Post Traumatic Growth
“I dance with him. I saved some of his ashes in a small container, and I keep it on my altar at home. Every morning I pick him up, put on a fun song, and I dance with my father.” Near the reliquary of her father’s remains sits a photograph so moving that I have, on occasion, visited Gretchen’s home under the guise of friendship while secretly yearning for another glimpse of the endearing image. The picture depicts a woman sitting on a stoop with her arms tenderly resting on the neck and head of a cow as the beast gently nuzzles its face into her lap. They embrace each other as if they were reunited lovers, and the woman cries with joy. Adorning the altar are amulets and totems consecrated for the purpose of honoring and protecting her father, her ancestors, her guides, and herself. An impromptu altar, a personal definition of holy, and a picture of unexpected reunion – this is the setting for a grown woman to dance with the ashes of her deceased father, and I can think of no finer example of someone who has made peace with herself.
“I think this world is severely lacking in ritual, and that prevents us from experiencing healing and growth. The greatest healing we need to do is around the belief that we’re broken or inherently lacking. A lot of us carry around this idea that there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed; so in that sense we actually are broken, which is a strange paradox.”
Gretchen is a Ph.D. candidate in transpersonal psychology and a nascent member of West Coast Village, a community inspired by the Dagara tradition. The Dagara people are a tribe from Burkina Faso, in West Africa, and they have a rather antithetical approach to life as compared to us here in the West.
The following excerpt from Sobonfu Somé explains more about her people. Read the full article here.
“A child in Africa is born with ritual and dies with ritual. The purpose of ritual is to connect us to our own essence, to help us tune in to the collective spirit, so we can start anew. Ritual is to the soul what food is to the physical body. In the Dagara tradition, healing comes in many different forms. If you are having a conflict with someone, that is grounds for healing. It means that there is something you two have to share with the world. Conflict is actually seen as a gift from the spirits, designed to bring two people into communion: communion with who they are and what they have to offer. Conflicts are not the enemy. The problem comes from not wanting to deal with the conflict. A lot of the illnesses that we have come from some kind of conflict: being rejected by the people we love most, feeling that we are not good enough, or pretending to be somebody who we are not.”
At West Coast Village, Gretchen’s rituals focus mainly on striking up a dialogue with her ancestors. The catch is that this is usually done in front of a group, and the exemplary forms of communication with said ancestors typically involve crying, yelling, and other emotional tirades. During the ceremony, one person at a time goes up to the altar in front of the group, lights a candle, and then lets loose. “It’s really uncomfortable for me, for someone who doesn’t like to air all my shit out there. I tend to be very controlled around people I don’t know. Having to get up in front of a bunch of people and scream and cry and have them see that – that’s my worst fear.”
“Why is that so difficult for you?” I ask her.
“Because I fucking lost it when I was younger. I had to make myself smaller to be accepted. Our view of survival is so closely related to our feeling of acceptance that if we feel like we’re not accepted then we feel like we’re not surviving.”
Gretchen’s parents divorced when she was two years old. Although they stayed close as a family, Gretchen always sensed an underlying dysfunction, but she could never quite pinpoint it. Then, at the age of 14, she went rummaging through the attic. “I knew what I was looking for. I wanted to know if something had ever happened.”
Her father was a gifted writer, and Gretchen found his journals. Looking inside the unfiltered mind of a man struggling to understand his place in this world can be alarming. All accounts regarding her mother were invective and demeaning, while the descriptions of Gretchen gave a different cause for concern. Gretchen was left feeling gross and angry.
“I told him that I never wanted to speak to him again, but I didn’t tell him why. I told my mom, and she told my dad. His response was, “I knew that was going to happen.” I can’t say definitively that he did anything to me but it all just felt nasty.”
Disappointment changes Gretchen’s countenance. She shuffles in her chair and re-crosses her legs.
“Part of me is like, ok. So what? He thought it. Maybe it makes him a better person for not doing anything. At the same time, he fucking thought it, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to be around it, and that’s ok, too.”
The next 4 years were strenuous. She called her father once to ask about the writing, but he simply refused to engage in questions around that topic. A chasm grew between them with the tacit force of avoidance. After four years, Gretchen picked up the phone again, this time as a freshman in college, with the intention of repairing the relationship. They began writing back and forth for a bit until the energy between them drifted again. Two months passed in silence until one day Gretchen received the news that her father had shot himself. He shot himself and lived.
“I spent a lot of time beating myself up for telling him that I never wanted to see him again. I saw the pain on his face when I said it, and I took responsibility for that. After that, I would see that look every night before I went to sleep. It haunted me, and I didn’t even know what was true, what really happened. All I knew was that something was off, and when I confronted him about the writing, he shut down.”
Gretchen’s tone drops two octaves. I try to breath more quietly. Her confidence wavers.
“When we heard about the shooting, my mom and I flew down to Florida to see him in the hospital. I hadn’t seen my dad in four years, and the first impression was not pretty. His face was distorted from the gunshot wound, swollen to the point that it looked like elephantiasis. When I asked him why he did it, his response was because he thought I didn’t love him.”
A few seconds pass in silence.
“That moment really shook me and had a huge impact on who I turned out to be. I realized then what kind of power I had, what kind of effect I could have on people with emotions, and it was also the moment that I shut down completely. I never wanted to be in that situation again. I was afraid of being mad at people, because I thought it would hurt them. And if someone was mad at me, I would go into overdrive to make it better.”
It would take Gretchen years to realize that this conflict was also what caused her to become aware of her power as a healer. She experienced the devastating effects that unexposed emotions could have on her loved ones, but this pain was also the beginning of her search – a search to reconcile with herself and a search to understand her place in this world. In the meantime, she went back to college and tried to continue on, but quickly fell into darkness and despair. Gretchen stopped eating, flunked out of school, and moved back home to New York. Her outlook on life was bleak, malign. “Then 9-11 happened, and everything changed. I had an overwhelmingly positive growth experience from that tragedy, but I couldn’t openly share that with anyone. How do you tell people that you feel re-energized in life in the wake of such a violent attack?”
In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger does a tremendous job of describing the uncomfortable, and paradoxical, phenomena that is human beings’ need for trauma– of humanity’s brightest moments coming in times of destruction and tragedy. Our greatest evolutionary tool as a species is the ability to unite and cooperate, and it seems that not only do we need disaster to awaken this latent power, but also during these excruciating times, a passive inoculation occurs against many of man’s modern disorders. Junger cites data surrounding London during the blitz, New York on 9-11, Avezzano’s decimating earthquake, and Sarajevo’s obliteration during the war. Suicide rates fall, new psychiatric claims plummet, patients with PTSD report a reduction of symptoms, and, rather disconcertingly, everything spikes back up after the catastrophe’s conclusion. In many cases, people report depression in the absence of the conflict, and claim that they actually miss the turmoil of war, because it brings all strata of society together and imbues a definitive purpose in their lives. The same thing happens when soldiers return from war. Junger claims that what we lack is ritual and ceremony to transition the survivors of conflicts back home and that we give no public outlet for these incongruent emotions. Instead, these then metastasize into a myriad of mental disorders by way of apathy, isolation, and self-loathing. We are constantly trying to cure the pain out of living, but what would we do if we ever vanquished the night?
In the wake of her father’s failed suicide attempt and the cataclysm of 9-11, Gretchen felt something light up inside of her, and an internal compass began pointing. In an effort to heal herself, she began exploring ways to help others. So she moved to California to pursue higher education, and all of the pieces from her past began to fill in. The following is an excerpt from her Ph.D. thesis:
“Previous research has identified two possible responses to trauma: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). My research seeks to identify the key factors associated with the promotion, or obstruction, of growth following trauma – specifically if flow state is involved. Furthermore, this analysis seeks to determine the possibility of viewing trauma as a mystical experience; a potentially concurrent phenomenon to PTG. This study will be done using an integrative inquiry approach and a concurrent mixed method design. Several scales, as well as semi-structured interviews and interpretive outlets, will be used to gain a detailed understanding of the trauma experience. The implication of this study is to identify a potential form of relationship, between events typically associated with trauma, which does not result in pathology.“
“Everyone knows about PTSD. I want to spread the word about PTG. PTSD is a diagnosis that was created after the Vietnam War to classify mentally unstable soldiers upon their return. Part of the rationale behind the PTSD label was to assist soldiers in getting help. Once it became an official diagnosis, then insurance companies would cover treatment. As a collateral effect, it also facilitated an outpouring of sympathy for these traumatized people, but never a public setting for them to disclose what happened, so they were showered with pity and then ostracized. Shame is one of the worst things you can bestow on people, but our society does it far more often than we care to admit. But now PTSD, and other mental diagnoses, have mutated in our society, and they’ve become a blanket label for unresolved trauma. Western medicine is so focused on dividing experiences into their smallest diagnosable parts that we have created a toxic dichotomy at play now. Some people want the label of PTSD in order to validate themselves as having gone through a traumatic situation, but they don’t accept the revolting emotions that come with it. They push that part away, which then only serves to increase the adverse effects. When negative emotions from a traumatic event are resisted, people tend to experience PTSD. Conversely, when you allow those negative feelings to surface and be present with them, you can go into a state of flow, which leads to PTG. What I want to do is normalize PTG as a response to trauma so that more people are aware of this as a possible outcome. Not to say that it’s as simple as choosing how you react to trauma, but there is a subtle difference between choosing your response and having heard of PTG as an option, digesting it for a few years or allowing it to be absorbed by an entire generation, and then subconsciously leaning that way when trauma does occur. The other essential components to make this work are community and ritual.”
Normalize trauma. Purposely choose the difficult route. Speak openly about death, shame, betrayal, rape, guilt, and all of the other orphaned nuances of life. Gretchen wants to instill a sense of affinity around all of the other taboo events that often remain buried in society, in order to ignite the great revolution of our time – the revolution of catharsis. Pity, indifference, apathy and avoidance do nothing to provide the safe space that is required for victims to purge and ultimately heal. Allow them to speak, and let us listen in silence until they are good and finished.
Coming to terms with our darkness is not a linear course to be completed; it is a grooming process we must adopt for life. The seasons are not linear; they are cyclical. Nature never uses straight lines; she prefers the spiral. Trauma is not a villain in the same way that winter is not evil. We don’t look at the fallen leaves of autumn and find a diagnosis for them. Should we choose to, we could make a ritual out of sweeping – maybe we could even do it as a community. Our experiences in life are similar to what a painter might render using drastic color contrasts and a sense of necessity between opposing forces. Without conflict, there is no story worth sharing.
“Previously, I had resigned myself to the fact that my father and I would never speak again. I started the healing process by just working on myself, and I thought I got pretty far. Then he died, and that reopened everything. He died alone, living as a recluse, in a trailer in Florida. I had to go down there and clean out his belongings. That process tore my heart open all over again and made me go deeper into myself. It was a crucial step. Now I feel like my dad is one of my best friends. He’s on my altar at home. I go yell at him a lot at The Village, and I also dance with him in the morning. It’s pretty fucking cool.”
I am in awe of Gretchen. This woman dances with a dead man’s ashes and has found a harmony with her darkness that is normally shunned in our society. Nothing needs to be solved. All we need to do is accept, include, merge, and surrender. Accept the need for darkness in this world. Accept others for who they are and adapt our society to fit them in, instead of diagnosing them into a lifetime of self-loathing and trying to force them to fit with us. And most of all, come to accept ourselves. Our biggest challenge is to come to terms with the darkness that we all carry and accepting this as essential instead of correctable.
“I know someone whose daughter won’t speak to him today, and he writes her a letter every month. He doesn’t know if she’s opening them or not, but he continues to consistently write her. And he’s been doing it every month for two years. That’s a fucking father! It’s a father’s job to keep showing up, to let his daughter be angry, to let her have that emotion, to put that on himself if he has to, and hold it until she’s ready. That’s the space we need to heal.”
“Why are we so averse to allowing this kind of pain to be seen?”
“We all do it. Most people don’t want to go through this kind of birthing process, especially in front of others. That’s why I’m so obsessed with trauma, because through trauma I think we can get our biggest freedom. I think it’s by pushing it away, by not being present with those deeply dark emotions, that creates more pain. It’s the resistance that causes most of the distress, and we all do it – even the ones who have gone through some kind of healing already. We tend to think that we’ve done it and it’s over – box checked, or that we can do the rest on our own – that we don’t need help.”
As Gretchen is talking, I think about all of the times I had assumed that my work was concluded, that I had resolved all of my “issues,” reconciled my festering emotions, and so I could then move on to solely focusing on the “real life” goals I had mapped out. Then, each time I found myself crying alone again or sitting in the corner of a dingy bar, I regarded myself as a failure and went back to square one.
“In many indigenous cultures, they purposely induce traumatic events as a right of passage. The sole job of the shaman, or mentor, who is leading the ceremony is to break the inductee into a million different pieces and make sure they don’t put themselves back together in the same way as before. There is a mechanism inside of us that gravitates back to the most recent state of equilibrium, or homeostasis, after some big crack splits us open, but the crack is the entryway for the light to get in. We want consistency and predictability, and we resist the trauma. But this is the biggest opportunity to realize that we can put ourselves back together in any way we want. Then, we truly become masters of our own lives.”
“Why do you think our parents’ generation is so prone to silence?”
“I could blame my father’s generation for all of this silence and pain, but I can also look at it as a tremendous gift. Healing isn’t pretty, and this is what it looks like. I think the silence was their biggest gift. Although it caused me a great deal of pain, it also allowed me to step into my power, to help others become emotionally mature, to not keep sweeping these things under the rug. That is my purpose in life, and that only could have come about by being exposed to all of the trauma and pain for holding the responsibility of my dad shooting himself.”
“What fills your heart today?”
“Community. Ritual. Relationships. The way people hold each other. It doesn’t have to all come from one place. It can come from multiple places. People are holding others in some really beautiful ways, and if we let go of what it’s supposed to look like, then we can really see this happening. It’s powerful, and that really fills me up.”
“What is one thing that can save the world?”
“I really want people to let everything in – the good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly. Be afraid of it and do it anyway. Don’t push the fear away. That’s where the best stuff is.”