Shame and resilience play critical roles in managing adult trauma. I found this to be true during my two years in the California prison system. Prison traumatizes. Shame is defined as “a self-conscious emotion . . . [that] informs you of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, or regret.” Shame can devour any positive self-esteem remaining in a person after a journey through our criminal justice system. Resilience, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”
In April, I will be speaking on the topic of postprison trauma and resilience at the annual conference of an international society of mental health professionals. One topic I’ve been asked to address is resilience (coping) factors that are critical among professionals who not only endured prison life but who are, as a result, unable to practice their professions. I practiced law in Southern California from 1978 to 2000. My practice focused on representing adult survivors of sexual abuse in civil court against their perpetrators.
In preparing for the April talk I did a lot of introspection. What did I draw upon to get past the shame that enabled resilience to kick in? Looking through my papers, I came across one of the many journals I kept, and it gave me an answer. One journal entry shows that my resilience is grounded in my legal career and successes achieved on behalf of my clients. Another cathartic journal entry is based on letters received from former clients. Those communications stoked my memories and fueled my resilience quotient. I will share part of my journal entry, written in November 2004, a full year before my release.
I received a letter from Alayna [not her real name], my former client. She wrote that the lawsuit had turned out in her favor. Her words were charged with excitement and gratitude: “How can I thank you for your vision and brains?” The sparkle in her written voice lit me up. I needed such praise, as my feelings about myself were far less generous.
I knew instantly what Alayna meant. In 1997, I was her attorney. The plaintiff’s lawsuit against her made serious allegations that threatened her reputation and the financial security of her family. I prepared her defense, fueled by my firm belief in her based on the evidence. I was Alayna’s attorney until 2000, when I retired from the practice of law.
I received her letter in December 2003, at mail call . . . while serving time in prison. [My road to prison is discussed in my book, Derailed: How Being a Lawyer Taught Me to Survive in Prison]. My road to incarceration was littered with the debris of successive implosions of my personal, professional, and financial lives. In the process, I had lost sight of who I was as an attorney because my world was turned upside down. I had lived by the letter of the law; now I lived by the power of the law. Like so many prisoners, I experienced the numbing confinement and, worst of all, the negative messages about my worthiness as a person.
I came to realize that my only surviving freedom existed in the unlimited potential of my mind. Prison caused me to turn inward, in search of a comfortable and sane place, to deal with the myriad changes in the routines of my life and how I felt about myself. I experienced the slow passage of time through the movement of shadowed light spilling through a window slit in my cell and from my hunger between sorry institutional meals.
Alayna’s words alerted me to a resource for easing myself out of the shock of my collapsed worlds. Her words, and those of others, made me realize that my hard work for my clients cultivated a large body of goodwill upon which I could draw emotional antidotes to my toxic new world. My reflections became emotional balms and served as focal points for pushing back shame to rebuild my self-esteem.
My journal entry goes on to describe positive remarks from other clients who also wrote to me in prison. Their positive influences remain with me today and may be included in future blogs. Shame and resiliency are huge issues for me in the context of prison reform. I suspect that I’m not alone in using a former, positive career experience as ammunition to beat back shame.
A mental health professional who knows about my struggle to remain sane and productive, postprison, gave me the language to express what I and other adult survivors of postprison trauma experience. She observed that I am experiencing posttraumatic growth (PTG). What is posttraumatic growth?
HealthyPlace.com has the answer. “According to posttraumatic growth research, there are five main areas of positive development that equate to growth:
- Perceived changes in self
- Closer family relationships [and friendships]
- Changed philosophy in life
- Better perspective on life
- Strengthened belief system”
I believe this checklist applies broadly to the human experience where there’s a history of trauma. Victims of sexual abuse, veterans with PTSD, and survivors of crimes and accidents are all capable of ultimate posttraumatic growth.
A recommended resource for learning more about this subject is a book by David Feldman, PhD, and Lee Daniel Kravitz: Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link between Suffering and Success. Ginny Graves quotes Dr. Feldman on Oprah.com: “Trauma survivors who experience PTG acknowledge their own sadness, suffering, anger and grief, and are realistic about what happened to them.” He goes on to say, “But in the midst of their pain, they’re able to ask: ‘Given where I am in my life, how can I build the best future possible?’”
Please share any examples of PTG that you or someone you know has experienced. I will incorporate your stories, anonymously, in my April presentation.
Image courtesy of 123rf.com