Many years ago, in my mid-20s, I had a breakdown and ended up in a hospital psych ward as an out-patient. It was a six week program. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and filled up with drugs. While I had hoped we would sit around doing jigsaw puzzles, instead it was six weeks of talking about resilience for 8 hours a day. What the nurses and therapists were trying to do was to teach us skills so we could go back into the ‘real’ world and actually have some resilience when times got tough (apparently resilience could not be found in the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as I would only sit there crying nonstop and talking to no one). I was a total mess, and as so often happens when things are stressful for me, I barely remember anything from that time.
But I remember the word resilience because it was repeated over and over and over again.
Something must have worked because I left the program and changed so many things about my life: got a different job, new friends (or reconnected with old ones), stopped drinking (booze and depression are a bad combination), and eventually went back to school. I learned about the triggers that would set me off (alcohol and shitty boyfriends topped the list but so did unfulfilled expectations of how my life should be) and learned how to cope better.
I have ingrained that message of resilience even if I sometimes (okay, often) slip in the execution of it.
All over the internet these days people are talking (in 140 characters), or taking photos of, how we should all be living our dreams. Don’t quit your daydreams the messages say. You only have one life to live so quit your job and start living your dreams.
I worry that these messages are going to do more harm than good. I mean, I think it is great when people are living their dreams and listening to their hearts – but eating is good too. So is being able to clothe your children. And someone has to work at the grocery store, or the gas station, or the dentist’s office. Someone has to pick up the garbage or work in the food courts – these are all important jobs and without them society would crumble. Yet this constant talk of living our dreams makes working these jobs seem like a failure somehow. So many people worry about being over-educated and under-employed (whatever that means). Not all of us can quit our jobs (says the woman who hasn’t had one in years, except, you know, raising children) and spend a year traveling or move to an artist’s commune. And it is easy to sit in a place of privilege and say “if you don’t like your job, quit” but you can’t say that to a single mom (or dad) who is living hand-to-mouth. Or an immigrant family who need to find work quickly to support their family in their new land.
What most of us need is the resilience to be content with the jobs that pay the bills and understand that they do not define us – this is not an easy lesson.
In this age of living out our dreams who is going to teach our children that when things get really really shitty they have to keep going? Because I really don’t want my daughters to have to spend six weeks in a psych ward to learn this lesson. I worry that this age of helicopter parenting is going to make our children less resilient (and I do not exclude myself from that statement).
Because life is beautiful, scary, glorious, messy, and sad from one minute to the next. And no matter how much you love your job (parenting included) you are going to have crap days. Or days you don’t feel like doing anything but laying in bed and staring out the window and crying. Or eating ice cream and watching North and South on an endless loop. But the kids need to be fed, somewhat cleaned, the house needs to not crumble into total filth from the weight of all our stuff. Bills need to be paid. Relationships need to be maintained.
What we do doesn’t define us so much as how we approach what we are doing.
Which is why I did not fall into another deep depression when I was handed my terminal cancer diagnosis. I know that seems weird but I know what to do to guard against that having experienced it a number of times in my life already.
I was already really content with my life before (except for the constantly getting sick portion of it) that I don’t now feel the need to make a million changes. Which is good because making a million changes and traveling the world is not financially feasible or, to be honest, desirable. When people found out I had cancer a common response was; “it’s time to do what you want,” but I already was – I mean, mostly. I had that luxury. The biggest thing I was doing was parenting three small children – which meant anything I wasn’t doing was a conscious decision made based on that stage of my life.
However, one of the things I told myself I would do when the girls were older was go back to choir – which is the one major change I have recently made because this really is a now-or-never situation. It throws a bit of a wrench in our usual schedule because I really want to be at choir on Thursday nights and sing at the church on Sunday mornings. My girls, who have always known me to be fully available to them in the evenings (because I’m so damn tired I’m already in bed and therefore easy to find) are a little put-out. But they’ll get over it and I’m already feeling better because of this musical therapy. I think I really lost something years ago when I stopped going to choir – it has always been a form of therapy for me, even in high school when I was plagued by near-constant migraines. We knew that if I could make it to choir before the migraine took a firm hold of me I could sing it away. There were such wonderful people at choir that I would always relax as soon as I entered the room. (One of those people sent over a CD and some tea just this morning. One of them I married and is now stuck with me.) Being at choir makes me feel more like myself and that can’t be anything but a good thing.
And having said all that I will leave you with what I find to be a great quote on resilience:
What’s coming is coming,
And we will meet it when it does.”
So what are your ways of building up your resilience?