Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Post-Traumatic Growth

I've been following the Crash Course Psychology videos on youtube and learned a new term: Post-Traumatic Growth. It's when, in the wake of a traumatic event, a person works through it and grows as an individual.

I love this. I'm calling it PTG, the companion to PTSD. Not that the two go hand-in-hand, but both are reactions to trauma. Both realistic, both common.

What I love about PTG is that it recognizes that people can be survivors, not just victims. You might be dealing with the negative (PTSD) but there can also be positive in there. There are parts of my psyche that are damaged but also parts that are healthy and strong.

I don't think you can compare me with an untraumatized individual and make a judgement call about who is better off. I'm me, for the better and the worse. PTG doesn't mean I'm normal, or better, or back to where I was. It means that I've made headway and that parts of me are thriving and healthy.

You have to be careful how you talk about this sort of thing, though. In the throes of dealing with my own trauma, I had people encouragingly say, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" That isn't what PTG is about and it's a very damaging comment for two reasons.

First, you never know if someone is suicidal. When someone is dying inside, this comment says they aren't strong enough to hack it. Pulling through trauma isn't a question of getting stronger. I certainly didn't get where I am now on because I'm strong. I went through my weakest moments getting here. To this day, I have weaknesses others don't have.

Never throw out loose references to death like that. What a person needs is your supportive love, not statements about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Some days, my PTSD felt like it was killing me. Don't give advice out of your discomfort over my pain. If you have nothing to say, that's alright; your silence can love me too.

Secondly, statements like, "Everything happens for a reason," or "It'll make you stronger and more able to help people," do nothing to lesson the pain that I'm going through. Instead, they minimize my pain. I was raped. You know what? Rape does not happen for a reason. Rape is a result of mindless violence. Rape is not God's plan for anyone. We don't endure rape so that we can help other people who've been through it.

Have my experiences turned me into the person I am today? Most definitely! I care deeply about survivors of sex trafficking because I know a taste of what the pain is like. I want to adopt a child-survivor of trauma because I want to offer the love, understanding, and safe space which I know people like us need. I care because I understand.

But don't think for a moment God allowed me to go through what I did just so that I'd end up being this person. It happened because the world is effed up. It happened because God gives us freedom, and sometimes we do good, beautiful things with that freedom and sometimes we hurt each other instead.*

Some things don't happen for a reason. But you can use them for your own reasons. You can take what's happened to you and become...someone else. Not stronger, not weaker, but different. Trauma changes you, but instead of trying to become who you were before, you can learn to be this new person.

I've heard from several people with chronic illnesses. Contracting the illness redefined them. Their life revolves around the needs of their body. They have to accommodate pain, diet changes, lifesaving technologies, and other encumbrances. Those who handled it well did so by finding a new normal. They didn't try to live the life they had before their illness. They accepted the changes and found a new rhythm.

It works with disability, with mental illness, and with trauma too. People are so afraid of letting their Issue define them. They're afraid of trying to be like everyone else and failing. The only way to avoid that is to stop trying to be like everyone else. I will never be like someone without a traumatic past. That doesn't mean I'm broken.

Instead of apologizing for the way I am and my failure to live up to what's normal for others, I'm honest. I explain my needs. I stand up for myself. Since I'm never going to be everyone else's normal, I live differently without embarrassment. I set the standard for how others can relate with me by talking and being open.

I refuse to let people pressure me into things I'm not comfortable with. Movies depicting childhood trauma or interpersonal abuse mess me up. The Help was too much for me, and I flat-out refused to see Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood when a friend requested. Maybe you find it weird, but I know what need and I know what happens if I don't take care of myself.

This is my normal. Because I own it, rather than trying to hide it or pretend I'm like you, it doesn't define me. People say, "Things only have power over you if you allow them to." That's simply not true. Some things overpower us. However, I can choose to remove the things that weaken me and surround myself with people and things that support and strengthen me instead.

That's post-traumatic growth. It's not getting "better." PTG is simply living. That's all. When I was suffering severe symptoms of PTSD, I felt like I was dying. Now I feel normal. It may not be your normal, but it's mine. That, my friends, is what counts.

Word count: 960.

* For people who've seen the darker side of humanity up close, this explanation often isn't enough. After what I'd been through, I knew it would be more loving to make us mindless slaves than let us hurt one another so deeply. That's because I didn't have a choice. Someone else made the choice to hurt me. But I learned that God did give me choice: the choice to carry the pain. Eventually I was able to say, "please take it away," and that's precisely what God did. That experience is why I believe in God and that he loves me.