The other side of trauma

Posted by Dr. Dan Gottlieb in Life After Paralysis on September 20, 2018 # Health, Rehabilitation

On December 20, 1979, I kissed my wife and daughters goodbye and climbed into my car supposedly on the way to work. Where I was really going was to meet my uncle on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in order to pick up a new green Thunderbird for our 10th wedding anniversary. So, there I was driving my car from Philadelphia to Harrisburg probably listening to the Bee Gees on my eight-track (hey, no comments please after all it was 1979)! Everything was fine until I saw a black thing seconds before it hit my car and rendered me a quadriplegic. It turns out that “Black thing” was a wheel from a tractor-trailer.

Most of us have spinal cord injury because of something unexpected-a dive into a swimming pool, a car ride or some other innocuous activity. Like so many others, most of us were hit by a “black thing”.

So here we are walking down the street living our lives and all of a sudden, we are in free fall. And when we crash, the life we knew was gone and life ahead was unknown, dark and scary.

Up to 30% of us experience symptoms of PTSD. I am one of them. I slipped into a deep depression and I considered ending my life. I became hypervigilant and my startle response was and is hyperactive that many sudden sounds can cause me to flinch as my heart rate increases.

A large minority of us experience depression or anxiety. Many also question what their lives are about and whether they are worthwhile. Like many others, I felt like I was useless and worthless and would just be a burden to my loved ones. And yes, lots of anger and self-pity. These reactions are not unusual following any trauma, let alone a physical trauma that will last a lifetime.

Few of us go through this without being emotionally injured. So, whether we have PTSD or not, we are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse and feelings of worthlessness.

So, what can we do?

The first step and possibly the most difficult is a decision, actually, a commitment, to live lives we have rather than waiting for the lives we once had or the ones we wish for. There may well be many opportunities for improvement of our conditions, but if we refuse to live lives we have today, we are not really living.

A couple of years ago I saw a man in his 40's who felt stuck in his career his marriage and his life. Looking down at the floor, he said: “I feel paralyzed”. And then he realized who he said that too! But my response was that: “sometimes I feel paralyzed too”. There is a big difference between being paralyzed and feeling paralyzed.

Some people are at more risk for psychological symptoms than others. Those with a history of trauma, lack of a support system or the resources one needs to maintain a quality of life.

We cannot survive most adversity without loving support of others. We are just wired that way.

One of the things I have found most helpful personally and professionally is helping another living being. We all have that ability. In helping another, we realize that we can make a contribution to the world and that our lives have meaning.

And oh yes, the most important thing. Love. Love is the mother’s milk of happiness. The deeper we love our loved ones and more people we love, the happier we will be. So, love who you love but do it with an open heart. Look into their eyes and see what life is like for them. Love them fearlessly, wishing only for their well-being and happiness. And then tomorrow love someone else that way. And then another.

By the way, once your heart is open, you can experience the love of others.

And when we can the lives we have, care for others and experience openhearted love, we often feel better than we did that’s called Post traumatic Growth. And I am confident that more of us experience post traumatic growth than do PTSD. And some people experience both. Despite my PTSD, I experience more happiness, gratitude, and love than I did before my accident. And there are lots of us out there.

Make a commitment to live this life. Help others, mobilize support and love. And more love.

These are some of the secret ingredients for happiness and well-being.