Monthly Archives: April 2012

Understanding Trauma and It’s Effects

Every life is full of experiences–some bring happiness closer to us while other events send it away in wild flight. Experiencing a traumatic event can make happiness seem forever out of our reach.

70 percent of American adults have experienced a traumatic event, and   20% of these people will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An estimated 1 out of 10 women develops PTSD. (PTSD STATS – U.S. First Responders Association http://www.usfra.org/profiles/blogs/ptsd-stats#ixzz1rzNTmM3g)

The worst thing about trauma is not the experience or experiences that caused it, however terrible they were; the worst thing about trauma is what happens to the person after.

For those who have never experienced trauma, I’ve adapted an explanation of it from something Angela Hovey, a social worker who deals with trauma and PTSD,  told me. It will mean more to you if you do this exercise while you’re reading.

Take out a piece of paper. (Yes, you have to do it on paper, not on a computer.) On that paper, write down your important relationships, and briefly, your role in each one. Using my daughter Caroline, for example, my relationship to her is mother, my role is to protect and care for her. For Ian, my relationship is spouse, one aspect of my role is to love and support him.

On the same piece of paper, write down your profession or job, and one main skill you use in it. Below that, your financial status. No details, just very generally: I own a home, a car, I have some savings, I earn enough to take care of myself and my family.

Now list some of your hobbies and interests, and some plans you have for the future, things you’re looking forward to: a trip, a social event, a promotion, a planned vacation. Finally, write down what you see as the meaning of life. One sentence: I believe God loves and watches over me; I believe we’re here to help each other; I believe I can take care of myself and those I love. Whatever you see as giving life meaning.

When you have finished, pick up that piece of paper, and for the next 30 seconds, tear it to pieces. Don’t stint–keep ripping for the full 30 seconds.

Now, put those pieces back together again.

Stop here a moment. How do you feel about this? Looking down at those pieces of paper that represent your life, do you think you can put them back together again? Do you feel overwhelmed by the task? Do you think they will ever look like the original paper list?

Severe trauma shatters your whole life: your relationships, your ability to perform the roles you previously had, your job and financial status, your hobbies and future plans, your concept of life and what makes it meaningful. Often in as little as 30 seconds.

And then, when you’re feeling frightened and betrayed and ripped to pieces, the toughest part begins: you have to find a way to put the pieces back together.

In 2003, I was in a severe car accident. Every aspect of my life was affected. It took me years to put the pieces of my life together again, but I did it, and so can you.  Because of my experience, this blog is not only about the attainment of happiness, but also about the flight, or loss, of happiness, and how to recover it.

The Secret of Happiness

“How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.”
William James

There’s one word in this quotation that strikes me as being pivotal. Without it, the whole quote becomes banal, even offensive.

Most people are motivated by the desire to be happy? Ho-hum. The Earth isn’t going to shake over that revelation. At all times? In everything we do? Now we’re moving into offensive. The guy’s clearly a cynic. If he’s right we’re no better than animals, motivated purely by self-interest. But of course he’s wrong. I’ve made plenty of compromises for my spouse’s happiness, sacrifices for my children, given my time and money to charities. And I’m pretty sure most people have done the same.  Sometimes we act out of self-interest, but not always.

And everything we willingly endure? This part’s a little more interesting, and I’ll admit there’s truth in it. I’ve stuck through some rough times with my spouse because I believed in the long run, I’d be happier with him than without him. (Sometimes I tell him the jury’s still out on that one, just to keep him on his toes.) I’ve been the giver instead of the receiver in relationships with family and friends because I knew the time would come when those roles would switch, and unfortunately, I was right. I’ve put up with three-year-olds’ tantrums and teenagers’ disdain because I figured I was happier being a mom than a jailbird.

But so far, James’s quote is nothing special. Then he inserts the word ‘secret’. Now, secret is an interesting word in itself, implying all kinds of things about its keepers. ‘Secret’ draws us in. Knowing a secret gives us power. We’re willing to endure a boring, even irritating quote, if he promises us a secret.

Furthermore, it’s our secret. Our secret motive: Happiness. Why does James think we want our desire for happiness to be kept secret? He doesn’t say, but he has subtly made us into a far more interesting and complex creature than we would be without it.

Maybe we keep it secret because we’re ashamed. We suspect happiness isn’t a very admirable goal most of the time. Because we aren’t merely animals; we’re some strange creature that understands and admires the concepts of altruism, self-sacrifice, devotion. We want to be motivated by noble causes, by lifelong love, by the yearning for something greater than ourselves. We’re flawed and frail, but we have not given up our ideals. In our hearts we surmount the Law of Nature—survival of the fittest. Perhaps not always in our actions. Sometimes in our shame.

Or maybe we keep it a secret because we’re afraid. Isn’t acting out of the desire to be happy the same as admitting we’re not happy now? Nobody wants to admit that. It makes us vulnerable. It exposes us to ridicule. We look pathetic, wanting something so basic and being unable to achieve it.

Even as I write this, I want to add, hey, just so you know, I’m happy. I’ve got a good marriage, great kids, a strong support network of friends and family. I live in a nice house and I can afford a few luxuries. I’ve got ideals, and causes I support, and a faith I believe in. I’m not the person in James’s quote.

So why do I have trouble getting out of bed some mornings? Why do I firmly tell myself, “I wonder what interesting thing will happen today?” to cover the other thought, the one that slipped in before I was fully awake and in control? Shhh! That’s my secret.

Interesting, how a single word can completely change a message.