Inside Post Traumatic Growth

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on July 22, 2021 # Health

PTG — “Positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event” —Tedeschi and Calhoun

A great many traumatic life circumstances can bring about the opportunity for growth, but that does not mean that post-traumatic growth (PTG) happens automatically whenever trauma exists. It occurs as a result of successfully coping with difficult circumstances, and the more challenging the circumstances, the greater the opportunity for growth. But how, exactly, does this happen?Tim Gilmer

Research indicates that distress and growth can co-exist. Post-traumatic growth is not a one-time event but goes on overtime. It makes sense that SCI and other paralyzing conditions, all of which are traumatic when they occur — whether suddenly or over time — offer long-term opportunities for growth that might not otherwise occur. Researchers have also found that when faced with especially difficult life-altering circumstances, many people not only learn over time how to successfully cope and adapt (with paralysis, for instance), but they also discover an increased appreciation for life and other positive characteristics that they never thought possible.

The initial period of trauma usually offers the most dramatic and daunting difficulties because of the severity and alien nature of radical changes due to sudden paralysis, physically and in many other ways. As complications related to paralysis occur, new ways of coping must be found. In other words, re-inventing ourselves is a recurring necessity.

In my own life, the first five years of my paralysis, beginning at age 20, was especially difficult (a period that was book-ended by two distinctly different traumatic events, each one presenting a major problem that threatened my survival).

You can imagine the trauma that accompanies a violent accident. In my situation, my plane crash was especially violent and resulted in the instantaneous death of the pilot, a good friend of mine. In very little time, I began to experience survivor’s guilt, a common outcome when the person with you dies and you survive. The guilt ran deeper than I knew, as did the psychic pain from having my entire life upended. And many of you know what that is all about.

So how did I cope?

Badly. Even though to an outsider I might have been doing well since I returned to college to continue my studies, my drinking ratcheted up several notches. Then came marijuana, and after that, hallucinogens and other drugs. Sound like PTSD? Exactly. Many people may mistakenly believe that PTSD is inevitable in violent, tragic events. But not everyone experiences it. I turned to drinking and drugs in order to escape my reality, which I could not accept, even though on the surface, it may have seemed to others that I was coping. Some doctors and psychologists even classify substance abuse as a method of coping. In my experience, though, the coping was an illusion. Beneath the coping, the same guilt and psychic pain smoldered.

When PTG happens, it begins when the need for personal change becomes apparent to the survivor and is then addressed. But I hid from it anyway I could. I let it lay there inside me, smoldering, while I continued to pour more reality-deadening substances over it. The flames would die down temporarily, but the red-hot coals remained.

I managed to graduate from college and get a job despite my self-destructive habits. Once again, it looked like progress, but now I was stuck in a job that I didn’t want, and I had not faced my guilt. Rather than try to make the job work, I quit.

Ironically, even though quitting after only one month on a job is not commendable, it was timely action that propelled me in another direction. I then made a Super-8 film with two high school buddies that we actually sold to the Black Studies programs at two universities. I was not Black, but I was beginning to feel empathy for others in a way that I had never felt before, no doubt attributable to my own unexpressed grief.

Sadly, though, I kept up the drinking and drug abuse and slowly spiraled downward, somehow thinking that down was up. Upside-down logic is common with alcoholics and drug abusers. They (we) will find ways to rationalize our behavior, no matter how self-destructive it may be.

So, where was the post-traumatic growth?

It hadn’t really started in earnest and wouldn’t until I had another severe crisis that forced me to change not only my destructive habits, but my worldview and the way I saw my past, my future and more.

This initial five-year period of denial and self-abuse came to a dramatic apex marked by extreme drug use and depression — a metaphorical cliff. I fell from a great height, even greater and more threatening than my earlier plane crash. To simplify, I lost control of my life and was rescued by my parents and taken back (unable to care for myself) to my boyhood home. But now, I was trapped in a frightening psychotic, paranoid nightmare. My parents, unable to deal with it, made plans to have me committed. I managed to convince them it would make me worse. They accepted my plan to see a psychiatrist as a temporary compromise.

The next six months were the low point of my life, the dregs. I was a total failure and could not even envision a future. The shrink was no help. He couldn’t bring me out of my shell. Alone in my bedroom, I finally broke down, crying uncontrollably, and confessed my considerable sins (you do crazy things when you are drunk or too high) and begged God, the same God I had written off for the previous five years — out of bitterness and anger — for forgiveness and help. I was desperate. Surprisingly, a peaceful, calm feeling settled around me.

I did not realize it at the time, but I was beginning to enter a prolonged time of change and growth — slow, gradual, difficult growth — with several reversals along the way.

More than 50 years have passed since that moment in my bedroom, alone without hope, and my post-traumatic growth continues. No matter what obstacles I may face, I am a lucky man, and I will always be grateful for the moment I faced reality and discovered a deeper reality, a spiritual dimension that is critical for my well-being.

Spiritual growth is a mainstay of post-traumatic growth, a truth that is not only known to PTG researchers, but also millions of us who have had to deal with uncommon tragedy in our lives. Today, still paralyzed and with other health conditions as well, I am more appreciative for my life than I could possibly have imagined.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.