Where does resilience come from? How is it that some people can ride out trauma and even prosper, when others suffer lingering physiological stress and fear?
On 10 June 2007, Carmen Tarleton, then 38, was at home in Thetford, Vermont, when her estranged husband broke in and attacked her. Carmen was beaten, and doused with industrial-strength lye. One ear, her eyelids and much of her face was burned away. She suffered burns on 80% of her body. Her face was almost completely destroyed. Her surgeon, Bohdan Pomohač, at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told me her injuries were some of the worst he’d ever seen. “In brutality it was beyond anything we have seen.”
Pomohač put her into a medical coma and over three months performed 38 separate surgical operations to save her life.
“Even when I first woke up from the coma I just knew it was such a big event, and it was so strange, that it had other meanings for me,” Carmen says. “I could help a lot of people.”
Carmen started doing inspirational speaking. “I looked terrible and people felt so sorry for me, but I wanted to show people it didn’t matter what I looked like,” she says. Photos of Carmen from that time are shocking; with all the grafts, she didn’t have proper eyelids, and her eyeballs looked out through small circular holes cut into the skin.
“It forced me to look at the big picture of what life is really about,” she says. “And that’s where I’ve had to go, because this horrific event occurred and I found a way through it. And not because I’m different or special, but because that’s what was meant to be: to show people you can be involved in these incredible events and you can forgive, totally, and move on.”
Carmen suffered physical injuries that could easily have killed her. That she survived is remarkable in itself, but what seems even more incredible is how she has not just survived mentally, but developed into someone else – someone who, by her own account, is better.
Carmen now says she wouldn’t go back and change what happened: she has grown too much. It is a pattern seen in others who have suffered an incredible trauma, and found a way through it.
How do they do it? For physical trauma, it is not so mysterious that some people survive. Statistically, some people will just make it through. It is the mental resilience that is sometimes more impressive. Carmen tells me that we get too caught up in negativity. You’ve got to take control, and make your own choices. “I don’t live like the typical person on the inside at all,” she says.
Psychiatrist David Wolfe is head of outpatient services at the evocatively named Building of Transformative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The ability to power through adverse conditions should be there in our DNA,” Wolfe says. “It’s more of a puzzle why, from an evolutionary standpoint, we have problems with that sometimes.”
No one gets through trauma like this alone, without the friends and family who rally round. Your social network is key to how you deal with trauma. Optimism, too, is one of the character traits shared by people who respond well to trauma. “The opposite is hopelessness, which is a feature of depression,” says Wolfe. “Engagement, taking it on, taking on responsibility, and being active in the process – these things go a long way.”
When you ask people what keeps them going, Wolfe says, the number one answer is family and kids. People who are resilient look to the future. Carmen had a clear goal: “I needed to find a way through this, because I wasn’t going to go anywhere. My biggest motivation was that I wanted to be a role model to my daughters.”
Ann Masten, a psychologist at the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, calls the power of resilience “ordinary magic”. It is magic that anyone can use. Resilience – although a complex mix of biology, psychology and environment – has the potential to be taught.
The capacity to be super-resilient may be there even in normal people, but we need guidance and support to find it, maybe from psychotherapy, maybe from friends. We need help to be optimistic, encouragement to take control, and empowerment to be responsible. We need a certain amount of self-love. A touch of narcissism is good. We need to stand up for ourselves so we are not mistreated at work or in relationships, we need to be assertive without devaluing others and have a self-image that is positive without being conceited. This mixture of personality traits will drive you forward. And, if you do not have them naturally, some of them can be constructed.
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From SUPERHUMAN by Rowan Hooper. Copyright © 2018 by Rowan Hooper. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.