Finding the Upside of Down

How Tragedy Can Lead to Remarkable and Dramatic Breakthroughs

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Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery! Replace the evil years with good. —Psalm 90:15

I WAS TWELVE AND THE SUMMER SUN WAS sinking into the night sky when my mom showed me her thumb and said it wouldn’t move a certain way. That’s when she told me about her illness, a degenerative disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her health declined over the next six years to the point where she could no longer stand or even take herself to the bathroom. As a teenager, I was mortified when my mom would collapse in the grocery store. I was numb when she made me carry her to the bathroom and sit outside the door so I could carry her back to bed. My high school years were filled with lonely weeks as she traveled to various medical centers for testing and treatment.

Our family didn’t know how to process the confusing emotions, so we avoided them. To cope with the emotional pain, I turned to drugs, boys, and alcohol. Typically, I would be partying on a Friday night—especially because it was three days before my high school graduation—but for some reason, I drove the twelve miles home to our house in the country one evening. I walked into the bedroom where my mom was hallucinating. I remember torrential rain striking the window and bright blasts of lightning interrupting the darkness. I don’t remember anyone else around the house, even though there had to be. Years later, I found out from our housekeeper that both my mom (a nurse) and my dad (a doctor) knew she was going to die that night.

Tubes ran into my mother’s nose. She struggled to speak. I fought back tears as I told her I loved her. I can’t explain it, but she suddenly became lucid and said, “I love you too, Lullabelle.” I left the room, afraid she would see my sadness. In bed that night, I felt a giant butterfly flapping its wings on my stomach. I jumped out of bed, turned on the lights and looked inside the covers and underneath the bed, but found nothing. (Thinking back now, I believe this is when she died.) An hour or two later, my dad woke me up and asked me to come to the kitchen. Puzzled, I looked around at my siblings and my dad’s pained smile. He said, “Your mother went to Heaven this morning,” then he turned and broke down.

That morning, while she was still dead in the bedroom, my dad tried to cope by resorting to a usual routine. The younger kids were put on the bus and sent to school. My 10-year-old sister told her class at show-and-tell that her mommy died. Since my twin and I were seniors, we had finished school a few days before the other students. I was in shock since my mom had always told us she wouldn’t die from her disease. The only thing I knew to do was to go running. I threw on my jogging clothes, wrapped my headphones around my ears, blasted my Pat Benatar tape, and ran in the rain. Cars drove by, splashing mud on me. Later that night, I went out drinking with friends.

After college, I married and had children. Even though I had anxiety and depression, I stayed busy. But when I was 27, something happened to change the course of my life. I still don’t understand what spurred me to cry out to God, but I did. I went to my bedroom while the kids were taking a nap, got down on my knees, and said, “God, if you’re real, I need to know it.” Later that week, three separate people talked to me about God and each one invited me to a little white church nearby. Prior to this, I had wrongly concluded that good people go to Heaven and bad ones go to Hell. The scale was weighted against me ever going to Heaven because of all the bad things I had done, so I gave up and spiraled downward. I had believed a lie that I may as well give up, because I was on my way to Hell.

As I began attending church regularly, I was keenly aware of how happy everyone seemed, but I was certain that if anyone knew the real me, they would toss me out. One day I heard the pastor read a scripture from Ephesians 2:8, “You are saved by grace, it is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” At about the same time, my neighbor started taking my three-year old to a children’s program at the same church. My daughter came home saying things like, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Slowly, I realized my salvation wasn’t based on Jesus on the cross plus my good deeds. It was Jesus on the cross, period. He paid for my sin.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness of a pastor who took an interest in me. He shared the love of God and I witnessed the joy and authenticity of his life. I spent the next dozen years sopping up God’s goodness, and I couldn’t get enough of church, Christians, and Bible studies. This healed me a lot.

Unfortunately, the shame and pain inside me never left. I even felt ashamed that I couldn’t heal from shame, especially now that I was walking with Christ. Until I went to graduate school to become a counselor, I didn’t know that spiritual growth and emotional healing are not the same thing. There I unraveled my story. Even though the church had exposed me to a lot of acceptance and grace, it wasn’t until the hurt and guilty places of my heart were exposed that I healed. Since that time, I have become a counselor and I have worked through the pain of that time. I can now tell my story in a way that no longer dominates me, and I can see it as the path to my career and my freedom. I view my suffering as God’s way of making me more compassionate and understanding towards others.

Even though my life steadily improved, I watched other family members struggle and make disastrous life choices. One ongoing question rumbled in my head: Why do some people who experience trauma come out stronger and resilient, while others stumble and never seem to recover?

As I counseled my clients, taught students at Colorado Christian University, raised two children, and lived my life, I continued my quest to understand what makes people emotionally strong, happy, healthy, and whole. Are there practical things people can do to improve their lives? What are the factors that help people cope—even thrive? And what are the factors that prevent this from happening?

During this time, I headed to a scrapbooking retreat with my closest girlfriends. I stopped at Starbucks along the way. When I placed my order for a latte, the young man working behind the counter made me an offer. (To be honest, I think he was an angel, as I’ve never had this sort of treatment at a Starbucks before or since.)

“Ma’am, for a dollar more you can double the espresso. It’s like going from a life raft to the Queen Mary.” His words shook me. They made me laugh but they also made me realize I had a choice in the direction I wanted my life to go. While in graduate school earning my counseling degree, I had reckoned with the messy story of my childhood. Understanding my own loss and trauma was important work, but now it was time to acknowledge the healing that had taken place and allow my journey to move in a new direction.

Just like that, the theme of the rest of my life emerged. I decided I wanted to use my pain for good. I was done grieving and ready to move forward.

Hard times are like a storm that strips us. The torrential wind can leave us agonized, humiliated or confused. The fury can rip away our friends, jobs, comfort, sense of justice, and understanding of God’s goodness. The same storm can blow away a humdrum life. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been wind-whipped by life, but some are better for it. Like Dorothy when she returned from Oz, they come back with wisdom, compassion, kindness, and a gentleness they might not otherwise have known. I decided to research this topic and write a book. I wanted to discover why some people can use challenging—even traumatic—experiences as catalysts for positive transformation while others cannot. How do you get off the life raft and upgrade to the Queen Mary? 

After trauma, most people are resilient. I wanted to understand why some people stay highly traumatized while others and ways to make meaning from it. They grow and even benefit from the awful experience. Like I imagined, there is no one characteristic in the resilient people. However, I was able to find tangible qualities the “Queen Mary” people shared. What I found was fascinating, even surprising and opposite of what I expected.

It turns out people can do plenty to heal from their trauma and even benefit from it! For more than four years, I read every book and clinical journal article to learn what those things are. My book begins by looking at trauma and posttraumatic stress (sometimes referred to as PTSD).

Then I investigate how tools like meaning-making, optimism, connection, forgiveness, self-compassion, and grit can quell the effects of trauma. I examine emotional and physical interventions. I teach cutting-edge positive psychology techniques called the broaden-and-build theory and explain the critical role rumination plays in post- traumatic growth. I uncover the importance of personality traits like grit and resilience and explain the paradox of difficulties and the part they play in making successful humans.

My book Finding the Upside of Down explores the ways a negative situation can launch you, through strategic means, into a better place than before the traumatic event occurred. Of course, I know not everyone is able to thrive and heal after trauma. But as a counselor and as an author, I wanted to offer people another possibility to the downside of trauma. Through anecdotes, personal experience, and extensive clinical research, this book gives hope to people who’ve suffered. It offers encouragement, guidance, and tangible skills instead of platitudes to help readers move from bitter to better. 

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