Post-Traumatic Growth

Trauma’s a bitch. It’s painful, and nothing good comes from it. Or so I thought. We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental disorder that can develop after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event, such as an assault, war, traffic collision or other threat on a person’s life. Trauma can do that to you. It can upend your life.

I hadn’t focused on the fact that an opposite phenomenon exists, that is, until last week when I was re-reading Nassim Taleb’s superb book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (which I highly recommend!). Taleb recalled a conversation he had with David Halpern, a U.K. government advisor and policy maker. They were discussing the idea of antifragility. It was during that conversation that Halpern mentioned “post-traumatic growth, the opposite of PTSD, by which people harmed by past events surpass themselves.”

Why I chose to re-read Taleb’s book, I don’t know. But the timing couldn’t have been better.

Of course, it had never occurred to me that I’d ever experience any major physical trauma in my life. Like most people, we expect such things happen only to other people. Until it happens to us.

It’s been nearly two months since the ambulance passed by two or three other hospitals on its way to one that had a Level 1 trauma center. That was my first inkling things possibly were more serious than I had thought. Fortunately, though, my initial self-assessment was correct: I hadn’t sustained any life-threatening injuries. But it also was incorrect: I had sustained far more trauma than I imagined.

After a grade 3 concussion and considerable period of unconsciousness, amnesia, ER sutures, three surgeries, bacterial pneumonia, partially collapsed lung, leg injury that, for weeks, made walking extremely difficult and painful, dental repair work (in progress) and some days of intense torso and extremities pain unlike anything I had ever experienced, I came to realize that my body — indeed, I — had experienced severe trauma. I also came to believe my life would never be the same.

In what way, I didn’t know. Yet I had a feeling that something was different. But I had never heard of post-traumatic growth.

Despite my internal protestations, my mind still takes me back to that moment when I regained consciousness, alone, trapped in that crushed car, having no idea where I was or what had happened. And to the moment when I was transferred from the ambulance stretcher to the ER table as a well-orchestrated bevy of doctors and nurses descended on me. And to the moment, lying stripped and dazed on the ER table, when the clergyman appeared by my side, causing me to wonder (and question) whether the situation was worse than I realized.

But I’m fortunate — incredibly so. The memories aren’t debilitating. It’s true, they can be unsettling and, sometimes, even elicit tears. But most of all, they are a marker.

I sense there will always be a before and after in my life, with the moment of demarcation being the only thing I can remember about the crash: the deafening, surreal sound of the collision.

More importantly, I sense the trauma from that extreme autumn day may be the trigger for new growth. It may be that, because of the trauma, I will surpass that which was previously possible.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” I’m not sure it’s necessarily so, but I do think it can be so.

It’s not yet clear to me how this growth will manifest itself. Or where it will lead. But the sense of peace and grace that enveloped me that day seems to be saying, “Be patient. Give it time.”

I feel stronger by the day. And I sense that soon I will be stronger than I was before that day — the day that separates the before from the after.

For a short while, I was trapped in a car. Yet for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, I now feel less trapped in life. And, in the parlance of Taleb, I feel more antifragile. Indeed, I feel like I have “more soul in the game.” (Taleb)

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