Post-traumatic Strength, through Faith

A Light at the End of the Trauma Tunnel

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: It's not a diagnosis to be taken lightly. The causes of PTSD and the seriousness of its effects on those suffering from it rank high in the scale of human tragedy. The events that lie at the root of the disorder are uniformly awful: war, violence, abuse—extremes of inhumanity. And the disabling, disorienting symptoms that follow seem to elude conscious control: a terrible prognosis. Add to that that among all the available treatments, none offer a sure recovery.

When it was suggested to me that our daughter, adopted at age two from a Chinese orphanage, might fit the profile of the disease, it seemed like a sentence had been handed down; my family was now condemned to struggle with the after-effects of a distant evil event and there was nothing we could do. We could try to find a treatment that might help, but the damage was done and it would continue to more or less wreak havoc in her life and ours.

I remember finding some solace in an article in the New York Times Magazine about the mother of a Russian adoptee diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. Doctors believed that nothing could be done about the child's behavior since it involved irreparable brain damage. But the boy's mother, in the indomitable way of many a good mom, wouldn't take the hopeless diagnosis lying down. She researched and kept looking for an answer and finally found help. She applied for and received a specially trained service dog that would intervene with unconditional affection when the young man's anger would get triggered. Improvement—which wasn't supposed to be possible—began to happen. Life got better.

Hope is a powerful thing. I'd go so far as to say that it can be more powerful than the condemnation of a medical diagnosis. Medical science, which looks at the parts, the material components of the biological machine, doesn’t see beyond the sum of those parts. Hope, rooted in love (as it was in that mother's case), is connected to something which can't be located in brain or body, but which exists as a very real and causative presence in human life. There is a case to be made for faith: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews: 11.1)

Not mere whistling in the dark or donning rose-colored glasses, the kind of faith that can heal involves something much deeper than a declaration of religious belief. Nor a superstitious sort of wishful thinking, faith is really the expression of a universal human default—our recognition of and allegiance to goodness. Faith is the impulse of our hard-wired moral value system. We all know what good is and somehow we all feel that it is what is right, fair, and appropriate. This is what drives us to seek solutions even when things seem irreparably broken.

Free the Mind, a new documentary by Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo, gets into the cutting-edge science of how compassion and thoughtful attention to mental processes are highly effective medicines in themselves. The film presents the cases of Iraqi war vets and an anxiety-ridden child in foster care, and shows how conscious breathing and mindfulness exercises were used to interrupt the pattern of traumatized thinking that cycles fearful mental images in PTSD. University of Wisconsin psychology professor Richard Davidson explains the neuroscience, the way the brain can respond and adapt when we put ourselves in the way of compassion.

Finally, Dr. Suzanne Koven recently wrote in a blog for the Boston Globe in which she said that after the Boston Marathon bombings, it might be helpful to think not just in terms of the PTSD that victims, first-responders and witnesses might have to cope with, but with "post-traumatic strength." She wrote, “trauma itself can bring strength, even to people who weren’t very strong to begin with. Every nurse and doctor I know can tell you about a patient who was toughened by an illness or injury one might have predicted would crush them." She ended by saying, “Like so many of my patients, we know something we didn’t know before the blows came: that we can survive them."

That we actually do know how to survive and that this knowledge comes to us through a built-in spiritual apprehension of life turns out to be bigger and more basic than accident or cruelty. And it is inseparable from the healing process.

For the mother of the Russian boy, there was an intuitive and stubborn reliance on the idea that good is an actual force. In the day-to-day pace of family life with my daughter, I find that insisting on the power of good makes all the difference. Even on those days when we hit road bumps, what makes a difference is taking a stand with the qualities and values I think are best. Love, persistent affection, patience—I’d rather turn in at night knowing I’d stuck with these. They strengthen hope and point the way toward the light.

Joe Farkas has been involved in spiritual practices for over 40 years. He has taught yogic breathing techniques and led groups in meditation. For the past ten years he has practiced spiritual healing as a Christian Science practitioner. Joe lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and youngest daughter.