We’re all very aware of mental illness these days. In particular we’re aware of the trauma we’re all carrying around. The trauma of isolation, lost loved ones, societal events or maybe trauma from long ago.
So now that we’re all aware of our trauma, we’re stuck with the question: what will we do with this trauma? Where will it go? How do we move forward?
You’ve probably heard of post traumatic stress and, yes, we’re going to have a lot of that. Post traumatic stress is a common response to trauma and it can be debilitating. But there is another response to trauma that is also well documented and scientifically validated, but not talked about much -- post traumatic growth. I want to build awareness around post traumatic growth, because I’ve experienced it myself.
Post traumatic growth (As defined in Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) is “The experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. It is manifested in a variety of ways, including an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities and a richer existential and spiritual life.”
Post traumatic growth is not saying that you can achieve a life of flourishing in spite of trauma — it’s actually saying you can achieve a life of flourishing because of trauma. But I’m not trying to be all make-lemonade-out-of-lemons on you. You can’t just dump a pound of sugar on your problems and call it a sunny day, that’s not growth. The path to growth is still painful and variable.
In my life I’ve experienced both the crippling pain of post traumatic stress (probably diagnosable levels of PTSD) as well as a profound sense of growth, meaning and personal fortitude coming from the same traumas.
It’s taken me 20 years of processing to write this story and I’ve never shared these stories publicly. Most people who know me will be surprised by this story. So, if you’re in the struggle, be kind and patient with yourself, it takes time.
My story of trauma comes from my childhood and from bipolar disorder which took over my mom when I was a kid. My mom had her first psychotic break when I was about five or six and the next six years of my childhood was a chaotic barrage of psychosis, hospitalizations, treatments, anti-treatments and long absences which felt like crippling abandonments. It’s important to point out up front that this cycle did end in stability for my mom. With a combination of medication, therapy and supportive lifestyle, my mom is now a loving grandmother retired from a 20 year career. Bipolar disorder is treatable, and once stable treatment is established, episode recurrences (which have happened from my mom) are much more rare and manageable.
Still, the trauma of my childhood lives with me. There’s a lot that I can’t remember explicitly because I was so young. Hours of conversations about delusions and paranoia, things that my mom was being told to do by God and the Devil who talked to her regularly, often through the TV. I think my mom told me more things from her psychosis than other people because I was so young. I couldn’t tell her it wasn’t real, I really didn’t know what was or wasn’t real.
When I was about nine years old, I walked home from the bus stop after school into a quiet house. The furniture was out of place, there was an old broken television laying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs and when I walked into my moms bedroom she was passed out in the middle of a suicide attempt. Galvanized by past episodes and becoming accustomed to taking care of my mom, I kept my cool and called my dad for help. Hearing the doctor at the hospital say if I had come home an hour later she would have been dead was really the first moment that shook me. But I would continue to be shaken by this and the tremors would last for many years, who can say how long -- they’re still here.
It’s hard to pinpoint timelines but my mom’s treatment really took a turn for the better when I was about twelve and when she got the right job (actually working at the school I went to) and things really kicked into a fundamentally more stable place. I was also very fortunate in this time to have my dad, always providing whatever was possible for me and my sister and investing heavily in our education. For me, middle school — the period my mom really stabilized — was an amazing time in my life. For what felt like the first time I lived in the privilege of a two parent stable household where my parents were no longer constantly yelling and my mom’s symptoms had settled. I loved school and it just felt like the bad stuff was finally over for us. As a family we didn’t talk about what happened in the past. We focused on the present and the future. Or maybe another way to put that is we focused on ourselves rather than each other, and what we’d been through together.
By high school, 7 or 8 years after my mom’s suicide attempt, the trauma started catching up with me. I started spending more time thinking about what had happened to me and our family. By the time I was about sixteen I was thinking about suicide everyday. What started as flashbacks and memories turned into images of killing myself. Everything was a way to die. The pain would come in waves, mostly while I was alone in my room. I don’t identify as having been “depressed”, I didn’t feel hopeless or despondent about the future. I stayed engaged in school, I had friends and I worked hard toward my career goals (yes, I had very particular career goals at 17yo). It was more like an addiction to the idea of dying. I tried cutting myself but didn’t want to deal with the hassle of hiding the wounds so I stopped after a few times. Overall, it’s startling how easy it is to hide this kind of emotional distress, and I was committed to hiding it.
I was terrified of my parents finding out or exposing to them how I felt. The thought of triggering my mom’s symptoms again felt much worse than swallowing my own pain and struggling through. I’m not proud of struggling on my own. In retrospect it was very dangerous and avoiding therapy and treatment for my own mental health struggles could have killed me. If you’re struggling, find help (text 741741 right now if you like). You may find your path to growth is faster than mine was, but I’ll tell you about that next.
That part of the story is the post traumatic stress. The growth part came through books and new friends.
In parallel to these events in high school, I discovered neuroscience when I was about fifteen thanks to the education opportunities that my dad sought out for me. My front row seat to mental illness made me immediately fascinated by the brain. I checked out a book called “The emotional brain” by Joseph LeDoux from my high school library and never gave it back. It’s still on my bookshelf (sorry Holton Library!). I started working in a neuroimaging lab the same summer I learned to drive. I decided to become a neuroscientist and went on to earn my PhD thirteen years after checking out that first book. Although I didn’t study bipolar disorder, I found that my direct experience with mental illness made me a quick learner and intuitively understand concepts of biology that made sense in my lived experience.
Learning about the brain, unlocked so many questions for me about what I had experienced with my mom's illness. I don’t know at what point I consciously recognized this, but fundamentally understanding neuroscience allowed me to accept and know that my mom truly loves me, despite her behavior in psychotic, manic or depressed states when I was a child. Neuroscience, as well as my experience with mental illness, helps me see the good in all people. What we do (our behavior) is a combination of our circumstances, our brain biology, our habits and our trauma. Each person has a limited capacity to do what they intend to do or act how they would like — mental illness magnifies this beyond control. But who we are and how we love, is more pure than that. This way of thinking has drawn me to the concepts from Buddhism, of the Life Force that is pure and lives in all of us. I’m grateful for this perspective which I don’t know how I would have gained without my combination of traumas and education.
The psychological theory of post traumatic growth follows my story well. As outlined in Tedeschi & Calhoun’s paper, the process of post traumatic growth often starts with rumination (repetitive potentially intrusive thoughts) for me that included painful thoughts of suicide. The growth comes about through a quest for meaning in experience and some way of “cognitive processing” (fancy words for thinking about stuff deeply) which I did through my neuroscience education. People often write, talk or pray about their experience as a way of processing. Through this dialog with either ourselves or others we can build a story of ourselves, the kind of story that makes us stronger, wiser and fundamentally grow.
Going to college ultimately helped me break free from the thoughts of suicide I had been cycling through. The new environment released me from the triggers of living in a house with so much past trauma. My studies felt meaningful and purposeful and my new friends helped me thrive. I became close friends with the kid across the dorm hall from me. I remember telling him about my dark past one day and feeling so broken. He looked at me and said, “there’s nothing wrong with you.” Something in that moment made me believe him, and it really feels like he changed my life in that moment. I met another new best friend too, we were practically inseparable from the first weeks of college. He saw me as mysterious, artistic, smart and full of life. He helped me see myself that way too. Now we’re married with two young sons and a wonderful life in San Francisco.
I’m proud of the life I’ve built. I’ve graduated from top schools, worked at world leading companies and I have an amazing husband, thriving six year old and one year old sons. I literally can’t figure out how I would have gotten any of this without the trauma I’ve experienced. It’s all one. And that’s what post traumatic growth means. It’s all part of my motivation and drive to be the best person I can be and build a better world.
Not everyone will experience growth from trauma. Mostly trauma sucks and it steals our energy. It can even steal our mind and damage our biology. Despite everything above I’m not someone who says I’m “thankful” for trauma. I want to see less suffering in the world. But it is possible to find growth and beauty in the mess. Sometimes a name like Post Traumatic Growth can make all the difference as you form your own story.
My next chapter of growth has brought me to founding Akin Mental Health where I have the privilege of working with families on their own journeys of meaning and growth. We are building resources for families that are supporting loved ones with severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. We know that families can be the key to healing and need to heal together. I hope to draw more power from my personal experience and help others find a path to health, stability and growth.