Recently, a young, 33 year old woman returned to therapy to talk about the long repressed trauma resulting from a college date rape. I hadn’t worked with someone who was battling PTSD for a while. Instead of simply relying on my tried and true resources in a situation like this, it is my custom to also explore new research and thought leaders.
My search lead me to a brilliant writer, Stephen Joseph, PhD and his book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. Joseph talks about his more than 20 years of work with survivors of trauma and his startling discovery that boldly challenges the conventional wisdom. He contends that trauma and its aftermath, rather than ruining one’s life can actually improve it.
In the introduction, Dr. Joseph writes about the core concept of his book – The Theory of the Shattered Vase. “Imagine that a treasured vase sits in a place of prominence in your house. One day, you accidentally knock it off its perch. It smashes. Sometimes when vases shatter, there is enough left intact to provide a base from which to start the process of reconstruction. In this case, however, only shards remain.
What do you do? Do you try to put the vase back together as it was, using glue and sticky tape? Do you collect the shards and drop them in the garbage, as the vase is a total loss? Or do you pick up the beautiful colored pieces and use them to make something new – such as a colorful mosaic?”
Joseph goes on to say that trauma is not an illness to be cured by a doctor. Psychotherapists are valuable as a source of guidance and they can be expert companions along the journey, but ultimately one must take responsibility for their own recovery. He challenges the notion that PTSD is both inevitable and inescapable asserting that if people are told they are vulnerable and need help, the traumatic situation becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy. The vision for successful treatment has been limited to the idea of alleviating PTSD but that ignores the body of research showing that humans are resilient and many find benefits in adversity, which can be a spring board for growth.