The Long Way Round: Finding Meaning in our Trauma
Trauma is bad. Duh. We all know this. But I’ve met a handful of survivors who are actually thankful for their injuries. It turns out that, for some, the accident and its associated injuries, traumas, and impairments created – I don’t know what – an opportunity? A new person? A new perspective? For some survivors, the brain injury gives them release from their old selves, their old destructive ways, their old modes of being.
One of my clients told me: “I was not a very good person before the accident, and I don’t want to be that person any longer”. The catastrophic event helped him understand that he had an opportunity to change his life and to create a new self. Yes, the challenges of rehab and healing were daunting and scary but for this survivor, he was looking forward to, if nothing else, being a better person to those around him.
McAdams (1993) wrote that one’s identity is a growing and changeable thing. Identity provides the survivor with meaning and purpose, and also allows for the opportunity to make sense of tragedy. One understands tragedy partly by the incorporation of that event into one’s identity; “I’m a survivor” is a positive narrative that one could insert into one’s identity. Also, the explanations for why the tragedy occurred can be inserted into one’s narrative and thus shape their identity (McAdams, 1994). For example, you might hear a survivor say something like, “I survived because I am strong”, or “Someone up there must have wanted me to live”, or “I’m given a second chance to be a better person”.
As per Taylor, Wood, and Lichtman (1983), survivors of traumatic events choose to see the positive benefits of the event and aftermath because it helps the survivor “de-victimize” themselves. By “de-victimizing” yourself, you create the opportunity for growth and future oriented thinking.
Further, by seeing the traumatic event as being a personal growth experience, it helps the survivor to mitigate the psychologically negative impact of the event (Thompson, 1985). Post event self-talk such as “I’m stronger,” “I’m wiser,” “I’m happier,” etc, helps the survivor to perceive the event in a way that is empowering, and even as a necessary component to their personal growth.
When a person is catastrophically injured, his or her identity can be shaken at its core – I’m not invincible. I’m a victim. Why me? What did I do to deserve this? I can’t do what I once could. It seems that how one finds meaning in the event matters as much as anything else. How one frames what has happened can mean the difference between feeling helpless and hopeless, to feeling determined and resolute.
I personally believe that traumatic events can absolutely have the positive effects that many proclaim, and that many great individuals owe their successes to their struggles. The fire forges the steel. As James Joyce wrote, “Longest way round is the shortest way home”.
The question is; as members of the survivor’s rehab team, what can we do to help foster and encourage that positive and meaningful narrative about their trauma?