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

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.”

Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue

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