The Good News About Bad News

We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s bad news. Symptoms can range from sleep disturbances to depression to erratic behavior and worse. Awful stuff, fiercePTSD. I’ve recently turned in the manuscript for The Laird, the third book in the Captive Hearts trilogy coming out this summer, and you’d think the heroine might be a PTSD poster child.

It’s not giving away spoilers to disclose that she suffered ugly trauma in childhood, and yet, she’s a force to be reckoned with when the book opens. She puts me in mind of my sister-in-law’s boss, who was abandoned as a toddler on the streets of Post-war Rome and not found by his surviving family until several later. In 2007, he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

David and goliathMalcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “David and Goliath,” touches on the same notion from several perspectives. A disproportionate number of renowned scientists have lost a parent in childhood–one of the worst, most disruptive traumas a life can sustain–and yet, these guys and gals became unstoppable professionally.

Similarly, Gladwell recounts how in preparation for WWII, London’s mental health authorities went into a frenzy expanding the resources they thought they’d need to cope with those emotionally traumatized when the bombing started. The Blitz arrived, and all those mental health facilities…. stood empty. Seems that surviving a near miss creates more appreciation for life, more emotional strength, and more determination to carry on in most people.

cafe openThe term coined for these developments is Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome, when Bad Things happen, and the person who survives them ends up not getting back to normal, but arriving at a better normal. Good support networks, a chance to tell the story of the ordeal, and strong spiritual roots all help tilt the scales in favor of victory over trauma.

The one group among the elderly not prone to depression is cancer survivors. They’ve already faced a lot of trauma–mortality, disfigurement, loss of earning ability and rosemore–and they’ve learned to focus on the positives, and appreciate each day. Families, neighborhoods, and marriages, can share in Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome.

Does this notion surprise you, that really bad stuff can leave you better off than you were before? That the difference between being trapped in trauma or transcending it could be as simple as having good friendships and somebody to listen to you story?

What has moved you past the worst times, or what do you think would have helped? To three commenters, I’ll send print versions of last year’s novellas, The Duke and His Duchess, Morgan and Archer, and Mary Fran and Matthew.

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44 comments on “The Good News About Bad News

  1. I was blessed beyond belief to have my husband and best friend through my worst times. He’s been my rock for ten years. Love. That’s all I’ve ever needed: Love… And a good book.

  2. Grace,

    You are killing me! LOL!

    There is something that I don’t think I’ve really moved past, though it happened decades ago. I know it would have helped if I had talked to someone about it, but I couldn’t. Eventually I tried (and am still trying) to forgive the person who did this, and I’ve made progress. I finally told my husband about what happened, but not the “who” as that would open up more heartache for others.

    • Really tough situation, Bonnie. I’ve wondered how many of us fiction writers are using the need to be heard to drive their productivity. In every book I’ve completed, when it’s done, sitting on the shelf, and some interview blog has asked me an innocuous question, THEN, and only then, do I see the autobiographical element of the tale my siblings could have spotted from 20 yards out.

      I hope you kind the right set of ears to tell your tale too, when the time is right.

  3. My faith would have to be the biggest help. Without that I don’t think I would be able to get through much. A close second would be my parents. I remember that first year after the twins’ diagnosis I would often find myself saying that I couldn’t have survived the year without the love and help from my parents. Nine years post diagnosis I find myself saying that same thing a lot. My parents have always been there to help me, whether it was restraining the twins’ during painful blood draws when I was 5 months pregnant, to my dad taking care of my 3 week old son while my mom and I took the twins to numerous appointments or watching two to three of the boys while I take the other to therapy appointments. And of course just loving me and the boys through everything.
    Then there are the people who allow me to pour out my heart and listen to me. Who see things that I sometimes don’t or that I thought I was doing such a good job at hiding.

  4. I so agree with you Grace. My husband is the person who has always been there for me. I thank god for him every day. I think he was gods gift to me, to make up for what I went through as a child.

    • I don’t have a husband at present, but I have some friends who when they ask “How are you?” are asking, “No, how are you REALLY?” They’re saying they’ll take the time to hear what I have to get off my chest that morning, not some cliche about looking forward to warmer weather.

      You chose well–and he did too!

  5. What a thought provoking topic this week. My mind is jumping all over the place. Here is a little bit of my stream of thoughts: first, I don’t think my worst time was as bad as other people’s so maybe my opinion isn’t valid but I do think people can be stronger as survivors of trauma. Your statement “Good support networks, a chance to tell the story of the ordeal, and strong spiritual roots all help tilt the scales in favor of victory over trauma.” is the main point. Some of us have these and some need to be aware of the need to develop/find them. Also we listeners need to be there for others.

    • When somebody dumps their troubles on me, it gives ME permission to have troubles. It honors our mutual humanity… and makes for an excellent cup of shared tea. Maybe books do that a little bit too–share the story, from me to you, and invite your story in return.
      I like this notion you raise, Kathy, and will ponder it.

  6. I think what has moved me through the worst of times has been my faith. After I got married it was the love of a good man and knowing he would share those times and help me get to better times.

    • I think we can put up with a lot of suffering if a) we’re not entirely alone with it, b) there’s hope it will lessen at some point, and c) we understand where it came from, and if it has a purpose, what that purpose it.

      Any one of those three will sustain us through a lot.

  7. Interesting topic.
    I believe your experiences shape you and enable you to grow.
    My Dad had what I term as true faith. Nothing ever shook his foundation when it came to his beliefs.
    He believed.
    My faith has been shaken a few times.
    Cancer, Stroke, Death.
    But, I have found that as each year passes, my faith grows stronger and I can pass along what I have learned through my experiences to others.
    I was fortunate to have a good example.

    • Susan, my mom has that sort of faith, a compass that never wavers but always points in the direction of compassion and trust. My dad, by contrast, natters on a lot about Almighty God and Let Thy Will Be Done but his faith doesn’t appear to comfort him much.

      Mom is what I call a Cradle Catholic in the sense that her faith cradles her, and every aspect of her life.

  8. My misery was internal; my outward expression of that was external and potentially damaging to my life. Luckily I found a wonderful and loving professional who listened not once but several times over the years until I finally grasped who the real problem was: me. Bless all those who chose to be psychologists and/or psychiatrists and work through humanity’s woes.

    • Anne, when it became apparently I was to enjoy motherhood without benefit of matrimony, the OB/GYNs asked me if I’d like to talk to somebody about “my situation.” Five years later I was still reporting for my weekly tune-up. Sometimes, I could excavate the big stuff, other times, I simply needed somebody to ask how I was and then look interested in my mom-of-a-toddler litany.

      My daughter owes much to that therapist. I owe her more than I can ever, ever, EVER say.

  9. I recently came across your books. I love them. I have bipolar and it gets me out of my thoughts of depression which can lead to suicide. Thank you so much for well written books that puts my minds in another world.

    • Kerri, your diagnosis can be such a bear. I’m so pleased that reading gives you relief from the hard, hard, challenges you face every day.

      You will be pleased to know that writing serves the same function for me. When I’ve had more than enough of being a lawyer, when my kid is giving me fits, when I’m in a funk from what the scale says, when I’m broke and tired and lonely, I can write a book, and you and I can both feel a little better.

      A fine system!

  10. You’ve hit the nail on the head although I can’t explain why. When I worked in social services there were a lot of well off middle class people of all ages who had tried to commit suicide. They led very comfortable lives, had family and all of the material possessions they could want, etc. Meanwhile, the rate of suicide among the refugees we worked with was basically zero yet these people had seen family members tortured and killed, lived in refugee camps, fled from people who were trying to kill them and barely eeked out a living yet none were suicidal. Weird huh?

    • April, you’d probably enjoy Gladwell’s books. He looks at a lot of the situations where we thrive and even conquer, when intuitively, defeat seems inevitable. On a good day, we’re a pretty cool beast, and it’s wonderful to be reminded of that.

  11. I got through rough times with lots f prayer and support from family and friends.
    In the early years of marriage we moved nine times in 2 years with twin babies. i can honestly say that with our the support and comfort of friends I would not have made it through some of the more difficult times.
    Thank you for your uplifting stories.
    Sue

    • And moving is supposed to second only to death of a loved on for the stress it produces–great for getting rid of the clutter though.

      Glad things have settled down for you some, Sue, and those twins… my mom started out with twins. She said after that, NOTHING was daunting to her as a mom (not even ME).

    • It’s a quote I keep where I can see it, because I think it refers to a lot of romances. We’re the fluffy, nobody has to take us seriously, member of the literary court, and yet, we speak the truth about the most important things: Love is what matters.

  12. It does help to talk with others and if that’s not possible, reading about others in the same situation can help – you know you’re not alone. It’s too bad everyone doesn’t get a therapist. There is still stigma to that or to having mental problems and that is a shame. I always tell myself that there are others that have it far worse than me. And then there is reading – that is usually my answer to everything. It’s my escape and always has been.

    • Jeanne,
      I was so very, very lucky, that when I went into my biggest mental health tailspin, it was thirty years ago, before managed care boxed most therapists into ten sessions of band-aid results. I went to therapy for five straight years, to deal with being a single mom before it was popular, to deal with how I ended up in that corner, to deal with… life.

      I owe that therapist so very, very much–she was a cancer survivor, by the way–and my daughter owes her too, though the two never spoke.

  13. I strongly believe that it is the challenges that we face in life that cause us to grow. Love and faith are what have helped me through the tough times.

    • Me too! I also think the tough times, when you come through them, justify faith in life and make the next tough time a shade less daunting. The wheel probably spins the other direction, to though…

  14. I lost my grandfather in 1980, father in 1983, grandmother in 1987, ex-brother-in-law and father to my young nephew in 1988 and my husband in 1989. I was 18 when this all started with my grandfather and 28 when my husband was killed. Three years ago I lost a 33 year old nephew. Some would say that I know a little bit about loss. Having a loving family and friends but most of all, a personal relationship with Jesus, sustained me through it all and I believe that I am definitely stronger having been through it. Everyone reacts differently though.
    I am a new fan of yours and have just begun reading THE HEIR on a recommendation from my favorite author, Mary Balogh. I can’t put it down. I’ll be looking for the rest of this series and more.

    • Brenda, what a hard, hard decade you had emerging into adulthood. Much loss of loved ones there, and that’s a huge stressor. Mary Balogh’s books have seen me through a LOT, though nothing so daunting as what you’ve endured. Twenty-eight is MUCH too young to be widowed (Molly M, a frequent commenter here, would probably agree).

      I hope the sailing has smoothed out, and that you develop relationships to succeed the ones you lost.

  15. In real life, I have not found a person who has PTSD and I only know about this trauma after I read several book and I’m so surprise. So I think the best thing for the people who has this trauma is someone who care for them and always support them.

  16. You know Grace, I’m going to include you as one of my little helpers. I’ve suffered from depression most of my life. I took anti-depressants for many years and wouldn’t hesitate to take them again if needed. But I have found that getting lost in a good book is a great help when you are feeling low. Not only can you leave your troubles behind you for a while, but you can go to times and places that you find interesting, have the satisfaction of a wonderful love story and not suffer the hangover you would have from drugs or booze.

    Seriously though, there have many people (family, friends, therapists, and priests) who have helped me through difficult times over the years. But the one constant comfort that has been with me through my entire life is my belief in God and the love that he (or she) has for us. Even during times when I questioned my faith I never lost the belief that the Being who created me loved me dearly. And I drew immeasurable comfort from that.

    • Mary, that’s my kinda God, too. Or, as a Native American friend once said, “The Creator doesn’t make junk. Of course you’re wonderful, and of course you’re well loved…” My friend took this as a given, and regarded everybody else as the same precious handiwork of the Almighty.

      He made me stop and think, with that outlook.

      And as for the books–writing them works the same magic as reading them. The bills are overdue, the kid hasn’t checked in for a while, my parents are falling apart, the house is a disaster… but I can get into a scene in the long ago and faraway, and none of that pesky stuff matters.

  17. I’ve survived many things but I didn’t protect my daughter from about 15 years worth of trauma that I didn’t find out about until about two year ago. All I can figure out it that I was too close to the situation that I couldn’t see what was going on the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” saying fits the situation perfectly. I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me but I now understand where her hatred of me comes from and I’ll continue to love her no matter what. As far as we know this person is deceased, which I believe is helping her to recover somewhat. I know God calls on us to “forgive our enemies” but I don’t think I can ever do so. As she said, the warning signs were there I just couldn’t see them.

    • Molly, this issue is so complicated, and so much more common than we all want to believe. It happened in my family, certainly, and I see every day in my law practice how often it happens elsewhere. If the statistics are anywhere near accurate, every person commenting on this blog knows someone who was intimately abused as a child. EVERY PERSON.

      The people who prey on children are brilliant at it. They’re charming, sly, friendly, ruthless, cunning, patient… they know the exact right kid to single out, they know how to dangle a combination of secrecy, connection, and betrayal before the child’s eyes, all wrapped up threats and promises.

      Good people have a hard time seeing evil, and evil delights in and exploits this blindness. Many, many good, loving parents have been shocked to find out their child has been victimized, and in hindsight–ONLY in hindsight–can they see missed clues.

      We minimize, we deny, we rationalize, we put the best face on things, we muddle on. Ninety-nine percent of the time those coping mechanisms help keep life on track, and keep the small stuff from derailing our daily lives.

      The predator dwells in that other one percent. Your daughter will forgive you and herself when she knows she’s safe again, and that the abuse will never happen again. It just takes time and the very thing you hold out to her–love.

  18. I am surprised. I have visited in the past with several members of the armed forces and they were definitely not dealing well with the trauma they experienced in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan. Neither were the resources provided by the Canadian government sufficient for what they needed; rather than agencies being empty, it took months and sometimes years to get appointments. I felt these soldiers were numbing themselves, through various addictions, and were hiding from life rather than appreciating it more. I’m wondering if the trend that Gladwell notices had more to do with the era than the condition itself. I have read everything he’s written and look forward to reading this book.

    • Pamela, one of the factors contributing to the rise of PTSD among soldiers now is that they’re fighting unpopular wars. The guys and gals who came home from WWII got ticker tape parades, free college educations, breaks on their home mortgages, they were heroes and they knew it. They saved the world from a monster, in the eyes of the society who deployed them and thus in their own eyes. Their suffering had meaning.

      The soldiers mustering out now face a much different reception, and they’re fighting more deadly wars. Nobody wants to hear their stories, nobody thanks them simply for being in uniform, and they’re not really sure what they’re fighting or who’s winning.

      That you listen to your friends, that you care about them, that you suppor them is an enormous part of their readjustment after the military. And you’ll probably do a more convincing job of caring about them than any government agency any way.

  19. The first would be my father’s violent temper and the outbursts it caused. One never knew what would be the result – a tongue lashing or hitting. I later leaned he had undiagnosed manic/depressive disorder. It helped me understand, but not condone his actions. The second would be the incest I lived through from age 14 to 17 1/2. I survived and continue to do so each day. Lastly finding I had bipolar disorder and how it was stopping me from living. I fought to find answers and I did. I
    finished college, married a kind wonderous husband, adopted over 2 different time periods and became a teacher for special needs students. I have said over the years that I had a horrible childhood BUT a wonderful adulthood. Everything made me want to make it better and to succeed and I did.

    • THAT is quite a story. I hope you are recording it somewhere, because many people would take the same low cards (and you were dealt some real deuces), and use them to dodge responsibility for ending up in prison or worse.

      You got hold of the love and didn’t let go, except to pass it on to others.

      WOW!

  20. My husband has been there for me through thick and thin. we made it through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I live in the MS Gulf Coast and we literally had nothing left after the storm; no cars, house, clothes or jobs. It was the worst time of my life. We had faith in God and the help of people from all over that donated clothes and food to us down here. It was such a hard time coping, but I don’t know how we would have made it without each other.

  21. The friends and chosen family who stepped up, stepped in and simply wove a sturdier web of support around me for almost four years where nothing improved and most things got worse gave me PTGD. They carried me when I had nothing positive to share, unless it was a reminisce or a my-cat-did-this-cute thing story. When I was quiet, they called, and in doing so made the horrible time a reaffirmation of choices made, of who it ended up making me. Consider them physical manifestations of the Divine, and try to mirror them as much as possible.