In past articles, I have introduced you to the five domains of posttraumatic growth – new possibilities, relationships with others, personal strength, appreciation for life, and existential and/or spiritual change. These domains are the areas in which people can thrive following trauma.
Over the years, my clinical practice has revealed that growth takes many forms. The type and degree of growth varies from person to person. And as I have previously mentioned, people can experience growth in multiple areas and are not restricted to one domain. Many times the life changes that people report are the result of a combination of these different domains of growth.
The domain of new possibilities is the domain I will focus on for this article. This area of growth can show itself in many different ways. But from a broad, 30,000 foot view, it can be described as when a person takes a new and different path in life. An example is of a man who has been unhappy in his career for years, but never had the courage to quit his job for another or go back to school. After losing his wife in a car accident, he decides to change careers as “life is too short to do something you don’t like.”
Some people develop new interests that become important to them. Others decide to travel more because “if I don’t do it now, I may never have the chance.”
What is important in these changes is that they usually result in a person being truer to themselves. What a person has previously ignored, thought to be impossible, or has left unrecognized as a way of living now assumes a more central place in life. Sometimes these changes also alter the person’s definition of who they are. For others, though life remains the same in many ways, the new possibilities that they embrace create a sense of greater fulfillment and more authentic self-expression.
Creating New Possibilities is not Impulsive
It is important to note that choices like the ones I just mentioned are not made haphazardly. Creating new possibilities for oneself following trauma is not impulsive. On the contrary, these decisions are generally well thought out and reasoned and unfold over time. However, there is often an identifiable catalyst or trigger that leads to the choice to take a new path.
This initial impulse usually needs to be followed by many specific choices and actions that result in change. The difference is that the person now has a deeper appreciation for the time-limited nature of life. The person realizes that “if not now, then when?” Below, I use the story of Eric to highlight this point.
Eric joined the Marine Corps when he was 24 years old. Although this isn’t considered old to start a military career, it isn’t young either. Eric had a few failed attempts at college and even more at holding down jobs. It’s not that he wasn’t bright or responsible, he just didn’t like school and had a hard time finding a job that challenged him. After seeing how successful his high school friend had become in the “Corps,” he figured he’d give it a shot. On a cold winter day in January, he shipped off to boot camp.
The military was a good fit for Eric. From day one he thrived in the highly structured and rule-bound organization. He enjoyed the early morning runs, long days out in the field, and the late evenings hanging out with his fellow Marines.
He climbed the military ranks quickly, hitting each milestone early. He went from private to staff sergeant in less than five years. Reaching the rank of gunnery sergeant and then master sergeant was almost as easy. He received many awards and commendations, and was seen as a stellar Marine by his leaders and those under his leadership. Other than getting into a fistfight with another trainee during boot camp, he had a perfect career. By all standards, he was the consummate Marine.
Achievements Came With a Price
Eric’s achievements in the Marine Corps came with a price. Like most Marines following September 11, 2001, Eric spent a lot of time in the Middle East. By the time he achieved master sergeant, the second highest enlisted rank in the Marines, he had spent over two years in Iraq, split between multiple deployments. As an infantryman, Eric saw his share of combat. He was shot at, blown up, and helped carry countless injured and dead friends and colleagues off the battlefield.
During the last years of his enlistment, Eric became disenchanted with the Marines and the military lifestyle. He felt disconnected from his leaders and those he was tasked to lead. His sense of purpose and mission had eroded. Eric was also suffering with constant nightmares and disturbing images of many of the things he had seen and done in combat. He dealt with bouts of depression, drank too much, and was always on edge.
Between deployments Eric was diagnosed with PTSD. He was started on medications and participated in a variety of talk therapies. Things improved a bit. His nightmares were less frequent and he didn’t spend as much time ruminating about the past. He gave up drinking and found ways to manage his stress. However, he still felt empty. He still felt like he was searching for something, but didn’t know what.
Like a good Marine, he pushed these feelings aside and went about his job. But also like a good Marine, he searched for a solution for what was missing.
It eventually dawned on Eric that he no longer wanted to be a Marine. Even though he had been successful, he only joined because he didn’t know what else to do. Toward the end of one his counseling sessions, his therapist asked him a basic and straightforward question – “if you could see yourself doing anything you want in five years, what would it be?” Eric’s answer was quick and confident: “I’d be an artist,” he replied. “I’d spend my days and nights painting, drawing, and sculpting.” Eric’s response was as much of a shock to him as it was to his therapist. As a battle-hardened Marine, he didn’t fit the stereotype of an artist.
Eric spent months contemplating his answer to his therapist. He knew that it must be somehow tied to his creative nature as a child. From an early age, while other kids were outside playing, he was inside drawing and painting.
However, he spent less and less time nurturing the creative side of his personality the older he got. When Eric was a teenager, he told his dad that he wanted to be an artist. His father was a no-nonsense, practical kind of guy. He was also harsh and critical. Eric remembers his dad’s comment word for word when he told him of his career ambitions. “Art is for losers who are too lazy to work and too stupid to make a living.”
This was a turning point in Eric’s life. He gave up art, finished high school, and bounced around school and jobs for several years with no purpose or goals.
As a result of this time with a therapist and his introspection, things started making sense for Eric. He believed that being an artist would make him happy and provide him with a renewed sense of purpose and passion. However, like his dad, Eric was also a practical, no-nonsense kind of guy. He had logged nearly 12 years of military service. One only needs 20 years to reach a full retirement, which comes with a sizable pension and health benefits. He only needed to stay in the military for another eight years and he could retire at the age of 44, a feat that is virtually unheard of in the civilian world. So, reluctantly, Eric decided to stay in the military.
Unfortunately, he sank back into a deep despair after his decision. He knew that continuing in the Marines wasn’t what he wanted to do, but he felt it’s what he had to do. To him, he had no other choice. Not only would his dad see him as a failure if he quit the military, he would see himself as a failure.
Predictably, Eric was deployed to the Middle East again. This time it was to Afghanistan. This deployment started off like any other. He settled into a routine. He led troops on patrols and saw his share of traumatic events. It was about midway through his deployment that things changed. And changed quickly. As Eric walked through a local village known to be hostile to American forces, an enemy sniper caught him with a round in the chest and he nearly lost his life.
This event, the brush with death that Eric describes, was indeed a huge shift for him. After recovering from his injuries, he did leave the Marine Corps. He used the military educational benefits available to him and went to art school. He started drawing, painting, and sculpting. He turned his one-bedroom apartment into a studio and spent hours doing what he loved.
Much of his early art was focused on combat and military-related drawings. And it sold well. But over time, his work expanded, and he created all types and themes of artwork. Today, Eric continues to practice as an artist in his community. He is happy with his decision and grateful that nearly dying gave him the courage to make it.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book, Transformed by Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.