What is wrong with us?
I heard resilience described the other day as a coat hanger. Or rather, we are the coat hanger who gets bent out of shape; the coat hanger’s structural ability to be bent back into shape is what we call resilience.
The analogy is Dr. Bruce Perry’s, a child psychiatrist and neuroscientist who has spent his career studying the effect our experiences have on our brains. It’s an apt analogy. You can unwind a coat hanger to roast some marshmallows and then you can bend it all back up so that a shirt can hang upon it once again. At the same time, you can also tell it’s seen a few marshmallows. There are some bumps and warped places that are just not going to smooth out. Same for us.
Oddly, this truth feels like a relief to me. It explains a few things and re-sets expectations in a way that has enabled my ability to adapt. Specifically, it explains how I could have decided it was okay to have what feels like a flabby palate, something I’d acquired by way of pandemic anxiety induced reflux. (There she goes again with the reflux.) The upshot of this reflux has meant, upon many other distressing changes in my life, that I have spent the majority of this past year not eating most of my favorite foods. However, the very good news is that my dietary compliance appears to have paid off and just in the past month I’ve been able to add most of those foods back in. It’s just that my throat feels kind of fleshy and saggy – not the full-on swollen ball-in-my-throat sensation I have been dealing with all year but a little collapsed. A little post-pregnancy chubby. But you know what? I can eat pizza, peanut butter and chocolate! I may not be a factory-fresh coat hanger but who cares. I can get away with a glass of wine now. I will take a flabby palate. I’m good with that.
Always on the lookout for wellness material that might open something up for others, this coat hanger understanding of ourselves seemed like useful information to pass along as we recover from a pandemic. At the same time, I worried that not being able to achieve a full factory re-set could strike others as depressing. I consulted with my sister, one of those high functioning/high performing/highly pragmatic sorts who can be counted on for a highly useful take on the world. She had a few things to say after hearing about the coat hanger.
“Well, it made you feel better.”
And then this:
“Maybe this is why I’m not just bouncing back. Why I feel so bent out of shape. I keep asking myself, What is wrong with me?” (She’s not used to feeling off her game.)
And then her insight:
“Maybe I just need to take care of myself.”
And finally, this:
“I like the coat hanger. It makes sense. And it actually makes me feel better, too.”
That settled it; I would bring the coat hanger to a column in hopes that it would offer something settling to you reading this, as well. Maybe help you make more sense to yourself whether you identify more with me and my very clear cut response to the pandemic upheaval or whether you identify more with my sister and her hazy, not-quite-herself expression of pandemic experience. More to come next week in the second part of this column on resilience because Dr. Perry has something very specific to say in response to my sister’s question, “What is wrong with me?”
It’s a familiar enough question – it’s typically how we think of ourselves and others when something is off. But according to Dr. Perry, that’s the wrong question. The real question is, “What happened to me?” This is the question that traces the neurological changes that have occurred in our brains based on our experience back to our experience. From this standpoint we can see we aren’t “wrong” — we make perfect neurological sense based on what happened to us. And from this standpoint we can see from a brain perspective what can and needs to be done to get us back into functional shape. This is the basis of Dr. Perry’s new book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.
As for us, what happened to us is a pandemic. A pandemic is going to bend us out of shape. However, while we areable to bend ourselves back into a functional shape, we just aren’t going to bend back exactly as we were before the trauma. We’re not Nerf balls that pop back exactly as they were before being squeezed. We are coat hangers that have been bent out of shape. We can bend the coat hanger back but there will be some bumps that just won’t smooth out even though we can get it back into shape so it can still hang a shirt. Therefore, how we manage to bend ourselves back is an adaptation – a not-the-same-but-something-that-serves workaround.
If that sounds like we’re being compromised I agree; in some cases, devastatingly so. While this wasn’t acceptable to me for so many years, I was missing how adaptation is a big part of resilience. And the alternative — not being resilient — is terribly compromising when you think about where that leaves us. What’s more, adaptability is one of our most hopeful and miraculous neurological feats made possible by a brain quality called neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change in response to stimuli. We’re resilient but not in the Nerf ball way. We’re resilient because of our malleability.
But bendable as we are, being able to bend and adapt does require a certain amount of body system regulation. Not much can happen from a state of agitation. One way to regulate according to Dr. Perry is by doing regulating rhythmic activities since rhythm is embedded in our body systems. (This is why rocking is so soothing to babies.) There are endless activities that have an underlying rhythm and regulating pattern: walking, knitting, singing, rocking, dancing, breathing, getting in the groove of an activity, listening to music, making mandalas, listening to the sounds of the ocean, even just going from room – to – room making beds. When you think about it, practically any activity can be done in a rhythmically regulating way. When our body/mind systems are regulated and in balance is when we get that sense of wellbeing.
Taking the steps to recover our sense of wellbeing requires putting ourselves within the context of this extraordinary year. Something did happen to us. Maybe the effects are obvious or maybe the effects are more subtle but we have absolutely been touched. Our neurology has been touched. Now we are in a place of re-regulating ourselves. Finding our own set of rhythmically regulating activities helps our coat hanger be more bendable so we can go back to hanging up shirts. It’s also possible that in the re-bending we discover a whole new shape and reason for being. That’s the beauty of the neuroplastic adaptability we’ve got going for us. We can take a tragedy and live through it and sometimes even bend something good out of it.