Thursday, August 3, 2017

From Post-Traumatic Stress to Post-Traumatic Growth: Transforming Adversity into Creative Rebirth

A child-like family of origin poetic allegory captures meaningful complex family dynamics through the story of "The Spider and the Butterfly."  The poem is followed by an in-depth essay on the process of traumatic to dramatic-creative transformation.  Enjoy.  MG

From Post-Traumatic Stress to Post-Traumatic Growth:  Transforming Adversity into Creative Rebirth

This is another head- and heartfelt essay & poem combo about the motivational forces that for me spurred new genre writing:  poetic allegory.  According to Merriam-Webster, "allegory" is the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.  The work below is a deep examination of early family of origin dynamics captured in a children’s story-like format.  More specifically, the poem illustrates one variation on the universal triangle themes of codependence, separation, loss, fear, and the struggle for individuation, for developing your own authentic voice.  Mr. and Mrs. Spider and a little butterfly are the principal players.  With its interplay of adult themes and children-of-all-ages format, I believe the piece (Parts I & II of a continuing saga) is both fairly compelling and insightful.  I have placed it before the introductory essay.  The essay explores – both conceptually and personally – the psychically disruptive backdrop to the creation of the allegory.  As always, would love your feedback.  Enjoy the journey.  MG

The Spider and the Butterfly:  Part I
Not Necessarily Just a Children’s Story

The spider spins a silky web
Of soft and shiny aura.
How will a little butterfly
Know the coming drama?

Lady S so wants a child
But she herself is dry
And a wounded Mr. Spider
Turns his back and cries.

Sunlight sparkles on the weave
Catching the ‘lil butter’s eye.
He soon alights upon the web
Her tapestry does hypnotize.

The ‘lil one fills a big hole
In her broken heart.
The spin-stress knows not why she craves…
But he must play a part.

Is he embraced or entrapped
In the lady’s many arms?
Instinct tells ’lil b to flee
Despite her luring charms.

But Lady Spider starts to sing
Her haunting Siren ** song.
How is one so young to know
Just what is right from wrong?

The moon has journeyed many times
Giving in becomes veiled lie.
‘lil b now wonders who he is…
“Oh no.  I’ve forgotten how to fly!”

**  In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.  (Wikipedia)


The Spider and the Butterfly:  Part II
Not Necessarily Just a Children’s Story

So where is Mr. Spider’s thread
In our enmeshed story?
For in this tale of web and woe
Lady S spins all the glory.

Mr. S, alas, cannot weave…
His scarlet mark of shame
Adding insult to injury:
The Queen’s needles are a pain.

To numb a spider’s injured pride
He gorges on the blood
Of his wife’s hard-earned bounty
Drinking far more than he should.

Mr. S silently seethes
Black smoke clouds his red-hot brain:
How can he seize ‘lil b
From the Queen’s web domain?

While ‘lil b so quietly
Morphs…now the “too good” child:
Wings aflutter cool spider fears, but
White noise “call of the wild!”

Then one day, Mr, Spider
Announces to his mate
That he and the butter boy
Have planned a hunting date.

‘lil b unexpectedly
Eyes Mr. S. with newfound hope
But quickly turns to reality…
Will she let us cut the rope?

© Mark Gorkin  2017
Shrink Rap ™ Productions

lil b may not know where he is going
but I believe he will know how to get there.
Just between you and me...
I'd stay tuned for Part III.

From Post-Traumatic Stress to Post-Traumatic Growth:  Transforming Adversity into Creative Rebirth

We all have heard of “post-traumatic stress,” the aftermath of shock and hypervigilance, loss and adversity with its many lingering, disruptive signs and symptoms of mind-body turmoil.  Hey, what about post-traumatic growth?  To understand the latter, we must recognize the former.  Potential major traumatic events include:  a) the death or painful loss of a loved one, b) the end of a long-time, meaningful relationship, c) the sudden and unexpected loss of a vital job, position, community, or role, d) a life-threatening illness or accident, e) a social environment that has you always on guard or living with a smoldering, just beneath the surface sense of angst or near panic, whether because of a substance-abusing parent, cyber-bullying peers, a climate of harassment, or nightly gunshots in your neighborhood, f) a war-zone experience with its potential for multiple trauma triggers, or g) a shocking natural catastrophe, along with the uncertain waiting for aftershocks, as in the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, etc.  These complex events not only endanger a basic sense of security and community, but may threaten or unravel a personal identity.  Such trauma can challenge our foundational belief systems.  Assumptions and expectations about ourselves, our supportive circle, the surrounding world, about life or nature – human and otherwise – are being tested.  Adding to the psychic injury, subterranean memories or, at least, the lurking emotions, further disorient as they surge to the forefront of consciousness.  And nothing can be taken for granted; we must reexamine fundamental premises.  We must entertain unprecedented survival, psychological, and existential-behavioral questions and patterns.  And, of course, this reassessment or mind-body-moral inventory is the conceptual, psycho-spiritual, and creative bridge to new paths and possibilities.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Ironically, it is just because our worldview, beliefs, and role-identities have been so profoundly shaken if not shattered by physical, but especially psychic-seismic upheaval, that we have the opportunity to experience the inverse of post-traumatic stress…post-traumatic growth!  “Growth after trauma can take a number of different forms, including a greater appreciation for life, the identification of new possibilities for one’s life, more satisfying interpersonal relationships, (including increased empathy and altruism), a richer spiritual life and a connection to something greater than oneself, and a sense of personal strength.”  (Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gegoire, Wired to Create:  Understanding the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Perigee:  Penguin Random House; New York, 2015.)

How to achieve such lofty goals as post-traumatic growth? Chaotic reality flies in the face of past beliefs, emotional-interpersonal schemas, and action plans. Letting go of the once predictable or familiar, while scary – the approach/avoidance or risk/reward uncertainty conundrum – helps open us to new or “nothing left to lose” perceptions, to consider unthinkable problem-solving ideas and strategies, to generate novel ways of framing, defining and defying, and, ultimately, giving meaning to crisis and loss, to pain and suffering. Akin to a city whose neighborhoods, roadways, power lines, and monuments have been rattled, battered, and razed by an earthquake, we must first distinguish the functional from the dysfunctional. Then, one must learn from the past to rebuild schematic structures that guide understanding and decision-making; that harness – individually and collectively – purpose, passion, and persistence. Of course, initially there is a grief process – shock, sadness, loss, anger, doubt and ambivalence, and angst, etc. – that often precedes and gradually nurtures (though not always on a predictable schedule), sustained rebuilding and rejuvenation.

Grief as Growth

In fact, the path of grief is a major growth stimulant, a challenging and fluid formula for finding-designing renewed meaning for living.  With sufficient support and time, by embracing the dark side of melancholy and mourning a new season of light and rebirth imperceptibly yet magically often appears on the horizon.  As I once penned:  Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position, or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning.  The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time.  In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

In summary, to stabilize a self shaken at its roots, we often must let go of comfortable and reassuring or stress-relieving habits, that is, coping adaptations that have become limiting or, at the least, do not fit a new post-trauma reality.  We must learn to both explore wildly and fail fearlessly – “strive high and embrace failure” anyone?  Or, at least move – whether steadily or in fits and starts – out of that proverbial comfort zone.  Why?  Because, as an adult, habitual cognitive-emotive-behavioral patterns not courageously and thoroughly questioned have decided dysfunctional, self-constricting, “b.s.” – be safe – potential.  However, through individual and group grief, rumination, sharing, and reflection, and active trial and error exploration-experimentation we are in a position to gain up-to-date information about ourselves and our environments.  My regeneration mantra:  Learn to Fail or Fail to Learn!  We are now rebuilding from the ground up; we are pursuing unprecedented – and perhaps creative – pathways and opportunities.  The poignancy and pregnancy of this “no exit challenge,” will present itself, especially if we understand the wisdom articulated by French-Algerian, Nobel-prize winning author, Albert Camus:  Once we have accepted the fact of loss, we understand that the loved one obstructed whole corners of the possible…pure now as a sky washed by rain.

That is, we have invested so much time, energy, emotion, ego in that one special person, one right position or living space, one acceptable self-definition, only one possible outcome, that we are not even aware fully of what else lives inside us and what is conceivable outside us…and the evolving magical “transitional space” when boldly and imaginatively playing with the two.

Corners of the Possible

Which brings me to five new or reinvigorated “post-traumatic” corners of the possible recently discovered and designed in the aftermath of: a) the end of a ten-year relationship, b) the loss of a three-year old “grandchild,” c) the dissolution of my Cleveland social network, d) having to find new living arrangements, d) decidedly more ebb than flow in my speaking gigs, that is, e) basically having to start over in Columbia, MD feeling mostly isolated, wounded, and defeated.

Five of the recent corners of hibernation and healing:  1) participating regularly in a variety of twelve step groups, 2) making new friends both inside and outside the “step” experience, 3) carefully listening to my dreams, 4) engaging in creative-therapeutic writing, especially capturing my traumatic stress to growth process through various forms of poetic expression, and 5) finding creative partners to help turn poetic concepts into creative products.  I believe the common and creative threads connecting the five corners is simple yet substantial:  All corners, especially the first four, provide a space for me to discover what psychological emotions and ideas are swimming and swirling in my conscious and subconscious minds.  For example, the first four corners definitely hold up a mirror to my psyche, heart, and soul.  This can occur by talking out loud in a group to hear and, thereby, clarify the jumble of mind-body-spirit thoughts and feelings.  It also evolves through give-and-take sharing and feedback with self-reflective kindred pals.  I hear disguised or denied parts of myself in their stories.  Dreams are another subterranean, self-revealing mirror (sometimes of a fun- and not-so-fun-house variety) that often puzzle and propel me into deeper confusion and exploration.

Writing is Conceiving Is Believing Is Reframing Is…

Then, of course, there is creative writing. A number of colleagues have asked why I keep exploring what appear to be familiar themes: why don’t you move on? For me, relationship loss – whether of early or more recent origin – is a mine of infinitely rich and vibrant, yet often painful, minerals. And the deeper I dig and sift, recall and sort, the ore brought back to the surface is not just richer but more of my human essence. And under red hot, laser-like inner gaze, the ore becomes fluid and fleeting, inducing a state of mental meandering and kaleidoscopic possibility. In dream-like fashion, the interplay of past-present-future takes me down the rabbit hole…to unexpected places if not unimaginable spaces. Once the ore begins to cool and my mind begins to converge (that is, evolves from the seemingly psycho-logical to the more logical) … the protean-like ore can be molded into a myriad of forms and functions, such as a new format like poetic allegory. Finally, not surprisingly, soul material always retains an element of unfinished mystery.

Let the writing adventure begin.  As I sit before the computer, turned on by my performance angst, mind wandering is followed by more focused, mindful/meditative states (or as easily, the reverse cognitive sequence.  I call this mercurial ebb and flow finding that elusive balance between mindfulness and out-of-mindfulness; the latter being my specialty ;-).  Shifting between unconscious percolation to building surprising subconscious and conscious connections, then once more back down into the writer’s well for additional sediments and sustenance.  All this meandering, molding, and new meaning construction hopefully, gradually, leads to clear, concise, and compelling sentences or captivating visually rhythmic and evocative lines. This discovery-to-design process helps soothe past pain, clarifies present understanding, and purposefully yet playfully spins and shapes new corner possibilities. (In fact, I think an essay about the importance and power of these “five corners” is waiting in the wings.)

Phew. Time to reread “The Spider and the Butterfly.” Hopefully, it brings to life more tangibly the evolution – from pain to poetry – of post-traumatic stress, growth and creativity. To be continued! Amen and women, to that!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker -- on stress & burnout, performance-leadership & captivating communication -- as well as recognized authour, and "Psychohumorist" ™.  Mark is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative and is a current Leadership Coach/Training Consultant for the international Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University at the Daytona, FL headquarters. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army. Presently Mark does Critical Incident Debriefing for organizational/corporate clients of Business Health Services. The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High-Tech World. Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info, email:

1 comment:

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