3 Inspirational Stories of Post-Traumatic Growth
Before and after can be a matter of a split second.
In 2004 Jessica Harthcock, a high school athlete in Evansville, Indiana, was preparing for a collegiate springboard-diving camp. She was working with her coach, practicing a front double-tuck dive with a layout twist into a pool of foam blocks. After about two hours of practice, just before they called it a day, she decided to do one more.
“I knew when I landed,” she says. “I knew it was pretty bad. My whole body went numb. I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t in excruciating pain, but I knew something was wrong.”
A broken neck and back paralyzed Harthcock from the waist down.
For Tim Scrivner of Dallas, the life-altering moment came with a phone call in 2001. “I was in my mid-20s, working as a personal trainer at a health club. It was Saturday morning. I went in, met a few clients, got back to the house I was renting with three or four buddies. I made something to eat and sat down to watch football. The [University of Texas] Longhorns were playing. My girlfriend and I were going to a Halloween party that evening.”
At about noon a co-worker called Scrivner with bad news. “At the beginning, I thought he was joking. I thought he was being stupid.”
Scrivner’s mother had suffered a heart attack while driving his sister and 3½-year-old niece to a party. Her car veered into oncoming traffic, and she and Scrivner’s sister died immediately. His niece, Katlynn, suffered a broken pelvis and permanent brain damage.
“You hear stories like that, but to have it be so personal…. You’re never prepared,” Scrivner says. “We all believe that somehow we’re different, that those are the things that happen to other people.”
TIM SCRIVNER WITH HIS FAMILY, INCLUDING HIS NIECE KATLYNN
Before and after also can happen much more slowly.
In 2010 Kelly Hager was a real estate agent in St. Louis with a husband and a 3-year-old son. She was a hard worker, driven and stubborn. “I was definitely a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of person,” she says.
Her head started hurting one night. Really hurting. “It felt like I was drowning in my brain,” she remembers. Her husband suggested a couple of Advil and said if she still felt bad in the morning, they would go to the hospital.
At 5 a.m. Hager awoke, still in pain and convinced something was seriously wrong. Her husband was skeptical, but they went to the hospital.
Her potassium and salt levels were off, her blood pressure was “through the roof,” and she couldn’t keep liquids in her. Doctors didn’t know why. They sent her home after a week, but she was back days later. Another week, and they sent her home again. Her condition worsened. “I couldn’t find the bathroom in my own house. I walked into a wall. I fell down. I was pretty much incoherent.”
“We all believe that somehow we’re different, that those are the things that happen to other people.”
Her organs were shutting down. She was hospitalized, and doctors induced a coma. Although they didn’t know (and still don’t) why she became ill, she emerged two weeks later. “I was so relieved to wake up,” she says. “It was like a joy I never felt before.”
The nightmare continued, though. Hager could hardly even speak, couldn’t read and had double vision. She could barely walk. And the day she was moved out of intensive care and into a regular hospital room, her husband told her he wanted a divorce.
The details are different, but Harthcock, Scrivner and Hager have four things in common: They underwent almost incomprehensible trauma. They struggled through difficult years as a result. Their lives changed forever. And all say that, ultimately, their lives were enhanced by the extreme hardship and loss.
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The label for their rebounds is “post-traumatic growth.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a well-known and increasingly well-understood condition; researchers even know how exposure to life-threatening or highly stressful events can change the brain. Now scientists are turning attention to post-traumatic growth, which is just as common but less understood.
Post-traumatic growth as defined by Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, researchers who coined the term, is “a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”
Post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen instead of post-traumatic stress. It doesn’t make trauma any less traumatic; Tedeschi and Calhoun don’t suggest that trauma is a positive life event. And the road from trauma to growth is hardly a straight line.
“It’s not a simple process. We’re not being Pollyannas about it,” Tedeschi says. “Post-traumatic growth doesn’t muscle PTSD aside; PTSD can continue. What post-traumatic growth can do is make some of the symptoms more tolerable, and the person who is expressing these symptoms tends to realize that this is not the whole story.”
Ways People Change
The positive changes, Tedeschi and Calhoun find, usually manifest themselves in these general areas:
1. A sense of new opportunities opening up.
2. Closer relationships and/or a new sense of connection with other people who have suffered.
3. An increased awareness of one’s personal strength.
4. Greater appreciation for life in general.
5. Deepening of or change in spiritual beliefs.
Tedeschi and Calhoun, who created an inventory for researchers to use in the study of post-traumatic growth, have to deal with a certain amount of skepticism from other scientists. “Some people say that self-reports of growth should not be trusted, that they’re fooling themselves,” Tedeschi says. “I don’t think people who say that have been talking very personally to many trauma survivors.”
Jim Rendon, author of Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, was among the skeptics when he first learned about post-traumatic growth while working on an article about comprehensive soldier fitness for The New York Times. “It sounded a little bit too good to be true,” Rendon says. “I was really surprised and interested to find that most of the soldiers I spoke to had positive changes on the top of their mind when I asked them about post-traumatic stress. They were quick to say that they were closer to their families and had more of a sense of fulfillment and meaning in their day-to-day lives.”
What he heard from the soldiers, combined with his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor, inspired Rendon to write Upside, and while working on the book he was surprised again that so many people who had experienced unspeakable traumas said, “ ‘If I had to do it again, I would.’ Or ‘I’m thankful for this thing that happened to me.’ ”
In fact, numerous studies show that about half or more of trauma survivors report some kind of positive change as a result.
In their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun have found that the people who are reasonably well-adjusted are most likely to see the greatest post-traumatic growth. “People who are very psychologically vulnerable may not be able to manage trauma in the most fundamental ways and get through the process in a way that produces any kind of growth,” Tedeschi says. “And people who have essentially learned the lessons and are resilient and capable don’t need to expand their belief system. It’s the middle ground—those are the kind of people who are most likely to show benefits.”
Research also has identified factors that can contribute to post-traumatic growth, individually or in concert. These include support from other people; an optimistic outlook; finding comfort in faith; self-expression and communication (talking or writing about one’s feelings); art, dance or other forms of creative expression; and what Tedeschi and Calhoun call “deliberate rumination,” which is thinking about the experience and its implications for the future and abandoning the life one imagined for oneself in order to adapt.
Leaning on Others
For Harthcock, support from others was key. In telling her story, she peppers in mentions of “amazing” people who stood by her: her parents, who—despite doctors’ skepticism—supported her yearslong and nationwide search for therapies that might help her walk again; friends and family who held fundraisers for her; the soon-to-be sorority sister who welcomed her with a hug; classmates who carried her when she couldn’t walk; professors and advisers who encouraged her to start her business; the rehabilitation trainer who would become her “rock-star husband.”
Hager, too, credits help from others as she regained her strength and relearned how to walk, read and otherwise function. “I was at ground zero, a shell,” she says. Her parents, who had flown from California to be by her side when she fell ill, moved in with her when she was released from the hospital, staying a year and a half.
And learning to lean on others is part of the positive growth Hager experienced. “I had people working for me but didn’t really understand teamwork, didn’t understand the benefit of having a team,” she says. “When I was incapacitated, that team really took care of me and the business.”
Thinking It Through
Scrivner’s path included a great deal of deliberative rumination. This action—chewing over incidents—has a bad reputation; evidence links it to increases in depression. But deliberative rumination occurs in pursuit of meaning; Rendon calls it “telling a new story.”
Scrivner had to rethink his view of himself. He and other family members took turns sitting by his young niece’s bedside in the hospital. “I took the midnight shift,” Scrivner says. “At that point, I probably wasn’t philosophical about it. I just knew my situation had changed. I was in my mid-20s, I was on the 10-year college plan, not really taking it seriously, working as a trainer, with no responsibilities.”
Still, he deflected any suggestion that he was a good person for stepping up to help with his niece’s care. “I’d think, No, I’m a useless person. All I want to do is go out and get drunk and have a good time. This is what family does. This is just the bare minimum. There’s nothing special about me. That created all kinds of mental hurdles that I had to overcome.”
Although doctors had declared the little girl brain-dead, Katlynn ultimately made a surprising, if limited, recovery. Once out of the hospital, she returned with her father to her family’s small home, living next door to Scrivner’s father. Scrivner moved in with his father and they were “three men and a baby” until substance-abuse problems took Scrivner’s brother-in-law out of the picture.
“For a few months, it was just a matter of taking care of business,” Scrivner says. But as he resumed more normal activities, he started suffering anxiety attacks so severe that he first went to the emergency room, certain he was having a heart attack. Even his Christian upbringing offered little solace—he worried that he hadn’t been living right, questioned how God could love a guy like him and feared retribution.
“I was dealing with this internally: If my mom and sister got taken out, I’m gonna be taken out. I couldn’t even read my Bible without seeing tarnation and how I’m going to be wiped out at any moment.”
Meanwhile, his father realized that if he had died in that car wreck along with his wife, his kids and grandkids would have been left with a financial mess. He asked Scrivner to meet with financial planners to sort things out. And in doing that, Scrivner started requesting book recommendations, and these put him on a path of personal growth.
“I started reading like crazy,” he says. “I was learning all kinds of different things about business—how to be more frugal with money, different things I’d had no interest in before. I learned about Zig Ziglar, listened to his CDs on the road. I was reading things I’d never read, being exposed to ideas I probably would never have been exposed to.” Scrivner learned about self-efficacy and how to control his anxiety.
In 2002 he married Marika, the girlfriend who had been through the trauma with him (and simultaneously one of her own, when her father died unexpectedly). In 2004 the couple gained full guardianship of Katlynn, who is a high school student with cognitive and social deficits; she also is legally blind. (The couple also has three other children.) In 2013 Scrivner gave up alcohol. “Even with ‘responsible drinking,’ alcohol was fuel for anxiety for me,” he says.
Scrivner took his life lessons into his work first as a trainer and later in organizing marathons as a way of inspiring people to take responsibility for their own health and well-being. This outreach is particularly dear to him because his mother was overweight and had a family history of heart disease. When she died at 59, it appeared to be from the heart attack, not the car accident it precipitated.
SCRIVNER SPEAKS AT A “JAILBREAK” ADVENTURE RUN HE ORGANIZED.
Scrivner designed a fitness program that helped the town of Dish, Texas, win the Governor’s Cup as the Fittest Small City in Texas in 2006. He also organizes Run the Jailbreak adventure runs in various locations in Texas; the name is a way of tying in to the theme Scrivner wants to promote, of “breaking free from the couch, the habits that keep you in bondage, the fear that limits you, etc.” The South Padre Marathon he launched had its inaugural run in November 2015.
“But the marathon is not my endgame,” he says. “It’s just another step in the road in the direction of how can we get more people excited and motivated about living a healthy life, live a better story.”
Talking and/or writing about traumatic experiences can facilitate post-traumatic growth, as can creative endeavors. Hager did both. While she was still regaining her full faculties, she was asked to speak before 8,000 people at a meeting of her employer, a national company. “They wanted me to share what I’d learned about surrounding yourself with the right people, building teams. And I was able to get up and communicate that.”
A little while later, Hager ran into an old friend whom she identifies as particularly creative, and he urged her to write her story. “Hundreds of people have told me to write a book, but that was the first time that I really heard that the story was worth sharing,” she says now. “It was unique, different. I had that epiphany and started writing and speaking around the world.” Hager speaks on team-building and other business strategies, weaving in her experiences.
Despite her busy schedule, Hager also has slowed down in order to better appreciate every day and the people around her. “I didn’t want my child not to have a mother. I knew that I owed it to the people who surrounded me when I was at my worst. Something clicked. It all just came together. I understand time management and balance. I learned how to delegate—that was one of the hardest things for me. But once I understood that time is your biggest resource, not money, that’s when things really changed for me.”
Faith and Optimism
Along with her support network, Harthcock’s optimistic nature helped pull her through the trauma. Although doctors tried again and again to persuade her that she was in denial, she never stopped searching for and trying new therapies in her desire to walk again.
“Doctors were exploring the neuroplasticity of the spinal cord, and they were having success,” she says. “All it really took was to hear one success story. I kept asking, Why can’t that be me? I wanted recovery so badly. I was so narrowly focused. I told myself that as long as I’m happy doing this, as long as I feel like I’m getting something out of this, I’ll keep going. I did therapy pretty hard-core.”
After nearly two years of various therapies, Harthcock felt a muscle twitch in her right thigh. About three years in, she was able to take a step. By 2010, six years after her accident, she was walking again, although some limitations remain. “I can’t walk in the dark. I still don’t have sensation. My joints are still fragile. There are still things that can happen.”
HARTHCOCK PUSHED HARD, TAPPING MANY RESOURCES TO WALK AGAIN.
Harthcock took all she learned in those years of researching and trying therapies and launched the company Utilize Health, which connects people with neurological injuries to often-underutilized facilities offering specialized therapies. And here Harthcock’s faith came into play, too. “From my faith, going to Catholic school, I knew there had to have been a reason this happened to me,” Harthcock says. “In the first several years, I couldn’t find it. I tried to search for it. But now it’s very clear. I really feel like this is how I can make a difference. So many people have given to me; this is how I can give back.”
In the “after” life, Hager has learned the simple joy of taking a morning off and having pancakes with her son.
Scrivner helped an entire town become healthier.
Harthcock has connected hundreds of people in dire circumstances with hope. “There have been so many amazing things that have come from the accident,” she says. “I have an amazing husband. I am living my dream every single day. I love waking up and going to work. That’s a pretty friggin’ peachy life.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.