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January 25, 2013

Falling Toward Grace

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Before the accident, if you had asked me what I would do if I ever wound up in a wheelchair, I would have said, 'Shoot me.' Everything I did, everything I loved, was physical, and if that was ever taken from me, I would not want to live anymore," Hollekim says.

But that's not at all what happened. Even in her darkest moments, Hollekim never grew bitter, never withdrew from the world or lost herself brooding over why this had happened to her. She didn't relive that morning in her head, and never experienced the hypervigilance or emotional numbness symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), common to those who've survived a life-shattering experience.

Quite the contrary: In the months and years that followed her accident, Hollekim seemed to blossom in that rehabilitation facility, and beyond. Sure, she had a lot to figure out. Who was she without skiing and jumping? She had to reimagine herself, and that terrified her. But navigating those uncertainties opened up a world of possibilities she'd never considered before. Her father, for example, once a source of turmoil in her life, had now become a source of solace and unflagging support.

There was an unexpected flicker of promise elsewhere, too. The night before her accident, Hollekim had met Hernan Pitocco, an Argentine paraglider. They had flirted and kissed, and she planned to go out with him after her jump. He visited her in the hospital a few times that first month and called regularly. "Imagine, falling in love in the middle of this tragedy," she says. Over the next year, they resumed their fledgling romance. And while it didn't work out, the relationship nonetheless proved seminal. "I couldn't understand how he could become my boyfriend. I felt like there was nothing left of me," she says. "But he told me that I was still the same girl that he fell in love with, that she is going to come back."

And in that facility, as she rallied the will and strength to pull her legs forward, it occurred to Hollekim that, despite her injuries and the enormous setbacks she was facing, she could still be happy. "This wasn't the worst-case scenario. Realizing that I was much more than a functional body, that was a very good moment."

The realization and the dramatic changes that followed are hallmarks of a remarkably common psychological change called post-traumatic growth. The term was coined in the early '90s by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, a pair of clinicians and researchers at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who began by surveying hundreds of people who had survived severe injuries or lost a spouse. Over and over again, the researchers heard how those terrible events had sparked changes in the victims, who reported experiencing feelings like a renewed appreciation for life, new possibilities for themselves, enhanced personal strength, improved relationships, and spiritual change. Understanding why some people experience this kind of growth has become something of a hot field in psychology. (The U.S. Army, for example, is currently conducting a large study of post-traumatic growth in combat veterans.)

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