Kindness, Resilience, And Post-Traumatic Growth

I began writing this piece after rebounding from some personal trauma, but I am a slow writer and sometimes upsetting national or international news overtakes me. Of course, trouble and pleasure are constant visitors on the micro level (stubbed toes and flowers) and the macro (an awesome Pope and drowning refugees). And, they're inter-connected: our own happiness or lack thereof dramatically affects our ability to contribute to the greater good, while the greater good or seeming lack thereof similarly impacts our own capacity for joyful living. That is why I advocate as strongly as possible for both personal happiness and a Gross National Happiness paradigm. Both are fundamentally important.

Still, following the killings of black Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile -- as you all probably know, two seemingly unjustified executions by police officers -- and then the targeted executions by a sniper of five police officers keeping the peace at a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest, my personal musings just seemed so damned trivial. Yet, where else can we start but in our own hearts and souls?

So I offer my story of kindness, resilience and post traumatic growth with the hope that it may help individually while also providing one more droplet for the sea of needed national well being.

To start, here is one of my favorites, Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferruci. In The Power of Kindness:The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life, he wrote,

"Kindness? It may strike us as absurd to even approach the subject: Our world is full of violence, war, terrorism, devastation. And yet life goes on precisely because we are kind to one another. No newspaper tomorrow will tell of a mother who read a bedtime story to her child, or a father who prepared breakfast for his children, of someone who listened with attention, of a friend who cheered us up, of a stranger who helped us carry a suitcase. Many of us are kind without even knowing it. We do what we do simply because it is right."

I have a winter memory of kindness
, a day several passing motorists stopped to get my car unstuck from an ice-coated driveway. When I thanked them, one of the strangers thanked me right back, for the opportunity to help someone in need.

I've been remembering that normal, "simply because it is right" interaction because it illustrates so well the "helper's high" the kindness giver may feel, rather than the profound gratitude that can flood the recipient. To understand the latter, I apparently needed more than the minor annoyance of a stuck car. A threat to my left eye created a mile-wide ability to receive kindness, so much kindness, which undoubtedly hastened my emotional recovery. The kindness remains in my heart, a clear benefit from this traumatic time.

I don't know for sure if the treatments will work, though the doctor assures me the odds are "heavily stacked" in my favor. I don't know if the sight in my left eye will ever improve. Meanwhile, the possibility of the same problem arising in my right eye is very real, although here again the doctor is reassuring. That's a lot of unknowns. Rather important unknowns.

However, I do know some things.

First, I know that it was a traumatizing shock to hear that I was in danger of losing all vision in my left eye without immediate, invasive treatments. My response to be quiet, turn inward, and focus on my own feelings was apparently both appropriate and effective, as my spirits rebounded substantially within a week of the first treatment. Whatever the reality of my vision, I feel like myself again. Research shows that happier people may be more resilient. Perhaps I had the science of happiness on my side.

Second, the treatment isn't as bad as I expected. Obviously no one wants a shot in the eye, but I falsely assumed the injection would be in the pupil, a particularly distressing prospect. It wasn't the pupil, it wasn't that painful, or even especially sore afterwards. A little freaky, but I can let go of ruminating over an unfounded fear.

Third, I know I am lucky to have insurance coverage for this doctor and these treatments. This was almost financially disastrous. The first retina specialist my optometrist connected me with is outside my insurance coverage region, which would have meant an $1800 deductible followed by an ongoing 30% co-pay. Both a retina specialist and the vision-saving drug are likely exceedingly expensive. If the current doctor had not been available, I would obviously have gone to the first recommended specialist, even if saving my vision led to bankruptcy. I am simultaneously grateful for my own good fortune and horrified that the minefield I dodged exists at all!

Fourth, social media was a godsend. While I am an extrovert who generally gets a lot of energy from face-to-face relationships, for about a week, I needed to cocoon. Social media provided a way for me to reach out, and for others to respond. The morning of my first treatment, I wept with gratitude as I read an outpouring of caring messages. The love I needed was there for me, thanks to the oft-maligned virtual world.

Fifth, I know that my trauma was minimal compared with what many people endure. My thoughts on Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) refer only to my own experience, especially since, as a non-therapist, I don't know that much about Post Traumatic Growth. Wikipedia says PTG, or

"benefit finding": "refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning. ... Post traumatic growth is .... undergoing significant 'life-changing' psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world, that contribute to a personal process of change, that is deeply meaningful."

No matter how life-changing this episode turns out to be, it certainly contributed to "a personal process of change that is deeply meaningful." I believe I will look back at this time with a sense of peace, love, gratitude, and even joy, thanks to an awareness of the many gifts that supported me, including:

Gift of time.
My husband, friends, and the nature of my work and responsibilities at this stage of life allowed me to back off from everything that did not serve my needs. Again, I know I am fortunate. And grateful.

Gift of writing. Sometimes writing feels like a burden to me. In this case, writing allowed me to articulate the experience as I saw and felt it, giving me some sense of control over my own story. I was so grateful to be a writer, especially when others told me that my story somehow inspired or helped them. Amazing! To be able to help others in my own time of pain, it blows me away.

Gift of reduced negativity.
My initial diagnosis happened the day before the Orlando massacre. While I normally follow the news pretty closely and cry with much of the world's heartbreaks, this time, I limited my exposure. Being a good citizen is important to me, but I had to take care of myself first. This, by the way, is a gift each of us can give to ourselves when we need it.

Gift of modern medicine. Big pharma gets a bad rap for greed and money-fueled lobbying, but today I am very thankful for the drug industry. Until recently, doctors had no way to help patients who developed the same condition I have. My doctor told me, "We could only watch helplessly as they went blind." The drug that is saving my eyesight has been in use for just 10 years. Wow. So grateful. So lucky.

Gift of Good Luck. Ferruci notes that luck is often a matter of mindfulness, of perceiving and appreciating the good in life. In addition to the medicine and the insurance, it was good luck that I went to the optometrist when I did, because the symptoms I noticed were unrelated to the condition that exam discovered. Since my right eye was working overtime to compensate for the deteriorating left eye vision, what luck that I had flashing and a floater! Again, like a broken record, I am grateful.

Above all, gifts of love. My husband, who spent many hours waiting in doctors' offices with me; my friend Ulrike who told me to go ahead and cry at her birthday brunch if that's what I needed (I did); the flowers, gift certificate, offers of whatever help I needed; even my son's compliment on my writing skills -- the gifts came in many forms. Each alone and all together, they mean so much.

Now I know. Receiving kindness can be just as sweet as giving it. May you enjoy both.