The flip side of post-traumatic stress disorder

By Lenore Skenazy

“I always thought if I lost a child, I wouldn’t be able to stop screaming,” Liz Alderman, a Westchester mom of three, told journalist Mark Miller. But then one of her children, Peter, 25, was killed in the 9/11 terror attacks — he was on the 106th floor of the North Tower — and she found out what really happens.

At least to her.

“The reality is you can’t keep screaming — your throat closes up; you give yourself a headache. You have two choices — either you kill yourself literally or figuratively, by crawling into bed and never getting out or you put one foot in front of the other.”

Keep doing that and you can end up someplace completely new. And meaningful.

It is this surprising journey that Miller illuminates in his new book, “Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation.” Time and again he finds people who suffered not Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but it’s sort of good-witch twin: Post Traumatic Growth, or “PTG.”

PTG is not a Pollyanna-ish way of looking at misery. People who grow in new and important ways after trauma suffer, too. It’s not that the pain gets replaced by meaning. It’s that along with the pain there is meaning, often great meaning, and some comfort in it.

For Alderman and her husband, Steve, it was stumbling toward a way to make Peter’s life, and death, have a positive impact on the world, the way Peter had. Eventually the couple co-founded the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, which provides short-term therapy to others affected by trauma, even halfway around the world, in Africa, Cambodia, and Haiti. People who have lived through war, natural disasters, and sometimes the murder of their families in front of their eyes get the help they need to get back to functioning.

Returning to “normal life” after a trauma is what we deem resilience. But Miller’s book is about something else: coming back from trauma with such an expanded sense of empathy and purpose that simply going to back to everyday existence is not enough.

What happens is this: “We walk around with a self-constructed sense of our world,” Miller writes. This includes who we are, what matters to us, and how we expect to spend our time. But when a trauma hits, it can “blow these self-constructed world views to pieces.” Priorities get questioned. For instance, one man Miller interviewed, New York Times writer Andrew Revkin, suffered a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his right hand. When he got better, his old hobby — making music — didn’t seem like it could wait anymore. After all, the ability to play guitar and mandolin had just almost been taken from him. So since his stroke, he has released an album and now plays gigs around the city.

The mother of a child murdered by a serial killer found an even less predictable purpose. A self-described “country bumpkin with a high-school education,” Marietta Jaeger has devoted much of her life since the crime to fighting for an end to the death penalty. This drive was born after she had a revelation of faith to forgive the killer.

Clearly, no one can tell where trauma may lead. But the idea that it could lead someplace good is not a new one. In religion, the path from pain to enlightenment is a common one. In mythology, it is called “the hero’s journey in which heroes achieve great good as a result of great suffering,” Miller writes. You can see this journey again and again in the Bible, and on the screen. “These heroic struggles resonate deeply in American culture,” writes Miller, “especially when there is a happy ending (think ‘Star Wars!’).”

So why do we associate post-traumatic existence only with disorder and never-ending pain? My guess is it’s because as much as we love the hero’s journey, we have been taught a much grimmer narrative about real-life trauma: That no one ever recovers. Even to suggest that they might is considered insensitive.

That’s why Miller takes pains to explain that not everyone “grows” or should be expected to. He is very sensitive to ongoing sorrow, and doesn’t want to exacerbate anyone’s misery by suggesting that the “best” trauma victims march forth with a huge and wonderful new purpose. Not at all. No one says trauma victims must grow. And no one knows who will and who won’t.

All we know is that trauma is part of the human condition. No one gets through life without something (or, sigh, many things) shaking them to the core and forcing a reckoning. The potential for growth has been “hiding in plain sight,” says Miller.

It’s time for hope to come out of the shadows.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”

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