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

“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.

Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue

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