Post Traumatic Growth: The Best Diagnosis You’ll Receive All Day

Imagine the intro: Something traumatic and life changing happens. Then despite all odds the person rebounds; finding success, happiness and growth. That’s an inspirational story we have heard time and time again. But is it really against all odds? Is it inspirational? Or is it human? And what if it happens more than we realize?

I got sick 3 years ago. Started writing about two years ago. And these days, my zest for life knows no bounds. I believe I am doing what I was born to do. And recently, I’ve started hearing the phrase ‘Inspiration’. “Liz, what you’re doing inspires me.” “Liz, you’re an inspiration.” It’s terribly awkward. I want people to be inspired by my advocacy work, a more inclusive and purposeful retail environment would benefit everyone. But to hear that I’m an inspiring person in the face of a chronic illness doesn’t feel like it fits. You see, I wouldn’t have developed the beliefs and feelings I write about had I not fallen out of bed and into the hospital in March of 2012. I am doing this because everything in my brain, body and heart tells me this is what I must do.

Amazingly, there’s an explanation for that part of me that may inspire you. It’s actually a medical diagnosis, much in the realm of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s called Post Traumatic Growth. And it’s the greatest gift of my life.

Trauma in both PTG and PTSD are caused by an event that calls into question everything we have always believed, it changes our world assumptions. PTSD is the experience of a trauma reinforced in our everyday lives. Post Traumatic Growth is the result of searching for new understandings, the creation of new world assumptions. Instead of putting a circle into a square box, Post Traumatic Growth throws the circle and square away, allowing you to build a box that fits.

Post Traumatic Growth

But it’s not my aim to mislead. You do not get PTG instead of PTSD. Many people with PTG also have suffered or continue to suffer from PTSD. One does not alleviate or absolve the presence of the other, though the presence of Post Traumatic Stress may be a predictor of future growth. In many ways they seem to work hand in hand.

I have suffered and continue to suffer trauma from a murky Idiopathic Neuropathy diagnosis. But I have also experienced enormous and life changing growth. And so has my friend, Kate Milliken. Kate inspires me. Actually, she electrifies me. And her story is quite incredible. Kate is going to change the world. And that’s the power of Post Traumatic Growth; it is absolutely riveting and inspiring.

Individuals [who] experience more distress, show higher symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, and also have the potential for greater posttraumatic growth – it is the level of disruption of core beliefs which best predicts growth.[*]

Kate Milliken’s Post Traumatic Growth benefits us all:

Kate Milliken Post Traumatic Growth

After Kate’s Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis in 2006, she scoured YouTube trying to find that one person who had exposed the vulnerability of her own personal struggle. She wanted someone who had turned a chronic illness around and gave it perspective. Searching for a human testimonial is not out of character for Kate. At the time, she was a video producer working with the tagline “we focus on real people to tell the story, we never write a script”.

Not finding what she was looking for, Kate decided to become that person she sought. The angst of not finding ’that thing’ turned into a burning feeling that she had to do this. So she sat down and recorded her story. Her story became Kate’s Counterpane. And Kate’s Counterpane took off. At one point, Kate noticed her website had over 50,000 unique visitors, 60% of which had watched every single video from beginning to end, 40 minutes worth of content over 32 individual videos.

This realization left Kate feeling a sense of awe that anything was possible. In that moment, Kate felt the power of possibility to her core. So much so she says “hell, I play the lottery now!”

Kate’s Counterpane launched in 2009 and to this day she still gets a few calls a week from others who have discovered her story, her videos, her Counterpane. And also to this day, she calls every single one of them back. And these “incredible conversations” feel like a privilege to her. “Positive came out of a negative, and it opened up this space where i get to have these incredibly private conversations with people who are at the core of their vulnerability. I’m so fortunate.”

This feeling of awe is one of five ways people experience Post Traumatic Growth. Kate feels an increased connection with those who suffer.

Here are the five models of Post Traumatic Growth:

  1. The sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle.
  2. Closer relationships with loved ones or an increased connection with those who suffer.
  3. An increased sense of one’s own strength.
  4. Greater appreciation for life in general.
  5. A deepened spiritual life or a significant change in one’s belief system.

Note, I have assigned these numbers.
Note, this is the order the five models are normally presented.

I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with the pioneer of Post Traumatic Growth, Dr. Richard Tedeschi. I explained to him that I personally felt growth in multiple areas (1,2 and 4). I wanted to know if others often experienced growth in more than one area. Could someone experience all five areas of growth? Tedeschi explained that while it is possible, it’s more likely that someone who experiences Post Traumatic Growth will do so in one or two primary areas. His reasoning is growth can only happen in an area where a person was previously less resilient. “Resilient individuals experience the initial distress, but recover with little need for grief work, while those who are less resilient may continue to experience distress and benefit from working through their grief.”[*]

Without resilience, the initial trauma wouldn’t feel so challenging. It wouldn’t shatter one’s world assumptions.

Post Traumatic Growth Resilience

When an event challenges [a person’s] existing world beliefs, the individual must deal not only with the distress resulting from the [trauma], but the guiding principles about how the world is assumed to work also may need to be reassessed. Although the challenge to world beliefs sets the stage for possible growth, as individuals more closely examine the world and their place within it in light of the traumatic event.

It was in this increased connection with those who suffer that Kate realized it’s not just ‘Kate’s Counterpane’. Thus the birth of MyCounterpane in 2013. MyCounterpane led Kate to experience the power of another area of Post Traumatic Growth, the sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle. MyCounterpane became a place for anyone with a chronic illness to come and share their story. To be inspired by others. MyCounterpane is where Kate would have turned in 2006 had it been readily available. Kate’s goal with MyCounterpane is to turn it into the #1 website for emotional based content for people with chronic illness. Kate is creating a community. And she’s kinda sorta launching a tech startup. She’s a 40 something female. 40 something females don’t launch tech startups.

My Counterpane Kate Milliken
And at this point, all I can do is share the notes I took during my conversation with Kate. They say more than I ever could. They also capture the incredible character that is Kate Milliken, Superhero.

I’ve put myself in a space that’s enormously real and hugely challenging – sometimes I feel like I’m flipping all over the place – like a fish – my stress level is off the charts – I don’t know if this will all ‘work’ and I’ve spent  a lot of money – I get a moment maybe once every 10 days that it’s absolutely right – and validates that this is what I’m meant to do – I have no choice but to keep going – I can’t not do this – I see what it can do on a bigger scale – I also think in some weird way, it’s healthy for me – my MS is stable.  How is that possible when I am so stressed? – I’m letting others know they can and will transform lives 

Kate Is Not Alone: 

I have come to believe that most of the success stories that have shaped our common history are the product of Post Traumatic Growth. And Dr. Tedeschi does not disagree. Kate and I both have a background in TV production. So I can’t help but think of Oprah and Ellen and Robin Roberts. The political sphere is filled with Gabby Giffords’. Sports? Michael Jordan. Venus and Serena. Art? Michelangelo, Kahlo, Klee. Trauma has given the world The Dalai Lama. The Pope. Mother Theresa. Perhaps the person who has moved me most in recent memory is Monica Lewinsky’s anti-bullying crusade. Post Traumatic Growth is a springboard to a life not previously thought possible.

Monica Lewinsky Post Traumatic Growth

Post Traumatic Growth doesn’t just happen to individuals. It happens to communities. And Tedeschi believes it’s happening right now. Black Lives Matter is, among other things, growth and change in the midst of a deep and profound nationwide trauma. Without the trauma, we, as a society would not be capable of a deep and everlasting change. And because of the trauma, we have the potential to grow, as a society, in ways previously we previously failed to even acknowledge.

Black Lives Matter Post Traumatic Growth

So What do you need to experience Post Traumatic Growth.

  1. You need to experience a cataclysmic trauma. (I do not suggest you seek this out)
  2. You need an expert companion. (I highly suggest you seek this out)
  3. Time

An expert companion is someone who has experienced your trauma first hand. This person is non-judgmental and committed. The expert companion has the courage to hear and has a basic respect for your beliefs and experiences. And most importantly, the expert companion is in it for the long haul. My expert companion came in the form of my doctors and my partner, aka Wifey. When I asked Kate who her expert companion was, this is what she said:

Donny Deutsch likes to say he surrounds himself with people who are thick skinned, big brained and 10 degrees off center. These people are my expert companions.

An expert companion is not a fruitless task. Research has shown that there is only one type of person who can experience Post Traumatic Growth without experiencing trauma. The expert companion.

The Hope of Post Traumatic Growth

In Tedeschi’s experience and research, he has found that those who experience Post Traumatic Growth can expect permanent change. My last few years have been largely spent fearing that everything I have worked so hard for would be taken away from me. And how can you blame me? I am someone who literally woke up one day partially paralyzed. Good luck trying to convince me that won’t happen again. Experiencing the ups and downs of a chronic condition reinforces this notion that I’m a ticking time bomb. But through Tedeschi’s research, I am realizing my newfound voice and passion won’t go away. Regardless of what my body decides to do.

… and I’m pretty sure Kate would agree.