Is It Possible To Live A Life Of Meaning After Trauma?

PTSD trauma future

Photo: Grar Razvan Iorut

When I was released from the hospital after my trauma I didn’t feel I deserved to survive. Because of things that had happened in the weeks of my illness (including my daily wish that I would die and be released from the pain) I felt my survival was a fluke and I didn’t deserve to be alive. (Okay, so when we come out of trauma we don’t always see things clearly!)

Anyway, I remember feeling like I had better do something really meaningful with my life in order to deserve that I was still breathing. I was thirteen at the time. I had no idea what it meant to live with meaning or to create a life of meaning. Instead, I started running as fast as I could to escape the memories that haunted me. As you already know, I ran right off the cliff of PTSD symptoms.

Struggling as I was with nightmares, insomnia, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, rage, emotional numbing and depression, the idea of living with meaning pretty much drifted into the vapors of the fog in which I lived. I worked hard just to survive survival, the hell with meaning. I can see now that may have been the right approach.

Lost in posttraumatic stress disorder it’s hard to recognize, relate to or engage in anything outside ourselves. And yet, I think that connection to something bigger than ourselves can be the very thing that helps us find our way to a new self, recovery, healing, a future…. you name it. I think being hooked in to making meaning can help us find the very meaningful life we deserve regardless of our traumatic past.

I stumbled into making meaning by accident. A friend was teaching at a university and needed someone to cover her classes when she received a grant to write poetry on the coast of Spain. I had the right degree and work experience so I stepped in — and discovered I love to teach. The thing I loved most: helping other people learn.

Lecturing to a class, helping individual students with issues all made me feel that I was being helpful; I was a part of something that was putting good into the world. It didn’t matter that outside of class I was an emotional mess. It didn’t matter that outside of class I spent most of my time on the couch trying to rest because I only slept two hours a night. It didn’t matter that I felt lost in an ever-present past when I could, for a couple of hours every day, help someone else create a good present.

Scienfically, when you commit an act of kindness your brain releases serotonin (remember that necessary ingredient to mood stabilization and sleep??), so the benefits of doing something meaningful are enormous. For me, the upside of engaging in meaningful work was that I felt good about myself, plus: I caught a glimpse of myself outside of PTSD, which was huge because most of the time I only saw myself as a survivor with mental problems. Doing the meaningful work of teaching was the beginning of my learning how to live a life of meaning. Since my post-traumatic stress recovery began I’ve been consciously working to create a better, more meaningful life for myself.

After trauma the world can seem bleak, dangerous and void of anything good — we can see and feel that about ourselves, too. I think, though, that if we make the choice to find a way to do some good in the world, then we tap into something meaningful about who we are. When we do that (in even the smallest way), I believe we begin creating a future that helps us evolve out of the dark of trauma and into the light of meaning, joy, love and peace that we all deserve.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this, plus how you have been able to build meaning into your life….

 

 
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