Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 17, 2013

The face of resilience

— — Resilience has a face. That’s what I thought watching Elizabeth Smart speaking to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer during the media coverage of the captives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Her authoritative tone, her bright and alert eyes, and the soft compassion in her voice was a striking contrast to my most memorable image of Smart, downcast eyes nearly buried in a full body garment that covered her head and face like a beige burka. A young girl of only 14 whose innocence was destroyed, whose life was ripped from her, but who obviously survived and thrived, she shared articulate and heartfelt insight with confidence on national TV.

Elizabeth Smart knows what it is like to be held captive, chained like a wild animal, kept as a slave to the desires of the deranged. Both she and Jaycee Dugard, the woman who was abducted at age 11 and held for 18 years, know some of what Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight endured for years. Smart and Dugard’s nightmares may still be haunted and their thoughts during the day may still suddenly spin back into a traumatic moment, but they appear to have taken back their damaged souls and created beautiful lives.

Smart returned quietly to her family and music lessons after nine months of being held prisoner. I remember the thrill that shot through my body when I heard she was reunited with her family and I remember the ache I felt, thinking of the recovery she’d face after months of sexual assault and abuse.

Smart emerged as a spokesperson and educator for children to help prevent violent and sexual crimes. When Jaycee Dugard’s tragic story was unearthed, Smart offered advice given to her when she was returned home: “Mom said I could live in the past. I could hold onto what this man did to me and how he hurt me. And I could feel sorry for myself. Or I could choose not to give another minute of my life to this man and move forward and follow my dreams and do everything I wanted to.”

Resilience has another face. Jaycee Dugard appeared to take that advice and she wrote a book, “A Stolen Life: A Memoir,” sharing her own story with unsparing detail to motivate people to defend abused children. Ironically, the day after the three Ohio women were freed from the man who held them captive for 10 years, Ariel Castro, Dugard was on stage accepting an award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Dugard spoke up for the three women, saying they needed privacy, a chance to heal and reconnect with the world. Through her publicist she later said, “This isn’t who they are. It is only what happened to them. The human spirit is incredibly resilient. More than ever this reaffirms we should never give up hope.”

Both Smart and Dugard amazed me with their strength, as they watched unfold a story so painfully close to their own. Instead of dodging the memories this may have dredged up, they stood up publicly, took some of the glaring and burning hot light off the women who needed privacy, and offered themselves like a defensive lineman protecting the more vulnerable quarterback. I assume years of intensive therapy, intentional spiritual healing and attentive physical strengthening left them strong enough to stand guard for their sisters in Ohio.

By definition, psychological resilience is an individual’s tendency to cope with stress and adversity. The face of resilience can have various looks, according to experts. It can be “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, simply not showing negative effects or, more controversially, it can be sometimes referred to as “post-traumatic growth” or “steeling effects” where the “adversity leads to better functioning ... much like an inoculation gives one the capacity to cope well with future exposure to disease.”

An expert in anxiety disorders and PTSD, Matthew Tull, PhD, says findings indicate that a number of factors promote resilience. Among them: 1) Seeking help 2) The ability to cope with stress effectively and in a healthy manner 3) Having good problem-solving skills 3) Holding the belief that there is something one can do to manage ones feelings and cope 4) Having social support 5) Being connected with others, such as family or friends 6) Self-disclosure of the trauma to loved ones 7) Spirituality 8) Having an identity as a survivor as opposed to a victim 9) Helping others 10) Finding positive meaning in the trauma.

Most importantly, I discovered “resilience is most commonly understood as a process, and not a trait of an individual.” That means we can all make a conscious decision to take back control of our own lives when we face a serious problem, experience a trauma or when a weakness seems to have over powered us.

If resilience isn’t a characteristic or a trait, we all have it within us. So resilience has a face — it looks like me and it looks like you.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

 

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