The Rabbi asked me, as he usually did, how my boys were doing. I gave him the usual answer. One of them had just been discharged from an intensive outpatient program and was heading back to college for the fall semester. The other — they are twins — was awaiting discharge from a residential treatment program for anorexia. He was planning to head back to college, hopeful that this time he would not have a relapse and need to take another medical leave. At the end of these recitations — it had been like this for years — he would comment about how strong I am.
The first time, I replied, “We Freedmans are made of stern stuff.” It’s an inside joke; my father’s mother’s maiden name was Stern.
This time, the sixth or seventh, I thought to myself, “If he says that one more time, I’m going to scream.” It wasn’t true; I would not scream in a synagogue or at the Rabbi. Maybe I should just say, “Everything is fine. Thanks for asking.” But I think lying is as bad as screaming.
My frustration was no lie. What is the alternative to being strong? Falling apart? Giving up? Creating a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
If you think through the consequences of actions, you can choose at least one that has a better outcome than others.
The corollary is that some actions make life worse. For example, if you take your life and succeed, you will leave your children with emotional trauma they may never be able to resolve. If you attempt to take your life and fail, you will be unable to earn money to pay the bills while you are in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. And in either case, no one will spontaneously appear to take care of your dog and cat.
When the events that make up my life crush me, eventually I stand up again. I don’t stand up again because I am strong. I do it because the consequences of not standing up again look ugly.
This is resilience: We fall and get back up. We fail and try again — something different but try again. We get out of bed in the morning and get dressed when we don’t feel like it. (My maternal grandmother taught me that you always get dressed.) We do what needs to be done even when no one helps. We break, and we go on.
What happens in the absence of resilience? Despair, helplessness, addiction to drugs or alcohol, death by overdose, suicide, not doing what sustains life.
In January 2020, before we knew what Covid-19 would bring, I went to a family weekend at a residential treatment program for alcohol and drug addiction, trauma, and eating disorders. It was my kid’s last week in treatment for anorexia and trauma.
One afternoon — I think it was Trauma Tuesday — the program shared a part of its trauma treatment. Eight people in the program sat in a circle, with the group leader in the center, and each read a letter they wrote to the people who had traumatized them. The letters were difficult. Some readers cried, so overcome with emotion that they could hardly speak.
The leader sat on a purple ottoman directly in front of the person reading. He held his arms out, open but not too wide, like he was receiving the reader’s pain and trauma. Sometimes his gesture looked like encouragement. I could see he spoke, but I could not hear his words.
When a reader finished their letter, the leader sat for a moment then stood. He walked briskly around the outside of the circle. I thought he used the movement to process the pain and trauma — in listening, you share it. His gray hair was beginning to turn white, long, and pulled into a ponytail; he was thin and wiry, in his seventies. Without embellishment and without judging himself, in a few words, he told his own story of alcohol addiction.
Midway around the circle, he stopped. He looked at everyone he could see, and tapping the side of his head, said that he needed to be sober. Not sober in the sense of abstaining from alcohol, but calm, level-headed, rational thinking — a man who considers consequences. Then he listed the consequences if he drank. His wife would not speak with him, his children would not allow him to see his grandchildren, and he would end up in jail again. He would lose everything that he loved and valued.
This, he taught, is how to be resilient:
Accept what is.
Feel what you feel.
Move your body.
Reflect on what you know about your life without judging yourself.
Know what you value and your goals.
Think about the consequences before you act.
Act in ways that honor your values and goals.
This is the background work.
Resilience happens in a moment. You stand up when you fall. You try again when you fail. When you get tired, you endure. When misfortune calls, you accept and keep going. Doing resilience is hard.
Living the Life of Job
Misfortune has been my life for eight years. Between 2012 and today, my twins have been in psychiatric hospitals so many times I lost count. There have been at least three suicide attempts that I know of. I put my writing and editing work on hold while I helped them navigate emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitalizations, outpatient programs, and mental health care. I supported them both when they came out as non-binary and transgender and changed their names. They would argue about the quality of the support, but who’s judging. I ended a 26-year marriage to create a healthier emotional life, but the ensuing financial insecurity was as bad as I thought it would be. My mother had surgery for melanoma in 2013 (she was 89) and a double mastectomy for breast cancer in 2017. My older brother died of cancer on June 20, 2020, two months after he turned 66 — what a way to retire. I don’t know what life without major stressors is like.
Tradition says that misfortune and trouble come in threes. In my life, they don’t. It feels more like a 90-year relay race, and I’m the only runner. I have only myself to pass the baton to. I don’t choose the terrain, and I have no idea whether I will get a rest period or how long it would be if I got one.
When my brother had surgery in January that confirmed he had liver cancer — he insisted that I go to Florida for family week — I decided to read the Book of Job. A family friend and I had been joking for years that I was living the life of Job. I thought Job might give me a clue about how to live through misfortune with no end in sight.
After reading the litany of Job’s tragedies, I found him lying in the dirt road in front of his house, full of grief and saying that he wished he had never been born. He was angry at God. I remember angrily saying the same thing to my mother when I was a kid. My twins just cut to the chase.
That’s the state Job was in — his children and grandchildren dead, skin blackened with disease and exuding a disgusting odor, ashes on his head, clothes torn in grief, lying in the dirt, and angry — when his neighbors told him that he must have done something to deserve his tragedies.
These days, most people don’t tell others that they must have done something to deserve illness, misfortune, or trauma. (Well, except for rape; people still tend to hold women responsible.) No, we just tell people that bad things happen to good people, and they are resilient, strong enough to endure. Or we tell them they need to be resilient.
There is not much compassion in either of those observations.
But compassion for self and others is what gives you the option to be resilient and endure when you need to, even if that means from minute to minute.
Better to Break Open
When you know that to be human means to experience pain and fear and sorrow as well as joy and all kinds of love, you know compassion. Being human means living with experiences that are uncertain and one way — forward — no matter what physicists decide about the nature of time. We cannot know what will happen in the next moment, and we can’t change it once it happens.
I like to feel I am in control of at least myself; it helps me cope with depression and fight off anxiety. My twins taught me that I am in control of nothing.
I don’t like to reflect about this fundamental uncertainty; it is uncomfortable. I bet it is just as uncomfortable for people without depression and anxiety, without a long string of sorrow.
How do you accept that there is no place to hide from uncertainty? There’s no place to stand either.
You would think I spent my time in emergency department waiting rooms thinking about things like compassion. I did not. Instead, I thought about what kind of mother I was that I could not create a home where my twins were safe from themselves. It did not occur to me until years later — at that family weekend — that the issue wasn’t precisely me and my parenting. Oh, they played a role, but I was not in control of most of it.
I understand that I wasn’t in control of events. What was happening wasn’t even about me.
We don’t control what happens around us. We can’t know what will happen in the next moment, although we can make some pretty good predictions some of the time. We don’t even control most of what we think. Sometimes we can face these facts. Most of the time, we hide from it, run away, or bury it. It’s frightening. It breaks my heart.
Compassion quiets some of the unease of living with nothing to stand on and nowhere to hide. With compassion, I can consider my future self as worth thinking about. Things are bad enough as they are without me making choices that end up making things worse.
Life is challenging, even if you don’t think about its uncertain nature. The list of misfortunes is overwhelming, even outside from my own life, and the questions are when, not if. When will the next natural disaster occur? Will the police shoot another Black person? No need to ask when, really; it’s only a matter of time.
Will I lose my job? Will I have enough food to eat? Will I be able to pay my rent? What will happen if I get sick? What will I do if my kids get sick? What will happen when another family member dies? Will I be able to handle the funeral arrangements?
When will the pandemic end? Will our society collapse under the weight of polarization? No idea. No idea about any of these questions.
These are threats to life that weigh on all of us, and the burden becomes nearly unbearable. Hide, run away, lash out. Or accept it — it’s not okay, it’s just what is — as hard as that might be.
With fear and without compassion, despair grows. No wonder there is an uptick in opioid addiction, relapses, and overdoses. No wonder there are more suicides. No wonder more people are suffering from depression and anxiety.
We are all afraid right now. In one way or another, each of us feels threatened by the events unfolding around us. It’s an existential threat, a threat that we or those we love won’t get to continue.
When we’re this afraid, it’s easy to act in ways that make things worse. It’s easy to act without thinking about the consequences. But life right now is bad enough without making it worse.
Resilience is a response that won’t make things worse. We need resilience the same as we need air, food, and sleep. Beneath the pain and fear and desire to run away, we want to endure, continue, and finish the one-person relay race.
Life is difficult. When misfortune comes, it breaks us. We can let it break us open and make us tender-hearted. And we can use resilience to put ourselves back together again.