the way our DNA is transcribed and read.

The author advocates (and this is something that makes sense to me) screening for adverse childhood experiences in a primary care setting. Questions like - did your parents beat the shit out of you? Did your dad beat the shit out of your mom? Were your parents drunks who occasionally played with coke? Did anyone in your house get locked up? Questions like that.

(The author also notes that in some settings, doctors ask patients or parents of patients to present a ‘score', instead of having to account for specific adversities.)

(I look at this now and think - knowing what my score is - I wish I would have had this before I turned 32, I wish this is something that would have come up for me in doctor visits over the last ten or 12 years. I wish someone would have asked me or my brothers these ten questions 20 years ago. Maybe things would have gone different. But the ACEs study was published around the time my brothers and I were aging out of the highest-risk age groups and it’s only been in recent years that it’s become part of the conversation in a public health setting, so. )

I have four pages of notes from the book. I’m going to write from those over the next few weeks because the book connected a lot of my own disorganized thoughts about trauma, stress and violence.

The first entry I noted is:

“We’ve all heard the Horatio Alger-like stories about people who have experienced early hardships and have either overcome or, better yet, been made stronger by them. These tales are embedded in Americans’ cultural DNA. At best, they paint an incomplete picture of what childhood adversity means for the hundreds of millions of people in the United States (and the billions around the world) who have experienced early life stress. More often, they take on moral overtones, provoking feelings of shame and hopelessness in those who struggle with the lifelong impacts of childhood adversity. But there is a huge part of the story missing.”

She hadn’t mentioned the 1998 ACEs study yet but alluded to its findings in the next graf:

“Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades. It can tip a child’s developmental trajectory and affect physiology. It can trigger chronic inflammation and hormonal changes that can last a lifetime. It can alter the way DNA is read and how cells replicate, and it can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes — even Alzheimer’s.”

This is as good a beginning as any. A fast read, a good book.

A piece of work that could inform the way we view the world, if our view of the world is that our children should have it better than we did.