Secrets of the Super Resilient

Illness. Divorce. Job loss. The death of a loved one. You don’t get this far in life without experiencing some adversity. But while you can’t avoid painful events, you can learn to control your response to them. “The brain is an organ of adaptation,” writes Laurence Gonzales, author of the new book Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. Here, he reveals how recovery can be a transforming experience that not only moves us forward but also enriches our lives in ways we never could have imagined

by Laurence Gonzales
resilience cracked egg photo
Photograph: Craig Cutler

Michelle “Micki” Glenn wasn’t just scuba diving for fun. She and the 20 other tourists aboard Sea Dancer, a 120-foot dive boat, were on a mission: to photograph sharks off uninhabited French Cay in Turks and Caicos. They were all relaxing after the first dive of the day when someone suggested they snorkel for a while. Glenn, then a 41-year-old radiology technologist, was the manager of her husband Mike’s practice as an orthopedic surgeon; among the others living on board were Randy Samberson, a vascular surgeon, and Libba Shaw, a nurse in an intensive care unit.

Drifting below the surface, Glenn was not surprised to see a seven-foot female shark just beneath her fins. Mike, who’d put on scuba gear, had swum deeper, taking photographs in the cathedral light that fell through the bright blue water and faded to dark purple and then black as it dropped away to the benthic deep. Five days into the trip, Glenn had become accustomed to having sharks nearby. It was one of those unconscious adaptations that we make all the time, but this was not a good one. Glenn’s emotional system had relabeled sharks—formerly something to fear—as fascinating creatures. “I love animals,” she tells me. A lifelong equestrian, Glenn says she saw the sharks as “powerful, graceful—it was like watching horses.”

The female shark stopped beneath Glenn’s fins and changed direction. Then the animal moved slowly upright, aligning its body vertically with hers. The shark brushed its sandpaper skin against Glenn’s leg and slid all the way up her body until the two were staring at each other: “I was looking right into her eye, just inches away, this beautiful gray eye with a vertical pupil set in gray skin. I saw the slit of her mouth, and the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. I thought I was the luckiest person ever.” Glenn held her breath as the shark moved slowly against her, then bent its head to the left, flicked its tail gently and glided away like a mythical mermaid.

“It was almost like a caress,” she says. “Very deliberate.”

Glenn let out her breath, then felt a powerful surge of water as the animal flipped around and took her right arm in its mouth. The shark’s upper rows of teeth were across Glenn’s back all the way to the spine. She felt no pain, only pressure. Like a razor, the lower jaw sliced through her breast. The upper jaw took the entire posterior half of her armpit. Then the shark began thrashing with such force that Glenn suffered whiplash. At the same time, she was trying to power her left hand around to strike the animal and drive it off. Finally, the shark planed away and slid beneath the boat, taking with it a huge chunk of meat. It was about 8 in the morning on a beautiful sunny day, November 14, 2002.

Glenn poked her head up out of the water, which was now not just red but deep, deep crimson. Looking around, she saw four other sharks. She also saw the ragged flesh and bare humerus bone of her upper arm. “I was beyond terror,” she says. Glenn began kicking as hard as she could toward the boat, paddling with her uninjured left arm. Nearby, Mike was struggling to get free of his scuba gear.

Glenn looked behind her. “The water was so red, I couldn’t see my arm,” she says. “Then I saw this thing jerking behind me, and I stopped for a second.” A chalky white creature was following her closely, and as it moved toward her, she saw that it was her own hand, which had been paralyzed by the attack.

Her friend Nancy Birchett, who had been snorkeling nearby, reached Glenn when she was nearly at the boat and helped propel her aboard. As Glenn lay on the stern in the bright sunshine, the chances that she would survive were fading fast. The chunk that the shark had taken out—her armpit and part of her shoulder—contained a rich nest of blood vessels, and she was hemorrhaging.

Chance always plays a role in survival, and it entered Glenn’s story here. Horrified, terrified, convinced she would die, she looked up and saw Mike, who had scrambled onto the boat. Behind him stood Samberson, the vascular surgeon, and Shaw, the ICU nurse. They had all brought their medical equipment on the trip in case of just such an emergency. Without this team so close at hand, Glenn would have bled to death in perhaps another minute.

Mike reached into his wife’s shoulder and groped for the torn end of her brachial artery, which was ejecting the fountain of blood she had seen in the water. Samberson ran for his equipment and moments later handed Mike a hemostat to compress the vessel. Blood was still pouring out. Mike worked his way deeper into the wound to clamp the artery higher up.

“That’s when the pain hit,” Glenn says. “It was surgery without anesthesia. I started screaming so loud that I couldn’t hear. I stopped to apologize and started right in screaming again.” Mike found the artery and pinched it off, while Samberson broke out his instruments and clamped off other blood vessels with hemostats. Meanwhile, Shaw started an IV.

During the seven-and-a-half-hour trip back to Miami, Glenn knew she needed to stay awake so that she wouldn’t sink into shock and a coma. The pain could help her accomplish that. As so many survivors do, she developed a mantra: Pain is my friend.

There is a special circuit in the brain that we share with all other mammals. It’s called the rage circuit. If you’re attacked, this neural pathway is activated. It causes you to scream and struggle and fight. But that response takes a lot of energy, and a mantra can help calm the rage and conserve energy that your body needs for survival. Glenn’s mantra carried her through the excruciating journey to the hospital, by dinghy, police boat, helicopter, ambulance and, at last, Coast Guard jet.

A surgeon in Miami rebuilt Glenn’s arm using her latissimus dorsi muscle to fashion new triceps (her arm retains some range of motion, but her hand is not functional). Another doctor grafted skin from Glenn’s legs to reconstruct her back and upper arm. Over the next 12 days, doctors operated on Glenn six times. She survived the attack that should have killed her. In the TV version, her story would end here.

But the more profound drama—the ordeal of trying to re-enter the world—was just beginning. And from Glenn’s recovery we can learn some lessons about resilience. We all need to learn how to move on—maybe not from a shark attack but from the trauma of being laid off, falling ill, losing a loved one or going through an ugly divorce. The brain is an organ of adaptation. We just have to know how to use it.

Glenn says that while in the hospital, she needed to “focus on something every minute,” because as soon as she relaxed, “it was like the wall in the room would turn into the sea, and I relived the shark attack over and over and over.” She would wake up screaming, with her mother standing over her saying, “It’s just a nightmare. It’s just a nightmare.”

The day before Thanksgiving, she and Mike returned to their home in Destin, Florida. To take her mind off her traumatic experience, she returned to work only 18 days after the attack, still wearing bandages and a plastic splint running from her upper back to her wrist. “I could do only half days,” she says. Even so, her arm would swell, and she’d have to lie down every half hour and elevate it.

“My body was so traumatized,” she says. “I had nerve-graft incisions from knee to foot, a large skin-graft harvest area from my hip almost to my knee, 64 square inches of skin removed from my back, all of the ugly trauma to my armpit and upper arm, compartment-release incisions [to reduce swelling] from elbow to fingers.”

Glenn had become an alien in her own home. “I had the feeling that pieces of me were scattered in the ocean,” she tells me. “And they were: Physical pieces of me were missing. But it was more than that. I felt like I had completely lost who I was.”

One night she happened to be watching a James Bond movie when a close-up of a shark flashed onto the screen. “I came unglued, blubbering and crying,” she recalls. After extreme trauma, memories combine in odd ways to produce flashbacks that are even more vivid than reality. Glenn never actually saw the teeth of the shark that attacked her. But in her flashbacks, she saw an open mouth coming at her bristling with teeth.

People who have not experienced flashbacks tend to underestimate their power. They aren’t just annoying memories. A true flashback is an all-out assault on the emotional system that takes control of your senses and your behavior and can wipe your memory as clean as electroshock therapy does. One veteran of the Vietnam War came out of a flashback standing in a forest in Ohio wearing battle fatigues. He had no notion of how he’d gotten there. Glenn had similar experiences. In one case, she started out sitting in a restaurant waiting to pick up a pizza and later found herself curled up in a ball on the floorboard of her truck with no memory of what had happened in between.

This new and fearful Micki drove her absolutely crazy. Glenn had reveled in her life and in her fearlessness. What sort of woman goes diving with sharks for her vacation? One who is not afraid. “The things I did, such as stepping off the Okaloosa Island Pier into an 18-foot crest in a hurricane surge, galloping my big Swedish Warmblood horse, Gent, in the woods around Eglin Air Force Reservation at night and watching the tracers from the gunships that were doing night ops—those aren’t just things I do,” she says. “That’s who I am.”

But after the shark attack, Glenn felt as if she’d been cloven into two identities: “The Micki I loved was loud and clear in my head. But the new Micki—injured, careful, timid—emerged as the dominant me, and to my dismay she controlled my actions, my body.”

One of the things bedeviling Glenn had to do with a certain type of memory we store. At the simplest level, these “mental models” are representations of objects that allow you to identify things quickly and to know the rules by which they behave. That’s a bunny. It hops away when I enter the yard. That’s a bird. It flies away.

The retina sends images to the visual cortex, which makes a prediction about what is being seen and forwards it to the thalamus. The thalamus returns a message telling the difference between the actual visual information and the prediction. The part that’s correctly predicted is ignored. Whatever is new then serves to revise the mental model for future use.

The emotional system labels our mental models so that we instantly know their value or danger. You don’t really see what’s in the environment; you take in sensory information and try to match it to what you expect based on experience or some innate model. Extreme trauma, however, can destroy your trust in your mental models. This condition is known as hypervigilance, and it makes sense. A Vietnam War veteran told a researcher he had to look at everything twice to be sure of what it was. Since mental models are the heart of all perception, distrusting them makes you question your entire world, and this can be the source of much pain.

To a young child, a pile of clothes in the corner of a dark bedroom might look like the face of a monster. A shadow might be a terrifying bird. Those are perfectly reasonable interpretations to a brain that has few mental models—especially at night, when children are instinctively on the lookout for whatever is dangerous. In that sense, post-traumatic stress can make us behave as if we were children again. And like a child, Glenn was now afraid of images of sharks.

Her husband had an idea about fixing that. He had managed to photograph the shark just before it attacked her. Now he put a close-up of that image on her computer. Her screen saver became the monster from the deep that stole her life away.

“Mike isn’t a psychiatrist, but he is an MD, and I trust him to a degree that’s difficult to explain,” Glenn says. “He is very, very intelligent and methodical. He talked to me about the power of desensitization before he put the shark on my computer screen. He explained the process and the theory. It’s just like de-spooking a horse. When subjected repetitively to startling stimuli, eventually you cease to react. It becomes part of the wallpaper. Putting the shark on my computer was an effective exercise for me. Every time I walked in, I had to look at her again.”

Glenn was systematically writing a new memory over the traumatic one and sending a new message to her emotional system. It said that seeing a shark did not feel like pain and screaming terror. It felt like walking into her office. She was relabeling her mental model of a shark with feelings of gratitude and love for her husband, who had saved her life and was now saving her emotional system, too. This process is known as extinguishing a conditioned response.

Not everyone succeeds at this, and one reason Glenn did is that her own personality required it. “I don’t like weakness in myself,” she says. When she’d have flashbacks at home in the middle of the night, she’d go into the closet and curl up in a ball, pressing her back into a corner so that she could see anything approaching her. I believe that everyone has what I call a Personal Scum Line. For each of us, there is some level below which we must not sink, or else we lose all respect for ourselves. We become, in our own eyes, scum. For some, it’s as simple as being unemployed. For others, it might be getting divorced, getting fat, committing incest, treason, murder. For Glenn, hiding in the closet and generally blubbering her way through life represented a descent below her own Personal Scum Line, and she fiercely refused to remain that low. She went back to her mantra: Pain is my friend.

“I have been acutely aware of the fragility of life since I was a little girl,” says Glenn, who grew up in southern Mississippi. When she was five, her best friend died of cystic fibrosis. When she was 11, two of her close friends drowned. The next year, her friend Dale died of leukemia. “So the shark attack reinforced that life is a precious, fragile gift,” she says.

In college, Glenn was so poor that she worked two jobs and sold her own blood plasma twice a week just to eat. While saddle-breaking horses for $2.35 an hour, she was thrown off and broke her neck. She was 21 years old. No one would wish for experiences like that. But they build character and a solid foundation for the larger emergencies to come. Like staring at the picture of the shark that attacked her, those experiences had helped Glenn become familiar with pain and act calmly under exceptional levels of stress. If you look into the backgrounds of the strongest survivors, you almost always find lessons like those. And when you talk to them about rebuilding after disaster, you find that those who have been given the gift of adversity often fare better than those who have lived lives of comfort and ease.

Two weeks after the attack, Glenn begged her husband to let her sit on Eskan, an 1,800-pound Friesian she loved to ride. At that point she was in no physical shape to be getting on a horse that big. But true survivors, as well as those who survive the aftermath, are willing to take big risks in their own best interest. The late Harry Crews, a writer who was a friend of mine, used to put it this way: “If I can’t have it all, I don’t want any of it.” Glenn was a lot like that as she fought her way into life.

Although mounting the titanic Eskan posed a grave risk so soon after her accident, Mike agreed to make it happen, and four friends helped her mount into the saddle. She sat there on high. She held the reins. For her entire life, Glenn had built her identity, her core self, around horses. Her nervous system grew out into the horse so that its hooves were her own legs. Her emotional system intimately knew the saddle as a place where she was safe and in control. “I felt like I was on top of the world,” she says. “That did more for me emotionally than anything at that time. I felt like everything was going to be all right.” This is an example of using the body to re-direct mind and emotion. She put her body where it had learned to feel good, and it obediently felt good.

Still, after the accident, Glenn had told her husband to get rid of her diving gear because she never wanted to see it again. He kept it anyway. Two years passed. Then her friend Nancy Birchett, who had helped her into the boat while she was bleeding out, coaxed her into taking a trip to Dominica in the Caribbean. For two days, Birchett sat holding Glenn’s hand at the edge of the water. During that time, Glenn practiced putting her face into the ocean. Just her face. “The first day that I actually went to dive, I threw up my breakfast,” she says. “Sitting on the bow of the boat on the way out, I could see the shark thrashing on the top of the water with me in its mouth.” Two years in, she was still having flashbacks. But she dived anyway.

When she was 80 feet down, a big barracuda surprised her. “All I saw were teeth. I completely came unglued and cried into my mask and got all snotty.” Realizing she’d slipped below her Personal Scum Line again, she forced herself to stay in the water and work through it. She told herself, Focus on the beauty underwater. Focus on the beauty.

“After Dominica, I felt that I was whole again,” she says.

So much of Glenn’s story represents the quintessential attitudes and actions of the truest survivors, from her clear and immediate perception of the gravity of her situation to her focus on taking action on her own behalf and her steady resolve to overcome the long-lasting emotional injuries. “The shark attack and recovery taught me some truths that we all know, but we have no idea what they really mean until we’ve experienced something extremely traumatizing,” she says.

“People love to say that one can choose to be happy. I was frightened to my core. I was disfigured. I was in a tremendous amount of pain, and the pain meds made me throw up. I was afraid that Mike might think I looked hideous and stop loving me. I was afraid that if he left me, I would be destitute because what hospital administrator would hire a one-handed radiology director? Simple tasks such as dressing myself and inserting contact lenses and preparing food and washing dishes and tying shoes and learning to write with my left hand were overwhelming.”

But she had a strategy, and it involved using her body to control her emotions: “Every morning when I woke with a cloak of fear and despair around me, I chose to smile. Sometimes tears were streaming down my face, but I forced my lips into a big smile, and I made a decision to be happy. It was really powerful. It was one of the few things I could control.”

At the heart of all of Glenn’s resilient qualities is an attitude toward life that I’ve encountered over and over again in the survivors who return to life most successfully after trauma. One of the first things she ever said to me reveals a great deal about that attitude: “I’m really lucky.” She went on: “I don’t regret that this happened to me. What surprises me is how something so horrific has been such a positive experience in my life. I would never want my husband or my parents to go through that again, but for me, it was transforming.”

Every morning, she explains, “I faced a crossroads. Had I chosen to give in to despair each time instead of forcing myself to project happiness, I would have slid into self-pity. Now, no matter what my circumstances are in the future, I know the formula for getting through whatever hits me. I know I can cope.”

It is nearly impossible to live a full life without trauma, and the bad memories don’t ever really go away. Rituals are one way of controlling when and how you experience them. If the memories are encapsulated in a specific time and place, they will be less able to torment you the rest of the time. Some soldiers traumatized during World War II created a ritual by going to Normandy on D‑Day. In a variation on this idea, my wife, Debbie, and I decided to get married on the same date that she’d had surgery for cervical cancer and lost her chance to have children. That changed the date from one that recalled loss to one that triggered a sense of celebration.

In the same spirit, Micki Glenn celebrates November 14, the date of her near-death experience. The day she survived. She treats it like a birthday: “It’s a big deal to me. I typically do something fun like ride horses. Later I have a two-hour massage and a pedicure. I then soak in a hot bath while listening to classical music or jazz and sipping a nice red. Then I dress up and go out to dinner. It is a special day!” And she doesn’t suppress her memories; rather, she reviews what was happening to her hour by hour. “It’s not bad or sad or anything. It’s just remembering and feeling so blessed and so alive. Each year I think that by all rights I should have been in the ground since 2002 and how very, very lucky I am to wake up each morning.”

We live on. But we also live with.

Adapted from Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, to be published by W.W. Norton & Company, © 2012 by Laurence Gonzales.

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First Published Fri, 2012-06-01 08:40

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