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Posts About Resilience and Resilience Overdose-Oct 2019 and Jan 2021

Brief Note on Vulnerability, Resilience, and Defiance (Originally posted on another site on Oct 19, 2019)

I struggle a lot with beating myself up over not being "resilient" enough. I know the idea of resilience is intended to give people hope and strength, but there are many times when I hate hearing so much about it and see it as a judgment. If these other people can be resilient, then why do I continue to struggle so much? Does it mean that I don't have value if I don't heal?

On the other hand, I also tend to be uncomfortable sometimes with being credited for the ways in which I might be seen as resilient: I have no substance use issues, I've never been hospitalized or attempted to end my life, I have three university degrees and some measure of success as a professional. But I know that a lot of this was just luck. I happened to possess certain skills, abilities and privileges that made these things possible. These accomplishments don't make me better than anyone else who happens not to have been as "resilient" in those ways. My fate could easily have been different.

I like the idea of recasting the way we see strength/vulnerability by acknowledging the strength that it can take to be openly vulnerable and overcome challenging circumstances, but I sometimes hate the dichotomy and value judgments inherent in the concept of strength and "resilience" to begin with. I'm not saying they should be discarded. I'm just saying it sits uneasily with me.

I think it's okay to encourage people to strive to heal, to aim for resilience for their own sake, because they deserve to be happy and well. But we also have to practice seeing the inherent value and goodness in those who continue to suffer, whom we might be inclined to see as broken, who wouldn't easily fit into the resilience category. I believe in crediting people for their resilience and strength but not if it comes at the expense of failing to see the beauty and worth of those who couldn't overcome their circumstances (perhaps due to the severity of what they were facing combined with bad luck).

My belief is that there are all kinds of stories of human suffering that could inspire and move us, not only among those who proved to be "resilient," but also in those who faced their suffering as best they could, perhaps without overcoming it. I think it takes a special skill-set and an intentional kind of active attunement to truly appreciate those stories and what they can teach us. I also feel those stories are especially important for us as fragile humans with inherent existential vulnerability, because just as we are all capable of resilience and strength, we are all vulnerable in ways we can't control, and will eventually be faced with difficulties that we can't overcome.

I don't reject discussions about resilience and I'm sure there are all kinds of ways of approaching it that don't fall into the concerns I've raised. I just think we have to be cautious not to get carried away pursuing the goal of enhancing resilience in a way that causes us to cease appreciating the value in those whose suffering is not easily ended. In this sense, I often complain about the apparent obsession with evidence-based treatments and measurable progress. What about those whom we don't expect to respond to treatment with measurable progress? If we focus too much on resilience and improvement, what becomes of those whose needs might be different, perhaps more palliative in nature? Who maybe can't be "fixed" in a measurable way, but whose suffering can be alleviated by a kind and compassionate presence? Not everything of value in life can be measured. The concepts of strength, healing and resilience have their limits....

Sometimes, I see that as my special brand of defiance: to stand with the "broken" and say there is no shame in acknowledging when we feel, and maybe in some ways actually are, hopeless. There's no shame in being less "resilient" than someone else. Life is really hard and we are inherently fragile creatures. There's still so much beauty we can create and share even from a state of feeling broken. There's solidarity to be found here among others who have faced overwhelming odds and just didn't have it in them to keep fighting. Sometimes I think that sense of defiance and solidarity is a big part of what keeps me suffering but, to be honest, I don't care. I'm not willing to let go of that even for the sake of my own wellness. When I'm being my "best self," I'm not being resilient. I'm being defiant. My "best self" has this to say: I'm staying with the "broken," and I'm not ashamed. I refuse to turn my back on some of the uncomfortable truths I've learned even if it undermines my own wellness and prevents me from fitting in among the "resilient."

If I someday become "resilient" and "well" (a scary thought), then I hope I'll never lose that sense of solidarity and inherent human fragility in the face of difficult truths. In the meantime, I won't accept a way forward that requires me to lose sight of that goal.

I realize this post has very little to do with the legal profession but I still think it's relevant, because we as lawyers are well-known to often be afflicted with a perfectionist outlook on life. The dichotomies between strength and weakness are very much alive in us. For those of us also dealing with our own vulnerability, I imagine I'm not the only one who has struggled with this sense of failure over not being "good enough" at healing or resilience. We need to change our approach. We can be vulnerable and defiant at the same time (in fact, open unapologetic vulnerability can be a kind of defiance in a profession that prides itself on denying its existence). There's a special value in this kind of vulnerable defiance, I think, if we can only make the effort to see it and share it.

More Random Thoughts on Resilience (Originally posted on another site on Oct 20, 2019)

I hope I didn't come across as being anti-resilience in my post yesterday. My relationship with the idea of resilience is (like pretty much everything else) ultra-complicated. There have been times in my life when I've been undeniably resilient and proud of it. And then there have been other times when that resilience has been crushed through events beyond my control and I've found myself back where I started, wondering what became of all that improvement and healing. Sometimes my outcome was unfavourable when I was strong and doing everything right, and other times I somehow seemed to find "resilience" out of thin air through no action of my own, when I quite frankly did nothing to "earn" it.

While I hate an undue focus on the goals of resilience, improvement, and healing, I also don't want to see them erased from the discussion. Of course, healing and recovery are essential goals. I want everyone who has suffered to know what it is like to find peace and healing, and to feel genuinely strong, resilient and safe. The problem isn't with the concepts. It's with how they are sometimes used and overemphasized.

If someone gave me a button to press and said "this will bring you resilience and healing," of course I'd press it without hesitation and would also hurry to share it with everyone else who needs it.

But it's not that simple so we have to be careful. We live in a scary, imperfect world where deeply unjust, sometimes horrific things happen. When I question the overemphasis on improvement, resilience, and healing, I'm not saying those are bad things. I'm saying we have to be careful about what we miss out on when we are so fixated on aiming for "measurable" things like resilience and progress.

Because sometimes those that need the support the most, who have been most stuck, might need a lot of help/kindness/understanding before they can even begin to move towards healing--before they can even begin to think of themselves as resilient. Yet that doesn't mean they aren't strong. They could be every bit as strong as anyone else, yet not improve at all (maybe even get worse) due to the gravity of what they're facing. If we focus too much on interventions that yield the greatest results, we might miss out on helping and supporting those people.

An even bigger issue I have with an undue focus on resilience is that an emphasis on enhancing an outcome so amorphous as resilience may lead us to give inappropriate regard to the kinds of progress that are amenable to being measured. What does it mean to be resilient? Does it mean being a productive member of society? Does it mean avoiding a life of substance use disorders? Does it mean never developing a mental health issue? What does it mean to survive adversity? What if you accomplish all those things but have to harden yourself and feel less compassion for the suffering of others in order to be able to keep going? Does that count as resilience? Which part of you has to survive before you count as being resilient?

What if for some of us surviving adversity means something altogether different? What if for some it means maintaining our acute sense of compassion despite all we've suffered? What if it means maintaining a sense of allegiance, solidarity and community with others who suffer like we have, even if it means not escaping our own hardship, even if it ultimately results in us suffering the same fate as those whom we refuse to leave behind? How do we measure resilience if what matters most to the person in question is staying gentle and vulnerable in the face of a storm (rather than withstanding its impact)?

This is the essence of my stubbornness on this issue. I'm not saying all the above goals and types of survival are necessarily mutually exclusive, but if we privilege the more easily measurable ones and define those as "resilient," then not only do we prioritize the aims and needs of some over others, we also risk denigrating and stigmatizing some as "lacking" in resilience who have actually shown considerable strength of character in hanging onto what truly matters to them. And we also risk pushing "evidence-based treatments" on everyone that might be evidence-based only with regard to some visions of survival/thriving, but not others. Further, we also risk losing sight of the losses involved in some outcomes that might appear to have been the result of resilience....

My probably very trite point is that what it means to have a good and meaningful life is profoundly personal. What it means to be helped through adversity and its aftermath is similarly personal in many ways. For me, what matters most at the moment is simply feeling valued as I am (with all my non-resilient shortcomings) and like I don't have to endure things alone. For someone else, what might matter most may just be making it through the day without turning to unhealthy coping strategies.

So that's the root of my ambivalence. In many senses, the ways in which I appear resilient cause me the most pain because of what I had to give up in myself to attain them. In other senses, the ways in which I've been unsuccessful are a reflection of what I'm most proud of (maintaining my sense of connection to those who suffer, despite how painful it is to me, rather than shutting it out in order to "survive"). I don't hate the idea of resilience. I just think it needs to be put in its place. There are bigger questions that are messy and complicated that risk being hidden from view if we focus on seemingly neat and tidy concepts like measurable versions of progress, healing, and resilience.

As I've repeated, I'm not a mental health professional or an expert on anything, but mental health has an inherently subjective component (or at least one that we are all capable of debating). No one can dictate for us what it means to be a good person, to live a meaningful/healthy life, and to come through trauma and adversity in a way that feels okay to us. We can benefit from the wisdom, insight and support of others, but at the end of the day, it won't matter if our own sense of what's important is ignored or overridden.

So what should we aim for first in supporting each other? My view: just figure out how to be there for others as they sort the above out for themselves. This means figuring out how to see and appreciate the humanity/inspiration/grief/joy/hope/despair in the life stories of those who fought/survived/succumbed/overcame/faltered. We can't help "fix" each other if we don't first get a sense of what that means for each other. It might not be easy to measure but that's okay. That's why listening is so critical.

Obviously, there will still be a place for measurables and for evidence-based-this-and-that aiming at particular outcomes to offer as tools to those who wish to pursue them, but let's just start by listening to and being there for each other....

Introducing Resilience Overdose Syndrome (Originally posted on another site on Jan 1, 2021)

I've written a lot about how I feel psychiatry fails many people with complex trauma. Although I've written very critically about one sentence of Judith Herman's "Trauma and Recovery," her book remains essential reading when it comes to complex trauma and proposed a new diagnosis of Complex PTSD. I'm not going to discuss all the many concerns I have with psychiatry's failure to respond appropriately in this post.

All I know is that it's inexcusable to me that all these years have gone by and psychiatry has largely continued to fail to deal with complex trauma in a meaningful responsive way given the concerns that have been raised. But that's a topic for another day. Today I'm just doing me. Psychiatry has not provided a safe system within which I can move towards healing and/or coping. But I need to make sense of my experiences, so I decided to create my own. If it resonates with some people, great. If not, it can be just for me. But I'm reclaiming my right to characterize the essence of my own suffering.

It's not easy because being a human who is both vulnerable yet also self-determining is super-complicated. But here's what I've settled on as my preferred characterization that most accurately captures what I suffer from: I have "Resilience Overdose Syndrome." (Note: I'm bad with terminology so I'm not sure about the "syndrome" part. I just know it's not a "disorder" or "disease." I'm open to changing that term.)

Why Resilience Overdose Syndrome? I really want to write lots and lots about it because I have many thoughts, but today is just the introduction of the concept. I'll flesh it out later and welcome input. I've been physically ill lately so I can't aim for comprehensive and perfect posts (when I can manage to write at all) but I don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good (or the good to be the enemy of the passably adequate, lol). So here goes.

-Resilience Overdose Syndrome captures the fact that resilience is both what enabled us to survive the original adversity/trauma we endured, but also highlights the damage to us of being required to be so damn "resilient" for so long. Being required to be resilient in an ongoing way is itself an injury. Resilience is both a blessing and a curse. We don't need more of it. We need to stop being required to have so much of it. We need spaces in which we can relax and lay it down. We need to be able to say "f*** resilience" and have people understand. We need to know that we can be gloriously non-resilient sometimes and still be okay--that a lapse in resilience won't potentially cost us everything because we don't have the luxury others without this condition/situation do of ever being able to just count on the systems and people around us to support us consistently and appropriately.

-It also highlights a critical point that for many of us the actual harm is ongoing and the original damage is in fact continuing. This is not about us improperly continuing to react to a trauma that is in "the past." The thing(s) that happened to us to cause the original injury may indeed be in the past but the damage is accruing daily as we have to navigate a world that fails to protect us just as it did then, fails to provide conditions for us to be appreciated, included, and healed, and fails to allow us to move through various social spaces with the same understanding and accommodation that so many others can. A world that fails to meaningfully address the harms we suffered and provide truly safe inclusive spaces for those who've been through them. The need for "resilience" is ongoing for many of us. So the damage is continuing. For me that damage isn't materially distinct from the original trauma. The original trauma told me I don't count. I'm not a person whose needs matter. Having to then be required to live in a world that sends the same message is in fact a continuation of the trauma and I'm not wrong to feel it's ongoing. (Note: this won't necessarily be true of everyone who has been traumatized--perhaps some do find that sense of fit afterwards. I'm simply describing my own situation but using "we" because I feel very confident I'm not the only one here).

-It highlights that what needs to be done to "heal" us isn't about something that needs to be prescribed to us. It's something those who treat and interact with us need to prescribe to themselves (individually as well as to the systems and environments in which we interact). I'm not saying that via the miracle of human endurance (and, yes, resilience) some people might not through a combination of circumstance, strength, and good fortune find ways to situate themselves better so they no longer have to be so resilient, thereby healing themselves. I'm not saying that it may not help us to learn from those shining examples of "resilience" in case what worked for them may resonate with some others and increase their chances of achieving peak transformative resilience. I'm saying those individual accomplishments will never be THE answer, and they're not what our focus should be. What people with my condition need isn't increased resilience but decreased need for resilience in the first place. It's not something we can necessarily always do for ourselves. It needs to be a team effort. So the question isn't how affected people can change so they can heal. It's how we collectively and individually change the conditions in which people interact so they won't need to be so damn resilient anymore.

So the answer isn't (only) what the doctor should prescribe us, but what the doctor (and the systems within which they work) should do themselves. "You have resilience overdose syndrome. I prescribe to myself and to the system a more flexible and understanding medical system (and social environment) so you have less of a need to be resilient in the future." In the meantime, those of us with resilience overdose syndrome may need to prescribe to ourselves a non-engagement or limited engagement with systems and people that make our condition worse: that impose further damage requiring even more resilience from us.

None of what I've said is totally new. Others have made similar points and I'll say more in the future but this is just me explaining why I've chosen this label for myself, whether medical professionals acknowledge it or not (spoiler alert: they don't). It's not simple. There's nuance and complexity that I'll explore later. It aligns to some degree with what a lot of "trauma-informed" folx are already saying (although I find many still end up lapsing into old ways of thinking that don't work for me; I'll elaborate on this later with my concerns about the framing of concepts like "emotion dysregulation" etc.--that I feel are corrected by my personal framework).

Anyway that's just a tiny sneak preview of my new way of self-identifying. In the meantime, maybe 2021 can be the year we can safely declare (if we wish to): f*** resilience!

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