From Little Things, BIg Things Grow

Today I had the most fortunate privilege of helping launch an amazing research project from the University of Melbourne. Born over a cup of coffee between Lou Harms(a researcher), and Rhonda Abotomey (a Black Saturday survivor, who lost family in the fires), where Lou put into terms what Rhonda had been feeling “There’s a term for it, Post Traumatic Growth”. Post Traumatic Growth has emerged as a concept in the literature in the mid nineties, so is relatively new. The work of Tedeschi and Calhoun are worth checking out, as is George Bonnano. One thing led to another and a project was born, setting out to understand and collect people’s growth experiences.

The project is important for a number of reasons. It is survivor led. This gives voice to those often without voice, particularly in the disaster setting. It is interdisciplinary, and the team was diverse social work, Computing, Performing Arts, bringing a rich and diverse set of lenses to it. It was funded by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, recognising that disasters have equity issues

Disasters, we know, are imprinted into our cultural psyche. Much of how we perceive them though, is simplistic, shaped by Hollywood disaster movies, or a thin hope that we want it to be better. There is also the tricky situation where those not affected by the disaster want the situation to become as positive as quickly as possible. The “I really want this to be all good” scenario, because it is a reflection their own emotions. They want to focus on positives so that the situation doesn’t validate they someone might be feeling crap. They want a sugar coated scenario so they can feel OK about themselves. We are not good at presenting the impacts of disasters realistically.

OF course, disasters are complex, and no more so than in the realm of psycho-social matters. We know that for many, many years, the psycho-social was ignored, and even suppressed. Growing up with a father who had undiagnosed PTSD from WW2, I can fully attest to this.

Through the pioneering work of Beverly Raphael, and Rob Gordon and Ruth Wraith, slowly but surely, people started to talk about it, recovery programs had a mental health component, but then people became focussed on the negative consequences, and everyone became pathologised. The pendulum had swung.

Back in 2002, running against the grain for this green recovery manager, at a friends wedding, one of the other guests was someone with whom I had dealings with post the Bali Bombings. We tucked ourselves away in the corner of the reception, and talked, and talked. “What I experienced was awful, but through what I had to do in those first 24 or so hours, has changed the way I approach work, and life” He then lent in and whispered, “I don’t feel like I can say this, but in a way it has had its positives”. This stuck with me, but did not compute.

A number of the conversations I have had with Rhonda, over the many years that we have known each other have also had that furtive, “I’m not sure I sure be feeling this” tone, and a quest for knowing more. When I learnt that she was working with Lou Harms, someone who I deeply respect, on a project on Post Traumatic Growth, the light bulb went on, this is it.

It is challenging for some people, because they are simply not feeling bad about what has happened, or are feeling like they have recovered. They often feel like they do not have permission from others to say they are doing OK. (One of the things that I like about All Right, the Christchurch public health campaign, is that they acknowledge people might feel a range of feelings, sometimes all at once, and this is OK.

This project, and research is really important. It is a missing piece of the puzzle. What we want is for people to know, whatever they are feeling, they are normal, and not going crazy. I have seen more Rob Gordon sessions that probably anyone, and there is always the light bulb moment in people. This research will enable more lightbulbs to go on. A word of caution. We cannot let this research get into the wrong hands, Agent 99. Unreconstructed policy people and treasury officials may seize on it and say, aha, see we don’t need to fund recovery programs, everyone will be OK, they’ll grow. We have to remember back to childhood, and growing pains.

I was a participant in the project. What was supposed to be an hour’s interview, ended up in some quick phone calls and emails to cancel appointments. We stretched into 2,  2 1/2 and almost three hours. The interview process was so helpful (although as many people know,  I can talk). My trauma is vicarious. Aside from my nursing days, I have not experienced what many people in the project, have experienced. But I have collected the stories, and this has helped me grow, in my role, and as a person, and to draw upon these experiences to offer someone the knowledge that that are not alone in their feelings, and they are not a pioneer.

Goethe, the last person they say knew everything, said

“Only by joy and sorrow does a person know anything about themselves, and their destiny, they learn what to do and what to avoid”

The challenge now is to make Post Traumatic Growth part of the lexicon. It needs to roll off the tongue, as we are talking about disasters.

One thought on “From Little Things, BIg Things Grow

  1. Hi John,
    I love this post. I always mention post traumatic growth when I talk about children affected by disasters because it isn’t all bad! I like the way you mention how it’s almost taboo to say that there have been positives that have come out of disaster experiences.
    One of the challenges for those who work in recovery is how do we provide the right kind of support to maximize post traumatic growth and how do we establish an evidence base for this.
    Can’t wait to read these research results.


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