New Year, New Story

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on January 04, 2016 # Health, Mobility

New YearWhy do some people do well, even flourish, after experiencing a major trauma like paralysis while others allow it to linger and darken their lives for years after? A friend once suggested that there might be a genetic propensity to bounce back in some of us – a recovery gene – that’s lacking in others. This is akin to saying some people are deeply religious because they have the “God gene.” Since there is no scientific evidence to suggest that either of these genes exist, it’s best to look elsewhere for another, less hard-wired explanation.

The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently wrote an insightful article about why and how people recover from life’s worst turns. He titled the piece “Tales of the Super Survivors,” which suggests, wrongly, I think, that surviving trauma demands a super human, Iron Man-level effort. Not true. But, title aside, Mr. Brooks turns to the right experts to explain life after trauma, especially Dr. Richard Tedeshi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. I’ve known about Tedeshi for many years and even talked to him and his colleague, Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, a time or two. These guys have been way ahead of the recovery curve for a long time.

After interviewing thousands of trauma victims – from those disabled as adults to recent widows and those who had lost children – the good doctors found a distinct, positive reaction of many that they dubbed “Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome.” A certain set of survivors experience, beyond the initial anguish and grieving, a new way of looking at the world. These include having a greater sense of personal strength, closer, deeper relationships, and a renewed appreciation of life, among others. You know these people. They have suffered the worst and come out of it full of gusto and seemingly absent of self-pity and cynicism. You may even dislike them because they are so darn upbeat and perky all the time, and don’t seem to get the depression or confusion you are feeling. You think that big smile on their face is forced and phony. In many, many cases, it isn’t.

Tedeschi has hit upon a central means of recovering from trauma, what Brooks calls “an exercise in storytelling.” We all tell ourselves stories about our lives and then live according to those tales. For instance, when I was two, my father died of a freak accident. For years, that was the lead paragraph in my story to the world and often an excuse for failure and disappointment. “Maybe if I had had a father to help guide me,” I would tell myself, “my life wouldn’t be so messed up.” It took years before I realized that was a vital part of my story, but not THE story, in the same way that it’s taken years to realize paralysis isn’t the defining theme in my story, either.

However burdened or buoyed by the tale you’ve told yourself about your past, when you experience a mind clearing trauma like paralysis, that story is toast. You got to make up a whole new one to incorporate this clearly life-altering event. Unbeknownst to the newly paralyzed, this is not a series of preordained steps to get back on your feet, pun intended. This is a creative act, just like sitting down and writing a made-up story is a creative act. You can of course incorporate elements of your past story into the new one, but you can pick and choose them more freely. Strangely enough, it’s almost liberating to be able to turn the page and construct a new story line for yourself. To quote the experts: “Researchers have found that people who thrive after a shock are able to tell clear, forward-thinking stories about themselves, while those who don’t thrive get stuck ruminating darkly about the past.”

First of all, I think you have to have a pretty clear understanding of the story you’ve already been telling yourself before you can re-write it. If you think that in many ways you are one of life’s losers before paralysis, then you have to write that out of the manuscript before you move on. Speaking just for myself, contracting paralysis was a test much more rigorous than any I’ve ever encountered. By passing this test with at least a solid C-plus, I found a resilience I didn’t know that I had. New-found tenacity – that’s a story beat that never occurred to me.

None of this is particularly easy and is not a fool-proof prescription for bouncing back. There are no prescriptions. There is only the story you make up and can live with and thrive from. As a Stoic philosopher once said two thousand years ago: “The art of living resembles wrestling more than dancing...” Strange, completely random things happen all the time – like waking up paralyzed – and you have to wrestle them to the ground and raise your fist in victory. That’s not a bad starting point for the chapter you’ll write for 2016 and beyond.

Purchase Allen's book:
The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.