Learning about a family member’s or your own disabling health condition is shocking. Early on, it can be impossible to know how to grow from trauma. As humans we fit our lives inside a template. When experiences do not fit, it creates confusion. The more outside the boundaries an experience falls, the more severe the stress it creates. When something is abnormal based on your belief of what normal is, then you have a stress response to it.
When you learned you or a family member or friend was suffering from a debilitating health condition, did it devastate you? It devastated me when I learned about my son’s autism diagnosis. I remember crying on the phone to a friend as I said, “I just want him to be all right.” The source of this devastation was the fear of the unknown. In the beginning, I didn’t know ANYTHING about autism. So, this experience scared and devastated me.
With the help of many people, the devastation eventually left, and I began to see hope for my son’s future and for my family’s life. My biggest fear was I would be held a prisoner by my son’s disability, and I wouldn’t be able to experience my life because of giving care to someone else’s life. My sincere desire for you, dear reader, is to share my experiences and contributions of others in such a way that you will experience a sense of hope sooner than I did and find out both of you can have a life worth living.
A stress response is a normal reaction to abnormal experiences.
We are designed to have emotions. We can try to avoid or repress our emotions, but we are designed to have them. The more emotionally connected we are to another human, the greater the degree of stress response when something we perceive as harmful occurs to this other human. This is one of the rationales for discouraging physicians from treating their own family members. It is difficult for them to set aside their emotional bias in treating a family member.
On the flip side, though, is the more connected you are to a variety of people the easier it may be to recover from a stress response. You can read about how to find a tribe here. That’s why it “takes a village” to participate as full functioning humans in life. In Johann Hari’s Ted Talk he discusses how his research on connection showed him “surprising and hopeful ways” of thinking about problems, which can drive us to isolation. This is a foundational aspect to grow from trauma.
When I learned about my son’s autism, I lived in a remote New Mexico town. This community was in the beginning stages of developing special education programs in the public school tailored to meet the unique needs of kids on the spectrum. They hired outside consultants from Houston to help them develop their programs. So, while the school system offered something, it was limited. The limitation of local connections made it challenging to grow from trauma.
During this period, I reached out to as many people as I could think of who might help me. I called professionals in larger cities. Their distance was an obstacle to accessing them. Also, the professionals—for whatever reason—denied me help. They refused to take an appointment from me. Perhaps, they were swamped with more local people.
But I didn’t give up. So, I started Google searches, reached out to groups on Facebook, and asked my friends for people they knew. So, the people who helped me the most were other mothers whose own children were on the spectrum or had other special needs.
None of them lived in the town where I lived. They lived in other parts of the country. Yet, they were willing to help me by sending me information through the mail or writing about their personal experiences. A dance and music educator sent me a packet of body movement exercises designed for sensory integration disorders.
Because she sent me this, I knew how to help my son. Every morning, before I dropped my son off at the local early education center, I took him to the park and coached him in these exercises so he would be better prepared to go to the early education center. I worked hard and my son worked harder.
Look beyond your back yard
If I had limited my search to my back yard, I would have experienced severe loneliness and isolation. I reached out through any means I could think of to connect with people who had navigated the path longer than me. I actively sought out people’s writings which gave me hope and instructions on how to grow from trauma. One of the best blogs I came across and read almost daily in the beginning—both for the quality of the mother’s writing and for her experience—was Autism Sparkles. Her writing about her experiences gave hope to an unknown, anonymous mother living in New Mexico.
Somehow, I intuitively knew the critical importance of reaching out to people with a positive mindset. They took their post traumatic stress disorder and transformed it into post traumatic growth.
If you’re someone who has a family member with special needs or you are experiencing a challenging time, how will you know you are finding your way to a transformational growth experience?
These are the signs:
- You will have an appreciation for life. You will re-order your priorities.
- Your relationships to others will change. You will have a bigger interest in authentic, vulnerable experiences with others.
- You will begin to see new possibilities in life, as a result of this stressful experience.
- You will acknowledge your personal strength or resilience, and
- You will experience a spiritual change.
You do not have to go it alone. Your tribe is waiting to welcome you.