This year for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and Child Abuse Awareness Month I really wasn’t sure what I was going to focus on, until my dear friend Shannon turned me onto this article from the New York Times. This article happens to be about veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, but the main concept that caught my eye was one I have not explored much: the concept of posttraumatic growth.
Posttraumatic growth is defined as “the positive changes individuals may experience following a traumatic event. For example, following a traumatic event, some people report positive changes in their goals, priorities, relationships with others, and spirituality as a result of re-evaluating or modifying their assumptions about the world and their life.” This actually happens more commonly than you might think. Much more commonly than PTSD; often in tandem with it. In all the treatment centers and group therapy I’ve been through, I’m honored to have been witness to this over and over and over again. The women (and some men) that I’ve been in treatment with—my fellow travelers, as I call them—are all remarkably brave, at the same time that they are extremely vulnerable. It’s part of the process, to hear each other’s stories and learn from them; we grow with each other through the bonding of that deep communication. Sharing personal experiences of early childhood neglect and violence, sexual and physical abuse, the shame and rage and pain and guilt; one must open and raw. Yet, in the telling, there is so much power. We begin to feel the helplessness lift as we realize that speaking and naming our experiences is the start of transforming them. I have watched women who came into treatment quiet as a church mouse and trying to make themselves just as small, find their voices and stand up straight and realize they deserve to take up space and ask for what they need and have those needs met. I have seen women who believed the abuse they went through was pointless suffering and were in the darkest of places, transform those experiences to something meaningful and find a foothold in spirituality. These are examples of posttraumatic growth.
For me, posttraumatic growth happened at the same time I was processing my PTSD. I believe I grew and developed positive changes more from some traumas than from others. I know that the trauma of nearly dying at 22 from pneumonia, having part of my lung removed, being in a coma, my heart stopping in surgery, and everything that went with that, changed me for the better. I think about that experience every day. It taught me to value my body more, to respect the amazing resilience and capacity it has to heal after such a traumatic surgery and deadly illness. During my eating disorder recovery I remembered the feeling of just wanting to live. It taught me that I can handle more physical pain that I ever imagined. It also taught me that my mom would walk through fire for me- she never left my side the entire time, she fought for me, helped with my treatment (as a nurse), and I would not have made it through without her. Other traumas were not so clearly beneficial. Like being raped when I was 16; I do not see how that helped me change or grow. But as a child, surviving the chronic and severe sexual violence inflicted on me by my father, some skills developed that were helpful. A vivid imagination; places I would go in my head during the abuse. The ability to assess people’s moods and psychological states; I used this with my mom too, who had her share of depression and anxiety and my sister who had her own issues. A thick skin; nothing could get to me and I never cried as a child. A large intellect and vocabulary; to escape, I read every book I could get my hands on, even my parents’ medical texts (my father was a surgeon). These things were and are useful. I also always had a relationship with God, which has grown and changed over time. It’s a personal relationship, solitary and maintained through meditation and prayer; I never really needed a church or other group setting to feel in touch with the divine.
What I’d really like to know in this month that’s dedicated to awareness of child abuse and sexual assault, is how any other survivors feel they have grown through their trauma. Do you feel you have experienced posttraumatic growth? If so, in what way? Did it happen through therapy or on its own? I think this is a very hopeful part of post-trauma life, and I’d love to hear about it! Please feel free to share your story here or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, click here to take an assessment by the American Psychological Association on Posttraumatic Growth!