If you would have told me I would write about thriving while I sat sobbing in shock, during my first meal at the domestic violence shelter, I would have thought you were crazy. If you came to me in those moments I sat in silence, alone in the chapel of the shelter (trying to make sense of life with a pen and paper) in order to explain to me that I really would find my way out of this experience able to succeed and thrive, I would have struggled to believe you.
And yet, here I am. Human resilience is truly amazing.
The experience of violence is a complex and multifaceted issue to tackle. In moments where a person is subjected to another person’s force and will outside of their own, trauma occurs. In these experiences there is a sense that no options are available to respond toward one’s own desires. The person also feels they are standing at the edge of death. In other words, the experience of trauma causes one to feel imprisoned in the moment, not sure if they will make it out alive.
After an experience like this, a person will relive that moment over and over again, as if they are attempting to create opportunities for it play out differently. Some experts suggest (such as Judith Herman in her text “Trauma and Recovery”) that this reliving of the experience is an attempt to gain control. The person relives the moment again and again trying to gain power over it. Unfortunately, reliving it and snapping back in time does not allow command over the situation and the person ends up finding themselves more out of control. Because truly, how can one feel control if they are not living in the present?
Anything can trigger these flashbacks into the past. A smell, certain phrases, a picture, a voice; literally anything.
This makes the journey to healing after trauma a long and hard road to walk down. It can take years (even decades) to stop the trauma response. This is why I invested my time in my doctoral studies developing healing methods specifically designed for women who experienced Intimate Partner Violence. I wanted to offer opportunities and tools to move out of the trauma experience towards really living.
One of my main sources for research is Thelma Bryant-Davis. She wrote a book titled “Thriving in the Wake of Trauma: A Multicultural Guide” (published by AltaMira Press in 2005). Bryant-Davis claims the mark of healing after trauma is thriving.
I love that. The sign of healing is located in the word “thriving.”
This goes beyond being a victim and beyond being a survivor of violence. It is a category past all this. No longer in the experience of violence as a victim and no longer a survivor of that experience. Instead, there is a new category: thriver.
In other words, there are not simply opportunities to live and survive after a violent experience but there is also the potential to thrive in that life.
This notion of thriving takes into account that things are not always perfect after violence and yet a capacity to thrive comes to fruition anyway. It acknowledges that flashbacks could happen but they tend not to since living in the present is how one finds control over their life.
However, it is important (and quite crucial) to note that thriving cannot happen if a person is not safe. Safety is an absolute necessity for thriving. If one is continuing to be traumatized, they must find themselves surviving first.
In my own research and dissertation (that will hopefully be published before we know it) I outline what I refer to as signs or marks of thriving.
It is about finding freedom from the moments of violence that hold you captive. It involves discovering your own strength and power. It encompasses realizing your beauty and value.
It’s a long, hard journey. But I can promise you, if you are willing to do the hard work of fighting to really gain control over the experience of violence, it’s beautiful on this side.
I speak both from years dedicated to researching this as well as personal experience. I had to work really, really hard.
I went into post-trauma flashbacks for years and had to retrain myself to live in the present. I remember collapsing, thinking it was too hard, believing the trauma symptoms would never stop. But now, I don’t even think about it. It’s so distant from me it seems like a past-life memory.
Thriving takes a lot of grueling work. I had to go back and visit the domestic violence shelter every single week for two years for some serious trauma-focused therapy. I fought to mentally process what it meant to be on this side of trauma and learn how to be myself post-control. I had to let my body remember and heal.
I remember making mistakes. Trying again. I remember giving up. Then getting over it and trying again.
However, by the time I could go back and intentionally study domestic violence in doctorate studies, I was beginning to gain that control back. I survived a violent situation where I was frozen in time and finally, after a lot of difficult work, moved into thriving in the present.
Thriving is not an easy place to get to—but it sure is worth it. Because it is about:
Thriving… With friends and family.
Becoming an advocate for what once held you captive.
Knowing who you are and liking it.
Using your power to make your own choices.
It’s a life of freedom and wholeness; beauty and hope. It’s a life of moving beyond simply surviving and moves toward truly living in the moment.
So let’s talk about thriving.
Bryant-Davis, Thelma. Thriving in the Wake of Trauma. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2005.
Herman, Judith, MD. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Perseus, 1992.