Strength Does Come Through Adversity

strengthThink some of us are just born tougher? Not so. No matter how hard the blow, you can learn to rebound. These people faced down misfortune–and came out stronger

When Suzy Kellett’s quadruplets were born, she braced herself for a major life change. But the new mother barely had time to bond with her babies before her husband, overwhelmed, walked out. Kellett, 31 years old and with few job skills, had little choice but to leave her home in Sun Valley, ID, and move back to the Midwest to live with her parents.

Twenty-four years later, the memory of that arduous August day is still a vivid one. At the airport in Idaho, Kellett felt numb. Because she couldn’t hold all four babies on her lap, she had to pass out three of them to people sitting around her. After landing in Chicago, she collected her brood at the gate, only to have one of her sons mark the occasion by projectile vomiting on a fellow passenger.

“That’s when I lost it,” Kellett says, still wincing at the image. “My uncle just looked at me and said, `Better you than me, kid.’ And that summed up my life: Better you than me.”

Everywhere she went, the hapless mother was an object of pity. Chicken pox times four? How horrible, people cluck-clucked. No one would have blamed her if she’d crawled into a hole, drained and depleted.

But Kellett was not about to wallow in self-pity. True, she was a single mother with four to feed, but the kids were healthy, her parents were loving, and she was a quick learner. It was a solid enough foundation on which to build a new life.

Today those babies are all college-educated, well-adjusted young adults “in little starter lives,” as their proud mother puts it. As for Kellett, she’s built an impressive career in the arts, first as director of the Illinois Film Office, then in a similar position for Washington State. “Where were times when it was very tough,” says Kellett, an engaging woman with an easy laugh. “But even if it meant having to relive all the rough times, I’d do it again, because the good–all the good–has far outweighed the bad.”

Not many among us have waged an uphill battle quite as steep as Kellett’s. But we’ve all faced setbacks and losses, whether from divorce, health problems, job failure, or the death of a loved one. “Stress and change are the norm for most Americans these days, so we must learn to roll with the punches–especially with events that strike us out of the blue,” says Froma Walsh, Ph.D., a clinical pyschologist and codirector of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago.

But why do some people roll with the punches so much better than others? Is it that some of us are hardwired to deflect the harsher blows of life–or is this a skill we can all acquire?

These are the questions that researchers are asking as they explore the elusive quality of resilience. In recent years, as the nation’s rates of divorce, suicide, teen violence, and substance abuse have surged, figuring out what makes some people bounce back has taken on a new urgency. “We know the vulnerabilities–now we have to find more and better ways to counteract them,” says Nancy Davis of the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services, which is studying resilience as part of the government’s $100 million Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative.

So far, the experts have concluded that the ability to rebound is due to a complex mix of self-awareness, empathy, persistence, and social dexterity. They can tell you what it’s not (a stiff upper lip) and that genes do play a part (some babies are born with more easygoing temperaments). But resilience, they say, can be unlocked at any time in your life. “With the right mining,” says Davis, “it can be available to everyone.”

Reach Out

If there’s a common thread in the success stories, it is the ability to turn to others in times of trouble. Kellett, of course, had her family, a raucous extended clan that always rallied to one another’s side in times of crisis. While she straggled to put the pieces of her life together, her loved ones were guided by an uncanny sense of knowing what she needed, and when.

That first weekend at her parents’ home–while she was in deep retreat in her bedroom–her father would periodically crack open the door. First, he whispered, “Bourbon?” Another hour would go by and he’d say, “Vodka?” Then came “Scotch?” Says Kellett today: “I thought that if he was making jokes, maybe life wasn’t so overwhelming after all. Sure, they provided a shoulder, but they also provided some levity. Otherwise, I would have felt the pain too much.”

In a perfect world, we’d all have parents who offered unconditional love, safe harbor, and a liberal dose of wit. But many of us don’t. Resilient people know how to engage others–aunts, godparents, former teachers, friends–for support.

In our society, though, we embrace the idea of the rugged individual, which is not a very good model. “Don’t ever think you have to go it alone,” says Walsh.

Take the Initiative

Support from others can only do so much. To get on top of a crisis, there comes a point when you simply must push yourself. “You must be willing to take risks,” says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Michigan. “Taking action is the best antidote to feeling paralyzed because it forces you to problem solve.” The challenge is marshaling your resources just when energy is in short supply. Fortunately, in times of great stress we are often open to new possibilities, experts say.

Kellett’s family was helping her out, but she needed to start earning some money. And so she got herself hired as an entry-level receptionist in the Midwest bureau of a national magazine. “It was pure survival,” she says. “I didn’t have one iota of training, but I felt like I had nothing to lose.” After mastering that first job, she made her way up the career ladder. “I had undergone a life-changing experience that forced me to do things that I never would have done otherwise,” she explains.

Help Others

Just as it is crucial to seek support, it is equally important to offer it in return. Turning her own agony into an inspiration for others gave Monalou Callery, 45, of Phoenix, a purpose when she needed it most. After enduring seven years of beatings, Callery had found the courage to leave her abusive husband and take her three preschool-age children with her. Having nowhere to go and no job prospects, she was just getting by on welfare. “My self-esteem was so low, I could barely get out of bed in the morning,” she says.

But when other battered women heard about Callery’s saga, they started pressing her for advice: Where did she go? What did she do for money? What if “he” tried to take the kids away? She spent hour after hour answering the women’s questions, soothing

It soon turned into a paying job. “When I asked if I could become a legal-services aide, I said I knew the court system well because of what I’d been through,” Callery explains. “The attorneys decided to give me a chance. It felt good to help someone else.”

The legal-aide position spurred her on: She got her high school equivalency degree, followed by paralegal training at a community college. Today Callery helps coordinate domestic-abuse programs throughout the state of Arizona. Last March, she became assistant program administrator for the Governor’s Domestic Violence Prevention Office.

“I’m still amazed at the impact I can have,” says Callery. “I know all of this happened for a reason.”

Margie Mayer of Watertown, MN, is also intimately familiar with domestic abuse-not as a victim but as a mother. In 1989, her daughter, Gretchen, the head of human resources for a national restaurant chain, was stabbed to death by her son-in-law. “When you say murder, you think of drugs and gangs,” says Mayer quietly. “You never think it could happen to a college graduate who wears a suit to work and carries a briefcase.”

In search of kindred spirits, Mayer joined a local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. At the group’s monthly meetings, you can find her and a dozen or so other survivors of grievous loss: listening, sharing, and providing legal advice. Mayer knows that when her son-in-law is up for parole in 2001, she will lean on her group extra hard. “But I don’t need a magic date,” she says. “Even now, ten years after Gretchen’s death, I wake up each morning, look at her photo, and say, `Today we’re going to make some headway for victims’ rights.’ And that’s what gets me through.”

Consciously or not, Callery and Mayer sought out opportunities where they could shine. It’s a key part of developing resilience, says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School psychologist. In working with children, Brooks coined the term “islands of competency” to describe how kids cling to their strengths, whether it’s chess or skateboarding, when the going gets tough. “Most kids don’t need to spend ten years in therapy,” he says. “What they need is to taste success.”

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