It wasn’t until his fifth prison term in a North Carolina county jail — his fourth conviction for driving under the influence — that Michael Hayes volunteered to take an ACE survey that changed his life.
The 48-year-old father of six sons and one daughter had spent a number of years in and out of prison. During his last term, to get some time out of the cell where he spent 16 hours a day, he volunteered to attend a class offered by RHA Health Services, a nonprofit that incorporates the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in its training. That’s when he took his first ACE survey.
After the training, he was called back to the classroom by the Behavior Health Specialist, who told him his ACE score was a 10.
“I got a perfect score?” Michael asked in astonishment. He did a little dance, thinking that it was a good thing.
“No, this is not a good thing,” the specialist said. “This means you are more likely to live 20 years less than normal.”
That’s when Hayes realized he could die at any time. His wife was pregnant with what was to become his only daughter, and he says the thought of not seeing his daughter (who is now three) walk down the aisle “was the wake-up call of my life.”
Drinking to cope
While still in jail, Hayes learned more about ACEs from the materials the facilitator had provided. He began to understand the ACEs of his childhood. He had been molested and witnessed domestic violence, and when his parents divorced, his mother took her six children and left an upper-middle class home for a two-bedroom apartment in a low-income neighborhood. There, the young Hayes witnessed a murder. He now understands that he started drinking at 12 in order to cope with these ACEs.
“I never got to unpack or even have a buffer to combat those adverse experiences,” said Hayes.
As he was entering the nurse’s office during a 90-day rehab session at this particular prison, he saw three sheets of paper about ACEs pinned to the door. “The nurse said those papers had been on her door for two years and I was the first person to pay attention.”
The term ACEs comes from the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of more than 17,000 adults, which linked 10 types of childhood trauma to the adult onset of many chronic diseases, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The study found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the population — have a 1,200 percent higher risk of attempting suicide and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs.
The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems. (Got Your ACE/Resilience Score? ACEs Science 101)
Learning about ACEs was a gradual and constant process for Hayes. Near the end of rehab, everyone had to write a 10-page story about their lives.
“I had to read my story in front of the class with 33 people,” he said. “As I was sharing it and crying, I looked up and the whole class was crying.
“One person stood up and said, ‘Don’t feel alone. You’re the first person to make me realize the same thing happened to me.’ Seventeen brothers stood up with me and said the same thing had happened to them.”
The healing begins
The men formed a support group, which continued to grow until all 147 men in the rehab camp became participants. On the last day of Hayes’ stay at that facility, the men formed a circle outside, holding hands and uplifting each other in what Hayes calls a “community healing.”
“That was the beginning of my healing process,” he said.
When he left prison, Hayes joined the Buncombe County ACEs Collaborative, which convened monthly and included people from the medical and mental health professions, educators, and community partners. Attending these meetings “blew my mind,” he says. A naturally gifted speaker — as a youth he had worked as a DJ at live events and on radio — he said he was able to “share in front of this group what ACEs awareness did to me.”
In 2019, after a 22-year-old nephew committed suicide and three young men in his hometown of Asheville died of cancer — a sign of stress often related to ACEs — Hayes says, “I felt I had to do something. I couldn’t continue neglecting my responsibility to make people aware and get them access to this information.”
He and his wife started by hosting Thursday night support groups at their house. At the first meeting, four Black men showed up and spent several hours discussing their traumatic experiences, sharing tools and supporting each other.
The second week, 10 people showed up. The third week, 20. And the final week, “We had 47 people in our house…the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the patio, people were everywhere.”
Historically, Hayes says, Black men are told to hold back their feelings. “We are often told as little boys that you are a man, so man up, and we are not supposed to cry.” But after learning about ACEs and understanding how generational and historical trauma can have a continued effect, “It was the first time that a lot of us had the opportunity to unpack.”
ACEs don’t define us
Obviously, the Hayes house wasn’t going to suffice for meetings, so last December, Hayes founded and became executive director of the Umoja Health, Wellness and Justice Collective, a nonprofit with headquarters in Asheville as well as satellite offices in other parts of the state.
The collective provides diagnostic, treatment, and prescriptive services related to mental and behavioral disorders. Their programs include developing resiliency for domestic violence perpetrators as well as for foster parents and parents who have lost their children to the foster care system.
Resilience strategies include many tools, but Umoja (which means unity in Swahili) focuses on the three they have found most effective in their work: rapid reset for quickly assessing and then supporting someone in resetting their nervous system; resource tools; and restore tools.
Resource tools help people reconnect to a time when they felt good. When they recall a previous good experience, people tend to calm down and sometimes even start laughing.
Restore tools use compassion to erase the shame people feel when opening up about their childhood abuse. By telling someone several times, for example, “Michael, it was not your fault when you talked about being molested,” Michael moves from feeling ashamed to feeling accepted.
The lesson, says Hayes, is that “It’s OK for us to be who we are. Those ACEs don’t define who we are.”
Everyone at Umoja has completed a certificate in Trauma and Resiliency at Florida State University; Hayes is now earning a level 2 certificate. And every participant, as well the seven staff members, take an ACEs survey. Umoja also focuses on health and wealth disparities in the communities they serve.
The advent of the coronavirus pandemic, says Hayes, “has revealed how severely our communities of color are suffering. We at Umoja became essential because people are staying at home. We have to be there to advocate for people to get support, even though everyone is now working from home.”
And one effect of the virus, he adds, is that “People are opening up more,” because of their isolation and economic instability as well as other stresses.
Hayes is now writing a book about his transformation from prisoner to community wellness, resiliency, and justice educator. For now, the manuscript is aptly titled “The Reintroduction of Michael Hayes.”
And a movie is also in the works. Western Carolina University is making a 30-minute short to raise funds for a feature film on Hayes’s life. Stay tuned.