After the World Trade Center fell, those of us who were there were divided into therapy groups. Sorted by trauma. People who lost a parent in one group. People who escaped down a stairwell in another group. I was in the group of people who got hit by flying body parts.
The first thing I noticed in group is that some people told their story over and over again. More and more detail. The sound of the thud. One step short of being crushed. Blood. Fingers.
Other people didn’t have very much to say. They just wanted to get back to work.
Really? I couldn’t believe it.
I mean, I wanted that, too. I wanted to get back to work. I wanted to go back to my normal routine. But everything in my body felt weak and scared and I felt like my body was moving in slow motion so my brain didn’t get hurt.
There was a lot of research that came from those World Trade Center groups. And it’s still coming. But the most interesting information to me is how the most resilient people were among those who just wanted to get back to work. It was right for them. Not everyone needs to process everything. It’s a spectrum. People have a genetic predisposition to resilience.
I know that in my group, I was on the very fragile end of the spectrum. I never went back to my job. I didn’t go back downtown for years. I still have never seen the planes fly into the towers — except for when they were right over my head.
The years since 9/11 I have spent trying to figure out what do I need to get closer to the other end of the resilience spectrum. How can I make myself bounce back as well as those people in the group who went back to work?
At first I thought I’d stop taking risks so that I didn’t get knocked down so much. But I took risk after risk even as I framed those risks as non-risks: moving to Wisconsin, moving in with a farmer, starting a business, leaving a business.
In the last year, I moved, I think I’m moving on to a new job, and I am maybe moving on from the farmer. The way I dealt with all this is to tell myself it wasn’t happening. I told myself my company can go wherever I go. I only let the boys take a backpack to Pennsylvania. It was my way of pretending it wasn’t really leaving.
Melissa sent me a quote: “Sylvia Boorstein reminded us that suffering is simply the attachment to the idea that now could be otherwise.” But what if you like suffering more? It’s a nice package — financial ruin and loneliness and kids who are complaining about why do they live in an apartment when no one else does?
Even as soon as I start writing these sentences I am veering recklessly into self-acceptance, which I am not ready for. That’s the thing. You have to want to be resilient. Those people in the trauma group. It was so normal to them to have trauma and just bounce back. It’s what they expect. I am trying to teach myself to not be so attached to how else a situation could be.
The truth is that I couldn’t practice being resilient until I told myself it was time. If I tell myself nothing is happening and everything’s fine, then there is no chance to tell myself I’m going to get through a tough time and be ok.
There are three areas that matter most when it comes to creating resilience, according to David Nutt, president of the European Brain Council: self-esteem, societal forces, support network.
The Journal of Orthopsychiatry (which sounds like Xanax to get your braces tightened but is actually the prevention of mental disorders in youth) says we get self-esteem from our support network. Which means resilience comes down to our support network and societal forces. And the reason the support network is important is because it bolsters self-acceptance.
I used to read Joan Walsh Anglund books over and over again. Maybe you know her books. They have pictures of perfect little kids, with accentuated, angelic faces. I read Love Is a Special Way of Feeling as if it was my fortune teller.
Me: “Joan, please tell me, when will I be in love?”
Joan: “Love comes quietly…but you know it is there, because suddenly…you are not alone anymore.”
The truth is, I have not found love to be like that. Love is complicated and dynamic and often overwhelming for me. But resilience, that has felt just like what Joan told me love would feel like: it comes quietly but I know it’s there, because I’m not alone anymore.
Resilience research reminds a little of sex research. People in good marriages have sex once a week. It’s not the quality of the sex that matters but that the people care enough about their spouse to take time for intimacy. Resilient people have a social support system and it’s not the quality of the support system that matters, it’s just that you care about yourself enough to connect with people in a way that lets them support you.
After more than a decade of trying to understand what made some people bounce back after 9/11 so much faster and more easily than I did, I see the answer: They relied on their support system. They did not need the trauma group we were in because they had a support system they were predisposed to construct, and the house of self-esteem when necessary.
The final piece of resilience is the story we tell of our time of trial, according to Lysa Lysenko at the Central Institute of Mental Health. Usually this is where I shine. I can make a story of make sense of anything. But I’m having trouble right now. You can say that life is not a simple storyline with a nice and tidy happy ending. But in fact, resilient life is exactly that.
And it’s coming back to me. That stories we tell are what determines our resilience levels. And it’s clear to me that the only way I’m going to get stronger is to keep telling you what the hell I’m doing in Pennsylvania with probably no spouse and probably no job and probably no long-term housing plan.
Resilience comes from practice, and that practice is telling your story over and over again until it becomes something that makes sense. This is what practice looks like.