“We’ve been taught in society to dodge pain. But sometimes, the pain is an invitation to a new way of seeing, doing, and being.”
A week before I found out I was pregnant, I took a weekend trip to Chicago with two friends. The first night, outside a wine bar downtown, I grabbed a black pen from my bag and drew a three-dimensional diamond on my wrist. “I’m getting this tattoo when we get back to Minneapolis,” I slurred to my friends.
I wanted to emblazon a tiny gem on my collarbone because, in 2013, it was trending on Pinterest. But drawing a diamond on my skin was also my way of reinforcing to myself something I didn’t know how to believe yet: that I was, like the hardest rock in nature, strong enough to weather life’s storms.
My 24-year-old body was accustomed to trauma. A few years before that drunken weekend getaway, my mom died of complications with drug abuse—but long before her death, her addiction began telling me a story: that bodies betrayed you.
As a teenager, I watched my mom abuse the local hospital system for opioids, and I was often the one to drive her there. With her weak, wilting body whimpering in the back seat, it was as though my mom had departed the scene altogether. Her addiction had reduced her to her physiological needs, and I watched her wither in front of me.
I hadn’t ever seen a woman’s body be strong, but I wanted to believe mine could be. Maybe, somehow, the ink of the diamond would seep into my bones and blood, making me resilient in the storms.
Four Pinots in, numbing the pain and confusion of loss, I didn’t know the life that was growing inside me, or the life I would grow into as a result.
I stared at the pregnancy test for a few minutes before calling out to my husband, who was frying an egg downstairs. We stood in the upstairs bathroom quietly, all of a sudden feeling like someone was watching us. I’d been walking around with a baby in my body and had no idea.
I expected the worst. I didn’t think my body could sustain a pregnancy—not because a doctor gave me that impression, but because of what my mom’s experience had taught me, and because all I did those days was drink wine and take Xanax. I didn’t want to go through the pain of losing the baby, which would only confirm my suspicion that my body was faulty. And I didn’t want to go through the pain of becoming a parent when I wasn’t ready, either. How could I parent someone else well if I hadn’t been parented myself?
But the baby kept growing, and to my surprise, so did I. Absent my normal chemical coping mechanisms, I had to find new ways to deal with my discomfort if I wanted to survive the pregnancy (and life with a kid I didn’t plan for). I was desperate for some solace from my anxiety, so I began challenging my worst-case-scenario thoughts about pregnancy out loud: Other moms do this every day. People with worse trauma than me. My body is strong enough to get pregnant, and it’s strong enough to birth a baby. I have people to support me if I can’t handle it, and I have months to prepare.
It was like my own exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy. As Viktor Frankl alluded to in Man’s Search for Meaning, if I couldn’t change the situation, I was going to have to change the way I thought about it. So little by little, I chipped away at the sharp edges of the self-doubt, turning my giant, personal catastrophe into something I could maybe, possibly fit into my life.
Eight months later, my water would break in the same place I stood when I learned I was having a baby. There, in that upstairs bathroom, I would bear witness to my strength, to a shattering of my core beliefs about myself and the world. Instead of succumbing under the weight of the challenge, I would somehow grow stronger from it.
I’d always understood the effects of trauma, but I first heard the term posttraumatic growth (PTG) in 2017, when I was reporting for an article on trauma. “Why did I turn out relatively OK when both my parents were addicts?” I asked a psychiatrist I was interviewing on the subject. She told me about resilience, and how most people, under the right conditions, can actually grow from and find purpose in their adversity.
Protective factors like relational support (from a loved one or therapist) can allow people to not only bounce back from adversity, but to improve their lives because of it. While post-traumatic stress can lead to lifelong symptoms of mental illness, researchers report people with PTG can experience a greater appreciation of life and close relationships, along with increased compassion, spirituality, and creativity.
Even without a source of external support, grit—or, in this case, a determination to emerge “better” from an otherwise dark situation—might be enough to promote posttraumatic growth. Kanako Taku, a psychology professor at Oakland University, found in her research people who are open to new situations are more likely to experience PTG.
I still encountered plenty of difficulties because of my mom’s addiction—I was diagnosed with OCD and panic disorder in fourth grade, and I continue to face anxiety—but that’s not the point. By nature, posttraumatic growth requires a crucible. It’s just that the good things in your life, like the love of your family and friends or your belief in a spiritual practice, can transform how you walk through the fire. Instead of scars, the hard things become lessons.
Because I knew nothing about birth and baby-rearing, I hired a doula to help me navigate the process. I’d made it through seven months of pregnancy, but I was nervous about labor and delivery, doubting my body’s ability to withstand the pain. “Labor is a good kind of pain,” the doula told me. “It’s more like running a marathon than breaking a leg—something good is happening in your body as you work through the contractions.”
We’ve been taught as a society to dodge pain. But sometimes, the pain is an invitation to a new way of seeing, doing, and being. Take the COVID-19 pandemic and the current political landscape as an example, which has launched us collectively into an unparalleled mental health crisis—but at the same time, empowered us to make positive changes to ourselves and, more broadly, in society.
Recently, I interviewed a therapist for a magazine article about the mental health impact of the pandemic. My first question: What are the themes you’re seeing in your clients? She told me straight away that, as you’d expect, people are struggling. Struggling with finances, relationships, work. Losing loved ones or getting sick themselves. She told me about the dual trauma of systemic racism and the pandemic, and how anxiety and depression are just as rampant as the virus itself.
“But,” she said. “People are also re-engaging with old spiritual practices. They’re moving across the country to be closer to family. They’re quitting jobs that don’t bring them joy. They’re coming to therapy.”
Approaching a daunting or traumatic scenario with curiosity and a desire to grow can transform our experience, ultimately enabling us to find new purpose when our core beliefs and routines are dismantled. Expect to experience tension in the process of undoing. (I’ll be honest: Labor sucks.) But when you make the decision to ride the waves of your pain instead of pushing it away, the experience can lead to a clarity of values and, ultimately, new life.
My son is six years old, almost seven. And like any first grader, he’s terrified of shots. To get him in the car for his annual flu vaccine, I bribed him with a new LEGO set. Still, he cried in the backseat, disproportionately troubled by the idea that a nurse would soon puncture his skin with a sharp needle.
“Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it’s bad,” I told him from the front seat, explaining that the little poke wouldn’t feel good, but that it would help his body fight off the bad bugs that could make him sick.
He paused, as if I’d just told him the sky was yellow. “So something that hurts can actually help you?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “And just because you’re scared doesn’t mean you aren’t strong, too.” Forget Hot Wheels and backyard campouts. I was made for the philosophy parts of parenting.
My son got the flu shot, squealed in joy that the ordeal was over, and jumped off the exam table, the exact inverse of the whiny kid in the backseat ten minutes earlier. “That didn’t even hurt,” he bragged to no one in particular. “Can I have my LEGO set now?”