Many people have told me that we can recover from anything and everything that happens to us. I wish that were true, I really do, but if we define recovery as returning to the kind of person we had been before the trauma, I don’t believe it.
We cannot totally recover from all of the things that we experience. Once we know something we cannot unknown it. Once we see something, we cannot unsee it. Once innocence and the naive idealism of inexperience are lost they cannot be regained.
Some things change us. Even if we are resilient, when we bounce back we are difference. This is because some of what happens to us in life are TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCES. The most common transformational experience for most women is childbirth. You don’t just have a baby and go on with your life unchanged. Childbirth transforms most women.
Combat is a transformational experience. You don’t train and then put yourself in harm’s way knowing you are at risk of being maimed or killed or being called upon to maim or kill others without the experience transforming you on a deep level.
The are POSITIVE TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCES that build us up and give us hope: our first love; the birth of a new child; the hug of a loved one; meeting a new friend; falling in love again when we never though we could; a spiritual experience that opens us with joy and reverence to the beauty around and within us. These powerful experiences change us, because as we make sense of what has happened our view of ourselves, others, and the world opens us to new possibilities.
There are also TRAUMATIC TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCES that wound us deeply, crash our dreams on the jagged rocks of harsh reality, and shake the very foundations if our faith human goodness.
We all experience them from time-to-time. As unpleasant as they may be, maturity teaches us that they are a part of life. We will all experience: the death of a loved one, the loss of a true love; the violation of trust by a close friend; or the personal confrontation with violence and brutality. Most of us will face serious injury or illness. We will all grow old suffering the loss of youthful ambition.
Most of us will survive even the worst of these experiences, recover from the trauma, and then start making sense out of what happened to us, why, and it means. The traumatic moment unbundles the deepest part of our spirit. Our will to live pushes us to move on step by step.
We assign meaning to he experience. We do an in inventory noting the parts of ourselves we have lost in the experience and the new parts of ourselves we have gained. We realize we are the same person, yet somehow we are fundamentally different. Our conscious awareness of ourselves, others, and the world has changed and it can never be put back the way it was.
Transformational experiences change us. We are no longer the same people we were before the experience. We have changed, either for the better or the worse. And the change is governed by the choices we make in interpreting and responding to the trauma. That is the choice we have to make – how will I allow this trauma to affect me?
In the aftermath of a trauma we can make decisions to adapt and grow in ways that strengthen us and make us better people; or we can make decisions to adapt in a way that weakens us, blocks our growth, and makes us bitter and miserable people. That choice is always ours.
If you’re feeling sorry for yourself think of Christopher Reeves. In spite of staggering losses, he made massive contributions to all around him and left a legacy for us all to follow.
Why did he do it? He chose each day to struggle to hold the emotional high ground — and I am sure it wasn’t easy. I am also sure he didn’t stay on the high ground all day every day, but he was resilient. He always bounced back to the best of his ability. This is all any of us can do.
Trust in yourself. Do the best you can in the moment. Believe that will be enough because it usually is.
In the aftermath of a transformation life experience, it is best to move slowly and carefully. We are on new ground and need to regain our footing. How we choose to move forward will set the stage for what we will do next in our lives.
The most important thing, however, is to know that you can stand up again, even if you are afraid you might fall; to be willing to try again even if you are afraid you might fail; to know that you still have a life to be lived and that there are still people you love and who love you.
Bill White has an excellent article describing recovery from addiction as a process of transformational change:
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