Resilience After an Injury – Strength from Within
pictured: Mary Jane at home after her accident
By Mary Jane Horton
I never thought of myself as a particularly resilient person. Throughout my life when faced with negative events – a breakup with a boyfriend, a job gone bad, a crummy vacation – I would wallow in the drama. It took me three years to get over the death of my mother. When I had kids, anything bad that happened to them, happened to me. But, I was wrong: When push came to shove and I really needed resiliency, it was there for the asking – much to my surprise.
It happened on my usual morning walk. All I had on my mind was getting back home in time to sign up for my middle school child’s teacher conferences. I set out with my next store neighbor, Ursula, on a cold, damp November morning. It was silent and magical, as it is every morning before the rest of the world wakes up. Just after we left, I walked over to a mailbox to mail a letter, so instead of being on the inside near the curb where I usually walked, I was on the outside. As we walked along the country club on the narrow shoulder of the road – where there is no sidewalk – as we do every day, a car hit me. It came from behind, with no warning, no sounds at all, on the wrong side of the street. The woman driving the car had experienced a stroke – or something – and didn’t even realize that she had hit me.
After I was hit, the whole world went white and stopped. I was knocked into the dark air and for a moment, before I hit the ground, I wondered if this was my moment. “How can I come down from this and still be alive,” I thought. I lived. But my ankle was another story. When I came down my foot looked like it was hanging off my body… and I went into shock. “Stop, focus,” a kind woman who had come from across the street to help pleaded. And in retrospect it seemed like she slapped me in the face. But it worked.
The ambulance came and whisked me to the hospital. My husband was called back from his business trip, surgery to reassemble my ankle was scheduled. But even before the surgery, my resiliency set in. It wafted over me like a wave. As I waited – a long time – for surgery, I went on with my life. I called my friend who was also signing up for conferences to sign me up as well. (Little did I know that there was no way I would be able to make it.) I called my friend who lived down the street from me, who was to be my lunch date that day, and asked her to come sit with me. Me – who was fiercely independent, who never asked anyone for favors – I did that. Three days later I left the hospital with plates and pins and, in essence, a bionic ankle.
When I went home the real healing started. And the real work began.
I won’t say that the resiliency that started out in the hospital continued uninterrupted. For several days, I lay there, in and out of drug-induced sleep, crying in pain, missing my real life, not able to process. I was scared of the future and very, very uncomfortable in the present. I have to say that I felt, deep down in my soul, that I would never be the same again. I was terribly afraid I would never walk. And that somehow the damage to my body was permanent. But, slowly the fog lifted. People brought food and sat and talked for a while. I had to schedule doctor and rehabilitation appointments. I spent my days, with my family coming and going, and me lying on the soft beige flannel sheets that my husband and daughter bought for the hospital bed that sat in the middle of my study. (There was no way I could make it up the steep steps to the bedroom). I shopped online, and opened the door (almost daily) for the UPS driver.
I slowly started to feel that I would be myself again. At first the physical therapist came to my house and every exercise was excruciating, every step I took with the walker terrifying. But I learned to keep going. I stopped running negative scripts in my head. My will somehow prevailed and I went on. After I had learned to ask for help, it stuck. And I saw that there were people in my life who wanted to help, to nurture me. Merriam-Webster’s defines resilience as: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. And that is true, yet simplistic, because I found that resilience needs to invade all aspects of your being in order to work. You have to feel it, think it, and know it in your bones.
After taking the first few steps with the walker, I knew that I could put myself back together. The resilience welled up in me again and came out. I went to every scheduled physical therapy appointment even though it was very, very hard sometimes and I didn’t want to go. Once I started walking with a cane, I practiced in my house for hours, writing down the steps I took. I didn’t want to limp or not be able to ski or hike. I was determined.
PBS has a website for its television series “This Emotional Life,” and it lists these factors that contribute to resilience:
- Close relationships with family and friends
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
- The ability to manage strong feelings and impulses
- Good problem-solving and communication skills
- Feeling in control
- Seeking help and resources
- Seeing yourself as resilient (rather than as a victim)
- Coping with stress in healthy ways and avoiding harmful coping strategies, such as substance abuse
- Helping others
- Finding positive meaning in your life despite difficult or traumatic events
And I must say that I found these attributes along the way even though I might not have had them all when I started. And now, four years later, I don’t limp, and I can hike and ski. But, you know what? My life has never been the same as it was before the accident. But that is not all bad. I know that I can be knocked down. That I can feel defeated and weak. But I also know that I can get up, survive and be strong again.