Can growing up in a hardship environment like Communism make you more resilient in times like COVID-19 pandemic? I learned to bounce back pretty early in my life. Here’s how I did it.
I’ve lived in the US for over half of my life, but I grew up in Communist Bulgaria. When people hear about my upbringing, the same question comes up:
“How was that?”
My standard response is:
“I had the best childhood ever.”
This response raises a few eyebrows, and we end up in a lengthy conversation about what was so great about it. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” could be the corniest and shortest answer.
My Resiliency Journey
Growing up, we had little money, no credit cards, no bank loans, no freedom, and little hope that one day, things would change for the better. Fear, uncertainty, poverty, hunger, angst, and red tape were our normal. Being able to adapt to this type of life required resiliency, innovation, will, and luck. Just to put things into perspective, one had to wait years (like 20 of them) to be eligible to purchase a car – a Lada (Russian) or Trabant (Eastern German).
Nevertheless, to this day, I still think that I had the best childhood ever. I choose to remember the good and not the bad. Having lived in America for more than half of my life, I’m still a firm believer that I wouldn’t want to trade my childhood for the average American childhood of mindless video games, junk food, shopping malls, and the occasional trip to Disneyland.
I grew up to be the person I am today, thanks to my upbringing. Early in my life, my eyes opened to what I want to be, do, and have. And one thing is for sure, my resiliency helped me get through Communism, helped me create a new life in America, and continues to serve me daily, including dealing with COVID-19.
Resilience is in my DNA
Family. Friends. Hope. Health. History. Heritage. Traditions. Humor. Nature. Rich Experiences. All these things helped developed my resilience.
Family, Friends, and Hope
My parents and grandparents are the primary reason for my precious childhood memories. Their courage, creativity, and passion for life turned me into a strong-willed, self-reliant, and resilient human being. Our four-week vacations at the warm beaches of the Black Sea in the summertime gave me the hope I needed so desperately when things got tough. The thoughts of sunny summer days, lazy mornings, and falling asleep to the sounds of the sea were sufficient to get me through tough days, cold winters, and hungry nights. In tough times, we need hope for better days. My summer days at the Black Sea were the sunshine during the stressful, cold, bitter days. We soaked up the sun and forgot about everything else.
My friends from my childhood are friends through thick and thin. They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. We can count on each other until today. We lifted each other’s spirits and celebrated our victories. We laughed, we told stories, we held each other, we cried, we helped each other out, and we got drunk together.
Having strong connections is one of the secrets to strong resilience, health, and longevity.
Lessons From The Past
Bulgaria is an old country. The earliest human remains can be traced back to 1.4 million years ago, although the country of Bulgaria was officially founded in 681 BC. The country has been invaded by various ethnic, religious, and political enemies over the years: Thracians, Persians, Macedonians, Celts, Romans, Slavs, Ottomans, Communists. For thousands of years, Bulgarians have been invaded, ruled, occupied, robbed, raped, and abused. Yet, we survived. We learn from the past, we remember the good times, and we keep going.
Consider your past. Can you remember the hardships in your life? How were you able to overcome them? Who helped you along the way? These memories can help you build your resilience.
Heritage and Traditions
Even during Communism, my family kept holidays and traditions alive. These small acts of reliving our heritage kept us grounded during Communism. Our holidays usually included family gatherings with food and celebration of our customs. Homemade dishes included baking sweet bread and lamb, dying eggs, and playing an egg game on Easter, wearing a Martenitsa for health on March 1 (a red and white string on your wrist), making sure we had an odd number of dishes on Christmas eve. We celebrate name days, religious holidays, public holidays, and folk traditions. It seems like we always have a reason to celebrate something or someone. These traditions kept a positive outlook on life even when things were tough.
What are the traditions and celebrations in your life that deserve remembering and planning?
Most Bulgarians have a dry sense of humor. Over years of hardship, we developed the uncanny ability to laugh our way through life’s difficulties. Our word for jokes is “vitz.” Writers, poets, comedians, TV shows, there’s even a House of Humor and Satire use humor to entertain and enrich our lives. Humor, better called dry satire, has been our way of coping with bleak days for centuries. What we lacked in material possessions we made up in wit. Some jokes are funny; some don’t translate well, and some are not that funny, but they still intertwined in our conversations every single day. We poke fun at politicians, nationalities, occupations, family members, and characters.
What can you do to laugh and smile more these days?
I spent summers at the Black Sea, winters in the mountains and weekends venturing to local lakes, rivers, and mountains. It was our way to get out of the hustle and bustle of city life. We left our stress behind the minute we hit the highway to get out of the city. The varied topography of the country with high snow-capped mountains, pristine Alpine lakes, rivers, hot springs, plains, mountain ranges, and the Black Sea offers plenty of refuge places for people to explore, get curious and admire nature. Growing up, I spent as much time in nature as I could, and continue to use it as my place to unwind and renew. Nature is still the place I go to practice self-compassion, mindfulness, draw inspiration, and find peace.
How can you connect with nature more often, even if it means bringing nature to you?
Back during Communism, we weren’t allowed to travel much, so we had to create memorable experiences in other ways.
Bulgarians don’t say, “Go out there and experience the world”… we say, “If you sit still, you won’t witness a miracle.” We created our own experiences. From taking care of a variety of animals when we were kids, to creating our carnivals and Olympic competitions, we got creative and invented our unique experiences.
What care you create with what you have in the moment?
We didn’t own a lot of stuff. In my family at some point, three generations lived in a two-bedroom apartment. We ate simply. Every day after school, I had grandma’s homemade lunch waiting for me. I played chess with my grandpa. When school was out in the summertime, our parents were able to take four weeks off from work. We head out to the Black sea, where we camped on the beach and lived sufficiently without running water or electricity. These are the happiest memories of my childhood. We built fires on the beach in the evenings. We spent the days in the water: windsurfing, fishing, and swimming. We made our nutella with butter and sugar and cacao. We made our coolers from styrofoam filled with ice from the fishing boats. We cured our meats outside in the wind in cheesecloth. We dried fish on a line for the winter. We walked ½ mile each way to wash our dishes in the bathrooms. We only had cold water for showers – we were practicing Wim Hof Method before it was trendy. We were thankful for what we had.
There was a US dollar store on the campground, too, for the Western tourists who came to vacation in Bulgaria. Somehow my parents had acquired $20 and were saving it for “rainy” days. I did my fair share of staring through the windows at the big Toblerones and Milka Bars and knew better not to ask my parents for one. They also had a few clothing items in there. I would never forget how on my 11th birthday, my parents surprised me with a denim shirt from that store. A dream come through. I kept that shirt for as long as I could until I outgrew it and turned it into a purse.
Simple living means “going fewer places on one day rather than more, acquiring less so you can have more, doing less so you can do more” – says Jon Kabat-Zinn.
What can you simplify today to leave you more time and space for what matters? What makes you happy?
Despite Communism, I grew up free-spirited. Instead of settling for what the communist regime dictated, my parents raised me to reach for the stars. To challenge the status quo. To follow my dreams. To believe in me. To have confidence. To face the small fears daily.
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”― Maya Angelou
Resiliency can be learned. And now, it is an excellent time to start, don’t you think?