Tag Archives: resiliency

Big Women, Little Women, Small Oscars

The Oscars are this Sunday, and as war movies and films about repressed male feelings take center stage, I’ve been thinking about why Greta Gerwig’s Little Women had me wiping away tears during the last 30 minutes of the film – something that also happened to me while watching another Gerwig film, Lady Bird.

Gerwig is a stealth story teller. She appears, for the first half of her films, to be weaving together a tapestry: scenes of girls-becoming-women; girls lit-up by a longing to be known and seen for their own way of interpreting all that is unsaid in a scripted world, and searching to find a way to make their singular voice be heard. These tableaus unfold against a larger backdrop of sacrifices both gladly and unhappily made, in order to serve and preserve the human interconnections that sustain us, and make us who we are as we find our place in the world.

And then, two-thirds of the way in, you realize Gerwig has quietly rowed you into currents of loss and gain and joy and rage which – if you are female, and if you are anything like me (and you might not be anything like me)  – you have learned to suppress. You are stitched into Gerwig’s tapestry like Gulliver strapped into the shoals of the seashore, you can’t escape, you didn’t see it coming, and you just want to sit with these waves of old repressed female feelings washing over you for a good long time.

I’m no Louisa May Alcott and I’m no Greta Gerwig. I’m a science journalist; I tell scientific detective stories, interweaving emerging research with lived human experience. Still, my life as a writer began in many ways, with Little Women. I grew up in a family formed by historically “big” men: the Jackson in my name harkens back to Thomas J. (hence my grade-school playground nickname, “Stonewall”), and “Davey,” for whom Jackson Hole is named. Despite that legacy, my father, a newspaper editor, sailor, and quiet human rights activist, gave me Little Women and One Thousand and One Nights. Two female narrators, Jo March and Scheherazade. In his way, like Gerwig, my dad was also a covert actor.

That same year, circa 1970, I begged my dad for a tape recorder like the one he kept beside him on the front seat of our wood-paneled station wagon. I’d tuck that tape recorder under my arm and hold out the mic, asking people questions. “That pesky girl,” one male family friend said; even my own mom was horrified: “Put that away Donna! No one wants to hear what you have to say!” – she was no doubt projecting onto me her own fears (we parents do that kind of thing).

Three years later, my father died one summer day, following surgery. A few miserable years went by. I turned 17. As I thought about college, my mom begged me not to become a writer. “You’ll have frizzy hair, you’ll be a fat poet, you’ll never marry!” “I’m not getting married until I’m 40!” I yelled back at her.

In flocked my benefactors: my aunt, who once told me, “You aren’t the problem, Donna, what’s happening around you is the problem.” A teacher gave me a key to the teacher’s library. Another took me on a college tour to show me what might be possible. In college, a women’s studies teacher urged me to apply to a journalism program.

Over the next decade a lot happened. I wrote my first book. I got married. My son was born and a few weeks into being parents we discovered he had a life-threatening condition. He had surgery, and for weeks I lived in a room reserved for parents of critically ill babies on the pediatric wing at Johns Hopkins. After we brought him home, I spent a year in my bathrobe, nursing him, urging him, that beautiful boy, to health. (And so I wept (spoiler alert!) while Jo nursed Beth at the seaside.)

A few years and books later, I was the one who fell ill, with a neurological autoimmune disease which left me paralyzed. I recovered and relapsed. (My mom developed a theory around that time, that writing was killing me.) I didn’t think I’d write again. But I did; at first, I used a thick occupational therapy pen to set down words. I wrote my fourth book and fifth.

Now, as I’m half-way through a string of promotion for my sixth book, I’m thinking a lot about my voice, against the backdrop of the faces we as women can and cannot reveal to the world, if we want to be taken seriously. And more and more I find myself longing for the two selves to merge: the self I bring onto stage, or into a bookstore, and my unspoken female self who has lived the losses and joys of a Jo March while writing between the crises of living.

Over the course of three decades, I’ve been told many different things about how we should and shouldn’t tell stories. The biggest arrow strike has been that I myself have been a patient, which, for many decades, has been more or less disqualifying if one wanted to be taken seriously as a science journalist. The “right voice” has meant male voice; a voice which does not tell stories of patients and if it does, does not do so with compassion. Compassion is, well, too feminine and vulnerable a thing, and might skew one’s reporting. Still, there was always one exception to that – you could reflect on patients’ experiences if you were a man with an MD or PhD behind your name. And you could judge it. To wit: a well-known man in my field recently said he wouldn’t read my book because he wrote – in an email I wasn’t supposed to see – though the topic was worthy he found it “unlikely” that I’d ever been paralyzed twice (a fact I mentioned briefly in the book’s prologue). Perhaps, he suggested – despite knowing I see one of the world’s top neurologists – it had been a kind of emotional hysteria?

I did it differently. I knew there was a game I wasn’t physically well enough to play. I was too immersed in the life of the caregiver and patient. So, I did it a female-centric way, a patient-way, writing from hospital beds and waiting rooms, and at the kitchen table while overseeing homework, Halloween costumes, skinned knees, and broken hearts.

For a very long time, this put me in what I came to think of as the pink collar ghetto – the female patient writer we fear may be malingering on the page, or at very least skewed by her experiences and unable to be dispassionate about the subjects whose lives she’s reporting.

Right before one of my book tour talks, I called my 87-year-old mom, who I hadn’t talked to in a little while. I had a strange urge to hear her voice. “Hey mom, I’m about to give a talk at Harvard,” I said, flashing back to that moment when I was 18 and broke the news that I had secretly applied to a few colleges she didn’t know I’d applied to, and she’d been so angry she drove me to college, put my suitcase on the sidewalk, and drove away. (So now you know why I wept during Lady Bird, too.)

My mom was quiet on the phone and then said, “I remember reading your paper on Willa Cather’s My Antonia, when you were in high school. I would read something you wrote and it would send tingles down my spine. You had a way of putting words together and I thought to myself: Who is this child?” She paused. “I’m so proud of you.” It took me a moment before I could speak. It was the first compliment my mom had ever given me about my writing. My voice.

Book tour number six has been clarifying for me, my comfort level with walking that line between the presented self, versus the scripted self, even while knowing all the ways in which I might be sidelined (too female, a patient, not a scientist, non-affiliated, and now maybe not young enough (no ingenue here)).

We’re seeing women break past old fears of how they may be seen in medicine, science, sports, and journalism, moving beyond doing things in the man-made manner which we’ve inherited by those who’ve dominated our fields. And a lot of women are finding, in their own Jo March endings, that once you push back against the narrow confines of those barriers, that maybe there is a way to do things a little differently. Who says the old way is best just because that’s the way it’s always been done? You begin to create a new playing field, and the fear of “what you might think of me” is finally gone.

Male-directed films may get all the awards this Sunday at the Oscars, but when I look around, it’s women, like Greta Gerwig, who are rewriting the script for all of us, and speaking truth to the complexity of the feminine experience. There may be no award big enough for that.

 Thank you, Greta, for seeing us.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a science journalist and the author of six books, including her newest, “The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine.” Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

Why Girls Who Face Toxic Stress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, Autoimmune Disease and Depression

Hi All,

This blog is about WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences are a #METOO ISSUE. I want to talk about how and why toxic childhood stress – also as #ACEs — is a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

One thing readers know about the work I do and the books I write, including Childhood Disrupted, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and The Last Best Cure, is that I focus on the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and emotion – while shining a spotlight on WOMEN’s experiences.

Connecting these dots is always an underlying theme in my work. Women, girls, toxic stress, the female brain and immune system, autoimmune disease and chronic physical and mental illness — if you care about any of these, keep an eye out for my upcoming three-part blog series in which I delve into the scientific links between them all.

Today I’m posting the first part of my three-part exploration on Growing Up With Female Adversity: The Female Body and Brain on Toxic Stress.

(For those of you who read this introduction to my three-part series in my heads-up post yesterday, skip down below to PART ONE…)

I’ve written this blog, and am offering it up freely, because I think it’s crucial that we address the unique way in which the female brain and immune system respond to environmental influences, including #ACEs, and how, in turn, this unique female brain-immune response contributes to girls being several times more likely to later develop autoimmune diseases, depression, anxiety disorders, and so many other chronic illnesses.

I’m going to break down for you, in a way no one else has, or will, how and WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic childhood stress are a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

In it, I’m offering up the term — and hashtag — #FemaleAdversity — to refer to the chronic societal stress girls face growing up. Girls not only come of age with higher rates of #AdverseChildhoodExperiences, including verbal, emotional, sexual and physical abuse, girls also have to find their way to a healthy adulthood and sense of self amidst cripplingly narrow societal expectations regarding what constitutes acceptable female beauty and behavior.

All this is intensified, 24/7, by imagery of effortless female perfection on social media and in media in general. Meanwhile, girls are witnessing the sexual harassment and sexism so many adult women endure. Over time, this #FemaleAdversity can take a toll on girls’ and women’s immune systems, bodies, and brains in unique ways.

The timing for this discussion seems apt, as today we come to the end of #autoimmunediseaseawareness month as well as #womenshistorymonth and enter #childabuseprevention month. A fitting moment to delve into all of these issues.

So, Today, I’m sharing:

PART ONE: Why Girls Who Face #ToxicStress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, #AutoimmuneDisease and #Depression.

To get personal for a moment, the reason I focus so strongly, as a science journalist, on this intersection between neuroscience, immunology, emotion, toxic stress, and being female is, in part, due to my own autoimmune history. I’ve struggled most of my adult life with the lingering physical effects of having been paralyzed twice with Guillain Barre Syndrome. I’ve had a pacemaker since I was 28. I’ve struggled with peripheral neuropathy, chronic neuromuscular pain, thyroiditis, leukopenia and other medical issues throughout my adult life.

But I’m hardly alone in all this; so many of you, my readers, have faced similar and often much more difficult health issues than I have. My own experience is merely what lead me, as a career science journalist, to investigate the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and the deepest inner workings of the human heart.

What KEEPS ME GOING is the way I’ve been moved, time and again, by the hundreds of thousands of female readers who’ve shared with me their struggles, in the face of #trauma, #autoimmunedisease, #chronic illness, #depression.Wanting to help ease that suffering propels ME to uncover new understanding, new answers and insights that can change lives.

The reason I shine an up-close light on how women’s bodies, brains and immune systems are impacted in unique ways by toxic stress and emotion, and other environmental triggers, is because the science in this area is exciting and also under-reported. And the reason this science is under-reported is because it can be complex and hard to unpack in a media era that all too often relies on simplistic, broad-brush headline-centric, click-bait reporting.

If you follow my work you already know that research shows that #ACEs, such as being chronically put down or humiliated, living with a depressed, mentally ill, or alcoholic parent, losing a parent to divorce or death, being emotionally neglected, physically or sexually abused, as well as many other types of toxic childhood stressors, are linked to a much greater likelihood of developing autoimmune disease, heart disease and cancer in adulthood. Having experienced 6 categories of childhood adversity can take 20 years off your lifespan.

That’s because toxic stress changes the way our immune system responds to stressors in the future. When kids and teens experience chronic adversity, inflammatory chemicals begin to flood a child’s body and brain, plunging the body into a state of chronic hypervigilance.

Our genes are ALWAYS in a back and forth dance with our environment. If you’re a child growing up in an environment that is chronically stressful, and don’t have reliable adults to turn to, that meets the definition of toxic stress.

Toxic childhood stress begins to cause changes in the architecture of the developing brain, and it engenders profound epigenetic changes in the genes that oversee the stress response. In fact, Yale researchers recently found that children who’d faced Chronic Unpredictable Toxic Stress (what I term C.U.T.S.) demonstrate changes “across the genome” in genes that oversee the stress response. These changes re-set the stress response to “high” for life.

They also showed changes in genes that play a role in developing autoimmune disease, cancer, depression, anxiety and so on.This correlation is particularly stark for WOMEN. For each category of #ACEs a girl faces, her chance of developing a serious autoimmune disease in adulthood increases by 20 percent. For instance, a girl who faces three categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences has a 60 percent greater chance of developing an autoimmune disease so serious she requires hospitalization as an adult woman, as compared to a girl who grows up without #toxicstress.

For every category of #ACEs a man has faced, his chances of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease increases by about 10 percent – still a significant and disturbing correlation and one we also need to pay attention to.

We also know that girls face more #ACEs growing up in general. In fact, girls are 50% more likely to have experienced 5 or more categories of childhood adversity. These include sexual and physical abuse, emotional or physical neglect, growing up being chronically humiliated, or growing up with a parent with a drug/alcohol problem or mental illness, or losing a parent to divorce/death.

These higher rates of #ACEs for girls mostly revolve around the fact that girls are physically smaller than men and have less societal power or equality in family life – and are more vulnerable to, and likely to be victims of, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and harassment.

Just think of today’s #METOO movement. It’s all about systemic emotional, sexual, physical harassment and humiliation and abuse based on being in a situation in which men in the culture (and “culture” can include members of your family of origin) are more powerful than you.

We also know that girls who experience 2 or more categories of #ChildhoodAdversity are twice as likely as boys who experience 2 or more types of childhood adversity to develop autoimmune disease in adulthood.

In fact, the relationship between being female, facing adversity as a teenager or child, and later developing an #autoimmunedisease, is so strong it resembles the link between smoking and cancer, or drunk driving and having a car accident.

Again, the more childhood adversity a girl grows up with, the higher her risk becomes for adult disease, and the more likely she is to end up in the hospital at some point in her adult life in order to be treated for a serious autoimmune condition. As a science journo when I saw these statistics I wanted to know: WHY are women who experience childhood adversity twice as likely to suffer from disease as adults, compared to men?

What happens in a girl’s body, in response to #toxicstress, that leads girls to be more likely to be ill as adult women? EVERY WOMAN WAS ONCE A GIRL. So, we should figure this conundrum out, right?

Tomorrow, I’ll try to do just that for you, in Part Two: Every Woman Was Once a Girl: Why We Need to Talk About the Biological Effects of #FemaleAdversity on Women’s Bodies and Brains

If this topic interests you personally, because it speaks to your experience, or because you work with, teach, mentor, or are parenting girls, or if you work in #ACEAwareness or #trauma prevention, sign up for my blog and newsletter now. If you haven’t yet signed up for my mailing list and/or my blog, you might want to now.

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