Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Stronger on the other side: Post-traumatic growth
One was raped and anguished over the murder of her daughter. Another was confronted daily with racism and sexism. And another was using alcohol to dull his pain.
All these Veterans developed PTSD from their military experiences. But they also share something extraordinary: They’ve come out the other side with a renewed sense of life and purpose.
This phenomenon is known at post-traumatic growth, something that can result from those with post-traumatic stress disorder who are transformed and find a new mission as part of their treatment.
“It looks like this sort of deeper way of engaging with life and relationships around you,” said Milwaukee VA psychologist Cathy Coppolillo.
“Often what you see first is a more subtle kind of internal change, like people coming to recognize themselves as having some strengths they didn't know they had. … Maybe they are starting to rediscover themselves as strong and resilient, understanding the world is full of possibility.”
For some, the new mission they embrace is helping others conquer their PTSD. Others take on new hobbies, sports or artistic endeavors. And others may focus on being the best person they can be.
“It looks like this sort of deeper way of engaging with life and relationships around you,”Cathy Coppolillo, Milwaukee VA psychologist
Five significant areas of growth have been identified in the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory:
- Relating to others
- New possibilities
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change
- Appreciation of life
The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory was developed by psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi, who pioneered the theory of post-traumatic growth in the 1990s, and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun.
Not everyone treated for PTSD achieves post-traumatic growth. For many, Coppolillo said, the goal of treatment is to get back to a semblance of normalcy and nothing more, or to equip oneself with the tools needed to fight the negative effects of PTSD.
“Early on, (post-traumatic growth) is not on most people’s radar,” she said. “But the folks who can really accept the new reality of their lives and their selves are the folks who can move forward, and get to a place of post-traumatic growth.”
Those who do achieve post-traumatic growth typically are able to stare down a prevalent symptom of PTSD: avoidance.
“It's a very human thing to pull back when stuff makes us anxious. But the people who are most likely to attain post-traumatic growth are folks who don't avoid: They stay engaged in relationships; they stay engaged in activities, even when they're not feeling like it,” she said.
“There are people who take healthy risks, trying new things. And that's one of the ways people end up finding these new meaningful activities and relationships.”
Read on as three Veterans tell their stories of achieving post-traumatic growth:
Rape, murder and hope
“I feel my mission is to tell my story,” said Carissa DiPietro. While that story is harrowing, it is also uplifting.
DiPietro, 44, joined the U.S. Army in April 1999. Her first major trauma came when she said she was raped by her recruiter and wasn’t offered any time to heal.
“When I got back to my unit, the first sergeant just sent me back to work,” she said. “There was no counseling or push to provide any help.”
Two weeks before 9/11, DiPietro’s 5-year-old daughter was murdered, by her then-husband, in Germany.
“It was the worst abuse case the judge said he had ever seen,” she said.
While on funeral leave, the terrorist attacks occurred and DiPietro was ordered back to her unit, again with no recognition of the major trauma she had experienced.
“I pushed all these traumas down,” she said, noting that she devolved into the shell of a person. “I had breath in my lungs and a beat to my heart, but I wasn’t alive.”
The turning point came when she signed up for the Feast of Crispian at the Milwaukee VA. Feast of Crispian uses theater to help Veterans address trauma.
In this setting, DiPietro said she found her voice. She talked about her rape for the first time and was able to finally grieve for her daughter.
“It truly changed my life. I went on this huge path of healing,” she said.
DiPietro began pursuing photography and went back to school. She graduated from Milwaukee Area Technical College but is now enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
She shares her story with other Veterans in order to help them find their own path to healing. Through the Lake Arts Project, she has connected with high schoolers who have suffered trauma.
She acknowledges that the PTSD will never go away, but she knows how to handle it.
“What happened to me was unnatural and horrible, but the way my mind reacted was totally natural,” she said. “I will spend the rest of my life healing, but I’m happy. I laugh every day, and I can cry, and I find that beautiful.”
DiPietro remembers when her PTSD treatment turned to growth. On the anniversary of her daughter’s death, she used to re-read the paperwork surrounding the trial. But she came to realize that wasn’t healthy.
“I had a ceremony and burned the paperwork. At that moment, I shifted from PTSD to growth,” she said. “I wasn’t going to live my life torturing myself. Now I focus on her life and the beauty of her life. I can’t take away that pain she went through, but I can tell her story and make a difference.
“I look at it as growth. I never thought I would live to 40. … Now I have my whole life ahead of me with dreams for the future. I want to keep putting myself out there and keep pushing to do new things.”
And she has advice for Veterans who are struggling.
“You can do it. Everybody can do it. It just takes that phone call, that one step,” she said. “Find your group through VA. They will help you find it.”
Hitting the target
For Gwen Sheppard, a set of before-and-after photos says it all.
The before: Sheppard stands rigidly, not smiling, holding her air rifle at her first Air Force Wounded Warriors games.
The after: Five years later, a relaxed and beaming Sheppard smiles for the camera.
Those photos reflect Sheppard’s transformation in her fight against PTSD and the purpose and happiness she has found through air rifle and archery competition.
“This is just awesome,” the 59-year-old said. “I’ve got a purpose.”
Sheppard, a civil engineer, was deployed to Iraq as part of the Air Force reserves in 2003.
In addition to the hardships of that deployment during one of the hottest summers on record in the region, she faced racism and sexism, even though she was an officer.
She returned to the States as a different person.
“I was full of anger and rage,” she said. “There was a lot of backstabbing going on in my unit because some guys didn't really take kindly to a black female giving them orders. I just kept taking it and taking it, and every now and then, the anger would make me lash out at other folks.”
At the insistence of her primary care doctor at the Milwaukee VA, Sheppard talked with a psychology intern, who was the first to point out a PTSD diagnosis.
But Sheppard was dismissive of the diagnosis and forged onward with her career in the military.
But the problems didn’t go away. She said she “imploded” on more than one occasion and ended up retiring early.
“I ended up pulling the plug on my career because I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “I was pissed off at the military. I was pissed off at the world.”
Though it took some prodding, Sheppard attended the Air Force Wounded Warriors Games in 2010 and quickly found herself on the path to post-traumatic growth.
“Everybody was so warm and welcoming,” she said, even though she was still guarded and anxious.
She tried her hand at archery “and absolutely fell in love with it,” she said.
That led to air rifles, and before long, Sheppard was part of a team. She continued to work on her skills, and soon branched out to civilian competitions.
Through USA Archery, Sheppard bonded with other women of her age who would compete at various tournaments.
“This group of ladies … is constantly encouraging me and giving me advice,” she said. “I’m letting my guard down more and more when meeting with these ladies, and it’s a wonderful feeling. These people just let me be me. They let me do what I needed to do without any pressure.
“And unbeknownst to me, that really transformed a lot of my PTSD and depression,” she said. “I ended up having a purpose.”
Sheppard has spent the past 10 years pursuing that purpose. She formed an air rifle program in Milwaukee and became a certified coach. She began taking part in other competitions, including representing Wisconsin at the national Senior Olympics in archery. And she’s a coach for the Air Force Wounded Warriors games.
She also plans to enroll in college to study American Sign Language so she can become an interpreter.
Sheppard said she couldn’t have envisioned this outcome 15 years ago. Back then, she said, she saw herself “in the grave” by this time. But now, she said, she knows her life has value.
“I still go up and down, but the downs aren’t as much as they used to be, and they’re not as bad as they used to be. And I know tricks to get myself out it,” she said.
“I cannot believe how my life as transitioned in such a short period of time, just because of the Air Force Wounded Warrior program,” she said. “A lot of things transpired to actually get me to this point. I credit the sports with keeping me alive today. I’m just living the life right now.”
Making more good shots
Chris Swift likes to play golf.
He admits he’s not any good, but he knows the feeling he gets when he hits a good shot – even though it may be preceded and followed by numerous bad ones.
And that’s the approach he takes when talking to Veterans struggling with PTSD.
“You have those good shots, and you have those interactions with people, and maybe you make a difference -- you put an idea in their head and they get help,” he said.
Helping Veterans is Swift’s new-found purpose in life, which is quite different than just a few years ago, when he found himself sitting in a jail cell after getting arrested for his third charge of driving while intoxicated.
But that proved to be the turning point in his life.
Swift, 45, served as a medic with the U.S. Army, being deployed numerous times to the Middle East. Those deployments yielded two things: plenty of heartbreak as he saw comrades torn apart by explosives and plenty of anger regarding incompetent superior officers and command decisions.
“We lost a lot of good guys … with quite a lot of guys getting injured. It’s crazy,” he said of comrades dying. “You see them, and then all of the sudden, they’re not there.
Even while in the military, he regularly used alcohol to numb himself against those emotions. He got his first DUI on a military base in the States, and he remembers nights filled with drinking and brawling.
“We would drink excessively, and there would always be conflicts with other units,” he said. “I was never a big fighter, but we were getting in fights every night.
“I had a lot of anger issues … but I just masked it with drinking because it was a whole lot easier to just avoid the flak and not deal with it. And I became a functional alcoholic.”
He got is first non-military DUI in 2012 after returning from his final deployment, but it didn’t faze him: He kept on drinking.
When one of his best friends died in 2018 – possibly by suicide – Swift said he “just started spiraling down.”
The next DUI came three months after his friend’s death. Another came seven months later, this one landing him in jail. And that’s when he realized he needed to make a change.
“I called over (to the Milwaukee VA) and said, ‘I need to go into rehab,’” he said.
He went to the Domiciliary and graduated from the program in June 2019. But 13 days later, he was sentenced to nine months in jail for his previous DUI.
He qualified for a work-release program and used that time to continue his therapy and find a new purpose: Helping other Veterans – particularly those with suicide ideation -- through the Capt. John D. Mason Veteran Peer Review Program.
He does that mostly by telling his story.
“I have the relatability,” he said. “I was in the Army, I came home and I got in a lot of trouble. … I went from rock bottom to having to go to rehab and then having to go jail. … I had to get a reboot.
“My job in the Army was to save people's lives. Now, my role is just kind of the same idea, but just in a different manner. … My passion is to help others so they don’t go through the shit I went through.”
Getting that message to other Veterans, and putting them on the path to recovery “is like five good golf shots,” Swift said. “You’ve got to (help them) find that lightbulb.”
Swift plans to return to school with hopes of becoming a social worker.
“My mission is to help other Veterans, and I think I’ve been put on a good road,” he said. “If my story can help one person, that’s a success.”
Learn more about post-traumatic growth here.