Skip to main content

My sister, Betsy Prendergast, first noticed the man soon after moving to her gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, as he rode his bike up and down Hudson Avenue. “Ron” was homeless and although he clearly had some mental health challenges, nobody was afraid of him. He would stop by the nearby church, where Betsy worked a weekend job, and ask for a drink of water. Once, her husband gave him an umbrella when he got caught out in the rain.

Then things changed. “Unfortunately, he started propositioning me in public,” Betsy says. “He’d say things like “I’d like to sample you. . . . It’s been so long since I’ve been with a woman.” She turned him down with that firm kindness women are culturally conditioned to give men, responding to disrespect with respect. No girl wants to be “fragile” or a “shrew” who can’t take a so-called “compliment.”

Then one autumn Sunday, Ron showed up at the church when Betsy was alone, busy closing the place down for the day. She went to lock up the bathrooms, and there he was, lurking in the dark with the lights off—clearly disoriented, with his shirt off. “He tried to lure me in there,” she remembers. “I told him no and that he had five minutes to finish whatever he was doing.” Suddenly, he was next to her. He grabbed Betsy and pulled her close, saying “Just one kiss, just one kiss!”

As she screamed and fought to get away, two people came in the church’s front door. He released her, and she ran all the way home.

Days later, Betsy was getting ready to leave for the morning for her day job, when she looked out the front window and discovered that the attacker was on her front porch, waiting for her. Heart pounding, she called the police for help. What followed was a legal ordeal to protect herself from his harassment and battery.

“My trip through the court system,” she recalls, “was more traumatic than the incident itself.” When she got to court, she found out the perpetrator had a lawyer—hired by some of her neighbors, who had decided the incident was no big deal. “You shouldn’t have called the police,” was the hot take from one oblivious male. Another bystander responded to the story by rolling her eyes.

“The neighbors were 150 percent more traumatizing than what happened,” Betsy says. “It was possible to make sense of what he did, he’s mentally ill. But my neighbors were well-off, liberal-minded, presumably sane people who you would assume wouldn’t think women should tolerate abuse.” It turned out that her community was not a safe place to be an abuse survivor.

Betsy had a unique perspective on what she experienced: she’d completed a master’s degree at Harvard University, where she studied developmental psychology and the effects of trauma on learning. So she knew what was happening when she began experiencing anxiety and irritability. “My quota for things going wrong was met,” she says. “I was emotionally exhausted. I had no tolerance. Everything was just so deeply unfair that if anything else went wrong on top of that . . . Boom.”

Even if you haven’t studied the brain, chances are, you’ve heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Classically associated with combat veterans, PTSD can occur in the wake of any harrowing event: intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, sadness and anger. But there’s another side to trauma: the positive side. People can actually grow from their suffering, in ways they never would have otherwise. Scientists call this phenomenon of positive change post-traumatic growth, or PTG. And it's worth knowing about, because in the wake of life-altering trauma, even as you experience negative effects, it is possible to experience positive consequences at the same time.

A new vision

In the 1980s, two professors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte pioneered a new understanding of this area of mental health. At the time, the field of psychology was largely focused on the ways the human brain can get sick or break down, not on uncovering the mysteries behind human flourishing. Dr. Richard Tedecshi and Dr. Lawrence Calhoun were studying a group of widows who were grieving the loss of their husbands. Although they described terrible symptoms of trauma and bereavement, the women also told the professors that their loss had changed them in positive ways, deepening their relationships and pushing them to try new things.

Intrigued, Tedeschi and Calhoun next talked to people who had been disabled by horrible accidents. They heard the same response: trauma caused suffering. But for many people, the suffering was just part of a larger experience. An experience that overall became a positive one.

As a rose grower, I’ve observed something like PTG in my garden. Many of my plants only bloom on new wood, not on the old growth that sprang up during previous springs. For these roses to thrive, they have to be cut back—pruned hard—when it’s still gray and cold and the winter seems never-ending. I sometimes imagine what the roses might be thinking as I cut off their limbs with a sharp pair of shears. “I know this hurts, but you’re going to be beautiful!” I think, as I find myself turning into the kind of woman who talks to her plants. Inevitably the flowers respond to their injuries, pushing up long canes of spiky, red growth, covered with leaves, and yes! Rosebuds. By late spring they are in their glory, covered with blooms that would never have existed without the encounter with a sharp garden blade months before. Could people be like roses—in a way, could we be healed by our wounds?

A new story

In his book, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, journalist Jim Rendon says that one of the essential tools survivors use to grow after trauma is storytelling. We all tell ourselves stories about who we are, what we’ve been through, and where we are going. The mom, the newlywed, the athlete, the rising star in the boardroom—we all have a plotline running in the background. We expect that we know what’s going to happen next and how the story ends.

Then, you lose a child, or you lose the dream job you thought would change everything. You find yourself confronted with a devastating injury, or perhaps an abusive spouse—and a divorce—you never saw coming. No one’s life plan includes trauma. These losses could end the story—or, they could be incorporated as a plot twist.

Our losses could lead us to Option B, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called the book she wrote after the sudden death of her 47-year-old husband. Option A, the story in which she and her beloved spouse raised their children and grew old together, was no longer possible. She resolved, in her words, to “kick the shit out of Option B.”

How do we come up with and embrace our Option Bs and make them more than a consolation prize, more than just making the best of a bad poker hand? It seems almost too simple a solution: science says we can do this by thinking about our losses.

Deliberate rumination is different from the involuntary, intrusive thoughts and memories that PTSD sufferers experience. It’s self directed reflection that research has shown actually helps bridge the hole that trauma seems to blow in our life stories.

As I read about how rumination can affect growth from trauma, I realized I’ve used the strategy myself quite by accident. In the aftermath of infertility, I had dedicated “thinking time” during which I thought about what had happened and how it was going to change my life. In particular I had to reconcile my belief that motherhood is identical with womanhood, with the reality that my body just doesn’t naturally do that. It was incredibly painful, but I developed insights that restored my confidence in my body and my femaleness. After all, I reasoned, infertility is a part of life too, and not just in menopause—fertility awareness methods of family planning are based on the reality that every woman is infertile for at least part of her cycle. It’s also true that if I hadn’t experienced miscarriage and infertility, I wouldn’t have the beautiful daughter I’m parenting now.

Saying it out loud (or on paper)

Another key strategy for nurturing growth is self-expression. This is not just art therapy, or writing a country song or painting a picture to tell the world how you feel. Perhaps most importantly of all it’s expressing your feelings about your situation, to yourself. In Upside, Rendon interviewed Dr. James Pennebaker, then-chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who has spent decades studying how expressive writing can help survivors process and grow from their trauma. The results of his research were astonishing: one project even showed that students who had spent four days writing about their traumatic experiences produced more antibodies after vaccination than students who wrote about other topics.

The fact that these words are meant only for the subjects themselves, not for another reader, is key. “You are not putting on a show for anyone else,” Pennebaker says in Upside. “You have to be honest with yourself; otherwise why the hell are you doing it?”

Self-expression helps because it causes survivors to search for meaning in their traumatic experience. By creating a narrative or finding a way to describe the event and its emotional effects, they can make more sense of what happened. They can practice addressing the trauma with their whole brain: not just the right side of the brain, which handles emotion and instinctive response to threats, but also the left side, which provides logic and language.

Of course, writing is not the only way survivors can do this. Elizabeth Smart, who dramatically survived a violent childhood kidnapping, had once hoped to become a harpist when she grew up; instead, at sixteen, she was in Washington, D.C., speaking to legislators and giving media interviews to support a bill aimed at creating a mandatory sex-offender registry. She is now a professional public speaker, which often includes telling her story and answering the personal, sometimes impertinent questions of the general public. Whether it’s Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury or the effects of combat, the most effective advocates are those who have been there themselves. Rather than trying to “move on” by leaving their trauma in the past, survivors who grow “move through” what happened and integrate the events into their future in a positive way.

A word of caution

What strategies to promote post-traumatic growth have in common is that they face the trauma head on. Contrast that with many popular-culture approaches to trauma, like trigger warnings, which are fundamentally avoidant and designed to minimize, not confront, discomfort. At the same time, it’s important to realize that the possibility of post-traumatic growth doesn’t mean it’s okay, or useful, to say things like “whatever happened is for the best,” or “you should be over your loss and finding ways to grow.” It also doesn’t mean that the suffering didn’t matter or that it won’t continue to cause pain, perhaps for a lifetime. Nor does it mean that people who don’t grow or who experience PTSD are somehow weaker or “doing it wrong.” The existence of PTG simply means there’s hope. Loss is inevitable in life, but human beings are more resilient than we often imagine possible.

After noticing trauma symptoms in the wake of the attack, my sister Betsy lived in limbo for a while. Her attacker was put on probation, given sex offender education, and hit with a restraining order, which he violated a few months later, showing up and making eye contact with her at the scene of the assault. He briefly went to prison, and in the meantime, Betsy and her husband moved to a new neighborhood in the city.

“I feel like I can walk my dogs without fear that I’d run into people who judged me for reporting a sex crime,” Betsy says. She still reports feeling angry and anxious, but she can identify areas of growth.

“I would get these summons to go to court, and it would mean I had to take half the day off from work. I didn’t have any paid time off so I’d just have to ask my boss not to fire me. I have a new appreciation for what victims go through, and also I have a better understanding for why so many of them give up on getting justice or feel like it’s too costly to try.”

In the words of Anne Morrow Lindburgh, who endured the kidnapping and murder of her one-year-old son, “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” With that combination, post-traumatic growth is not only possible, it is probable.