Post-traumatic Growth (Part 2)

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Post-traumatic growth. If you missed part 1 of this series, click HERE for that if you wish. In the first post we looked at what can cause post-traumatic growth, and what changes might occur in our lives as a result of the growth.

This week, however, I want to address the WHY behind growth. Have you ever wondered why some people come out on the other side of trauma a much better person? Why do some people give up, while others thrive? Is it something within the person themselves, or is it the environment they are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in post-trauma? Does personality style have something to do with it? What decisions did the person make to get them through the worst of it? What was the time table of those decisions? Is there a magic formula? (Would you like to participate in a survey? It is very short, confidential, and your “voice” will be used in research about post-traumatic growth! Click HERE and scroll to the bottom of the page for the link about the short survey)

These are all important questions. These important questions are difficult to answer, however. In all the years I’ve thought about these questions and other related “survival” issues, I believe little can be assumed and the variables are infinite. There are, however, a few key points that I think are valid. You may not agree with me and that is OK. After all, this is not a scientific analysis and I only have personal experience and the testimony of others to generate my list of probable reasons some people experience growth. So here we go! 🙂

Taking One Day at a Time

One thing I have noticed about people who experience growth, post-trauma, is that they do not start out with long-term plans. Especially in the beginning – you may be in survival mode. You go to bed each night with the sense of, “Whew. The day is over. I made it“. There is not any fanfare or celebration of the fact, it is simply what IS. You survived.

In that day-to-day survival you may have drawn on specific helps that for YOU, allowed you to make it through that day. It may be faith, a supportive person or persons, a mentor, a counselor, a cause or purpose… love. It may even be things that some people define as negative: anger, stubbornness, revenge, or even hate. By themselves one asks how can something so ugly be used to help you survive? These things may be inter-woven into your thoughts and feelings and played a part in your survival for that day. Positive or negative, it isn’t one specific, “magical” formula. I have met people from all walks of life with different supports in their life, some of whom have grown post-trauma and some who have given up.

For some, enough time has gone by that you may feel like you can begin to look and plan for further down life’s path. Just do not be surprised if something happens and you find yourself in survival mode again. It could be triggered by something that seems so irrelevant and inconspicuous. Why is this true?

I think it is because post-traumatic growth is a PROCESS not an outcome. Those who grow do so because they continue to “take one day at a time”. They recognize there will be setbacks. They recognize there isn’t a prize or even a finish line. They know and realize that life after trauma may include days in which you are only able to trudge through.

Supports

I have met a few people who insist that they made it through a traumatic experience and grew from it all on their own. They found the wherewithal inside themselves and pushed through the crisis. However, I believe that even those whose “claim to fame” is that they are completely independent miss the point. Someone, somewhere had an impact on who they are as a person to be the kind of survivor who could dig deep and push themselves. It may not be someone who stood right next to you while you began your “life after trauma”. It may be that it was a person or persons who impacted your life years ago.

For many, however, it is a current support system. You do not have to be married or in love. You don’t have to be a person of faith. You don’t have to have a BFF. You do not have to have a dog (grin). Sure… these things can be used as supports, but they aren’t necessary. I know this because I’ve met far to many people who have experienced post-traumatic growth who do not have these things. The key is that they reached out to something or someone.

The danger of experiencing the worst life has to offer is isolation. Not solitude – something we all need from time to time to grow our souls – but isolation is the enemy of those seeking to grow post-trauma. Some folks have tried to tell me that they isolated themselves to survive. It hurt to much to interact with others “after”. If you isolate yourself long-term you are not going to make it. I’m not trying to scare you. We are human beings and at our very core we need other people. When you isolate yourself, another cannot find you to help. Those YOU were meant to help are also out of reach. The way to avoid isolation is to reach out. Join a support group. Go see a counselor. Write. You have to let others know you need them.

“And in this curious state I had the realization, at the moment of seeing that stranger there, that I was a person like everybody else. That I was known by my actions and words, that my internal universe was unavailable for inspection by others. They didn’t know. They didn’t know, because I never told them.” Kim Stanley Robinson.

An important side note? If you reach out to someone who needed you immediately after a traumatic event – a life-altering illness or diagnosis, the death of a loved one, victimization, violence, catastrophic loss – don’t forget to continue to check in with them FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. Remember. Post-traumatic growth is a process, not an outcome. They remember the anniversary of the death of their loved one. They remember the accident that changed their life forever. They still have nightmares. They still need you. Continue to be there for them. When something traumatic happens to you (when – not if), you will need people who walk along side of you until the end as well.

Finding a Purpose

No worries. I’m not going to spout off an over-used platitude about lemons and lemonade. When we experience something traumatic we become an expert – at times an unwilling one. No one understands you like YOU do. Some people who experience traumatic events, collaborate with others and see significant changes in laws, supports, or after-care programs. They have the passion to see it through and to demand change.

Others, however, may not experience growth in such a measurable way. Yet, they too make a difference. There is a person in my life who has advanced MS. She writes me about three times a year. Her letters are written in a huge font because her eyesight is so poor now. I believe it very likely takes her hours to write me one newsy email. For a long time she had no idea what those emails meant to me. And so I told her. She is a transparent, significant human being who just so happens to excel in encouragement. She has impacted my life. I tell her so. She doesn’t get out much and often isn’t healthy enough for visitors. But she can use her computer on a good day – and she reaches out. She chooses people she thinks she can encourage and writes them. She may have to nap the rest of the day just to recover. She has a purpose. She matters and what she does matters.

It can be big or small. It can be something related to what you went through yourself, or a path that simply has you helping others that may be hurting in a different way. Find something or someone to be involved with and do it with passion and a purpose. It is often that cause or purpose that sees you through those days you find yourself back in survival mode…

… because it is a process – not an outcome.

You, too – CAN

I tried to grow tomato plants one summer. After only 4-5 weeks, the plants began to die and I noticed a smutty, yucky, kind of growth on the leaves, stems, and fruit. Disgusted, I pulled them all up and soothed my hankerin’ for ‘maters by visiting the produce department and local farmer’s markets. The next summer I carefully tended to new “baby” plants and tried again. In less time, the fungus-like growth was back and I was mad – and hungry for tomatoes.

I had to empty out the large planters and scrub them down. I had to buy new top soil. I had to do – what I SHOULD HAVE DONE the first time ’round. By the early Fall, I finally had fresh tomatoes from my own backyard.

You may not be experiencing growth because you have isolated yourself. Perhaps you tried – too soon – to make long-term plans. Maybe you didn’t immerse yourself in a cause to fulfill that need we all have to have a PURPOSE. Maybe you aren’t growing because you need to transplant yourself.

Are you surrounding by negative people? Do people tell you that you CAN’T do that NOW? Sometimes well-meaning people promote fungus-like growth. They destroy our fruit. We need to set boundaries and show them we CAN. We need to find people who believe that we CAN.

I welcome your input and feedback.

Denise Portis

© 2014 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

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4 thoughts on “Post-traumatic Growth (Part 2)

  1. Denise, as usual,your words are timely, well written and up to date. Dealing with some of my own personal challenges have taken exactly this path….and am dealing with one again which resulted in surgery less than a week ago.. Will do this again and again while recuperating from this and a few other things that I must contend with.

    Good blog….thanks, Jane Harford

    1. Thank you, Jane. I think some of us have been down this path often enough, you would think we are not shocked by finding a tough road ahead of us again! Why doesn’t it get easier? I suppose in some ways it does as practice may not make perfect, but it certainly gives us some sense of what works for us. Thinking of you and praying for you post-surgery.

  2. Hi Denise, Excellent as always!! As you described the various traumatic, post traumatic, and post traumatic growth components, I reflected on my experiences which matched up to them at various turns in my life’s journey. My experience with disability and loss has been life long. Every once in a while, I have entertained “what if”, in regard to my past life’s journey and possible simpler, gentler, or kindler roads it could have taken. In the end, I find myself unwilling to sacrifice the gains this particular life’s journey has given me. In addition, I harbor the feeling of sympathy towards those whose life journey has been easier until they are seniors, because everyone’s life journey will meet up with trauma at some point. The older they are, the tougher it becomes to survive, without the benefit of post traumatic growth. Ruth

    1. Ruth,
      That is an excellent point and one I hadn’t given much thought to before. Having struggles certainly – at a minimum – helps us adapt more quickly I think. I, too, know of some folks who only had a “real challenge” much later in life and the process was more difficult simply because it was so foreign to them.

      I suppose this is yet another reason we can find the “good” in all things. Thank you for your comments. I would love for you to write for Hearing Elmo in the coming year.

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