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The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience
By Meg Jay
Read by Meg Jay
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Whether it is the loss of a parent to death or divorce; bullying; alcoholism or drug abuse in the home; mental illness in a parent or a sibling; neglect; emotional, physical or sexual abuse; having a parent in jail; or growing up alongside domestic violence, nearly 75% of us experience adversity by the age of 20. But these experiences are often kept secret, as are our courageous battles to overcome them.
Drawing on nearly two decades of work with clients and students, Jay tells the tale of ordinary people made extraordinary by these all-too-common experiences, everyday superheroes who have made a life out of dodging bullets and leaping over obstacles, even as they hide in plain sight as doctors, artists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, parents, activists, teachers, students and readers. She gives a voice to the supernormals among us as they reveal not only “How do they do it?” but also “How does it feel?”
These powerful stories, and those of public figures from Andre Agassi to Jay Z, will show supernormals they are not alone but are, in fact, in good company.
Marvelously researched and compassionately written, this exceptional book narrates the continuing saga that is resilience as it challenges us to consider whether — and how — the good wins out in the end.
As a clinical psychologist and an educator, I have been listening to people for nearly twenty years, and recently I have begun to write books about what I hear. This is why: Much of the time, people come to a therapist or teacher with problems they feel they have no one to talk to about, or they fear no one else will understand. For almost two decades, then, my days have been spent behind closed doors hearing about events that, often, have taken place behind closed doors, too. One thing I have learned is that many, many people feel isolated with similar problems, unaware that they are not as alone or as different as they think.
Also, therapy and the classroom are not for everyone, and there can be financial, logistical, or cultural barriers to each. I have gained a lot not only from listening, but also from researching and reading about the problems that have been brought to me. I want this information to be accessible not just to those who can afford schools or therapists but also to anyone who can access the Internet or a bookstore or a public library. Education is an intervention, said feminist theorist Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name “bell hooks.”
What follows, then, is a work of narrative nonfiction. Throughout this book, I draw on hundreds of studies from hundreds of researchers, only some of whom, for the sake of readability, are named in the body of the text. Please consult the notes at the end of the book for full citations, and for information about where you can read more. I also quote from dozens of memoirs and autobiographies, as well as from a few biographies and novels. In most cases, quotations are provided in full. On a few occasions, quotations are abbreviated, but—again for readability—rather than use brackets or ellipses, I made certain the meaning of the words was not altered. For more complete quotations or context, the notes can point you to the primary sources.
Most important, I tell the stories, as they were told to me, of clients and students with whom I have had the privilege to work. Each story in this book is based on real events and endeavors to be emotionally true. To protect the privacy of those who have shared their experiences with me, identifying details have been changed. The fundamental aspects of the stories I share—the hardships my clients and students faced and what they thought and how they felt as they made their way through them—have not been altered. The dialogue I include consists of others’ words as I remember them. I hope every reader sees himself or herself in the pages that follow, but a resemblance to any particular person is coincidental.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Helen looked as put together in person as she had sounded on the phone. Precisely on time for her first appointment, she sat on the couch with her back straight and her hands resting on top of one another, the bottom hand clenched. We exchanged some pleasantries, which included my asking if she had found my office without incident. To this, Helen replied, almost offhandedly, that she had been late getting out of a meeting at work, rushed over in her car, gotten a flat tire on the way, rolled into the closest service station, dashed in to drop off her keys, dashed back out yelling over her shoulder that she would return in an hour, jumped on a bus heading in the right direction, hopped off a mile or so later, and ran the last couple of blocks.
“You sound like a superhero,” I said.
Tears began to fall down Helen’s cheeks, and she looked at me wryly, sadly. “You don’t know the half of it,” she replied.
Helen told me she had spent most of the last several years since college—“How many has it been?” She paused to count. “Ten? Eleven?”—crisscrossing the globe with nongovernmental organizations fighting for a better world. Social justice in Africa. Climate justice in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Juvenile justice in Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. Helen went wherever she was needed and then, one day, her mother sent word she was needed back home.
Helen’s father had killed himself in the house where she grew up. Theirs was a modest home in a suburban neighborhood about two hours outside San Francisco. It was a place where there had been a yard to run around in, and Helen and her two younger brothers each had a bedroom of their own. Maybe this was why, many years ago, no one heard the youngest boy sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and head for the backyard pool. Maybe this was why no one saw him drown.
Before she was even a teenager, Helen had begun to sneak out of the house at night, too. At first, she wanted to know what the world had looked like to her brother just before he died, but then she kept doing it because it felt like getting away, at least for a while. Her father was not arguing for a fresh start somewhere else. Her mother was not crying, refusing to leave her memories of her youngest child—and the marks she had made on the kitchen doorway as he had grown taller—behind. During the day, Helen walked down the halls at school where she earned good grades with a smile—her parents needed her to be “the strong one,” and she was. In the dark of night, though, Helen could walk for blocks and blocks, and as she moved in and out of the cones of yellow light from the streetlamps, there was no one to be strong for, no one to save.
Back from her work around the world, Helen drove her rental car down those same streets, unsure of what she hated more about her neighborhood: the fact that the houses were all supposed to look alike or the feeling that hers never had seemed like the rest. Next, she went to her father’s office where she packed his personal items into a cardboard box, among them an empty water bottle stashed suspiciously in the bottom desk drawer. When she unscrewed the top and put her nose to it, it smelled of alcohol. Helen felt like drinking, too, as she sat back and swiveled side to side in her father’s desk chair and eyed the hundreds of files stacked haphazardly in chairs around the room. On her way out, Helen politely thanked her father’s colleagues as they fumbled with awkward condolences, and with congratulations, too, about her many good works: “Your father was so proud of you. He talked about you all the time, you know.” Helen did know. She was, and had always been, living proof that her family was all right.
In a flash, Helen had a new job near her hometown, this time as a fund-raiser for a presidential campaign. There was work that needed to be done right here in the United States, she reasoned; besides, her mother needed her, too. At the office, friendly, impassioned calls with donors were interspersed with weepy calls from her mother: her house—the one she vowed never to leave—might go into foreclosure. It was on a day like this one that she made her way to my office and told me her story.
“I’ve never said all this to anyone before,” Helen confided as tears rolled in steady tracks down her cheeks. “Some people know some of it, but no one knows all of it. People look at me and they see all these great things I have done—and they are sort of astonished when they find something out about my family but no one really knows me. I don’t think anyone has ever really known me. It’s lonely.”
Helen sat silent for a long while, folding and unfolding a tissue.
“I’m so tired,” she continued. “I feel embarrassed to say that, to be sitting here crying, when I think about all the people in the world who have had it so much harder than I have. It’s like I don’t have the right to be as worn out or as sad as I am. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Sometimes I feel like I don’t fit anywhere, like there isn’t a word for… whatever I am. I just have this feeling that I’m not like other people,” she concluded. “That I’m not normal.”
When I asked Helen if she had ever thought of herself as resilient, she was more taken aback than confused. Her answer was swift and firm: “No.”
“If I was resilient,” she went on to explain matter-of-factly, as if I was the one who was mistaken, “I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t need to talk to someone like you.”
Then, with impeccable timing, Helen glanced at her watch and interrupted herself to say, “Our time is up. I’ll see you next week.” She wiped the tears from her face and walked out the door, off to race back to her car.
Helen is a marvel. Whether she was making it through her childhood or to my office that first day, she overcame hardships, both big and small. The loss of her brother. Her parents’ grief. Her father’s death. International injustice. A flat tire. Helen leapt into action no matter what. Strong and determined, compassionate and brave, she was a hero to her family, and maybe to some others, too. Tirelessly, it seemed, she came to the rescue of those who needed her and she stood up for strangers around the globe. To those who knew her, Helen was a wonder, and maybe few would have guessed that, behind closed doors, she felt exhausted and different and alone.
But Helen was not as different from other people as she imagined. What follows are the most common adversities that children and teens wake up to every day. If you are wondering if you might have been one of those children or teens, ask yourself the following questions. Before the age of twenty:
• Did you lose a parent or sibling through death or divorce?
• Did a parent or sibling often swear at you, put you down, humiliate you, isolate you, or act in a way that made you feel afraid?
• Did you live with a parent or sibling who was a problem drinker, or who abused other drugs?
• Were you ever bullied by, or afraid of, kids at school or in your neighborhood?
• Did you live with an adult or sibling who struggled with a mental illness, or some other serious illness or special need?
• Did a parent or a sibling often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you, or ever hit you so hard that you had bruises, marks, or other injuries?
• Did you live in a home where you went without clean clothes or enough to eat, you could not afford a doctor, or you felt you had no one to protect you?
• Did someone in your household go to jail?
• Did a parent, sibling, or another person at least five years older touch your body in a sexual way or ask you to do something similar?
• Was a parent or sibling in your household sometimes hit, kicked, or slapped, or ever threatened with a weapon?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions—or if you lived with an adversity not mentioned just above—you are not the only one. Considered individually, each of these experiences may affect only a minority of the population, but considered together under the umbrella of childhood adversity, multiple studies in the United States and around the world suggest that up to 75 percent of children and teens are exposed to one of these events—or more—as one problem may lead to another and another. Yet, as we all know, many young people, like Helen—and maybe like yourself—grow up and do well in the world, not just in spite of the difficulties they have known, but maybe even because of them. Social scientists call men and women like these “resilient.”
According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or significant ongoing stressors. Researchers say it is unexpected competence despite significant risks; it is achieving success despite serious challenges. No matter how exactly one chooses to phrase it, resilience is doing better than one might expect; it is making good when much has been bad. Certainly, after all she had been through, Helen had made good. She had adapted well, and she was more competent and successful than many may have predicted. So why, then, did Helen not think of herself as resilient?
The problem is that, colloquially, we talk about resilience in deceptively simple terms. We say people who are resilient “bounce back.” They “rebound.” And if we look in the dictionary, we see resilience defined as elasticity, as the ability to recover quickly and easily, to return to one’s original state after an illness or misfortune or shock. There are all sorts of situations for which this kind of springy definition makes sense, such as when we rebound from having the flu or we bounce back from losing a job. But none of these popular descriptions matches what goes on inside those like Helen, most of whom do not recover quickly or return to their original state, but are forever changed by their early experiences. When it comes to overcoming childhood adversity, resilience is no snap.
In fact, social scientists argue that resilience is best understood not as some kind of elastic trait that someone either does or does not have, but as a phenomenon—as something we can see but do not entirely understand. We can see this sort of phenomenal resilience in stories of those like Helen, and we can see it in the lives of well-known women and men we will hear a bit about in the pages ahead, ones who show us that those like Helen are not as alone as they feel but are, in fact, in good company. Here are a few:
Andre Agassi, tennis champion
Maya Angelou, author
Alison Bechdel, cartoonist
Johnny Carson, comedian
Johnny Cash, country singer
Stephen Colbert, comedian
Misty Copeland, ballet dancer
Alan Cumming, actor
Viola Davis, actor
Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
LeBron James, basketball champion
Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States
Paul Ryan, 54th Speaker of the House
Oliver Sacks, neurologist
Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks
Akhil Sharma, author
Elizabeth Smart, child safety advocate
Sonia Sotomayor, US Supreme Court Justice
Andy Warhol, artist
Elizabeth Warren, US senator
Oprah Winfrey, media mogul and philanthropist
Jay Z, rapper and businessman
But of course, most resilient people aren’t celebrities. Most are everyday women and men hiding in plain sight as doctors, artists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, neighbors, parents, activists, teachers, students, readers, and more. These women and men deserve a better metaphor than the bounce of a ball or the snap of an elastic band. They deserve a metastory, one that does justice to the full experience of being resilient, and that is what Supernormal is all about. In the chapters ahead, what the stories of both private and public individuals will show us is that, contrary to the notion that resilient youth bounce back from hard times, what they actually do is something much more complicated and courageous. They are nothing if not protagonists in their own lives, often waging fierce and unrelenting battles others cannot see. As we are about to learn, theirs is a heroic, powerful, perilous lifelong journey, a phenomenon indeed—one that, after decades of interest and research, still amazes and confounds.
In 1962, psychologist Victor Goertzel, along with his wife, Mildred, published a book titled Cradles of Eminence: A Provocative Study of the Childhoods of Over 400 Famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women. Their famous men and women were those who had at least two biographies written about them, and who made positive contributions to society: Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few. What was “provocative,” or at least surprising, about the Goertzels’ book was the revelation that, as children, three-quarters of these prominent individuals had been burdened by poverty, broken homes, abusive parents, alcoholism, handicaps, illness, or other misfortunes. Only fifty-eight, or less than 15 percent, seemed to have been raised in supportive, untroubled homes. “The ‘normal man,’” concluded the Goertzels, “is not a likely candidate for the Hall of Fame.”
Perhaps former First Lady Abigail Adams was right when she said, “The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with great difficulties. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.” Or maybe it is simply true that no matter where one looks, if one looks closely enough, adversity is more common than not. Rather than the freakish burden of the unlucky few, hard times can be found in the personal histories of the eminent, the heroic, and countless everyday resilient individuals.
Social scientists initially stumbled upon these everyday resilient individuals mostly by accident. For almost a hundred years, since the founding of the field of psychology, researchers had largely concerned themselves with mental illness, and especially with how problems in childhood led to problems in adulthood. Sigmund Freud is probably best known for popularizing this notion late in the nineteenth century, but it was, in fact, a point of view that was already well established. “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me,” Freud purportedly said, and indeed it was eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope whose words became this popular adage: “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined.”
Yet in and around the 1970s, small, disparate groups of researchers began to observe that as the twig was bent, the tree did not always incline. At the University of Minnesota, psychologist Norman Garmezy set out to study children who, because their mothers were mentally ill, were at risk of being ill, too, only to become intrigued by those who showed few signs of trouble. At the Institute of Psychiatry in London, Michael Rutter studied boys and girls who seemed similarly unaffected by poverty or deprivation. Emmy Werner, a psychologist at University of California at Davis, launched the Kauai Longitudinal Study to follow at-risk infants across time, only to become captivated by those who seemed to rise above childhood disadvantage and family discord. At the Menninger Foundation, Lois Murphy and Alice Moriarty co-directed the Coping Project, a research program that identified children who handled hardship well. And Swiss psychiatrist Manfred Bleuler—the son of Eugen Bleuler, who coined the term schizophrenia, and who himself worked with adult schizophrenics—noted with surprise that most of his patients’ children were quite accomplished. He proposed that their difficult early experiences had a “steeling effect” on who they were, making them remarkably strong.
As British psychoanalyst James Anthony wrote in 1987, “One would have thought that the picture of children triumphing over despairing, degrading, depressing, depriving and deficient circumstances would have caught the immediate attention of both clinicians and researchers, but [until recently] the survivors and thrivers appeared to pass almost unnoticed.” Suddenly, though, enthusiasm for these survivors and thrivers ran high. Young people like Helen were called “keepers of the dream” because, from the outside at least, they represented the promise of the American Dream: triumph over hardship, scrappy self-sufficiency, hope for a better future, and a seeming equal opportunity for success.
Resilient children captured the imagination of professionals and laypeople alike, and many early descriptions in academia and the popular press suggested there was something truly incredible about them. Headlines, journal articles, and book titles rang out with superheroic superlatives: “Superkids.” “Invulnerable.” “Invincible.” “Children of steel.” “Supernormal.” These invulnerable, invincible kids displayed an almost otherworldly ability to adapt and succeed, but how?
Resilient children are often counted on to save the day at home or at school, and, for a time it seemed, researchers thought that resilient children just might save social science, too. These “children who will not break,” as trauma expert Julius Segal referred to them in a 1978 book, had to have some special strength, it seemed, and if only scientists could discover the secret of resilience, then they could reveal to the world the secret of success. “The invulnerable children!” exclaimed Segal in his writings about resilient boys and girls. “They may be our best research hope.”
Segal was not the only one who thought so, and all around scientists delved into the lives of resilient kids with zeal. The quest for a short list of personal qualities that seemed to make a person resilient generated a pretty long list of purported assets, not all of which need be present in any one individual, or else that person would be super indeed: at least average intelligence, a pleasant or engaging temperament, problem-solving skills, self-control, independence, self-confidence, good communication skills, humor, determination, ability to form friendships, optimism, attractiveness, a sense of faith or meaning, conscientiousness, and some talent or hobby that attracted the attention of others.
Yet as tempting as it was to believe that these superkids used their superstrengths to fight back against what was bad about their surroundings, it soon became apparent that many had help from what was good about their environments, too. The most fortunate were sustained by having at least one parent or adult who loved them, and who provided consistent warmth and supervision. Some survived and thrived not because of their parents but because of siblings who cared, or who looked after them. Others were propped up by supportive relationships outside the home, such as with teachers or coaches or mentors or relatives or friends, or by resources in their communities: good schools that fed their minds or fed them lunch; safe neighborhoods or community centers where they could go and just be kids; libraries or churches or gymnasiums or music centers where they could escape and even be inspired.
As renowned resilience researcher Ann Masten so aptly described, those like Helen do not really have superpowers. Perhaps even more surprising, they use, she said, the “power of the ordinary”—or the everyday attributes that can be found in minds, families, and communities—to make something out of nothing, to make a lot out of a little, to pull a rabbit out of a hat. As is usually the case with magic, however, things are not quite what they seem.
The closer—and the longer—scientists followed the lives of resilient children and adults, the more they found that resilience is something that goes in and out of view depending on how and when one looks at it. Most often, researchers look for an “observable track record” of good performance, the most easily observable of all being doing well at work or school. But what about those parts of life that researchers cannot see so easily? Soon it was discovered that many kids who woke up to hard times at home yet did well in the classroom—especially those considered to be resilient—felt stressed and lonely on the inside, making their difficulties tough to spot. Similarly, many adults who excelled at work seemingly unfazed by years of troubles were found to be struggling covertly with their relationships and their health. Perhaps decades of research had revealed the secret behind childhood resilience after all: that no child—and no adult—is truly invulnerable.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Heinz Hartmann suggested that normal development takes place in what he called an “average, expectable” environment. Something like what pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott referred to as a “good-enough” upbringing, the average, expectable environment is a home—or a school or a neighborhood—where there is enough safety, enough food, enough affection, enough peace, enough discipline, enough supervision, enough role modeling, enough attention, enough love, and at least one good-enough parent or adult who cares. In the good-enough childhood, life need not be without problems, as moderate, age-appropriate challenges are good for us. Still, according to Hartmann and Winnicott, those problems ought to be predictable and they ought to feel normal, whatever we as a culture think that might be.
Ironically, the average, expectable environment that Hartmann envisioned may be neither average nor expectable. Many more people than we might like to think grow up with what Hartmann called “above-average environmental burdens.”
A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, as children, about 25 percent of adults were the targets of verbal abuse, 15 percent suffered physical abuse, and 10 percent were the victims of sexual abuse. About 30 percent watched their parents divorce. Approximately 30 percent lived in a home where a family member abused drugs or alcohol, and 15 percent witnessed some form of violence. About 5 percent grew up with a parent in jail, and 20 percent shared a home with a family member who was mentally ill.
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