According to the American Psychological Association: “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. …. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. …. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”
Part One – A Family Story
In my late teens, my father abandoned our family, or as I like to say; he ran away from home. On the day it happened, I was out for the day and didn’t come home until late in the evening. My mother greeted me at the door with questions about whether I knew where my father was, which confused me. She immediately took me to their bedroom and showed me his closet. Empty! His dresser drawers. Also, empty!
I’m the oldest of four children. I think I was my mother’s last hope that day. When I couldn’t tell her where my father was, she started to fall apart. She was blindsided and she was afraid. Probably in shock. I wasn’t sure how I felt. I’ll stick with confused. In our family, as is probably true with many other people’s families, we avoided, ignored, denied and “pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps” when we felt emotionally troubled – by anything. My mother couldn’t do that in the moment or for a while after it happened. In this situation, it became my responsibility to take care of the house and my brothers and sister. I’m not good at recognizing how I feel; I usually have to process things. So, having something to do was good for me.
As one of my cousins felt the best medicine for my mother was tea with brandy, my mother was comforted by her friends and family in the only ways they knew how. So, I made sure everyone was fed, bathed, and sent to school in clean clothes. After a couple of weeks, my sister asked my cousin to stop giving my mother brandy. That’s when my mother had an emotional breakdown that required medical intervention. After that, she tried to pull it together and pretend that everything was okay. On the outside, she wore a brave face and she began to get back into her regular routine. But it took her insides, her emotions, a while to catch up. Understandably so.
Abandonment stirs up a lot of chaos. And shame. Except for family and a few of my parent’s closest friends, we were told to keep this a secret. As the news got out, people took sides. Lifelong friends cut my father off, wanting nothing to do with him. My sister, who is not good at keeping secrets told her friends. I watched as she was ostrasized by her friend’s parents, who could no longer hang out with her. She hadn’t done anything wrong, yet she was punished for my father’s behavior. Observing other people’s reactions, I understood why we were told to keep this quiet – “under our roof”.
We really weren’t equipped to deal with what happened. Why did we feel shame? We hadn’t done anything shameful. If anything, that belonged to my father. And, he didn’t feel shame. Or guilt. He felt relief.
Six weeks after leaving, my father called me when I was at work, guaranteeing he wouldn’t have to speak to my mother. He was in a different state from where we lived. He wanted to come back to town, but not back home, and he wanted me to tell my mother; a responsibility that should not have been mine. I didn’t know I could say no. And in the aftermath of my father’s return, the chaos I mentioned earlier went on for several years, eventually tearing my family apart, physically and emotionally. Before they finished high school, my youngest brother and sister were uprooted and landed in the homes of various family members. My other brother found a permanent home until he was ready to be on his own. I moved in with a friend.
When my father finally returned to town, he stayed with one of his unmarried friends, and I received many drunken phone calls, rationalizing and justifying his decision, the relief he felt, and telling me I was his favorite child. I didn’t tell anyone he said that. I started to get in touch with a few feelngs of my own, besides shame – anger and guilt. Guilt related to being favored. But, that guilt didn’t belong to me any more than the shame did. I just didn’t know it at the time. It was time to start feeling anger because abandonment hurts.
My father isn’t a bad person. He was unhappy and he was afraid to tell my mother. She controlled our home and everyone in it – maybe a story for another day. She isn’t a bad person either. My father didn’t know how to assert himself. He always had trouble with anxiety and he avoided confrontation. I rarely saw him get angry. He seemed easy going and he also seemed loyal to a fault. He was a good father. My mother was also a good parent. I had a happy childhood. Up until my father left, he was the parent I trusted most, the one I would talk to. He listened. When this happened, I lost trust, and not just in my father. In people.
Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and pushing through something like it never happened left all of us in a state of emotional confusion and with a lot of suppressed feelings. Secrets can do that. Sometimes our feelings came out sideways and in inappropriate ways. Every member of my family came through this situation differently. And not one of us came through it without being wounded. Wounds heal. How fast they heal depends upon several things. And one of them is RESILIENCE.
Part Two – A Little About Resilience
Honestly, I thought of resilence as a trait, mental and emotional toughness. I thought it was an innate ability to cope, which makes no sense when I think about it now. Why, after going through our family’s trauma, did one of my brothers, the second oldest, and I eventually end up in stable, trusting, long-lasting relationships, while my sister found herself in a series of abusive relationships for many years, and my youngest brother – a functioning adult – seems to be emotionally stuck in adolescence? From my reading on the topic of resilience, this can be partly attributed to my brother and I having lived in a stable home for more years than our younger siblings, and the support we had after being abandoned. My youngest sibling’s lives blew up in early adolescence and they were shuffled around to different living arrangements several times. Sadly, this made them vulnerable to further trauma; stories that are not mine to tell.
A few questions about the relationship between trauma and resilience: Does the type of trauma affect resilience? Does age matter, whether the trauma happened in childhood or as an adult? Does it matter if the trauma was a one time event versus trauma that persisted for years? Is it affected by whether it is private or public? Does it make a difference whether or not it involves violence? Does receiving support and help from others help with resilience? Do our life experiences, our attitude and the culture we grew up in affect our resilience? Since this is a blog post and not a research paper, the short answer is: Yes, they all impact our resilience.
There isn’t a lack of research on resilience and trauma. Researchers are looking at things, such as genetic markers, memory skills, and social supports, to understand why some people have the ability to cope in the face of traumatic events and others fall apart. It seems that our body, our brain, and our environment might all be factors involved in how resilient we are. Ann Masten, a resilience expert at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, “considers resilience more of a process than a state of being, one that’s highly dependent on the systems around you working well.” (NOVA, PBS.org)
Part Three – Building Resilience
Be prepared for trauma before it happens. During the cold war, we used to have school drills to prepare for a nuclear attack. Schools also had and probably still have fire drills. And it is my understanding that schools now have preparedness drills for the possibility of a shooting; how to go into lockdown. When I lived in California, I learned to be prepared for earthquakes. I tend to lean toward “worst-case scenario” thinking, so education and preparation help give me peace of mind. I look for the fire exits when I enter a building. There are many things in life that we can prepare for, even things that are unpredictable. And it seems that we can prepare ahead of time for trauma by building our resilience.
According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., to develop resilience, it is “vital to grow strengths inside like self-worth, patience, kindness, and joy.” But, how do we build that inner strength that we can draw upon when we need it? One way Dr. Hanson proposes is a strategy called “Taking in the good.” When you notice something good happening, stop and think about it for 10-15 seconds. The length of time is important. By focusing on the good things throughout your day, you will start to change the wiring in your brain, helping you build resilience (and maybe a little happiness).
Not all days are good. Then what do we do?
Social-emotional tools are another way to prepare for trauma. One way these are built is through prior moderate to mild crisis that actually help to strengthen a person to face new trauma. Another way is to find silver linings in bad days or difficult events, using them as a growth experience, to pro-actively create positive emotions. In other words, don’t let your negative emotions control you and how you respond when faced with trauma. Feel your feelings, reframe them, and look for solutions. There are a variety of ways to process trauma, and flexibility is a useful coping skill. Social support and education are important ways that can increase a person’s resilience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Depending on the trauma, that might be help from family and friends, or it might mean seeking help from a mental health professional or trauma-related organizations.
Here are some suggestions I found at My Wellbeing.com: Recovery from trauma is a process and it isn’t the same for everyone. Protect yourself from re-exposure to the event, including replaying it in your head. Feel whatever you need to feel, allowing time to process the feelings. Ask for support. Look for resources related to your trauma. Find a way to relax. Find a way to distract yourself, but not into oblivion. Seek the company of others who have been through what you are going through. Take care of yourself and find a routine you feel comfortable with.
Taking care of yourself doesn’t look the same for everyone. How we process trauma is as different as the people who experience it. Additional ways to help yourself might include simple things like deep breathing, yoga, mindfulness, exercise, spiritual practices, or journaling. The idea is to find ways to self-soothe that work for you.
I have only touched on the subject of resilience as it relates to trauma. What I read repeatedly is that educating yourself and practicing coping strategies will help you to build resilience. Maybe more importantly, you do not have to face any trauma, big or small, alone! In fact, if you are dealing with a past trauma, while individual treatment might be needed, working within a community can support you as you navigate your way through the process and help you to sustain your well-being.
P.S. This happened to my family many years ago. My father wrote each of us a personal letter of apology. Both of my parents are happily remarried to other people. I have a good relationship with both of my parents. Even so, life goes on and with it came new problems. As a result, sadly, I am the only person in my family of origin that everyone speaks to. I’m grateful they do.
Resources: American Psychological Association, Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D., @ Mental Help.net; U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center; Joe Magliano, Ph.D., Psychology Today, Aug. 28, 2013; Rick Hanson, Ph.D.; My Wellbeing.com; Trauma-recovery.ca; psu.edu (Penn State University)