The experience of trauma changes us. Like spilled ink, it seeps into every aspect of our being, perceptibly and imperceptibly tinting memory, perspective, identity, and beliefs, long after clinical symptoms fade. Prompted by almost any encounter with hardship these days, I recall the loneliness and anxiety provoked by needing help during recovery from my accident (the partial-amputation of my hand in an explosion) but not knowing where it would come from; the burden of having to spin optimism out of uncertainty for weeks on end; or the cramped-chest sensation accompanying upsetting emotions that need venting but defy articulation or lack a ready ear. It hurts to remember myself, and recognize others, confronting such difficulties.
I also recall what I have gained from coping with trauma. My occasional periods of anxiety and despair as a young woman left a residue that accumulated into a latent dread that some massive crisis could permanently lodge me in those excruciating states. But surviving both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and my accident served up irrefutable evidence that I was psychologically stronger than I had thought, and the dread began to awkwardly coexist with an unfamiliar faith. Not the naive kind that insists, contrary to all evidence, that everything always turns out OK, but the savvy kind that, as my friend Kathryne describes it, knows it’s highly likely “you’ll still be standing when something good finally happens again.”
I’ve become much more comfortable asking for help. I’m better at recognizing others’ emotional and practical needs in a crisis, and more skilled at addressing them because of the thoughtful support I’ve received myself. And strengthened by all these developments, I’ve taken personal and professional leaps to live in closer alignment with my values.
Someone is bound to label my personal evolution “posttraumatic growth” (PTG). Coined by trauma researchers in the 1990s, the term refers to positive psychological changes that some people report experiencing as a result of struggling through a severe crisis. However, I’m not convinced that it applies to me, as the authors’ definition of growth requires a reshaping of beliefs that I did not experience, at least not to the degree implied. Rather, I attribute much of the positive change in my post-trauma life to a process of nurturing helpful perspectives, and starving harmful ones, that began long before 9/11 and my accident (and continues today). This assessment aligns with some trauma researchers’ critique that instances of PTG are often simply a manifestation of an individual’s pre-trauma traits and capabilities.
My primary concern with post-traumatic growth, though, is the tantalizing term itself. Belying the subtleties of the theory behind it, it implies that life’s ups and downs can be distinguished and accounted for as neatly as debits and credits to a bank account. Interpreted through the lens of my national culture of origin—which detests unhappy endings and insists that anyone who works hard enough can achieve whatever they want—people could therefore misconstrue the theory as suggesting that traumatic experiences hold the possibility of unequivocally positive outcomes, and that those who don’t experience them have only themselves to blame. That’s an easy recipe for misery and callousness.
Whether inapplicable diagnosis, unsupported theory, or just bad branding, then, I reject the PTG label for my own development, much preferring a Brooklyn neighbor’s take on how we change when we live through trauma. “Welcome to the Death Club,” she said in a chance hallway conversation a few months after my accident and her father’s death in hospice. “We’ve seen death up close, and we’ll never look at anything the same way again.”
The work of this figurative Death Club is to integrate death into life, before it inevitably consumes us. That means surrendering to paradox, learning to carry a belief in possibility alongside the visceral knowledge of profound and permanent loss, so that loss does not become the chief architect of our lives, causing us to shrink from what is enriching or necessary for fear of it. And it means learning to embrace the strange kind of happiness (there’s no better English word for it, alas) that only travels with sorrow—like what my best friend, Jen, and I feel, knowing we can tell each other our scariest inner shit without scaring each other off; or what my siblings and I feel when we can address my father’s frequent health emergencies with slick teamwork and gallows humor, despite our concern for him and the worries about our own futures that his situation prompts.
We members of the Death Club often recognize each other, sensing vulnerability that others do not, or noticing a particular ease with, and insight into, upsetting subjects that can only come from rigorous grappling with them. And we often seek out and support each other, knowing we share a familiarity with what is difficult to describe or bear, and a kinship that can reassure, without promising the perpetual safety we crave but know we cannot have. […]
There is freedom in this work of integrating death into life— freedom from the gnawing, depleting pain of resisting what we know to be true, and the squandered opportunity that results from not seeing the facts of our lives as they are. But it’s beastly hard. Much harder, apparently, than I could admit to myself, until one morning on my way to work nearly a year after I’d recovered, when I tripped while galloping down the stairs of a footbridge over the West Side Highway. As my body flew out from under me, I felt that hot punch in the chest you get at the top of a big roller coaster drop, and only just managed to grab the handrail with both my hands and pull on it with all my strength, so that I could keep my skull from cracking on the step behind me. As my body stilled, I surprised myself by thinking, Next time, I hope I just die.
Rebecca Fogg is a consultant and author of Beautiful Trauma: An Explosion, an Obsession, and a New Lease on Life.