Benefits of Trauma

The Benefits of Being a Trauma Survivor

By Lisa Dietz

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating going out and drumming up trauma. I'm not saying that trauma occurs for a reason, as in when people say things like, "Thank God you lost that leg. It was meant to happen so you can minister to other amputees."

Trauma happens. It sucks. It's not fair. It usually occurs because of the destructive choices of other people. It is THEIR choices that cause consequences on the victims (defined as people who are not complicit with the perpetrator's choices).

The most obvious example is from the fallout of 911. In the aftermath of a horrible trauma, people pulled together with kindness and compassion beyond their usual behavior to help others. Many people looked at their lives as they never had before and asked themselves, "What do I want to do with my life? What is important to me?" They realized how short life can be and how easy it is to become caught up in the day-to-day tasks, blinding themselves from the bigger picture. Many became motivated to bring about long-term beneficial changes in their life, to become better people. Of course I wouldn't want to call up Osama Bin Laden and ask him to do it again so more people could benefit. The destruction clearly outweighs the benefits. But given the fact that the destruction has occurred, individuals can choose to take advantage of the opportunity to turn trauma to benefit.

Given the fact that a trauma exists (regardless of "why" or "how"), it is possible to find things in the trauma that can be manipulated to bring personal benefits. In the Bible it says, "God turns all things to good." I'm glad it doesn't say, "God will make bad things happen so you can help the other people that God has hurt in a similar way."

It's the story of Job all over again. In the Book of Job in the Old Testament, God and Satan are discussing loyalty. Satan insists that if God were to reign troubles on "one of his chosen" they would turn away from God.

In the midst of Job's suffering, all that Job or his peers could talk about was why he was suffering. His peers became arrogant, claiming God favored them because they weren't suffering. They didn't want to relate to Job ("There by the grace of God go I"). So they put themselves above him and judged him. Job's initial reaction was to blame God. "Why are you doing this to me?" Full of doubt and pain and questioning the nature of God, Job suffered horribly. In the end, it didn't matter why it happened. It happened because it did. It wasn't fair. The premise that God and Satan were having a little game of chance exemplifies the fact that Job was a victim of the choices of others. They were beyond his control.

The point of the Book of Job isn't, "If you endure suffering your rewards will be doubled" since Job eventually regained all he had lost and was twice as blessed as before. It's deeper than that. God gives Job the chance to change his beliefs about suffering. God asks, "who are you to judge or blame?" It didn't matter who was at fault for his suffering or why his suffering occurred.  Job's rewards weren't payment from God. The rewards were the natural results that occurred when he understood his true nature.

We can't judge the suffering of others. What if the newscasters during 911 stood around saying, "Let's discuss why this happened to the tower victims and not to you and I. What did those people do wrong to get themselves killed?" That would be ludicrous. Yet, when we encounter the personal suffering of others, or our own internal suffering, many people assume that they deserve their suffering  and get caught up into why the circumstance occurred. Assigning blame can feel temporarily satisfying, but there is more than this to be gained.

It is when Job radically accepted his suffering, realizing that it didn't matter who was at fault; when he knew himself to be a man of God no matter the circumstances of his life; he gained a self-perception beyond the comprehension of his peers. His struggle made him more than what he had been before. Ironically, it is the intense "badness" of what he endured that gave him the capability to understand the intense possibility of goodness. Armed with a new belief about his own potential and the potential of the Universe, did bad things stop happening to Job or did Job realize his endurance in the face of suffering? Is it because Job didn't fall into the same reactions his neighbors had toward him (judging and blaming) that he could focus on something bigger?

911 was a nationwide trauma, but most of the traumas we experience are not well publicized. They are hidden in the memories of our past as a result of personal circumstances that negatively impacted the psyche.

When I was 19, I was raped by a man who was a coworker at a restaurant. It happened after a company Christmas party when he asked me for a ride home because he felt too inebriated to drive himself. His house was on the way so I agreed. When he asked me to come in for a cup of coffee, I suspected nothing. His sudden change to aggressive behavior caused me pain and suffering beyond what I thought I could endure.

Initially, surviving the violence and humiliation effected my daily life. I would no longer drive through that part of town. I became suspicious of male coworkers, assuming they would be predatory - guilty until proven innocent. When I reported what happened to my mother, one of my family members remarked, "What did you do to make him do such a thing?" The comment cemented the shame I already felt so I never spoke again about what happened for ten years.

Many years later, still fearful, I began karate. The suspicion, shame and silence were destructive results. My seriousness over learning to defend myself and cautiousness about avoiding that kind of vulnerable circumstance were positive results.

No one can challenge the deplorable effects of the circumstances. The harm occurred. It is irredeemable. I can't turn back time and undo it. Certainly the motivational benefit for joining karate wasn't worth the trauma. Even if the trauma had minimal negative long-term impact, the memory of it would always remain and accessing the memory would always cause distress.

So what good can come of personal trauma beyond the worn-out adage, "It builds character?" After years of therapy, I began to notice some benefits. Having already been put to the test, I didn't feel a need to participate in pseudo-life threatening situations in order to better understand myself. I didn't feel as much need to prove myself to others, pushing the limits of my abilities for rewards like money or power or recognition. When I encountered difficult circumstances, I could tell myself that I would prevail because if I could survive the trauma, I could survive other difficult things.

The benefits that I could create as a result of my experience went beyond recovery - beyond the ability to adapt to a "normal" environment and live effectively within the parameters of society. I began to realize I could achieve a level of transcendence that is not as readily available to those who have not endured trauma. I had to dig deeper to know myself. In the face of shame and humiliation, I came to a juncture. Who was I? Could I have the courage to allow myself to feel the feelings of despair and in the end, rise above it? Could I plant my feet firmly on the ground and acknowledge both the pain and the strength that defined me? Understanding the core person of who I was, I could look back on the trauma and identify what "made me tic."

I think that at the root of all rewards is validation and self-validation is the ultimate reward. You can break my bones with sticks and stones, you can make me cry or experience pain. You can hurt or betray me, discourage and revile me and I won't like it. I might even take it personally and become reactive. But in the back of my mind, I know that I'll come around and come back into balance because I have a deep understanding of my potential. Ultimately, I don't need you to validate me in order to feel good. I have internalized self-validation. I have prevailed in the face of terror and no one can remove this realization from me any more than they can remove the painful memories. Having acquired the one gives me a leg-up on acquiring the other.

With time, self-honesty and a willingness to get better, I and all the other trauma survivors, are destined to become more than we could have been before the trauma. It is the very need to heal that can make us transcend.

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