On Healing 8/10/2009: Precious personal growth, post-trauma

When we think about the impact of trauma, we usually think about how it causes post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

But an emerging field called “post-traumatic 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 trauma victims could tell similar stories. And I suspect more people have post-traumatic growth than post-traumatic stress (though both are possible).

I recently raised the question of post-traumatic growth on my blog, and here is one amazing response:

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 32-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 a 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 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 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 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 all right 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. Achieving the impossible is accomplished only 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.
– Carla

Dear Carla,
Shortly before receiving your e-mail, I got one from a fellow in Haverford who was considering marrying for the second time and asked my advice. I told him that his timing was perfect because the best time to begin talking about what it means to be a (new) family is before you are one.

When people get married for the first time, they bring a set of expectations and experiences from their family of origin. Partners rarely see the world through the same lens, as both have a different vision of what it means to be a family. So that can be a challenge. When they get married a second time, however, the challenge is different because those expectations have been modified by their experiences – particularly the negative experiences – the first time around. Everyone usually arrives with some anxiety and apprehension, and many carry baggage from the previous marriage.

So the questions about what it means to be a family, to be married, to be a parent and a stepparent should be discussed at the beginning of the process. And all the children should be brought into the discussion at the level they can understand. Even young children have feelings about what they might want in their new family and what they might miss from their old family.

Every stepfamily I’ve treated has struggled with issues of loyalty. The original parents feel loyal to their children, who have already suffered. Yet this loyalty can do great harm to the fragile new marriage. It is a difficult issue: Children do suffer in a divorce and they do need the support of their parents. But when a child of divorce has lived alone with a parent for a while, he or she is not going to be happy about sharing time and space.

All of these things need to be talked out with the whole new family. It’s very important that stepfamilies not divide along biological lines. And while this may be difficult for the first few years, as everyone tries to get to know one another, secret alliances can be destructive.

So, “Struggling,” even though you may not have had these discussions earlier, it is never too late. You see, there are always stories behind the story. When you say how important it is to be acknowledged, that sounds to me like a high-stakes issue from your childhood that may have nothing at all to do with your daughter. I don’t know why your husband won’t acknowledge the children, but there is a story behind that too.

And the most important issue here is that you are being hurt by something that is happening in your marriage. That is never OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your husband should change his behavior to address your pain, but it does mean that the two of you have to talk about this.

Please keep in mind that blended families are difficult. So are second marriages. In my experience, the most important factor affecting the outcome is devotion. If the two of you are committed to this relationship and to this new family, you might still need counseling – but you should do pretty well.

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