Trauma

From Nail Polish to Post-Traumatic Growth?

A teenager and a retired Rabbi teach me an invaulable lesson.

Posted May 05, 2016

Going to Geneva from Lyon, you sometimes switch trains. And so, for the last stretch of the ride, I find myself sitting in front of a young woman, who is busy filing her nails. She does a meticulous job, filing them to perfect roundness, slathering lotion from a small container she pulls out of her bag, putting on a base coat, and then a bright red. She is a woman with a mission. I find myself staring, so I explain that I’m staring in admiration, as my nails also need some TLC (a common and not incurable first-world problem).  And so we chat. In perfect French, she tells me how her mom would sit still for 30 minutes, allowing the varnish to properly dry, and she lets something slip about “in my country”.

“Where is that?” I ask. “Where are you from?”

“Bosnia.”

The war in Bosnia broke, she tells me, as her mother was putting on her shoes to go to the prom. They eventually fled, father mother and two daughters, arriving in France when Hana (not her real name, as I did not ask her permission), was a little girl.

“We are traveling now,” I tell her, “and it makes us think of refugees. Of what it would be like if we had to relocate. To flee. What we would work at.”

Hana smiles realistically. “Everything the people in the country you flee to don’t want to do.”

When Hana was seven, her mother would already leave home early to go to work. She would wake up her two-year old sister, prepare and take her to day care. Since her command of French is perfect, she serves as the family translator. Going to the bank with her parents, to doctors’ appointments, filling out endless forms around the rented apartments they live in.

“How old are you?” I ask.

She is only 17. Not a young woman as I thought, but rather an older teenager. It was her maturity that threw me off. “My mother is so excited about my prom,” she says. “Because she never got to go to hers.” But this is not a girl who spends her days thinking about what dress to wear. She already signed up to law school in Geneva, and concerns herself with visas and citizenship papers.

“I get bored around people my age,” she confides shyly.

And why wouldn’t she? An adult since she was seven, she has the capabilities, responsibility, worldview, that her peers have yet to grow into.

“The Law School would be idiots not to accept you,” I tell her as we part.  On the platform, I get a full view of her – the long trench coat elegantly flowing around her slim figure, the reasonably heeled black boots – everything she has, and everything she does, are carefully considered. They have to matter. She has got to get it right. For her sake, and for the sake of her parents, who had to contend with war and child rearing rather than with proms and university courses. Hana does her nails on the train, because every moment counts on her way to improve her family’s fortunes, with her brightly colored nails.

A week later, at a Holocaust memorial service, I hear Rabbi Dov (Dow) Marmur, recount his experiences. “I remember the day WWII broke, September 1st, 1935. I was four years old.” That day Dov and his family fled Poland, to spend the war and its aftermath in the Soviet Union, under dire conditions, which lasted well into after the war ended. The interviewer gently asks “Can you tell us how you felt that day?”  Marmur, now retired, has led an impressive career, spanning Britain, Canada, and global responsibilities. He married, raised three children, and now lives happily in Israel. He sat there on the stage with his son, also a rabbi, and his granddaughter, a political activist. Surrounded by admiring members of the Kol Haneshama congregation, he smiles. “I began to feel afraid. And I haven’t stopped since.”  

The words tear at my heart, and yet his smile seems genuine. We are looking at a man whose childhood was ripped away from him, and yet he expresses no hatred. A man who admits to living in fear, and yet strides on to accomplish things that others never will.

“How do you reconcile your fear, and anger, with your life?”
“I don’t understand the question,” he says. “There is room for everything, and I live on.”
“But how does it make you feel?”
The Rabbi beams. “Thankful.” He raises his arms to encompass everything and everyone around him. “Thankful for all of this.”

We hear so much about post traumatic stress disorder. And so little about post traumatic growth. And yet, this two examples, granted very different, show how people can grow from adversity.  Psychologists Tedeshi and Calhoun have identified and defined post traumatic growth as changes that follow adversity, allowing the person to better deal with its aftermath, and to recover in ways that don’t necessarily mean going back to the way he or she were before. More recently, researcher Noel Brewer of UNC and colleagues interviewed women who had been treated for early stage breast cancer. As expected, post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) in these women was associated with depression. But, the good and inspiring news is that, women who, alongside the PTSS, displayed post-traumatic growth, were less depressed. Adversity and growth can coexist. Horror can make you appreciative. Enormous responsibility that befalls your little shoulders makes them bigger and stronger.

Let’s carry this lesson into our daily difficulties, and may we only ever deal with first world problems.