I wish bad things didn’t happen. And I wish no one had to suffer. But the world, unfortunately, isn’t like that. All of us will experience something traumatic in our lives. For some people, it will be loosing a job they loved, for others, it will be a natural (or man-made) disaster. For some it will be the result of crime, violent or otherwise. For some, it will be loosing a loved one. For some it will be illnesses. Whatever form that trauma takes, two things are certain; 1) It is going to hurt, and 2) it will change your life forever.
Some are able to move on relatively quickly with few signs of lasting damage. For others, like me, the trauma can take a particularly nasty form and release the venom that is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With PTSD, it can seem impossible to move on. Most will be able to remember that trauma, and remember how it made them feel. Those memories can be very emotive and cause a great deal of emotional distress. I still cry when I think of the friends I have lost over the years, whatever the cause of their death. With PTSD, however, it becomes particularly hard when we get flashbacks. These, rather than feeling like memories, actually feel like you are going through that trauma again, and again, and again. It is impossible (for me at least) to remember, whilst ‘in’ a flashback, that it is only a memory. It feels like I am right back at that point. I can smell it, hear it, touch it and taste it. And aren’t those the tools we use to determine if things are real? It isn’t just traumatic for me, but for those around me. I had a partner who cried because he was so scared when I was screaming one night because he didn’t know how to help. I have also woken up to the police trying to bash my door in because a neighbour thought I was being murdered.
Whether you have memories, mental health problems or physical scars as a result of that trauma, you still live with a constant reminder of the past.
You will find that the trauma you suffered will influence the way you live your life. It can make you struggle to trust others, wary of every little twinge in your body, scared of loud noises or crowds, unable to concentrate, scared of particular places, unwilling to make new friends, and a myriad other ways too. But what if the bad stuff wasn’t the end?
Recovery takes a thousand different faces, and a million different paths, but the end goal is always the same… healing. I went through a phase of wishing things would go back to ‘normal’. That things could go back to the way they were before all this happened. But now, I want more. I don’t want to be the same as I was before, I want to be better.
According to this article in the Huffington Post, based on the talk in which I first heard about PTG, as many as 70% of survivors experience positive changes as a result of trauma. I believe the real figure to be much higher, in reality (particularly after a set period of time has passed, say 10 years). Survivors often experience stronger bonds with friends and family after the trauma, they are much better able to empathise with others and help them heal, they are more open to spirituality, able to appreciate life more, and are able to achieve higher ‘base lines’ of happiness.
This is something that interests me greatly. I know that the people I have spoken too (and myself too) are mentally some of the strongest people you will find anywhere.
According to the Post Traumatic Growth Research Group, growth occurs in five main areas.
1) A sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle. I can identify with this one, in that my struggles have given me the opportunity to write this blog, and to help others going through similar struggles.
2) Changes in relationships. This can mean a closer bond with those who supported you through, with friends, and with our fellow humans in the form of empathy.
3) An increased sense of ones own strength. Look what you got through. Look how far you have come!
4) A greater appreciation of life. How often did you take the time out to admire a sunset, a baby animal, or just life in general before, and how often now? I have certainly learned to look out for the beautiful things in life, I have seen more than enough of the ugly things.
5) Spirituality or religion. Many people ‘find God’ during particularly difficult periods of their lives (and some ‘lose’ Him too). But if it isn’t God, many people discover a real sense of self, and for some, a better understanding of the world around them.
People who suffer significant trauma have to go through a grieving process, for their old life. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance. It is really hard to accept it when something bad happens. We wonder why it didn’t happen to an awful person instead of us. But perhaps, the knowledge that the potential for something better awaits will be enough to pull us through.
PTG is a concept that has been around for as long as suffering has. Not always under the same name, but sometimes under familiar sayings like ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. But despite this being ‘common knowledge’ we still don’t really appreciate what it means. Maybe it is something we need to learn on our own, but I wish I had read this when I was at my worst.
I have been through the dark times when I was positive nothing would ever change, when I desperately searched for a reason to live (that didn’t involve messing someone else up), and when all the colours disappeared from the world. I know sometimes it doesn’t look like there is a way through, and I know the power we have to bring ourselves down. We are harder on ourselves than anyone else could ever be. Isn’t it about time we used our ‘inner voice’ to build ourselves up rather than knock ourselves down?
I am 22. I am not naive enough to believe I have had enough bad luck and that things will be okay from here on out, but I step into each day knowing what I have survived, with a wisdom that only comes from a struggle, and with the concrete belief that I WILL make it through.
Related reading (pages on PTG):
I haven’t added scholarly articles about PTG as I find they are not easy reading, but if you are interested in them, a simple Google search pulls up plenty.