What makes me Resilient?

Please note: this story references abuse and suicide.

What makes me Resilient?

I like to keep up to date on the latest research into psychology, especially that which helps me survive mentally in a pre-apocalyptic world. There has been much more noise about person resilience in the last few years. Some say it can be picked up’ by being outdoors, for example, having been a Girl Guide or Boy Scout, when we were young.

Perhaps other children had a more helpful experience of similar Military Training for Children. I believe boys, especially, were taught responsibility, how to light fires, and make shelters for themselves. Or perhaps the adults involved the children in the study helped instill a sense of self-worth and capability.

I believe that I am a resilient person.

I did not grow up with a sense of self-worth. I did join the ‘Brownies’ (pre-Girl Guides) for a very short time, but we were never let out of the concrete building or the control of the sadistic ‘Brown Cow’ woman who was supposed to be our mentor. Except when we were made to stand outside, squashed together, in the blazing sun, waiting for The Queen of England to pass by with a barely perceptible hand movement (known as ‘the wave’). This was my last day as a Brownie as I was expelled for having addressed Brown Cow as a different, smellier animal, after being pushed over while our “mentor’ pushed us all back out of the gutter, once again.

How did I get to be resilient?

I did not have a ‘safe’ or nurtured life, especially early on. My family & background were strikingly different to my neighbors in our small, new suburb. I could never work out how to be 'normal' , or fit in. I was left alone in hospital at an early age for extended periods. My mother was always busy doing ‘important things’ for ‘needy’ people. Looking after and protecting children is still not considered to be an important career. Being well-known for doing ‘good’ things, was much more fulfilling for her than facing and dealing with the struggles facing her own children.

Both elder sisters seem to have inherited ‘oversensitive amygdala’, from my Grandfather who tormented his family with unpredictable anger, violence and psychotic episodes. As you can imagine, home never felt like a safe haven for the bullying at school. II decided it was safer to join the bullies. This led me to be moved from the closest high school to one which was supposedly ‘less rough’.

Unfortunately, a sister had also been transferred to the same school, joined the bullies there, but had already dropped out before she was sixteen. So I was expected to follow in her footsteps, both academically and socially. Not without having to prove myself to the bullies, however. I would turn up to school and be told which other girl I had to fight that particular day. My stress from abuse at home and at school expressed itself through my first Stomach Ulcer at fourteen .

I drove 300 miles away when I left home, hoping to re-create my life in a small university town, to train as a nurse, away from the negative influences. However, one sister followed me soon after, continuing to try to sap my confidence and interfere with my social life. I was very disappointed by my first year of Enrolled Nurses training and I couldn't relate to the Psychology and other Arts/Science subjects I was studying during my first attempt at University.

I ended up failing my assignment on Contraception. Having read frightening information on The Pill, I was the only student who chose the topic of natural contraception, much to the disdain of the lecturer, who would not give me a reading list of the most important research. So I ended up using outdated information for my project, and failed the ‘practical’ as well ;-). I was in my first ‘real’ relationship at the time and we chose to keep the baby.

My partner, now my husband, became emotionally, socially and financially abusive. He had felt dis-empowered while I had supported him financially, while he completed his undergraduate and post-graduate education. He was now, finally working and determined that I should now feel as bad as he had. Apparently, I was having a good time on his money while I was making and laying mud-bricks for our house, by myself, trying to complete my University Degree though distance education, looking after a household and young child, and working nights alone at a Youth Refuge (residential care).

Stress from the emotional abuse led to an even worse stomach ulcer this time, followed by an episode of Catatonic Depression, after the initial high of having freed myself. I knew I had to get out of there, If I was to survive, even though this led me to losing any money I was due, for from all the hard building and renovating work I had put into the house and furniture.

My son and I ended up building another low-cost house on a rural-co-operative, a place I thought would provide a supportive community for both of us. This was a really interesting experience, providing great opportunities to explore my creative side and a great lesson in the reality that people will try to bully the more ‘different’ or vulnerable within a group, if they can get away with it, no matter what utopian or spiritual believes they espouse. Unfortunately, the idea of ‘peace and love’ can be used as an excuse for not standing up for aggression and abuse. “I don’t like conflict” was a common response to much behaviour between neighbors which would never be accepted in a suburban environment.

Raised to do something about injustice, rather than hide from it, the situation was one which I could not ignore, even though fighting it seriously stressed me out. It was definitely time to move on with my son, when most of the other pre-teens, were allowed to hang about, smoking joints, surfing and playing music rather than going to school. I’m glad I did, as things have deteriorated to the extent that most of the communal resources are now spent on (unsuccessful) legal actions, trying to remove members who do not ‘fit in’. Unfortunately, I had to forfeit my house at a quarter of its value, due to the shared nature of the land title.

Having a thirst for experience and innovation and an urge for adventure, my life has been exceptionally amazing and interesting. But this does not guarantee an easy, safe or secure life. I was always accompanied by at least some level of depression and anxiety, especially during my many short and dysfunctional personal relationships. This was not helped at all by a phase of embracing many simplistic New Age ‘answers’, but I did find some level of meaning , though practicing nature –based ritual.

By the time I was was 35, damage to my muscular-skeletal problems and early-onset degeneration reached to the point where I could not sit upright for long, especially in a ‘normal’ chair, at a ‘normal’ desk or table. I seriously considered suicide when this reality hit home. I had been was refused a Government benefit, I couldn’t support myself financially, let alone help my son, now a young man, and I really couldn’t see any future for myself.

Eventually, my ‘resilience’ kicked in again and I love my son too much to deprive him of a mother, no matter how useless i now was. I nervously ask for more ‘helpful’ documentation from my practitioners, and challenged the decision. I was finally approved for a small Disability pension and study supplement. I could now afford to study again. I started with Distance Education courses in Disability Work and Adult Training and finally completed my University Degree, after three attempts and twenty-five years, along with eight extra Post- grad Psychology/counselling subjects.

However, the only work I could do was local and part-time; not much choice in the small, regional towns nearby. I mostly worked with Disability organisations for people with Intellectual Disability working on vocational and literacy training, Casework, developing programs, protocols and plans.

In my last job, I was also allowed to practice Counselling to particular clients with Mental Health issues and mild to moderate Intellectual Disability, for a while. Unfortunately, this so called ‘not for profit’ organisation was rife with unethical practices, financial exploitation of the clients, bullying and mismanagement and eventually stopped my counselling sessions. Nevertheless, it was very satisfying to develop and provide innovative counselling techniques with the clients, each who lived with a completely unique set of experiences and challenges, and who had previously been considered too ‘dumb’ to learn about their issues, let alone learn tools to help manage themselves.

Unfortunately I could never practice as a Counsellor again. The nearest potential employer was too far for me to drive to each day, and I could not sit still in a chair for the hours required. My muscular-skeletal degeneration continued to exacerbate, and I could not manage any longer without opiate & morphine base medications. The side effects rule out any chance of working regular hours, even if ‘accessible’ opportunities did exist.

I did manage then to complete a Post-Grad TESOL (ESL) Diploma and recently spend some physically challenging but fascinating and heart-warming time in East Timor, helping out a small, resource-poor youth organisation, set up and run by the Timorese themselves.

Episodes of acute depression began to return after trying to reduce my pain medication, due to further reduction of my natural serotonin levels, so started taking SSRI’s for the first time. Such an amazing difference! I wish I had taken them years ago. Previously, my self-esteem couldn’t cope with the idea that I truly had depression & generalised anxiety. I am sad for those who aren’t helped by these new medications.

So, yes, it is possible to have a happy life, despite abuse and bullying throughout a life. I had always been of the thought that experience, of any kind makes your life more interesting, and that pain makes you stronger. The adventurism, optimism and determination that helped me build resilience, however, also led me into plenty of situations that were not safe. Having survived one negative event, I would feel more invincible, and therefore more likely to throw myself into the next ‘interesting’ experience

So where does my resilience come from? Sure, my elderly parents both survived serious trauma in their earlier lives, emotional and / or physical, especially through the war years.

Yet both parents carried psychologically damage, themselves, through their own traumatic experiences in early life and in the war. Their own insecurity and anxiety were fed to us each day, along with the plain but healthy food. Unfortunately, self-confidence, and ‘sticking up for us’ was not on the menu. Personal insecurity, feeling alone, and heightened emotional sensitivity don’t make very successful ingredients for resilience.

Does resilience mean that you completely overcome a bad experience? The truth is that trauma does leave scars, and these get deeper, rather than disappear, every time similar wounds are inflicted again. There is plenty you can do to recognise these scars, and, like physical scars, its better see them as part of you, rather than something to be ashamed of.

I live in a very run-down old flat in an expensive but beautiful part of the world, with still many locals to meet and greet each day. I live with unavoidable pain. I can reduce it, however, by not doing many of the things I enjoy. Like many others with impairments, I REALLY appreciate the things in life which give me joy, such as a walk to the river, a heart-to-heart with my son, a laugh with my similarly imperfect partner, an enchanting Granddaughter and short plane trips in winter to gorgeous but inexpensive places.

I am forced to live a very restricted life, without all the physical activities I once thought integral to my sense of identity; dance, building, gardening, and socialising outside the home. Am I happy about this? Of course not. I still have tantrums and bouts of self-pity. But I also still carry my rebelliousness. It is this fierce determination that opens my mind to alternatives, and defies my apparent life sentence pain and loss. I can still BE happy. I still plan to go on adventures. I still have what really matters.

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