What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us: Who We Become After Tragedy and Trauma by Mike Mariani

The will and wherewithal born out of catastrophe cannot be showcased, glorified, or even reliably observed, because it is subject to constant confiscation, a daily toll that must be paid so that the embattled may continue progressing through their lives.

Afterlives is a fascinating word for people who have had misfortune dumped upon them. There is no end to feel good stories on television, in movies, and on bookshelves that recycle Nietzsche’s famous adage, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Uplifting tales of untold horrors, trauma where the victim comes out on the other side strong as an oak, wise as an owl and almost euphoric in conquering their misfortune. I always wonder, then what? As human beings, our emotions aren’t static. Each day brings challenges, more so when your way of life has been upended. Coming through the other end of accidents, illnesses, trauma, mistakes or having been the victim of a brutal crime isn’t the end of a chapter that you never pick up again. Not for those living afterlives, where their place in life has been torn from its roots. What, then, do such catastrophic events make of us?

Mike Mariani found himself facing a life-altering, chronic illness, grasping at the meaning of suffering making for a stronger human being. The adage leaves out the fragility, vulnerability, anger, pain, disbelief, shame, sorrow, confusion, resentment that arrives with the new reality. These are challenges that come to define a person, whether they want them to or not. Life as they knew it has ceased to exist and it is disorientating, suddenly they are estranged from their own lives. Funny to read such a book on the heels of Covid-19 and the deep depression people felt collectively, the unreality of routines on hold. Imagine never getting back to what is normal for you. As I read this book, I took it personally, my own health struggles and those of loved ones. The world can feel like a cold place in the wake of diagnosis, blessed to be alive, but truly feeling crucified by your failing body. You have been evicted from your identity, in a sense, and there is no amount of rallying from others, nor a warrior like stance that is going to return you to the life that anchored you before. One day you have the strength to fight, the next you plummet, that’s the ugly truth.

Brutal crime is an entirely different beast, one that I won’t pretend to understand the ramifications of. There are innocent victims and perpetrators here, sometimes a person encompasses both. I won’t deny being inspired by Mike’s subjects, who are facing their own afterlives, ones they never opted to live, but don’t think it’s meant to be an uplifting, pleasurable read so you go back to your life feeling safe and secure, tragedy barred. Sure, they have withstood the very nightmares people fear, but their lives are evolving with each day they meet. There are new challenges to face, the past returns to torment, and sometimes, memories take flight altogether, leaving them betrayed by their own minds (not uncommon in brain injuries). Another casualty is loved ones of the victims, friends and family who are now meeting someone different from the person they knew. People drop off, just another loss to mourn. If you are of a religious bend, how do the miseries you now live with take on meaning, is it deserved punishment? Are you earning your place in heaven by bearing a cross? If you are into philosophy or art, is this a source for creation, all this undue suffering and misery? If your faith is in science, how do cold, hard facts now define your purpose, your existence? It’s terrifying how are beliefs are tested.

Not all those living afterlives are victims of circumstance, take Sean, who commits a crime at seventeen that leaves him sentenced to life in prison. What led to his choices, what followed? There are many types of prisons, anyone dealing with PTSD can attest to this. It’s not just physical, mental, nor emotional. These stories truly are about ‘reconstructing’ one’s life after ruin, how the expectations of ‘pulling yourself together’ is often unrealistic and just as traumatizing as the event itself. They are reports of adversity, resilience, humility, and grief- they are personal endeavors that take constant revision. There is beauty in the ‘refinement’ each person has undertaken, and incredible strength of character, and I don’t say that lightly. These are some of the heaviest wounds I have ever read about. They are all, like us, a work in progress, but facing much harder challenges. We don’t know what fate has in store for us, philosophy, religion, or science may be a balm for our pains, but there aren’t any words or discoveries that can encompass the shifts that take place after catastrophe, to think so is an assault.

The reader is confronted by invisible lives; it reminds me that you never know what someone else is going through. It is incredible that people give birth to a new way of life, sorting through what they can salvage and what they must discard to go on. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: August 30, 2022 AVAILABLE NOW

Random House Publishing

Ballantine

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