As difficult as life can be, it is not difficulty, or the trials, or even those moments when we feel so overwhelmed that we can’t see a way forward that defeat us. The thing that defeats us, that makes us throw in the towel and decide that we do not want to go on, is a loss of hope. When we begin to believe that “this is just the way it is, and nothing will ever change,” we condemn ourselves to a lifetime of drifting without purpose or direction on the sea of life. It becomes difficult to accomplish anything or fulfill the purpose for which we were created because we have accepted defeat as a way of life. We have accepted the label of “disordered” and resigned ourselves to just getting by.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. While we cannot control what happens to us, we can absolutely control our responses. Don’t allow your circumstances or the decisions of others to define you or determine where you will end up. Much can be taken from you, but you never lose the ability to decide. I have always been a student of history and have always found it fascinating that, throughout history, some have overcome incredible odds while others have not. There are many examples, of course, but perhaps none as poignant as the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War.
During the period from 1939-1945, it is estimated that more than six million Jews were killed at the hands of the Nazi army. Many of these were killed in the concentration camps spread throughout Europe to imprison and eventually exterminate European Jews. One of the incredible outcomes of this tragedy are the stories of men, women and children who refused to give in to the overwhelming trauma all around them. If anyone had the right to give up, it was the Jews, and yet, many of their stories illustrate the heroism that can be seen when people refuse to quit. One lesson we learn from these stories is that traumatic events are events outside of the normal course of life.
It is possible to respond to abnormal events in a perfectly reasonable way without surrendering to the hopelessness that overwhelms so many. This will seem abnormal to most people. But it is not only normal, but it should also be expected. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning (which has sold more than 10 million copies), Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl made this statement about these “abnormal” situations: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” He went on to explain that to not struggle with serious life trauma would be abnormal. This phrase has been simplified and can be found throughout the literature dealing with this topic. Even the Department of Veteran Affairs National Center for PTSd starts their discussion on this topic with the statement: “Normal Reactions to Abnormal Situations.”
None of this is to say that there are not serious difficulties associated with trauma, only that the sufferer is not broken. The trauma itself is the problem, not our natural response to it. This insight can be liberating to the person struggling with trauma if they will really get a hold of the truth found in what Frankl said. A Jew living in a concentration camp should struggle with the trauma that they have been forced to endure. To struggle is the normal response. It is the situation that is abnormal, not their response. Rape victims should struggle with the violence forced upon them. The trauma that they had to endure was extremely abnormal, and it would be strange not to have a difficult time. The warrior who has both taken life and seen those that he cares about lose theirs should experience grief and loss. The taking of life is abnormal, but processing grief is not. It is normal to respond to abnormal situations in a purely human way. In fact, to use behavior or substance to prevent the response to that abnormal behavior is abnormal.
We were created to respond to these situations in a way that allows us to process the events and all that accompanies them. It is normal. As Frankl reflected on his time in concentration camps, he described the moment that he realized the key to his survival in the camps and happiness in life. Even though his captors could take almost everything away from him, the one thing they could not take was his ability to decide. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:” he said, “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He understood that his life was not defined by what happened to him or where the circumstances outside of his control may have led. His life was defined by the decision he made every day, even in captivity, to be the best person that he could possibly be. When talking about how people often say that their responses to trauma are out of their control, he said simply: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So much of the struggle with PTS comes from accepting that label of “broken” and failing to exercise our right to choose how we will respond to the events in our lives. When we finally decide that we are going to move forward despite trauma, we have taken the first step toward growing into a person who can leverage his or her pain for the good of others.
Once that decision has been made, what are some actions you can take to help continue walking that path?
- Realize it is good to talk about what you have been through and seek out those who will understand.
This is not bad-mouthing or talking about how hard you have it. This is processing the events as they happened and working to understand the lessons, both personally and for the good of others. Do not be afraid to share your own failings and shortcomings of how you have dealt with things so far. They are all part of the story and only when we are honest with ourselves and others can true healing begin. When we refuse to talk with others about what has happened in our lives, we tend to have thoughts that are either not true or not healthy.
The Psalmist said it this way in Psalm 32:3: “When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long.”
Telling your story, either to a group or to another person, gives you the opportunity to organize your thoughts and bring to light those that are harmful. Most people who have experienced trauma and then told their story to others will attest to the healing that comes each time the story is told. You must be careful not to get caught in a never-ending cycle of telling the same story again and again but tell it and process it until it can be redeemed in your own life. Find some people that care for you and will listen without judgment and you will have the freedom to finally reveal what is going on inside.
- Refuse to allow the past to define you.
This is a decision that you will have to make every day at first and then less frequently as time goes by. The problem with trauma is that there is a voice inside your head that will tell you, as often as you are willing to listen, that you are no more than the sum of that event. The voice says you should be embarrassed or angry or depressed because of something that happened in your past. The funny thing about that voice is that it gets louder the more you listen and quieter the more you stand up to it. Refuse to allow your past or the voices, real or imagined, in your life define you based on a particular event.
- Replace your bad behaviors with good ones.
As we discussed earlier, some behaviors can be helpful in the right setting but destructive in the wrong one. Learn what these behaviors are and begin to intentionally replace them with other ones. Find something you can do that will occupy both your mind and body, so when you feel tempted by something that will hurt you or others, you can make yourself too busy to get in trouble. Be intentional so that you do not find yourself heading in a direction you would rather not go.
- Regain purpose and direction by leveraging your story and gifts for the good of others.
There is nothing more damaging than a lack of purpose and direction. God created each of us with a purpose and gave us both the gifts and opportunities to fulfill that purpose. The fact to remember about God-given gifts is they are never given for self-glorification. They are given so we can glorify Him by serving others. Use what He has given you to serve those in your life.
- Restore the relationships that have been lost in the wake of the trauma.
Unfortunately, when trauma enters a life, some people we care about become collateral damage. Don’t walk away from those damaged relationships if there is anything that you can do to bring restoration and healing. Remember, the healing you are working for is not just for you but for those in your life who also need direction. Restore the broken relationships and move forward with those who were close enough to you to get hurt.
How you handle trauma is up to you. You can allow it to define you and become the sum of your life, or you can grow through it and become a stronger, more productive person than you were before the trauma. The choice is yours.
*This post is an excerpt from the book, “The Truth About PTSd” which can be found on the Mighty Oaks Foundation Website: http://www.mightyoaksprograms.org