On April 12, 2021, I was coming out of the worst depressive episode of my life. I had recently written and dispersed a letter condemning my father’s pedophilia to my entire family, learned that I was moving to Germany, decided that I wasn’t currently interested in ending my own life, resolved to start my own graphic design agency, and was on a plane that would land in Tulsa later that day.
The letter to my family stated that I was going back to visit my grandmother. The letter didn’t say that I had a deep-down sorrowful feeling that it would be the last time I ever saw her.
The book that I brought with me to read during my trip was This One Wild and Precious Life, by Sarah Wilson, which I’d recently purchased at one of my weekly trips to Target. At the time, it’s likely that I would have declared these trips in the name of Mental Health, but I would soon learn, in part thanks to this book, that my shopping addiction was far from healthy.
When I picked up This One Wild and Precious Life from the “Editor’s Picks” shelf, I had never heard of it. And I didn’t bother to learn what it was about before bringing it home. I was entranced by the colorful collage and embossed letters on the cover.
And at that time in my life, the endorphin rush from purchasing a pretty book was just enough to keep me going.
It turns out, it was a logbook of sorts, journaled by Sarah as she hikes around the globe and grapples with her own physical and mental health issues. When she started writing, Sarah was motivated by deep climate anxiety and near the end, she’d have to contend with a global pandemic as well. The common threads that tie everything together are that humanity is disconnected: from ourselves, from each other, and from nature, and it’s high time we banded together and fixed our troubled world.
But I didn’t bring this book up to do a book review. I wanted to share with you this quote, from the chapter “Go To Your Edge”:
“We talk a lot about the trauma caused by a tragedy or trip to the edge. Yet psychologists recently found that only a small percentage of people actually develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), despite the discourse around it. And up to two-thirds of trauma survivors exhibit, instead, what’s known as post-traumatic growth. The psychologists found that after a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose and develop deeper relationships. The experience of going to our edge sees us, in the main, seek meaning…and then find it in the precarious preciousness of life.”
A few months after I read this quote, I’d find myself sitting in my new house in Germany, surrounded by beauty and adventure I could have only dreamed of for most of my life. But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to go outside because I was afraid that someone might speak to me. I didn’t want to drive because I was afraid that I would die in a car accident. I woke up every morning with a feeling of dread, certain that something horrible would happen soon. My mind spiraled and folded in on itself, tipping my consciousness down darker and darker crevices until the only things my physical body could enjoy were being left in solitude and drinking wine.
That’s when I decided to get serious about therapy. I had been through the ringer, come out swinging, landed myself in my dream scenario, and I still couldn’t summon the will to live.
I knew that my only chance to really change was to be totally and completely honest, so for the very first time in my life, I told another person about every single monster in my mind.
And very soon, that person was guiding me through Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), a treatment program for PTSD.
But I am inclined to believe that I have also experienced Post-Traumatic Growth. After the particularly bad time that I referred to above as “the worst depressive episode of my life,” I made immense personal progress. I developed and began using a proprietary planner system. I acknowledged my disordered eating and began working to escape the calorie-counting cage in which I was trapped. I started meditating again. I experienced the feeling, as much as any atheist can, that my life had a purpose, and that I’d gone through bad times for a reason.
But looking at Sarah Wilson’s quote, PTSD and PTG seem mutually exclusive. If I really had PTSD, how can I claim to have had PTG as well?
When I look at the four symptom categories of PTSD, it’s pretty clear that I struggled with the disorder for most of my life:
Combine this with the fact that an actual licensed therapist told me repeatedly that I exhibited sure signs of this disorder and guided me through an extensive treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it’s undeniable that I had PTSD.
I decided to dig a little deeper into Sarah Wilson’s claim and unfortunately, her only reference is simply a link to psychiatry.org’s PTSD page, which provides an elementary overview of the condition and doesn’t even mention Post-Traumatic Growth.1
However, the referenced page does state that “an estimate one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.”2 If Sarah’s claim that two-thirds of trauma survivors develop PTG is legit, it follows that 3 in 11 people, nearly 30%, will experience a significantly upsetting traumatic event in their lifetime and 2 in 11 people, nearly 20%, will experience Post-Traumatic Growth instead of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unfortunately, however, I was unable to find anything that backs up this two-thirds claim.
But I did find this:
PTG theory was developed in the mid-1990s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, who developed a list of five metrics to measure PTG:3
The idea is that the more positively you rate these aspects of your life following a traumatic event, the more certain it is that you have experienced PTG.
PTG is often confused with resiliency, but someone who is resilient is much less likely to experience PTG. This is because resiliency shields the individual from trauma, whereas PTG is a response to trauma. So, you must be traumatized in order to experience the positive effects of Post-Traumatic Growth.
As for how common PTG is, Healthline.org4 claims that a 2018 study showed that nearly 50% of trauma survivors experience PTG after a traumatic event. This was just one study, which suffered from its own limitations,5 and I believe it would be a mistake to extrapolate that each person who experiences trauma has a 50% chance of developing PTG. I also found warnings about the danger of putting pressure on survivors to develop PTG.6
In the course of my research, it became clear to me that this topic is not only under-studied, but it is also highly individualized.
Each person who grapples with trauma is going to have their own unique experience, regardless of what the studies or data say.
I also realized that, contrary to Sarah Wilson’s poetic framing, PTG and PTSD are not mutually exclusive, meaning a trauma survivor can go through the negative symptoms of PTSD before moving on to experience the positive aspects of PTG.
This explains my experience. Before I was willing to talk about everything that plagued my mind, I suffered from intrusive thoughts, crippling anxiety, and mood swings that might have me sobbing one moment and flipping tables the next. Every time I opened up to someone, whether a friend or a therapist, I experienced a little whoosh of good feelings. And my most productive episode of all was the most recent, when I was guided through CPT for PTSD.
Based on everything I know, I believe most people can work through PTSD to experience at least some of the benefits of PTG. And the benefits of Post-Traumatic Growth can be immense. Here are some reported examples:4
The way I see it, those of us who go through the darkness of PTSD deserve to reach this bright light at the end of the tunnel. But unfortunately, it would seem this tunnel doesn’t transport us to that light automatically. For most of us, it takes work to get there.
And, raise your hand if you guessed it, everyone’s journey through this tunnel will look a little different. Here are some recommendations from yours truly, based on everything I’ve read and my own personal experience:
And, lastly, the holy grail:
For now, I’m going to leave you with a quote from an older book which I read more recently, Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, from a chapter called “Do-It-Yourself Tranquilizers Which Bring Peace of Mind”:
“We now know that not only does the past influence the present, but that the present clearly influences the past. In other words, we are not doomed nor damned by the past. Because we did have unhappy childhood experiences and traumas which left engrams behind, does not mean that we are at the mercy of these engrams, or that our patterns of behavior are “set,” predetermined and unchangeable. Our present thinking, our present mental habits, our attitudes toward past experiences, and our attitudes toward the future – all have an influence upon old recorded engrams. The old can be changed, modified, replaced, by our present thinking.”
1 You can see what I mean here if you scroll down to “Page 145, Yet psychologists recently found that only a small percentage …”