"I always thought if I lost a child, I wouldn't be able to stop screaming," Liz Alderman, a suburban mom of three, told journalist Mark Miller. But then one of her children, Peter, age 25, was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and she found out what really happens, at least to her:
"The reality is you can't keep screaming. Your throat closes up; you give yourself a headache. You have two choices: Either you kill yourself literally or figuratively, by crawling into bed and never getting out, or you put one foot in front of the other."
Keep doing that and you can end up someplace completely new — and meaningful.
It is this surprising journey that Miller illuminates in his new book, "Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation." Time and again, he finds people who have not post-traumatic stress disorder but its sort of good-witch twin: post-traumatic growth.
PTG is not a Pollyannaish way of looking at misery. People who grow in new and important ways after trauma suffer, too. It's not that the pain gets replaced by meaning. It's that along with the pain, there is meaning, often great meaning, and some comfort in it.
For Alderman and her husband, Steve, it was stumbling toward a way to make Peter's life — and death — have a positive impact on the world, the way Peter had. Eventually, the couple co-founded the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, which provides short-term therapy to others impacted by trauma, even as far away as Haiti, Africa and Cambodia. People who have lived through war, natural disasters and sometimes the murder of their families in front of their eyes get the help they need to get back to functioning.
Returning to "normal life" after a trauma is what we deem resilience. But Miller's book is about something else: coming back from trauma with such an expanded sense of empathy and purpose that simply going back to everyday existence is not enough.
"We all walk around with a self-constructed sense of our world," Miller writes. This includes who we are, what matters to us and how we expect to spend our time. But when a trauma hits, it can "blow these self-constructed world views to pieces." Priorities get questioned.
Instead of going to the office, some pursue the dreams they'd put on hold. Others develop a new dream. After her daughter was murdered, Marietta Jaeger, a self-described "country bumpkin with a high school education," has been devoting her life to ending the death penalty — a drive born after she had a revelation of faith to forgive the killer.
Clearly, no one can tell where trauma may lead. But the idea that it could lead someplace good is not a new one. In mythology, it is called the hero's journey, and you see it again and again in the Bible and on the screen. "These heroic struggles resonate deeply in American culture," writes Miller. "Think Star Wars!"
So why do we associate post-traumatic existence only with disorder and never-ending pain? My guess is it's because as much as we love the hero's journey, we have been taught a much grimmer narrative about real-life trauma: that no one ever recovers. Even to suggest that someone might is considered insensitive.
That's why Miller takes pains to explain that not everyone "grows" or should be expected to. He is very sensitive to ongoing sorrow and doesn't want to exacerbate anyone's by suggesting that the "best" trauma victims march forth with a huge and wonderful new purpose. No one says trauma victims must grow. And no one knows who will and who won't.
All we know is that trauma is part of the human condition. The potential for growth has been "hiding in plain sight," says Miller.
It's time for hope to come out of the shadows.