I discovered resilience in 1972, when I was fifteen. It was a year of studying at home, a hard year, within the four walls my family was unravelling.
It was more than three years since my foot went in the wheel of a train and my life, as well as my family’s, changed in an instant. The aftermath was in full swing.
We know hindsight gives excellent vision. I’m a bit older, now, too. The previous three years had been a roller coaster of hope, denial and despair. Every January I told myself everything will be better, I’ll survive the year at school, I won’t end up in hospital. But sheer will power could not hold back the tsunami of infections and ulceration afflicting my foot. I felt betrayed by it. How dare my own foot undo my life, and keep undoing it?
The havoc it wreaked isolated me from the world. I felt like an island. I held together like a rock, a promontory, with a tiny isthmus called a telephone connecting me to one friend who kept in contact. Being a rock, it turns out, is hard work. Exhausting!
Then, one night, in June 1972, sitting up until dawn writing poetry by candlelight, I started a new story. When I tired of writing I became mesmerised by the candle’s flame, noticing it bend and bow to the ebb and flow of my breath. It bent with the breeze but refused to go out. I vowed my flame would never die.
This is part of my poem:
Eternal waves may cast you down
Yet you rise to face them all.
As the flame that bows to the breath
As I speak and try to recall.
Mixed metaphor is my forte!
As I wrote, another image popped into my head: a punching toy I used to own—a plastic blow-up Fred Flintstone figure, with a sand filled base. Every time I punched him he rebounded. We were alike: I could be flattened, but I always bounced back.
I realised it’s not deficits that matter—it’s not whether we feel helpless and want to give up. That’s OK, so many events in our lives invite us to throw in the towel. It’s how we respond to blows, whether we give in or rise back up, that makes a difference. We don’t know how we’ll cope until we’re thrown into a situation; then, if we persist, we discover resilience we never knew was there.
Resilience is something in its own right—it’s complex and subtle: it’s not frailty when we feel overwhelmed; it’s not courage when we carry on. Resilience is a bit of give and a lot of patience and belief. Dyads, like strength and weakness, are unhelpful; wooing us either into feelings of failure or making us put up a stoic façade in public, while inside we’re crumbling. Resilience is a cluster of capacities; it’s part grace and part discipline; it’s great to have, but it doesn’t denote virtue.
Why not? Because we can’t control all the circumstances of our lives—nothing when we are young. Childhood trauma, especially before the age of seven, disrupts development. Our minds and bodies remember early loss or trauma, neglect or abuse. Unbidden, and unwanted, deep memories surface when we are most vulnerable and can sweep the ground from under us. Our feet flail, searching for a base below. Resilience comes easier to some than others.
I remember, all those years ago, I realised the ability to survive wasn’t innate for me, a constant I was born with, an internal state. Keeping a score of how I coped with each and every blow was irrelevant. Survival wasn’t a surface manifestation of a specific essence which was part of my core character. It meant so much more.
It was about taking each day as it comes, one step at a time and keeping my flame alight even if no-one saw it.
The word I gave resilience in 1972 was survival. Above everything, that’s all I aimed for. And I don't mean physically, I mean holding onto what I called my ‘self’. Survival meant holding onto my goals, hopes, values, aspirations, humour, loves and passions. It was an act of keeping faith in myself, my flame, after every blow.
In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk's words resonate with me:
Trauma constantly confronts us with our fragility and with man's inhumanity to man but also with our extraordinary resilience. I have been able to do this work for so long because it drew me to explore our sources of joy, creativity, meaning, and connection—all the things that make life worth living. I can't begin to imagine how I would have coped with what many of my patients have endured, and I see their symptoms as part of their strength—the ways they learned to survive. And despite all their suffering many have gone on to become loving partners and parents, exemplary teachers, nurses, scientists, and artists.
Thinking, again, of myself at fifteen, I can feel the abandonment, the solitude, and remember being like a rock. But I had one friend who never gave up and I know, now, she sustained me through those long years. Was it the candlelight, or was it my friend’s love, like a flame in the dark, feeding faith in myself? Or, do we seek resilience everywhere?