One of the things that drives me nuts in life is when people use denial as a justified coping technique. They create distorted and dysfunctional mythologies around their particular issues which allow them to believe that they have healed when the reality is far from it. I am not unfamiliar with this technique on a personal level: I used it unsucessfully for many years myself. I often see the Law of Attraction warped in this way as people believe that if they confront negative aspects of themselves, then they will draw the negative to them. Thus, they believe it's best to ignore and deny those negative issues. However, the reality couldn't be further from the truth. When we have something negative festering within us due to repression and/or denial, we continue to attract similar energies to us in order to help us heal that wounded part.
As I read through Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth by Jim Rendon, I cringed far more than once as I read the words of those who had purportedly experienced post-traumatic growth. Rendon held these people up as examples of those who had been able to turn a traumatic life experience such as cancer or an accident into a motivation for positive growth and change. All of these people had done just that, and all had experienced growth and gratitude for the positive change their traumas brought to their lives. However, many of the people who were quoted used words that clearly demonstrated that a deeper level of healing was still needed in their lives.
Rendon recognizes denial as a problematic coping technique. He writes, "Some people try to block memories of the trauma entirely. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. The memories remain and can be triggered with little warning by seemingly unrelated sights, sounds, or semlls. Other people protect themselves from the trauma by separating all emotion from the events. But this often leads to behavior problems... And some people simply try to duck the issue entirely, using what is called avoidance-- making great efforts to avoid any events or siutations that might bring traumatic memories flooding back." Yet even though he recognizes the problems around denial and avoidance, Rendon's book still utilizes examples of people in denial as those who have experienced post-traumatic growth.
One common method of avoiding one's one true situation and one's horrible pain is by comparing one's pain to others'. In Upside, one man in a wheelchair states, "'I feel normal because I can help these people. I have the use of my hands. Some people can't feed themselves.'" This is a very clear example of using someone else's pain to ignore the reality of pain of one's own situation. The author's own father denies the true depths of his own pain from World War II by stating that "he hadn't gone through anything like what today's soldiers experience in combat." A researcher cited in the book even advocates this method which I see as a cousin to avoidance as uplifting and healing. She says that by "comparing their terrible plight to the even worse situation of so many, they could begin to see how they were in fact better off than some. And that might give them a tiny strand of something positive to hold on to." However, as I've written before, many people are the "worse off" ones, and being placed at the bottom of the healing heap by others with struggles does not help those in the worst case scenarios. Instead, this method of healing can lead to a great deal of pain for both those using it and those who are compared against.
Rendon also presents patients who are obviously still living with horrific side effects of trauma in their lives. One former soldier in Iraq still suffers from severe sleep deprivation and difficulties in relationships. Rendon writes that "The horrors that he witnessed have not faded with time," a true sign that healing has not happened on a deep level because the pain should fade during healing even if the memories remain. Yet Rendon holds this person up as one who has experienced post-traumatic growth because even though he has not healed, he is still able to help others. Examples like this lead me to question how much healing is necessary to achieve post-traumatic growth and how much healing is needed to be fully healed because the two are clearly not the same.
In some cases, I feel what Rendon has lauded as post-traumatic growth is actually denial and not post-traumatic growth at all. He shares the story of Bob Carey and his wife Linda Lancaster-Carey's Tutu Project which has brought laughter and healing to many who are dealing with cancer. Yet at the same time, Carey states, "'One of the reasons I do what I do is that [the possiibility of Lancaster-Carey's death] scares the hell out of me.'" Rather than confronting his own pain and fear, Carey is avoiding it through humor and art. To me, it's questionable whether this situation should be called post-traumatic growth even though it is using a trauma to create good in the world. According to Rendon, Carey continues to talk "critically about himself, his motives, and his work, as if the entire enterprise might fall apart if he were to relax and enjoy the good press and the success the couple has earned with the Tutu Project." To me, this is a sign of someone who is not willing to actually process grief and fear rather than a sign of growth.
While Rendon's work does not examine these options, I have experienced great healing from alternative therapies which address PTSD from different perspectives. Unlike the mainstream therapeutic desensitization technique which re-traumatizes patients with PTSD by forcing them to relive and discuss the worst of their experiences, it is possible to slowly and carefully unpack the traumas that contribute to PTSD in such a way that the patient will minimize new trauma. It is not a 100% pain free method, unfortunately, but it is a far less painful one than what the mainstream offers. I am going to periodically be offering a low-cost trauma and PTSD workshop for therapists and patients discussing how one can truly process and relieve trauma which is stored in the body. It's a workshop I wish that I could give to many people who are suffering from deep pain and not finding relief with current mainstream therapeutic options.
Unlike one bereaved parent in Upside who declares that "Five years is nothing for a grieving parent. The pain lasts a lifetime," I believe that it is possible to lessen or eliminate the pain of trauma without desecrating the memories of those whom we have lost in death. There are ways to find this peace without retraumatizing those who have already suffered greatly. The memories will always be there, but being free of fear and grief is truly a possibility. I know because I have experienced it as a bereaved parent. Not only have I reached a point where I no longer feel that brutal pain relating to my daughter's death, but I am also able to see all the positive things her death brought about. While I would never say I am grateful for my loss, I am able to say that I am incredibly grateful for the changes it has brought about.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC