I was reading the February edition of Marie Claire magazine and when I got to the article about Karina Hollekim, I started to cry. Crying in recognition of myself. Karina was a lover of extreme sports - skydiving, paragliding, BASE jumping (that's not the part where I saw myself, I don't even like standing at the top of the stairs) - and she shattered both legs during a skydiving accident. What struck me was this part of the article....
"The realization and the dramatic changes that followed are hallmarks of a remarkably common psychological change called post-traumatic growth. The term was coined in the early '90s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, a pair of clinicians and researchers at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who began by surveying hundreds of people who had survived severe injuries or lost a spouse. Over and over again, the researchers heard how those terrible events had sparked changes in the victims, who reported experiencing feelings like a renewed appreciation for life, new possibilities for themselves, enhanced personal strength, improved relationships, and spiritual change. Understanding why some people experience this kind of growth has become something of a hot field in psychology. (The U.S. Army, for example, is currently conducting a large study of post-traumatic growth in combat veterans.) The kind of personal growth Hollekim experienced requires what researchers call a "seismic event" so devastating that it compels a re-evaluation of one's core beliefs. And, in doing so, the survivor reconstructs his or her sense of self, becoming a better, wiser person in the process. You hear human-interest stories like it all the time on TV (the battle-scarred soldier who decides to devote his life to helping others, for example) and in pop culture (if he had never witnessed the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne would never have become the defender of Gotham). Growth is the archetypal hero's journey. There's still pain and suffering, of course — studies show that those with the worst cases of PTSD report the most growth — but it usually results in a hard-won sense of wisdom, a fuller life lived with more meaning."
(Jim Rendon, author)
Ho-ly crap. As I therapist, I know about Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder - as a matter of fact, I specialize in it. But I have never, ever heard of post-traumatic growth as terminology. Sure, I was aware that it could occur, that 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' and all that other bullshit - I have seen clients struggle and emerge stronger - but to read that it's something REAL, it's being studied, it exists - and I suddenly realized it's happened to me. IT HAPPENED TO ME. Tears.
I like answers. I like Google. I like to understand why I do what I do and why my brain works a certain way - I like insight into behavior. This has always helped me function and survive in life, to be able to understand the people around me - it started when I was a child. Learning about behavior helps a child survive in an unpredictable environment. Gaining insight into people helps foster understanding and forgiveness. Looking into myself helps me be aware of my interactions with others, with my clients, and improves my ability to help others (a very important lesson for me has been learning when to SHUT THE FUCK UP. Still working on that one).
Seismic event - I'm pretty sure that Owen being diagnosed with Fragile X when he was just a baby, my little baby boy, qualifies. There is a blankness to the next year - a gray foggy haze of memory - of tears and grief, of suicidal thoughts, of barely being able to function. And then...I slowly started to outreach for help. One simple sentence in the Fragile X facebook room - "I don't think I can do this." Starting to write my tiny little blog, just for friends and family, but mostly it was for myself.
And then the event that turned my world upside down - my blog being published in BayState Parent Magazine.
It started small - I won a contest. They were giving away name stickers, about 5 different names, one of which was "Bridget" - I quickly emailed the editor and 'won' them. We messaged back and forth about them - they were reusable, adorable, and hard to find (YOU try finding things with the name "Bridget" on them). Then, within a week, I see a post on Facebook that they were looking for a kid with special needs to be a cover model. I had JUST had Shawna take our family photos, and I figured, hey, what the heck. I TOOK A RISK. It's what I tell everyone to do - clients, friends - just take a risk. Put yourself out there. I sent the editor our family pix, a link to my blog, and a link to the National Fragile X Foundation. Within days she called and said "Kathleen - we want to put Owen on the cover. And....we want to publish your blog." And I took another risk, and said yes. Put my whole life out there, to be seen and judged. It wasn't easy, folks, and we all know I was pretty upset when the negative letters to the editor came rolling in. But I was weaker then, more insecure, more scared. More thin-skinned.
I took a risk, and the risk paid off. Becoming published and then becoming a regular freelance writer for BayState Parent. Joining the DCF board. Posting in the FX facebook group and becoming part of a group of local FX Moms. Going to DC and advocating for Owen - and then becoming part of a national group of FX friends. Going to the International Conference in Miami, gaining INTERNATIONAL friends, being interviewed on camera for the Foundation. Going to California and meeting with world renowned experts in Fragile X. Quitting my job, leaving my marriage. Risk after risk after risk. Much of that wasn't easy, and I often fucked it up. Twas not a 'smooth transition' shall we say. Some parts were excruciatingly painful, and others were beyond stressful. Obviously, some both, and much of it sucked - big time. But they paid off. It all paid off.
I love writing, and I love interviewing for my articles. I'm probably the chattiest interviewer EVAH. I was at Wheelock College Theater on Friday for my next article, meeting with professors of education and the producer of the theater. We talked for two hours about disabilities, 'abilities,' education, theater - and at the end of the interview the producer said to me "I've been interviewed many times through my years at the theater. But this interview was like one I've never experienced." And then they asked me to come back and speak to their classes.
With Owen's diagnosis, I saw nothing but doors closing and my life ending. And yet, since then, so many more doors - vital ones, important ones, ONES THAT MATTER - opened. And I realize "THERE IS MORE FOR ME OUT THERE." I can FEEL it. Feel it in my bones. There is more for me.
Yes, there is a part of me that feels very guilty. Feels guilty that my little boy had to have Fragile X so that my life could become better. It sometimes feels as if *someone* was saying "Fine, if you won't change your life, I will." I'm not sure if life is pre-determined, but it can feel that if you don't bend to its will, it will make you bend. And you can bend until you break, or you can be like a birch tree -
"The birch is highly adaptive and able to sustain harsh conditions with casual indifference. Proof of this adaptability is seen in its easy and eager ability to repopulate areas damaged by forest fires or clearings. Bright and beautiful, the birch is a pioneer, courageously taking root and starting anew to revive the landscape where no other would before."
TAKE RISKS. TAKE THEM. It's ok to be afraid, it's normal to be afraid, and sometimes, yes, you will fall flat on your face. But without risks there is no growth. I always say to my clients that love is a risk. Fine, don't take the risk, and you won't get hurt. But without risk - and without love - there are no rewards, either. Take risks, be like the birch tree, and allow your life to grow from trauma - it will, I promise you, it will.