What doesn’t kill us: We shall overcome

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Traumatic experiences change us for ever. But for some survivors they also bring strength – and an unexpected relish for life

Michael Paterson had been married for three weeks when his armoured Land Rover was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in West Belfast. It tore off the young policeman's arms and killed the vehicle's driver. Veronica and her daughter, Ruth, were listening to music when they crashed into a car that had flipped over in front of theirs. Ruth died two days later. Gill Hicks was standing in a Tube train in London when it was blown up on 7/7. She lost her legs and watched 26 people die.

These stories of survival after trauma start in horror and could be expected to end there, following a familiar spiral into a hell of flashbacks, misplaced guilt and broken relationships. But a new book by a professor of psychology challenges perceptions of the effects of life-changing events. In What Doesn't Kill Us, Stephen Joseph shares evidence collected over decades to show that, far from ruining lives, traumatic episodes – from divorce to natural disaster – can indeed make us stronger.

Joseph's study began in 1987 after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. Nearly 200 passengers were killed when the passenger cruise ship rolled over into the frigid waters of the North Sea. A further 300 survivors watched people die and lost relatives.

Joseph was on the team of psychiatrists employed by lawyers acting on behalf of some of these survivors. Early tests confirmed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it was the results of a questionnaire three years later that surprised Joseph.

"We asked them whether their lives had changed and how," Joseph recalls from his office at the University of Nottingham, where he is co-director of the Centre for Trauma, Resilience and Growth. "It came as a surprise when 43 per cent of people said their view of life had changed for the better." Joseph used the questionnaire as the template for a survey he has since asked dozens of survivors to complete. Results from his and similar studies suggests as many as 70 per cent of people report positive changes. Joseph says: "They talk about feeling wiser, more mature and compassionate. They are stronger, more resilient and talk about re-ordering priorities, often becoming less materialistic. And in many cases they begin to value relationships more deeply."

Michael Paterson, the Belfast policeman blown up in 1981, is one of the survivors whose recovery Joseph has studied. Paterson had worked as an officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary for two years and was studying for his sergeant's exam when, shortly after the rocket attack, an army medic packed up his mangled arms, neither of which could be saved. Paterson also sustained horrific injuries to one of his legs.

Months of intensive care followed. There were low moments. "I was in a splint and a nurse was dressing my leg, which had become infected," Paterson recalls on the phone from Belfast.

"I saw the mess of my leg and the mess of my arms and tears flowed down my cheeks. The nurse held me in a maternal way and I stopped crying. But those tears became locked in for years."

Paterson has had the support of his wife, Hazel, throughout their ordeal, a presence he says has been crucial, but while he escaped the worst symptoms of post-traumatic stress, tough times continued. He endured nightmares and a tightness in his stomach whenever he talked about the blast. "The tightness meant something was locked in," he says. "There was emotion and tears of sadness that would not come out for more than 15 years."

It was therapy that helped Paterson release those emotions, but by then he had already defied expectations, both of an arm-less terror victim and of a school drop-out who saw himself as a failure, by turning to academia.

He eventually earned two doctoral degrees and now works in Belfast as a clinical psychologist.

In 2008, the Queen recognised his achievements by granting him an OBE.

Stephen Joseph does not offer a cure to post-traumatic stress but says equal emphasis should be given to post-traumatic growth. "They should go hand in glove," he says. "With the right kind of coping, the spiral can go upwards. It turns on its head what we think about trauma. We begin to think of post-traumatic stress not so much as a disorder as a normal and natural process of adjustment that, if it's managed the right way, eventually leads to growth."

Joseph says psychiatric care can be counter-productive "because people pick up the message that post-traumatic stress disorder is a life-long condition. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn't allow us to understand that what we're going through can be a process of growth".

The discovery of new abilities and interests that did so much to help Paterson recover forms part of what Joseph calls his "Thrive" model. In summary, its six stages are designed to train patients to navigate the fog of trauma by taking stock and then changing their thinking and behaviour.

Veronica, whose daughter died in the car crash, is another case study in Joseph's book, and Gill Hicks, the 7/7 survivor, says in a quote in the book's inside cover that her "every day" proves there is life after trauma.

For Michael Paterson, who has prosthetic arms, it was the "smaller achievements" that gave him the confidence to believe in himself. "I learned to drive a car again and to ride a horse," he says.

"I rode a bike, although I stopped when I realised I couldn't work the brakes. But I knew I could do it and I now believe anything is possible."

What Doesn't Kill Us by Professor Stephen Joseph (Piatkus, £13.99)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Cabinet Maker / Joiner

    £22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This bespoke furniture and inte...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

    Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones