When we think about the impact of trauma, we usually think about how it causes posttraumatic stress disorder or depression.
But an emerging field called “posttraumatic growth” takes a different approach. It is about changing the way we see ourselves and finding new meaning in life.
A friend with a severely autistic son once said: “I spent the first seven years trying to change his life, never realizing how profoundly he was changing me.”
Many of us could tell similar stories about the effects of trauma. And I suspect that more people experience posttraumatic growth than posttraumatic stress (although it is possible to have both).
I recently raised the question of posttraumatic growth on my blog, and here is one amazing response from a woman named Carla:
I remember vividly hearing my physicians and attorneys discussing my “catastrophic” injury. “Catastrophic… hmmm. What are they talking about?" I recall thinking. To the people uttering these words, my spinal cord injury was the only part of my life in their awareness.
Only I knew about the troubled, thirty-two-year marriage that I left behind four years before my accident; My husband’s nearly successful suicide/homicide attempt the day after I asked for a divorce; my grandson's birth while my then-husband was in the hospital recovering from his injuries; This grandson’s untimely death at seven weeks of age from SIDS; my ex-husband's second suicide attempt; my daughter's spiraling-down bipolar psychopathology after her son's death; two home break-ins, four moves and three job changes.
What have been the take-aways from losing everything, and almost my life, during this protracted eight-year period?
My life is not easy and often I feel overwhelmed. I am often disgusted by what is involved in my bowel and bladder care. My morning routine seems to last forever. I've lost my old identity, roles, expectations, independence and dreams.
But despite, or because of these difficulties, I am aware of how my life has changed — for the better.
Faith. I now know that I will be cared for regardless of where life's circumstances place me. From the moment I realized that I was going to be crashed into, as I prayed out loud, I knew I would be taken care of. I remember hearing the words “it doesn't matter.” My interpretation of that was that whatever happened would be ok… and it was.
Life. It is precious and can end at any moment. Because of that, I say “I love you” much more frequently than before my accident.
Kindness of others. My family and friends were treated with unbelievable care and kindness by total strangers. For every difficult situation, it was there.
Patience. Waiting has become a way of life for me until recently when I resumed driving. I still wait for appointments, return calls, new or needed equipment, and lessons for how to do new things with my often uncooperative body.
Compassion. I have gained a deeper understanding of how disabilities impact those who have them. I also feel compassion for those who do not really understand the full impact of disability and can see life only through their own eyes.
Forgiveness. I don't believe most people awaken with an intention to kill or injure others. Bad things happen in every life and forgiving those who may have caused an accident or injury frees up personal energy for healing. Remaining in the past or becoming bitter hurts the grudge holder rather than punishing others.
Gratitude. I feel this every day for the recovery I have been blessed with, and for friends and family who love me and whom I love.
Expression of Grief and Sadness. These may follow massive emotional and physical adjustments and they’re a blessing in disguise. They open up space for necessary change. To quote the 70s production, Free To Be… You and Me: “it's ok to cry, crying gets the sad out of you.”
Love. Life is unpredictable and fragile. It is important to let others know what they mean to you at every chance.
Resilience and Persistence. Giving up is not an option even when it seems attractive. Turning the impossible into the possible is only accomplished by bouncing back and working hard to overcome, accept, or adapt to continuous change.
Mindfulness. Focusing on the present and appreciating your surroundings is a blessing that I often overlooked in my former, hurried, multitasking life. I am able to take the time to hear and appreciate others' life stories more fully since my accident.
Certainly not everyone who experiences trauma grows as a result. And it is important to know that trauma disturbs everything in the emotional system and most people need a good deal of time to begin to heal. Growth in the wake of trauma can take months or years to gain perspective. But for many of us, trauma steals old identities and forces us to take a fresh look at our lives and our priorities. Most of us who have experienced emotional growth after trauma say that once they stopped fighting and opened up to the new truth of their lives, they were able to take a fresh look at who they really are at core and what it really means to be alive.
Carla will be joining us on tomorrow's Web chat along with Dr Rich Tedeschi, Prof of Psychology at UNC Charlotte author of "Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis". Rich Tedeschi will also be my guest on Mondays radio show.