And using it not just to survive but to grow as a person
I consider myself an average Joe. I’m a divorcee, I am now in a loving and healthy relationship. I have three children, one step-son, three rescue dogs and a job I absolutely love.
On the surface, all looks good, right? Of course, it does. Much like we do online, in real life we don’t openly share our failures, vulnerabilities, or weaknesses.
We all have them but we do not share them. We tend to only share them with our most trusted of companions and confidantes.
I like many others, have had my fair share of tough times. Suffice to say that over the last couple of years my life spiralled out of control and became somewhat of a car-crash.
The finer details of these rough times are beyond the remit of this story.
This is a personal account of overcoming extreme adversity. It is also a personal account of what worked for me and what evidence informs us of such strategies. I will also briefly explore the statistics that inform us of the risks of not taking the right approach.
I will conclude by exploring not just the aim of surviving trauma, but how to arrive at a point that from trauma comes purpose and personal growth.
Over the last three years, I have overcome adversities I previously believed were insurmountable to anyone. I have also experienced trauma I never knew existed.
Over this time I have had to accept the unacceptable to survive.
In my failed attempts to endure this trauma, I was dragged down into the dark world of depression.
“The psychiatric nurse becomes a service user.” Now, that’s a sentence I never thought I would hear myself say.
Yes, I am a psychiatric nurse. Much of my job involves preventing individuals from taking their own lives.
For a short period, I became a service user when my depression deteriorated to the point that I had very real plans to take my own life.
I’ve nearly died a few times now.
One of them was not planned. It was an act of recklessness on my part. I was in a car accident. No one else was involved. No one apart from me got hurt thank goodness. I flipped my car over. Somehow I walked out of the wreckage relatively unscathed given the extent of the incident.
The other times would have been my own doing. Yes, I am talking about suicide. The awkward taboo that far too many people feel uncomfortable discussing.
I believe it is this lack of discussion of suicidal ideation and suicide prevention that leads to the following alarming and tragic statistics:
In 2017, 5,821 suicides were recorded in Great Britain. Of these, 75% were male and 25% were female (Office for National Statistics, 2016. Suicides in GB, 2016 Registrations).
Between 2003 and 2013, 18,220 people with mental health problems took their own life in the UK. (University of Manchester , 2015. National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness)
Suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20–49 years in England and Wales. (Office for National Statistics, 2016. Suicides in the United Kingdom, 2016 Registrations).
I can now reflect back on those intensely dark times of my life and completely understand why someone would contemplate taking their own life.
But how did I go from having plans to take my own life, to turning tragedy into personal growth?
What is Post-traumatic Growth?
As a senior psychiatric nurse, working on an acute assessment unit, I am familiar with the term and nature of post-traumatic growth. However much like depression and suicidality, I never expected to experience it myself.
The term post-traumatic growth was coined in 1995 by Richard Tedeschi, PhD and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD to focus on the concept of an individual personally growing as a result of managing trauma. This term came from a decade long study of theirs regarding bereaved parents. Their findings were that although the tragedy of losing a child was never really minimised, there was, in fact, a personal gain within the loss itself for many of the parents.
Tedeschi and Calhoun found that some of the parents in their study chose to extract meaning from their loss. These parents found themselves moving towards and engaging in activism and acts of compassion and altruism that they wouldn’t have otherwise found themselves engaging in had they not experienced their trauma.
So How do we Find a Purposeful Meaning From Trauma?
Arguably we have some kind of influence on our environment and in turn, can often maximise our odds of a favourable outcome with good information in any given situation. However, due to the very nature of life itself, there will always be a chance factor.
Trauma can occur to anyone of us and invariably it will be unexpected. In such cases, we have little to no control over such events.
From personal experience, I have found that the key component in attempting to maintain a realistic level of stability with regards to happiness, is the ability to adjust one’s expectations.
When experiencing trauma we can also, to some degree control our responses.
In such situations we are faced with two options: We can choose to respond with a sense of acceptance and seek meaning and growth. Or alternatively, we ultimately give in to such circumstances. The resulting response may well be will be a pivotal point in one’s life. At the risk of stating the obvious how we respond will affect the way we feel. And how we feel will ultimately determine whether or not we are unhappy with our life overall.
The argument I’m putting forward here is that the key component in attempting to maintain a realistic level of stability with regards to our own happiness is our ability to adjust our expectations.
Ultimately we can attempt to limit our unhappiness by cultivating our ability to constantly adjust our internal expectations.
Any resulting feeling that we experience in response to an event will generally fall into two categories: good and bad. Over time, good feelings will collectively nurture and encourage conditions for what we define as happiness. And obviously, too many bad feelings are the cause of unhappiness.
An easier way of viewing this last point is to view good and positive feelings as sensations and emotions that occur when reality meets or exceeds our internal subjective expectations. And with that in mind, the point is that bad and negative feelings as sensations and emotions occur when reality falls short of our internal subjective expectations.
So in essence, it all comes down to our internal subjective expectations. Many of those that subscribe to this point of view often allow themselves to come to an all too easy conclusion. And that is that the key to happiness is to have low expectations. With this point of view, the objective reality almost always meets or exceeds internal subjective expectations. And on the surface, at least, it should make sense.
However, here in lies the problem. Living a life with low expectations is just not feasible. For example. If a professional football player started every match not expecting to play to their best, they likely wouldn’t stay a professional football player for much longer.
In reality, the elimination of happiness is simply not sustainable. And more importantly, periods of unhappiness are required for true happiness to be much more appreciated.
Therefore the aim shouldn’t be to eliminate happiness, but in actual fact to limit it.
So, therefore, arguably the secret lies in our ability to modify and adjust the level of our expectations when such a shortfall presents itself to us. In simpler terms, we must allow ourselves to be flexible in how we manage and navigate our perception as and when various scenarios present themselves to us.
Most of us are aware that having meaningful relationships, purposeful work and gratitude are all key aspects to living a happy enough life. And all available research informs us that the way in which we perceive, understand and work towards happiness is very much driven by our genetic make-up.
However, the vast majority of us, attempt to pursue happiness in whichever way we believe suits us best. My point here is that far too many of us don’t understand, comprehend or simply know enough about minimising happiness.
In order for any one of us to have a good enough chance of reaching a reasonable level of happiness, we must first familiarise ourselves with the strategies and actions that limit dissatisfaction in our lives.
In returning to the trauma I experienced, in order for me to cope and manage with the acceptance of such harsh realities, I found myself extracting some kind of meaning from my loss. And this is where we return to the theory of post-traumatic growth.
The trauma I continue to experience is irrelevant to this story. Post traumatic-growth can be applied to any type of trauma.
I continue to reluctantly live alongside my depression. The analogy I always use is that of a dark cloud. At the moment, due to having the resources, support and mental resilience to better manage my depression, this cloud is currently a safe distance from me.
I doubt that the cloud will ever fully disappear. But currently keeping it at a safe distance from me is good enough.
Despite my ongoing trauma, there has been a personal gain, I have exponentially grown more as a person due to my trauma.
Applying the above isn’t easy. There is no quick fix to the adversities that life invariably throws at us.
We are the experts of our own trauma. Two individuals experiencing the same trauma will have two different experiences of it due to the innate uniqueness of being human.
I survived my trauma due to choosing to extract meaning from it. Instead of becoming another suicide statistic, I reached out to others that had experienced the same trauma. This reaching out led me to become a co-founder of an international organisation that supports individuals that experience the same trauma as me.
Within this organisation, I apply my knowledge from both my lived experience and my profession into being the Team Leader for the Support Team. A support team that gives invaluable advice, support and signposting for those that have experienced the same trauma as me.
In this role I now find myself utilising unused skills and also drawing on skills I was previously not aware of being in possession of.
None of this personal growth would have happened had I not experienced my trauma.
To conclude, when you start to face the darkest of times, please reach out for help. You will probably not want to. But you need to reach out.
Even though it may not seem it, there will always be someone, somewhere to help you. Use whatever resources you have to reach out for help. In my circumstances I found the use of Twitter in both giving and receiving support incredibly useful.
Once you are out of the darkest of times seek meaning and purpose from your trauma.
Originally published in Medium publication ‘The Ascent‘ 24/04/19.