How can we learn from our traumatic experiences, and what can be gleaned from the process of recovery? Author Rebecca Fogg shares.
In 2008, Rebecca Fogg walked away from her New York life and career in financial services to move to London, where she co-founded the Institute of Pre-Hospital Care at London’s Air Ambulance and continues to work, write, and learn Scottish fiddle.
We chatted with her about her new book, Beautiful Trauma: An Explosion, an Obsession, and a New Lease on Life, chronicling her healing process after an explosion caused the partial amputation of her dominant hand. Beautiful Trauma is reviewed in the March/April 2023 issue of Spirituality+Health.
S+H: The title of your book expresses an unusual combination of words and ideas. Most people would describe an accident causing extensive damage to their right hand as “something awful” or “a terrible tragedy.” You, however, provide a different and more positive way of viewing a life-altering challenge. Can you share a few thoughts about how an experience can be both beautiful and traumatic?
Fogg: I would definitely describe some aspects of my experience as awful, too! But others were wonderful, like the amazing range of people who stepped up to help, deeper relationships with loved ones who rode the highs and lows with me, the passion I developed for medical science and writing, and more. I was surprised to discover that such beauty could coexist with trauma, and I found this knowledge uplifting. To be clear, I’m not saying that every trauma is enriching—that would be ignorant and cruel. But there was beauty in mine, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
You share that you journal on a near-daily basis. Is the practice of journaling newer to you, or were you already journaling before your injury? And, did journaling help you write your story?
I started journaling intermittently, many years before the accident—mainly as a way to process life’s tough patches—so it felt natural to continue during recovery. I ended up documenting the experience extensively for about six months, describing, among other things, every interaction with my medical team, loads of anxiety about my work and future, and all that “beauty”: people’s little daily kindnesses, encounters with urban nature, what it was like to feel sensation in my replanted hand again for the first time in months. So yes, those journals proved essential to writing my story.
In Chapter 11, you describe the existential distress you experienced at one point after the injury, having to wrestle with the question of, “Who will I be after all this is over?” How would you describe the person you are now versus the person you were before the accident?
I’m more accepting of my human vulnerability—which is not to say I’m entirely comfortable with it, but that I don’t fear and fight it as much as I used to. This makes it easier for me to ride with the challenges life throws at all of us, and it frees up emotional bandwidth for all the good stuff: love, creativity, learning, optimism.
I’m also better at noticing others’ hardships, and figuring out what I can do to help. And I’ve become bolder about betting on myself, because I never lose sight of the fact that it can all be gone in an instant. Of course I can still be stressed, depressed, petty, and annoying (just ask my BFF and siblings). But I hope I’m more the kind of person I want to be, more often.
What is the first thing you would say to another person who has just experienced a physically traumatic event similar to yours? What advice would you give them for coping with the tragedy and making it through the healing process?
I’d look them in the eye, make sure the expression on my face was sincere but not worried, and say, “I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this.” Then I’d listen and watch carefully to see where they wanted to take the interaction next. If I got the sense that they would welcome advice (I might even ask if they wanted me to share what I had learned), then depending on their circumstances and needs, here’s some of what I might say:
Ask for help. People like to give it, so let them.
Caveat to #1: People close to you may also be traumatized by your situation, thus less helpful than you’d hope. But others you’d never have expected will step up.
Don’t be afraid to question your health care providers—no matter how busy they are—until you understand your condition and treatment options/plan to your satisfaction. That will help you participate in decisions that affect you and may reduce a bit of the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.
Work as hard at physical therapy as you possibly can, because you only have a small window of time in which to improve the outcome.
If you’re discouraged by your rate of healing, find other ways to make or notice progress in your life. Buy a flowering plant and note the slowly opening buds. Read a few pages of a book or do some Duolingo questions every day. Dictate a short journal entry on your phone. Noticing little wins like that can be surprisingly encouraging.
How are the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of your healing process intertwined?
Very closely, and they continually influence each other. In the simplest example, as I regained strength and ability following the accident, my optimism about the future grew, and I had the emotional bandwidth to reflect on how I wanted my life to change as a result of the experience. Another example is Vipassana meditation, through which I’ve learned to “observe,” rather than fight or judge, my thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. This practice, and the bits of Buddhist philosophy I’ve learned along the way, have had a very positive—and what I might call spiritual—impact on how I interact with life and people.
You mention that one of the lessons learned through your injury and healing process is that self-sufficiency is neither achievable nor necessary. Could you elaborate on this?
From an early age, I wanted to do things “by self!” because it was a tiny bit scary and therefore very exciting—say, to climb the stairs and go alone into my grandmother’s attic, with its dusty books, forlorn toys, and old dresses creepily hanging from the rafters. Then, somewhere along the way, I came to believe I had to do everything myself. So I collected skills and degrees and jobs that I thought would protect me from life’s bumps and jolts.
But after experiencing 9/11 and my accident, I felt on a visceral level just how ridiculous that attitude was, because hardship is inevitable. Then I learned that kindness is inevitable, too. And though nobody can possibly keep us completely safe or prevent us from ever experiencing sorrow, others’ caring and positive intent alone can be healing.
Can you also share some thoughts about how the myth of self-sufficiency might get in the way of health and happiness for us as individuals and as a society?
Our society deeply values individual agency. The accompanying narrative is that everything is within our control, and we have a host of adages that promote it: You got this! Dream it and you can be it! Build it and they will come! The narrative is great when it emboldens us to reach out of our comfort zones to learn, grow, create, and challenge what’s wrong with the status quo.
It’s pernicious if it makes individuals feel ashamed to need help and reluctant to ask for it, or if it causes people to overlook the influence of those bio-psycho-social-environmental factors I mentioned above, and thus fails to take individual and collective action to address widespread barriers to health and happiness—like social inequity.
Read out review of Beautiful Trauma here.