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My Problem With 'Post-Traumatic Growth' as an Individual With PTSD

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I recently learned of a growing subject in the realm of trauma: it’s called post-traumatic growth. The idea is that an individual goes through a traumatic event and grow from it as a person, becoming kinder, stronger, wiser, more compassionate, etc. As soon as I heard of the term, every alarm bell in my mind went off. I have a major problem with the “growing” concept of post-traumatic growth being considered an “unexpected positive side-effect of trauma.”

• What is PTSD?

I am a survivor of multiple traumatic events, and I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trauma I experienced drastically changed my life in multiple ways, without a doubt. However, that’s what trauma does. The University of Maryland Medical Center defines traumatic events as “an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress or harm. It is an event that is perceived as a threat to one’s safety or stability of one’s world.” So, of course, if it causes distress or harm, and is perceived as a threat to the safety or stability of one’s world, of course it’s going to drastically change their life. You cannot go through trauma and come out as the same person you were before. Trauma shows people a side of life that cannot even begin to be understood without personal experience.

I, like 20% of individuals who live through trauma, developed PTSD. PTSD simply amplified the pain and fear stemming from my trauma. Trauma and PTSD made me into a different person, but it wasn’t a change I would’ve ever wanted. I cannot relate to most people my age because what I experienced and how it affected my life isn’t something that has even crossed their minds. As I’m entering my last year of high school, my friends are graduating college, getting married, and having children. I’ve spent countless events, parties and dances hiding in an empty room in tears, completely overwhelmed by the reality of my situation and what it did to me. If I could go back and change everything that happened, I absolutely would. Even if I could just send a letter to my younger self with resources to get to safety and information on how it would later impact my life, I’d do it without a second thought.

At the same time, I now have a completely different ability to help individuals in similar circumstances because I genuinely understand, and my career and education goals have completely changed. I’m stronger for what happened to me because I know what I’ve survived previously. These changes could absolutely be considered positive. However, these things wouldn’t have changed in that way if I wasn’t already the person I was previously. If I hadn’t already cared about people, I still wouldn’t be equipped to help them. If I wasn’t open-minded, my goals wouldn’t have changed. If I wasn’t desiring growth, it wouldn’t have happened, and there are other, positive, methods by which people can grow.

Here’s my big issue with “post-traumatic growth” — it negates and fantasizes what victims experience, and leaves survivors feeling even more isolated. Trauma is jarring, painful, drastic, overwhelming and a negative experience. A couple of positive alterations in which the trauma had some impact doesn’t make the trauma into a good thing. The concept of “post-traumatic growth” can only happen when someone wants to grow, and in that case, there are multiple other ways someone could grow. Thus, trauma survivors, feeling an unspeakable amount of pain, see things about “post-traumatic growth” making trauma sound like this beautiful, amazing thing that magically accelerates maturity and development, and feel ashamed for not feeling great about what just happened to them. At that point, the very concept that is supposed to make trauma somehow be a positive thing has a negative effect in itself.

So, please, if you are talking about “post-traumatic growth,” don’t forget about post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic pain, post-traumatic depression, post-traumatic illness, post-traumatic flashbacks, post-traumatic night terrors or post-traumatic difficulty. Trauma is never a good thing, and the negative aspects by far outweigh the potential slight positive influences.

Thinkstock photo via spukkato

Originally published: May 25, 2017
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