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Suffer Strong: Post-Traumatic Growth

Suffer Strong: Post-Traumatic Growth

In sharing our story, we’ve given many people permission to share their stories back to us. Those stories cover all the ways a person can hurt — loss of a child, divorce, financial struggle, cancer, dysfunctional relationships, addiction — and naturally, many of them are stories similar to ours; that is, they’re related to stroke or brain injury or disability. One thing these stories have in common, no matter the specifics, is the challenge of how in the world to maintain hope while coping with unwanted realities, even if these realities aren’t so new anymore.

The wounds feel less tender in time, but they’re still wounds. The memories fade after a while, but reminders can bring them back in a moment. It’s a nice thought to say we should pick up the pieces and rebuild or find beauty in our brokenness, but how can we make something new when all we can think of is our past trauma? We’re left struggling with fear, anxiety, and depression. Our days may be haunted by flashbacks, and our sleep plagued by nightmares. It may be hard to find a reason to go back out into the world for fear of what may happen next.

So many folks truly are suffering from what may be post-traumatic stress disorder after their lives and worlds blow up. PTSD isn’t just for folks coming back from literal war; it’s also for those who have fought against any of life’s hardest experiences.

They may have even “won” the war, but the battle has left lasting marks on their heads and hearts that threaten their survival.

I’m not sure we had diagnosable PTSD in the wake of our traumas, but we have certainly experienced that sense of being haunted and vulnerable. In this state, we could not easily see the potential for good in the midst of suffering. But over time, we were gifted with perspective in the midst of our pain. Slowly, we began to experience the best possible outcome of trauma — namely, growth.

In the mid-1990s, psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, coined the term post-traumatic growth (PTG). How powerful is that phrase? This theory has been researched for some time and purports that surviving trauma is good, but growing above and beyond trauma is possible. Although measuring personal growth is challenging, many people in these studies experienced resilience (coming back to their baseline) after trauma and even flourishing (improving and growing beyond their baseline) after trauma. Participants reported positive growth in these specific areas: they had a renewed appreciation for life; they found new possibilities for themselves; they felt more personal strength; their relationships improved; and they felt spiritually more satisfied. Sign me up, right?

Before we get too crazy and go marching into trauma just to get all these great-sounding benefits, it’s only fair to note that not everyone feels this way after trauma. And some people who experience positive growth shortly after trauma end up experiencing PTSD symptoms later. Does this invalidate the possibility of this kind of growth? No. It just means we can’t rush it. If we put Band-Aids over bullet wounds, they’ll never heal right. If we rush recovery, we miss the necessary process toward the outcome we desire.

Recovery and growth are not one-time experiences. Our trajectory as humans in an unsafe world is not straight up, climbing steadily higher as we learn from past struggles. The line looks more like a bull and bear stock market — undulating, advancing and regressing. And that’s okay. When we affix our lives to the way of Jesus, the traumas will continue to come; we will still move up and down on an uncontrollable and wild ride of life. But there will be a through line that brings us a blessed stability, no matter how high or low we go.

If you’ve experienced a traumatic experience or are in an ongoing traumatic state of life, I implore you to seek professional help or at the very least a community of empathetic listeners to walk with you through the pain and healing. There’s no way around it. You have to go through it.

The same is true for trauma experienced in our distant pasts. The things we think we’ve long-buried have a way of resurrecting themselves at the most inopportune times and in the most profoundly powerful ways. Sometimes all we really need to do is have a proper funeral for the traumatic loss of what was before we can move on to what is. Other times, we may need to channel a full- force military attack to finally get traumatic pain and its ripple effects to release us. Trauma can draw us to fear and depression, isolation and shame, but it can also lead us to a new kind of resilience and even to an unexpected transformation.

Because the experience of trauma runs deep, redefining it is vital. In fact, scientists have found some evidence for the experience of trauma changing a person down to their DNA. This study of epigenetics further posits that a person’s traumatized DNA can possibly be passed down to their children. While this is hardly proven science, we can all relate to the experience of generational bondage around abuse, addiction, and patterns of negative behavior. And yet if the negative expressions of trauma could be offered to our offspring, could the positive impacts of trauma be as well?

Six years after Katherine’s stroke left her severely disabled, we found ourselves in an unexpected position: we wanted to have more biological children. It had taken years for her to feel like the mom she desperately wanted to be for James; her early motherhood had been stolen from her in a most horrific way. But despite her disabilities, Katherine had recovered rather miraculously, given her prognosis of being in a vegetative state or paralyzed or dead. When the bar is set that low, pretty much anything’s a win!

God had been gracious to allow so much healing in her body and heart, and even more deeply, a growing experience of hopefulness, purpose, grit, and thriving, despite the trauma she’d experienced. After much family and medical counsel, as well as encouragement from friends in circumstances similar to ours, we decided that we can do the hard things, so maybe we should do this parenthood thing again! Katherine got pregnant, and we had John. For me, witnessing the rebirth of Katherine’s motherhood was one of the most breathtaking parts of our journey.

Now, John was and always will be a kind of real-life metaphor for us. He’s a picture of redemption, truly embodying the Gospel message of Jesus — new life where there should only be death.

He is a picture of broken things that make new and beautiful things. He is precious and fun, so full of life, but this child has also nearly killed us both. He is strong-willed, wild, smart, and louder than any fire alarm. His nickname is “John Bomb.”

Whether or not epigenetics has any long-term scientific veracity, it has been an encouraging thought to my beat-down dad’s heart (and beat-down lower back) that this child has come from a mother and father who have experienced trauma and yet who have not stayed victims. John should not be here — his DNA even tells that story — so he seems to fight for and feel life in a uniquely deep way. He has grit like his mama and determination like his dad. Not a bad combo for a human to receive from their parents, but not an easy combo to parent through toddlerhood! Oh well. God willing, we’ll all make it through… to the teenage years… oh, hmm. Maybe we’ll just focus on one day at a time for now.

Even today, the trauma experienced by John’s parents could seem like a curse, but it has been given to him with all the blessings of any great inheritance because we believe that this kind of suffering and hope intertwined has the possibility to change the way he, and we, view and live out the rest of our lives. And what could be more of a gift than to live with that kind of perspective?

Watch the Video

Excerpted with permission from Suffer Strong by Katherine & Jay Wolf, copyright Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf.

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Your Turn

Has the trauma you may have experienced left PTSD marks on your heads and hearts? It has for me! Sometimes it can feel like we’ve survived something, barely, but the trauma has run so deep, that it’s imperative that we redefine it because we’re so changed. If you’re still here, it’s a gift! Let’s embrace it! Come share your thoughts! We want to hear from you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full