It wasn’t your everyday experience, hearing Bible verses mixed with particulars from epidemiology and neurobiology in the same breath. But that’s what Dave Lockridge was doing as the 20 people in his Monday night ACE Overcomers class at Gateway Community Church in Merced, CA, busily scribbled in their workbooks.
Lockridge – a grandfather, former pastor and businessman – is executive director of ACE Overcomers, an organization he created to provide programs to “overcome addiction, depression, anxiety, and anger caused by a childhood filled with abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.”
He was pastor of a small church in nearby Atwater, CA, when his wife, Susan, director of medical staff
services for Mercy Medical Center of Merced, invited a guest speaker to describe the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study). That got him thinking about the lifelong consequences of childhood trauma. What sealed his fate was a speech by Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the ACE Study, at a meeting sponsored by the Family Resource Council of Merced a year later, in 2005. Felitti did a presentation about his groundbreaking epidemiological research project, and related neurobiological research.
After Felitti’s presentation, Lockridge realized that in his efforts to help his most troubled parishioners, he’d been doing everything wrong. He decided that he needed to do something about it, not only for himself, but for other clergy.
“Over more than 20 years, I’ve buried way too many 35-year-olds and 40-year-olds who should have lived longer,” he says. “That’s what motivated me — the fact that I could go 20 years in the ministry and be ignorant about this.”
“This” was the research showing that early childhood trauma causes much of the adult onset of chronic disease in the U.S.
The CDC’s ACE Study measured 10 childhood traumas – physical, emotional and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; living with a parent who’s an alcoholic or addicted to other drugs; witnessing the abuse of a mother; a family member in prison or diagnosed with mental illness; and a loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment – in 17,000 people in San Diego. (Of course, there are other possible traumatic events a child can experience – such as severe illness, homelessness or surviving a catastrophic tornado or flood – but those were not measured.)
From this list, researchers determined each person’s ACE Score. Each type of trauma counts as one. To their surprise, they found that childhood trauma in this middle-class, college-educated, mostly white population was very common – nearly 70 percent had an ACE Score of at least 1. And the odds were very high that if someone had one trauma, there were others. In other words, if your dad was an alcoholic, it’s likely that there was also emotional abuse in your background.
The study showed that the higher the ACE score, the higher the risk of disease, suicide, violent behavior, or being a victim of violence. People with an ACE score of 4 or more had significantly higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than those with ACE scores of zero. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increased 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent. The percentages climbed to grim and astounding levels as the ACE score increased – people with an ACE score of 6, for example, had a 4,600 percent increase in the likelihood of becoming an IV drug user. And people with high ACE scores die, on average, 20 years earlier than those with low ACE scores.
Felitti says that ACEs are the “most important determinant of the health and well-being of our nation.” ACE Study co-founder Dr. Robert Anda calls ACEs a “chronic public health disaster.”
The reason that childhood trauma causes adult onset of chronic disease was determined by a group of neurobiologists, including Harvard University’s Martin Teicher and Jack Shonkoff, and Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University. They figured out that the toxic stress of chronic and severe trauma damages a child’s developing brain. It essentially stunts the growth of some parts of the brain, and fries the circuits with overdoses of stress hormones in others.
Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. Unable to concentrate, their brains are incapable of learning and they fall behind in school. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger, not trusting adults and unable to develop healthy relationships with peers. Failure, despair, shame and frustration follow.
As they transition into adulthood, they find comfort by overindulging in food, alcohol, tobacco (nicotine is an anti-depressant), drugs (methamphetamines are anti-depressants), work, high-risk sports, violence, a plethora of sexual partners….anything that pumps up feel-good moments so that they can escape – even briefly – the sharp, tenacious claws of agonizing memories and despair.
Overwhelmed, but inspired, Lockridge went back to school to earn a degree in psychology, resigned from his church, and, two years ago, founded ACE Overcomers “on a shoestring budget”.
He began with the people who probably have the highest ACE scores in the county – homeless men who end up at the Merced County Rescue Mission, a faith-based center. He set up a weekly class and, using scripture as a familiar entryway for these men into the unfamiliar science, began explaining the connection between how the troubled lives they were leading now grew out of their childhood traumas.
He told them they weren’t bad people, and that how they responded to the traumas when they were children and as they were growing up – depression, anxiety, anger, rage, isolation — was normal and appropriate. But, using the same methods to cope with those uncomfortable feelings and memories now – alcohol, drugs, anger, isolation, etc. — was harming them and others to the point of chronic disease and early death.
Through the lens of adverse childhood experiences, Bible verses can take on a different meaning. An example of Lockridge’s faith-based approach of marrying ACE concepts and the Bible looks like this:
If you grew up being abused, neglected or witnessing domestic violence, you experienced a loss of control. In our attempt to control what’s going on the inside and outside of us we often make decisions based on our faulty reasoning and not on God’s wisdom, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Proverbs 14:12
Lockridge provided the homeless men examples of other ways to cope that were healthier, including the idea that people could use teachings from the Bible to change their ways of thinking about themselves and their relationship with others.
“They’ve had a lifetime of screwing up,” says Darlene Adams, a former member of Lockridge’s church who does record-keeping at the meetings. “Their main problem is that they feel like total failures on all fronts. They see that there were concrete reasons for the pain and concrete ways to change. Now they feel hope.”
She tells the story of one class participant who could not focus and could not sit still. “He sat on the front row and ate sunflower seeds the whole time,” she says. “He spent the entire class crackin’ and spittin’ them out on the floor. Crackin’ and spittin’. After 6 weeks, he’s sitting, focusing, taking notes, and talking to Dave like a normal person.”
Lockridge began advertising the classes, which he organized into a 26-week course that people could drop into at any time.
Marilyn O’Neill, who lives in Atwater, heard an ad for the ACE Overcomers meeting on the radio. As a child, she was very ill and experienced severe emotional and physical neglect as well as sexual abuse. As a 53-year-old adult, she’s grappled with severe depression, anxiety, and a series of stress-related illnesses.
“I appreciated the fact that we didn’t sit around and talk about what wasn’t working in our lives,” she says of the classes. She’s attended one 26-week series, and decided to continue, because it’s “an anchor for me.”
“I don’t see it as a Bible study class,” she explains. “He’s teaching you to think differently, to respond in different ways to stress, instead of the way I reacted when I was a kid.”
When she’s stressed now, instead of heading for the refrigerator or tensing up, she sits down, takes deep breaths and says a prayer to slow herself down. She used to think that there was something wrong with her because she couldn’t handle stress as well as some other people. “Now I know it’s not my fault,” she says. “I’m not a bad person. It’s just that I learned to cope in ways that worked then but aren’t working for me now. I’m learning healthier ways to cope and making different choices.”
She’s noticed one physical change since she began taking the class. The episodes of tachycardia – racing heartbeat – she was experiencing “just went away.”
The one class that began at the rescue mission has now expanded to six faith-based classes a week, including four at local churches. The Monday night class is like all of Lockridge’s classes, filled with people who have either experienced or have a loved one who’s experienced adverse childhood experiences. Some people’s histories are so extreme that you wonder how they keep going. This includes the 30-year-old man whose mother sold him to two men when he was eight years old. The men took him to a different city, sexually abused and tortured him, then left him to die in a basement. He managed to escape, and was staggering, bleeding, down the street when a family driving by spotted him and took him to the police station. That family later adopted him, but those first eight years of his life have taken a toll.
The abuse that’s passed on from one generation to another astonishes Lockridge. “Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you hear another story that leaves you shaking your head,” he says.
After making copies of individual lessons and handing out stacks of paper for two years, Lockridge wrote a workbook that was published last month and is now used in the classes. It’s called “Overcoming a Difficult Childhood: Biblical Principles to overcome the emotional, physical and spiritual effects of abuse and dysfunction”.
As an outgrowth of his position as chairman of the Family Wellness Council, part of the Family Resource Council of Merced, Lockridge also provides secular workshops for education and social services, including the local Head Start programs.
But his heart is in making changes in the faith-based community.
“I wrote a paper in college about how a church is perfectly positioned to minister to people with a high ACE score,” he says. Churches are trusted. They’re an integral part of the community. They serve all age groups. And they’re supposed to lend moral guidance. But there’s a problem, he says.
“People come to us, but we’re not giving them the answers,” he explains. “That’s why I’m trying to partner with churches to help them.”
There’s an important issue that many people who are implementing ACE concepts in their communities agree upon: There aren’t enough therapists in the world to help the hundreds of millions of people who have complex trauma, generally thought of as an ACE score of 3 or 4 or more. The solution is to integrate ACE concepts and trauma awareness into the institutions that touch the lives of most people: schools, medical practices, public health centers and religious organizations.
Lockridge has already taught one weekend seminar attended by about 40 clergy from the region, and is planning another training for the Fresno area.
“Pastors have no clue how to minister to the ACE community,” he says. “They see dysfunctional people come in and they scratch their heads and say, ‘I don’t know what to do with them’. They don’t speak ACEs. They don’t understand it. They need to be educated.”
The training is for a generalized Christian audience, he says, but he’s open to clergy from any faith – “so long as people know where I’m coming from. I don’t want them to be bent out of shape.”
Lockridge recognizes that as far as he’s come, ACE Overcomers is still a work in progress. He hasn’t had a great deal of success reaching teenagers, and knows that he’ll have to change the approach and content of the course. The workbook uses verses from the King James version of the Bible, whose language is stilted and unfathomable to many people, especially those who haven’t graduated from high school.
And though he says that his approach is different from Alcoholics Anonymous — because ACE Overcomers focuses ways to create healthier coping mechanisms instead of on the addiction and disease — AA seems to have one advantage. Its built-in “buddy” system encourages people to choose a mentor who can help them through difficult times outside the meetings.
But Lockridge sees many more ways that ACE Overcomers can make a difference in people’s lives, including preventing ACEs. He’s working on a five-day curriculum that he plans to propose for the California school health and wellness classes required of all high school freshmen.
“I’ve read some of health and wellness textbooks,” he says. “They’re very good on a lot of areas, but they skirt by the ACE issue. These are the next generation of parents and abusers, and we need to catch them and change their ideas regarding abuse and neglect. And we need to give them the skills to make good life choices.”
If you’re interested in buying a copy of Lockridge’s workbook, send $25 (which includes shipping and handling) and your address to Dave Lockridge at ACE Overcomers, P.O. Box 457, Atwater, CA, 95301.