I began writing this piece as a reflection on rebounding from some personal trauma, but I am a slow writer and events overtake me. My challenges actually coincided with the Orlando shootings. Of course, trouble and pleasure are both 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 personal 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 matter. A lot.
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 seem so damned trivial. Yet, where else can we start but in our own hearts and souls?
So I continue with my story on kindness, resilience and post traumatic growth, wishing that the same factors writ large may help our deeply troubled nation evolve. (Please dear god may our country also experience post traumatic growth!)
To transition, I offer this wisdom from one of my go-to authors, Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferruci, author of The Power of Kindness:The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life: “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.”
My story starts with a winter memory of kindness, a day several passing motorists stopped to help get my car unstuck from an ice-coated driveway. When I thanked them, one of the strangers thanked me right back, for giving him the opportunity to be helpful.
These last few weeks I’ve been remembering that normal, “simply because it is right” interaction because it left me focused on the “helper’s high” the kindness giver may feel, rather than the profound gratitude that may flood the recipient. For that learning, I apparently needed more than the minor annoyance of a stuck car. A threat to my left eye created a mile-wide vulnerability ability to receive kindness. I am sure the loving kindness that enveloped me hastened my emotional recovery. Indeed, accepting and appreciating that kindness is a definite benefit of my frightening encounter with (limited) vision loss.
Since the incident is still fresh, I don’t yet have perspective. 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, frightening treatments. My response to be quiet, turn inward, and focus on my own feelings and healing 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 wasn’t as bad as I expected. Obviously no one wants a shot in the eye. For some reason, I assumed the injection would be in the pupil, a particularly distressing prospect. But it wasn’t the pupil, it wasn’t that painful, the eye wasn’t even especially sore afterwords. 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. There would have been no real choice, 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, Facebook and other social media were 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, when I read the outpouring of caring responses to the blog I published the night before, I wept with appreciation. The love I needed was there for me, thanks to the oft-maligned internet.
Fifth, I know that both the duration and intensity of my trauma were minimal compared with what many people endure. My thoughts on Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) refer only to my own experience. Actually, as a non-therapist, I don’t know that much about Post Traumatic Growth, though it is a topic we touched on during the Certificate in Positive Psychology training. 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.”
Though only time will tell how life-changing this episode will be in my life, I can certainly say it 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. I foresee no reason why this trauma should be triggered in a negative way in the future, 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 in his kindness book, that luck is largely a result of mindfulness, of noticing the goodness in life. In addition to the medicine and the insurance, here’s another piece of luck I noticed: the flashing symptoms that sent me to the optometrist in the first place. Those symptoms were unrelated to the condition that exam discovered, yet without them, don’t know when I would have noticed that the vision in my left eye was deteriorating. Since my right eye was working overtime to compensate for the left, what luck to have flashing! Again, 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. I savor them all. Each alone and all together, they mean so much.
So now I know. Receiving kindness can be just as sweet as giving it. May we all embrace both, wholeheartedly.