How resilient are you?

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this recent New York Times story interesting, which offers several specific tips on how to build your resilience:

Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.

I’ve long been interested in, and I most admire, people who are resilient — partly because if you’re not, life can end up morass of poor-me-why-me? misery.

Having said that, if you’re struggling with chronic illness and/or persistent poverty, let alone both, it’s damn hard to get out of bed in the morning with optimism.

I found this more recent NYT op-ed more interesting:

 

But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.

And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.

And here’s a new, great list of helpful tips on how to build resilience from my friend and colleague Gwen Moran, writing in Fast Company magazine.

I have friends and family who’ve survived sexual abuse and assault, negligence, brutal and costly divorces, serious illnesses…It’s not just a matter of surviving, (which can be difficult and isolating enough!) but coming out the other side with some hope or optimism intact.

You have to somehow believe it’s going to get better, even with much current evidence to the contrary.

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I’ve written here a few times about some of the challenges I’ve faced, even as a relatively privileged white woman: mental illness and alcoholism in my family of origin, multiple family estrangements, job losses and protracted job searches, three recessions, multiple surgeries, divorce, criminal victimization.

But…it could always be worse.

I was struck, limping for a month through multiple European cities wearing a large and very visible brace on my right leg after re-injuring it on a bike ride in Berlin, how many people sympathized: “Oh, poor you!” or “You’re so brave!”

My choices? Stay and continue on, and limp, or leave in the middle of a cherished and otherwise wonderful vacation; popping painkillers and wearing my brace were not a big deal, and probably looked worse to others than it felt to me.

But bravery to me is a much deeper, and stronger quality.

 

You can only know really know how much you can handle once it’s thrown into your lap  — often without warning.

 

If you have health, friends and some savings, tough times are more bearable than if you’re ill, broke and lonely, when it can feel like the whole world is aligned against you.

I decided to marry my husband after he responded with grace, speed, decisiveness and generosity to a crisis within my family. His resilient and optimistic character revealed itself in ways that no movie date or romantic holiday could ever have shown me.

His resilience was one of — and still is — his most attractive qualities.

I value resilience highly, wary of people who spend their lives throwing pity parties, especially the otherwise privileged who are shocked! when difficulty strikes.

We have an example of resilience in our home, a weary little geranium plant who I’m always sure is about to kick the bucket at any minute. Instead it keeps on blossoming and blooming, even on its two scrawny stems.

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Do you value resilience in yourself and others?

 

How did you develop it?

What we survive, but rarely discuss

By Caitlin Kelly

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Comfort in a box…

We all survive something:

An abusive parent, relative, teacher or partner.

Your parents’ bitter divorce.

Estrangement.

Mental illness, yours and/or others’.

Chronic illness.

War.

Natural disasters.

Un(der)employment.

Poverty.

Racism.

Sexual assault.

I’ve gotten through seven of these.

It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!

As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.

I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.

I later wrote a book that focused on gun  violence by and against women, in some measure, and it left me with secondary trauma. In both instances, the stories were essential for the larger world to understand what people face, and surmount.

One of the challenges of surviving…just about anything…is when you carry shame, self-doubt and humiliation around that which you suffered and surmounted.

Here’s a powerful essay (from a site I’ve also written for), Rewire:

I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.

That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.

Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.

That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.

It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.

I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.

Then I knew and understood.

Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.

I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.

What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.

He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.

Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.

For decades, journalism,  has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.

No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.

Everything’s a trigger

By Caitlin Kelly

For me, most recently, it was a near-miss accident in a suburban parking lot after seeing a movie.

No big deal, right?

Not for me; in 1996, at a stop sign, my new car tapped the bumper of a man, while driving three blocks from my home. In his car was his aged mother. They sued me for $1 million, a lawsuit that scared me for years. They eventually got $60,000 from my insurance company — he was a lawyer and I was a young woman in a red convertible. Alone, working from home, with few friends in the U.S., I found the whole experience deeply frightening and absolutely dread another car accident of any sort, let alone another lawsuit, easy enough to trigger in the litigious United States.

I’d never been sued when I lived in Canada.

For my husband, it’s the smell of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne — a scent he and fellow reporters and photographers used to douse the kerchiefs shielding their noses and mouths while covering the aftermath of a prison riot that incinerated several dozen New Mexico prison inmates.

For some people, this image is simply unbearable -- 13 years later
For some people, this image remains unbearable — 13 years later

The term “trigger warning” is one most commonly used on websites read by women (and men) who have suffered specific forms of sexual assault and abuse.

Yet we all have triggers — a sight, sound or smell that can suddenly and powerfully and unwillingly thrust us back into a traumatic moment from our past. And they’re all different and specific and, because of that, you never know when or where they’ll hit you.

Life itself doesn’t arrive conveniently labeled with trigger warnings.

At a music service for the Christmas holidays of 1995, the year I was divorced after a brief and troubled first marriage, I sat with two friends. As a bagpiper came down the church aisle there I began to weep uncontrollably; a piper had played after our wedding.

When Jose proposed to me, it was at midnight on Christmas Eve after church service, as snow began to fall. He knew that the worst experience of my life, at 14, had occurred that night and, he said, he wanted to re-brand it with a happier memory.

Which he did.

We each need to be in the world and of the world, participating fully.

But there are times and places that are deeply painful for us — while the triggers to ancient and powerful feelings remain and invisible/unknown to others.

Do you have such moments?

How do you cope?

 

Dude, where’s my exoskeleton?

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you seen Elysium yet?

It’s the summer blockbuster starring Matt (swoon) Damon, (who worked out for four hours a day to get ripped for the part) and Jodie Foster, scary-mean in gray silk Armani and speaking excellent French.

The director, Nell Blomkamp, also did District Nine. His vision is dark, terrifying, sardonic.

An electrically powered exoskeleton suit curre...
An electrically powered exoskeleton suit currently in development by Tsukuba University of Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One detail I enjoyed was Damon’s exoskeleton, although I confess with no shame that during the gross, gory surgery scene when it’s attached to his body I covered my eyes. The sound effects were bad enough.

I kept muttering: “It’s just the Foley guy. It’s all post-production.”

But once he’s girded with his external hardware, he becomes seriously bad-ass, practically invincible.

Made me think how handy this would be.

We all have — and need — exoskeletons of one sort or another, something external that strengthens and fortifies us for the fight, whether yet another Monday morning or something much nastier and bigger.

Maybe it’s prayer.

Maybe it’s your granny’s wedding ring, worn on a necklace.

Maybe it’s your Dad’s handgun.

Maybe it’s your husband’s hugs.

Maybe it’s yoga.

Maybe it’s playing your cello/guitar/flute really loudly.

Maybe it’s a glance in the mirror at your newly-defined abs, or the curve of your pregnant belly.

Maybe it’s a small hand tucked into yours or a wet, black nose snuffling you awake at 5:30 a.m. to go for a walk, now.

I love, oh, how I love, this poem by Blake, set to music as the glorious hymn “Jerusalem” in 1916. We played it at our wedding:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

What’s your exoskeleton?

What helps you stay strong when you are scared and feeling small?