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Interview

Read why Michaela wrote the book, who inspired her and what she can offer you


q & A, continued

As many as 90 percent of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life or a deeper connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely does it happen by itself.

It is crucial for people to know that a trauma does not have to be a life sentence, and that it can be a catalyst for positive growth. People might at first believe talking about growth in this context means whitewashing trauma, but in researching this book, I have learned that trauma can transform us in positive ways when we let it touch us. Posttraumatic growth does not mean that there is no pain. It is the struggle that acts as a force to find a new meaning and build a resilient life.

Q. What are the five main areas of growth that trauma survivors experience?

A. 1.         A majority of trauma survivors report finding a new appreciation for life.

2.         Relationships deepen, we find out who our true friends are, and we become more compassionate to the suffering of others.

3.         A third area of change is our own strength, knowing our resilience.

4.         Many people find new opportunities and meaning that they wouldn’t otherwise have explored.

5.         Spiritual progress and a new spiritual connection.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about Rhonda Cornum and her story?

A. Rhonda was an army flight surgeon serving in Iraq when her helicopter was shot down. She was badly injured, with two broken arms. She was taken hostage by the Iraqis, sexually assaulted, and detained for seven days. When asked about her experience and how traumatized she was, Rhonda responded that she was not traumatized. This, of course, astounded questioners. She said her experience of being totally helpless had helped her to understand what other people are going through, and that it made her a better doctor, a better soldier, a better person. This is a stunning example of posttraumatic growth, but it wasn’t until about a decade later that she realized there were actually proven methods and scientific research to help train people to grow from such harrowing experiences. Therefore, she started a comprehensive program that teaches resilience to every soldier in the US Army. Rather than just treat soldiers for trauma after they return from war, she reasoned, wouldn’t it be so much better to prepare them before they deploy?

Q. What can we as civilians learn from this training?

A. The strategies that work in a military crisis situation are really not that different from those that we can apply to civilian life. In fact, many of the soldiers I spoke with told me the resilience training helps them every day at home. It teaches skills such as:

•    Honest and skillful communication

•    Learning to keep calm under stress

•    Realistic optimism instead of catastrophizing

•    Asking for help

•    Mindfulness and meditation

Q. Who else is in the book?

A. I only included people in the book I deeply admire—for instance, autistic savant Temple Grandin, who turned a so-called handicap into an advantage; Def Leppard’s Thunder God Rick Allen, who devotes much of his time helping other amputees; Zen master Roshi Bernie Glassman, who takes people to the places they fear; MADD founder Cindi Lamb, who found forgiveness for the man who killed her daughter; and business consultant Alain Beauregard, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There are twelve inspiring stories of people who emerged from these experiences stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. I also spoke with the psychologists and pioneers of posttraumatic growth to highlight what those of us who aren’t naturally resilient can learn in order to face tough situations well and what exactly it is that makes some people grow in the midst of adversity.

Q. Can you talk about Jesse Billauer a little bit?

A. Everyone loves Jesse! Jesse is an exceptional athlete who was about to become a pro surfer. When he was seventeen a wave threw him headfirst into a sandbank in Malibu. He is paralyzed from the chest down, but that does not stop him from going back into the ocean. He now surfs with the help of a motorized surfboard. He surfs big waves in Fiji, dives with sharks, goes skydiving. Through his nonprofit organization, Life Rolls On, he helps other paralyzed surf and skate enthusiasts get back into the game.

Q. Hardly anything irks trauma survivors more than statements such as, “Maybe something good will come out of it.” How is the science of posttraumatic growth different?

A. One thing that has become very clear is that glossing over trauma is counterproductive. Posttraumatic growth requires us to face the pain and tend to the wounds. The pain is the catalyst for the growth. We need to integrate what happened into our life story. The good only comes from what we decide to do with it—from our struggle, which unveils what needs to change in us and in our society; from honing our ability to make meaning out of events that seem senseless; from not trying to rebuild an exact replica of what was lost, but to engineer a stronger, sturdier foundation for our life.

            One of the best things we can do is to connect with other people who have been through something tough. This is, in fact, what I am offering with Bouncing Forward. Here we meet people who are not afraid to talk honestly about their struggles as well as their insights. The book is to help people see the possibilities of growth.

Q. What was the personal motivation for you to write this book?

A. My grandfather contracted polio when he was only six months old. He was physically handicapped, but he was one of the most dynamic, loving, and lovable people you could ever meet. He made a big imprint on my life. As a reporter, I often interviewed people who had been through something hard, and I always wondered why some people break down while others not only survive, but thrive. For instance, the Tibetan refugees I studied with in Nepal had lost everything—their homeland, their families, their health—and yet they were some of the most content, cheerful people I have ever met. What makes the difference? This question became deeply personal when I got quite ill in my twenties. I had thought of myself as resilient, but when I was bedridden for eight months, I was shocked by how badly I coped with it. So I started researching what others had found helpful.

Q. Can you share a bit about your story?

A. When I was studying in Nepal in my twenties, I got so ill I could hardly get out of bed or keep any food down. I went back to France, where my husband lived at the time, and the doctors there tested me for brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, everything under the sun. I got increasingly scared. I was so weak that I couldn’t even run errands or go to the supermarket. And then I found out that my husband was cheating on me, at a time when I needed him the most. I call the years that followed “my years in hell,” because everything just went downhill from there. I was perpetually at the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually I moved back to Germany, where I’m from, and slowly reassembled the pieces of my life. But I never reclaimed my health completely, and I had to readjust my priorities and make big changes.

Q. How did you put your life back together?

A. Step by step. Not being able to do a lot physically, I had to tune into the internal resilience of my mind. That is where Buddhist meditation really helped me to be present with what is and to work through the pain with compassion. I couldn’t change many of the external conditions, but I could change my attitude and how I dealt with it. The illness forced me to readjust my priorities and to rewrite the script of my life in major ways.

Q. What is the main takeaway for readers of this book?

A. Don’t give up! For this book I have interviewed people who have experienced things that I don’t think I could survive. But they did survive, and emerged with tremendous insight and wisdom. Maybe heroes such as Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai were born with an extra dose of courage, but we must not underestimate how we are all hardwired for survival and resilience. It is my hope that readers of Bouncing Forward will learn that many of our common notions about trauma are simply not true. We belittle survivors if we predict that they will fail. The purpose of Bouncing Forward is to show how we can support them and help them heal. Bouncing Forward highlights more than sixty strategies survivors have found helpful, from forgiving ourselves to reconnecting with our bodies.

Q. What would you say is the recipe to overcome trauma?

A. Every person is different, and we all have to find our own recipe. But the ingredients turn out to be surprisingly similar. The number one thing is to acknowledge the trauma and to connect with others instead of isolating ourselves. Nobody can do it alone. We often think no one else can comprehend our pain, but the truth is that there is always someone we can reach out to. Scouting for allies, deepening our compassion, and helping others emerge as common threads.

Q. What are some exercises that can help?

A. Meditation has proven to counteract the effects of trauma. With mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises, we can reduce anxiety and handle stress better. We can literally rewire our brains and heal our hearts. Shame and guilt are among the most common feelings after trauma, so the healing process has to start with love toward ourselves. This book contains a brief guide with effective meditation exercises that anyone can do, including loving-kindness for ourselves and a gratitude practice. It sounds deceptively simple, but it truly makes a difference.

More interviews here