Building Resilience in the Aftermath of Trauma

> 02.03.2018

As I write there are smoke warnings for Western Sydney. Fires in the Wollemi National Park and the Putty State Forest have burned seven thousand hectares, and the smoke is blowing into the city from the north–west. It’s February in Australia, the end of summer. This summer, like most, has been hot and dry. Eucalypts, which dominate the forests, are designed to burn. They prosper from it, which is great for them, and an interesting survival strategy, but it doesn’t make them easy to live with.

I grew up on Sydney’s southern fringe, surrounded by bushland: the Royal National Park to the east, and, to the west, the timbered valleys of the Woronora River and its catchment. We lived on a ridge ringed by gullies.

When I was young the smell of burning eucalypts was one of the signals of summer. If the gums kindled we’d watch and wait. Once, in the days before my memory begins, my family were forced to evacuate.

Although we never had to run again, Dad packed our car every time after that a blaze got started and the flames approached. I learned early to pitch myself to alert when eucalypt incense infused the summer air.

My grandparents in the lower Blue Mountains, also lived among the gums, and their house was threatened by a major fire in 1968; that fire took three lives and razed 123 buildings. I remember that fire well: it was just weeks after I fell from a train and my foot went into a moving wheel, and I was alone in hospital listening to the radio and heard that houses were burning in my grandparents’ street.

Now I live far from the risk of fire, but I still feel a flicker of fear when I hear of flames bearing down on other families. I always wonder how I would cope if I lost everything I owned; I can’t even begin to imagine losing a person I love.

Years ago I worked with a colleague who had survived the Ash Wednesday fires in Victoria in 1983; 47 people died in that inferno. The trauma hit, she said, at odd times. She lost everything that day—photographs, clothing, keepsakes, furniture, heirlooms; and each time she felt like pulling on a favourite shirt or jumper or dress, she stood in her grief again bereft.

Her life now held no old familiar things.

Back in 1968, and even in the 1980s, the tropes offered to survivors of trauma spoke to ‘moving on’, ‘getting over it’, and ‘getting back to normal’ as soon as possible. After my accident, that’s what I heard—get on a train as soon as you can walk again.

Such advice was conventional wisdom then, and much easier said than done, trauma being the force it is, so little studied then.

At worst, this old line of thought portrayed resilience as a ‘thing’, a ‘trait’, which might be ascribed to a person’s internal states, their values and character; those who did indeed ‘get over it’ were seen as innately ‘strong’ or ‘brave’. As if resilience were a surface manifestation or a part of a person’s core character, part of their immutable ‘self’.

We know more about resilience now: it’s more like a practice, a discipline, you can and have to learn. And we know more now of the harm done by the old lexicon of trauma; in most cases it hindered the healing process. Those same ideas could isolate and pathologise people who struggled to find a way through the grief and loss, suggesting their inability to ‘get on with life’ exposed a weakness of character.

Our understanding of trauma has changed over the last few decades. We recognise now the need for pathways supportive of healing and recovery, ones that allow for the expression of deep and chaotic emotions. Trauma specialists now understand that the event will be integrated into each person’s life and self-story at a pace governed by each person’s needs.

Resilience is often described as a person’s ability to rebound from a traumatic event. But what shapes resilience? Current approaches suggest it’s a mix of things: our beliefs, values, hopes and goals, and the context of our lives, including the relationships and experiences we have and have had through our lives, our early attachments, the people we’ve met, the reading we’ve done.

How can we apply what we know now of resilience to help people build it into their lives—survivors of a trauma like a bushfire, for instance?

The question takes me back to an interview I watched last year—on ‘The Link’, hosted by Stan Grant. In the wake of a spate of devastating bushfires in New South Wales that year, one of which almost wiped out a small town called Uarbry, Grant interviewed two people who had lost their homes in the Blue Mountains in October 2013 when a firestorm wiped out 200 homes, 50 of them in one street.

Stan asked the same questions I’d asked myself. What is it like to lose your home to a bushfire? Where does someone find resilience? Where does resilience come from? How did they keep their hope alive?

The survivors of the 2013 fire said their hope was kept alive by family, friends, neighbours, networks in the local communities and their personal beliefs—whether of a religious faith or a philosophy of life. Through the process they discovered they did not know what they could endure until they had to face it, and, in that process, their values and beliefs may have adjusted with new ways of understanding themselves and their lives.

One spoke of a new awareness of the staying power of the human spirit and the sustenance of comfort from others, ‘Accepting things you didn’t think you needed, but you did’; another of the value of never giving up as long as you have breath. Trauma strips us to the essentials—it awakens our attachment to life.

They also said they didn’t know if the trauma made them stronger—because any strength they might have acquired had not been tested yet. It seemed the notion of ‘strength’ was not key to how they spoke of ‘resilience’; resilience seemed to relate more broadly to what we are engaged with in our lives—our self-care, social support networks and beliefs.

The idea of resilience may mean different things to different people. What I took away from the conversation on ‘The Link’ last year was the idea resilience is not a ‘thing’ inside us; it is something we may discover in our response to challenging events, it is fostered through relationships and through communities offering a safe place for falling apart and coming together.

Trauma changes you and there is no deadline for recovery. Getting out the other side is not a hurdle race. You don’t jump over it; you wade through it.

None of us knows how we will cope with any event until we’re in it. Trauma leads us to discover things about ourselves we never knew existed, like how to put ourselves back together after we’ve been pulled apart; like how we are held by and dependent on a constellation of others who care for us as we care for them; and in the process we discover resilience—a capacity to carry on and find meaning, even when hope is gone—that we never knew we had. But it seems we don’t find our deeper selves or our way back on our own. Resilience—at the heart of recovery from trauma—is social, ecological, familial and communal, it seems. We learn it, achieve it and practise it together: we fall apart alone; we come back together together.