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.

Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue

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