From the Unthinkable to the Unsinkable

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I like to think of myself as a composed individual. When I am stressed, rattled or anxious, I keep it quietly to myself, hoping no one will notice or pay much attention. So it threw me for a loop when my divorce counsellor said: you are exhibiting signs of PTSD.

I was in disbelief. Surely post-traumatic stress disorder was a diagnosis only for soldiers and survivors who had lived through much worse ordeals. That’s when she explained PTSD is a normal reaction to a painful, distressing or shocking event that exists outside of our typical life experiences and beyond our control. When we have been through the unthinkable.

The symptoms, including nightmares, irritability, sleeplessness, fear, dread and being on edge, are disruptive to everyday life. We carry around the trauma with us. The tendency to relive the painful event over and over, a hair trigger reaction to the most innocent, harmless situations, was especially difficult for me to manage. After finding out I’d spent two decades married to someone leading a double life, my broken heart and injured ego had plenty of real and imagined fodder to sort out.

Only 15% of people develop long-lasting PTSD; for the majority of us, the common emotional and physiological reactions to trauma will gradually fade with time.

In her book Option B (which I highly recommend!), Sheryl Sandberg devotes a chapter to bouncing forward after a traumatic event alters the path of our life. In Sheryl’s case, it was the sudden death of her husband; in my case, it was the sudden death of my marriage. The chapter discusses trauma and its two possible outcomes: either we can develop PTSD along with debilitating anger, anxiety or depression – or we can bounce forward, a term the book calls post-traumatic growth.

I learned that post-traumatic growth takes five different forms: finding personal strength, gaining appreciation, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities. We may experience one, a few, or all of these as we take the necessary steps to move forward after an unwanted event leaves us grieving and shaken to the core.

Thinking about my own post-divorce journey since 2011, I recognized passing through each of these areas as if driving by signposts. Finding personal strength came from realizing that I could fly on my own after depending on another person for 20 years. I could continue to run my business, hold our family together and still manage to keep a roof over our heads by myself. I learned to not only cope but to keep living life despite the constant, painful reminders of what I’d been through. And every day, things got better and I grew more resilient. As Sheryl puts it, “I had gained strength just by surviving.”

Gaining appreciation is one of the most apparent areas of post-traumatic growth following the rawness of divorce. It is only when you are at your most vulnerable that you realize how strong you are. It is only after you experience pain that you are able to gain empathy for others’ suffering. And it is only through betrayal that you learn the value of loyalty and trust. Many of the friends I’ve met over the past six years have shared these insights as well as this: divorce has made them more compassionate and appreciative of all the good things in their lives. It’s true that there seems to be so much more to be grateful for now. Only when it is dark enough are you able to see the stars.

Divorce brought me closer to my children, my parents and my sister. It deepened our relationships and formed an intimacy we had not experienced up until then. It also was the catalyst for new friendships I formed with people who had been through similar losses; particularly with the divorce support group that I joined. “When people endure the same tragedy, it can fortify the bonds between them. They learn to trust each other, be vulnerable with each other, depend on each other,” Sheryl writes. I felt that from the first meeting I attended, and I don’t doubt that members of other support groups share similar bonds. Adversity drives us to build stronger connections with one another.

The fourth form of post-traumatic growth is finding greater meaning and a stronger sense of purpose. For many people, divorce or death deepens their faith or at least, puts them in touch with their spiritual side. I know that this was the case for me. I am not a religious person, but I believe there is a higher power looking out for me and even if I don’t understand all the reasons bad things have to happen – I am assured knowing that there’s a greater purpose. Having faith in something bigger than you provides a calm steadiness in times when things are out of your control. It gives you hope. And it helps you to remember that eventually, this too shall pass. Little wonder that I found comfort in the mantra: ALL WILL BE WELL. Even if I didn’t know exactly how or when, I had faith that everything was going to work out just fine.

On the nightly news, we see parents who have tragically lost a child become powerful advocates for the rights and protection of children. They turn their grief into action, giving greater meaning to a senseless event. In a way, embracing this opportunity fulfills their child’s legacy of making an impact on the world. The same is said of those who survive natural disasters, mass shootings and plane crashes – they transform something negative into something that brings positivity and awareness so that others do not suffer needlessly. Think of the number of new firefighters, police officers and military recruits that signed up to serve after 9/11. From tragedy, they were able to see new possibilities and answer the call to do something to make a difference. No, we don’t have to buckle under the weight of unthinkable trauma. We can keep swimming, propelling ourselves forward and getting stronger until we are unsinkable.

Having gone through divorce, I now appreciate how this traumatic experience cleared the way for me to imagine new possibilities. It was an opportunity to clean out my emotional closets and drawers, rearrange priorities and rediscover who I am and perhaps was always meant to be. After a trauma, we can’t help but change. As one of Sheryl’s friends confided in her, “It’s like you’ve been through a portal. You can’t go back. You’re going to change – the only question is how.”

So much has changed in me and in my life since D-Day. I certainly never imagined that I’d be writing a blog about what I’d been through, but here I am, turning grief into action. When readers reach out to share their own stories or simply to say something I wrote resonated with them, it still reminds me that even our worst life-changing events can be a change for the better.