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The Only Way Is Through: Building resilience in a global pandemic

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“I did not sign up for this!”

I am 40 years old, but on that Thursday somewhere around the middle of March, I called my Mum and blurted out these words between sobs.

It had just hit me that my maternity leave was about to be gobbled up by self-isolation with a toddler, a newborn and a pre-teen in her first year of high school. Just me, my three girls and our two neurotic ginger cats.

Now, all things being equal, I would have likely had a small panic and then attempted to get on with it. It is a global pandemic, after all, and we’re all in this together, right? Unfortunately, all things were not equal.

About two weeks earlier, my marriage had broken down. My heart was broken, I was in complete shock, terribly sleep-deprived (did I mention I had a three-week-old baby?) and just when I thought my future could not look any more different to the one I had envisioned—bam. COVID-19.

Hence the phone call to my Mum.

Now, I would describe myself as generally pretty resilient. Like most people, I’ve experienced a few ups and downs in life. For the most part, I have managed to fumble my way through and even been able to see the value in the hard times for the lessons they often deliver. However, on this Thursday in mid-March, I felt anything but resilient. I felt beaten. I felt overwhelmed. And I felt very, very alone.

Our response during this global pandemic has required us to forgo many of our usual support systems and practices, while juggling complex stuff like work pressures, caring responsibilities and worrying about our and our family’s health. But on top of all that, there are many, many people just like me, battling any number of other, unrelated stressors and issues.

We’re exhausted. And probably not feeling particularly resilient. I certainly haven’t been epitomising strength on the floor of my shower, crying into a glass of wine on a Tuesday night. But let me share something I’ve discovered about resilience and falling apart—they’re not mutually exclusive.

Resilience isn’t a shield you hold up in battle. It’s not the armour you wear to deflect discomfort or pain. It’s not about sucking it up, pushing it down and just getting on with things. In fact, resilience is developed by allowing yourself to feel how you feel and giving time, space and a voice to all those feels.

So, if you’re feeling like you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel the good news is that you’re very well-placed to actually build resilience. Hooray! Right?

Going through a personally difficult time, with small children, in the middle of a pandemic without the usual distractions of socialising, going out and keeping super busy has been the perfect platform from which to test this theory.

In between countless mediocre craft activities, preparation of 16 different meals per day and middle-of-the-night feeds, I’ve had plenty of time and space to be alone with my feelings. All 3682 of them. On a rollercoaster. On repeat. All-day and all night.

Thankfully, I have a shelf in my bookcase labelled “HELP!” for such occasions (it’s right next to the “HUNGRY!” shelf of recipe books) and upon review was reminded of the work of the great and powerful Dr Brene Brown. In her book, Rising Strong, Brown talks about the value of hitting rock bottom, and how the magic actually happens in this floor-of-the-shower-on-a-Tuesday-night moment.

In fact, she calls out the practice of ‘gold-plating grit’, which is our general tendency to skip over the messy parts of the healing process when telling tales of recovery or rising up against adversity. We like to hear about the triumphant return, and not so much about the hard, ugly and depressing process to get there.

Based on her research, Brown is adamant that facing pain, sitting with discomfort and getting curious about how we feel in these difficult situations is the pathway to resilience (and more wisdom and wholeheartedness in our lives).

By moving through these stumbles, falls, trip-ups and face plants, without skipping over the bit that really hurts and understanding why it hurts and how it might not hurt as much next time, we are able write a new ending to our story. Each time we do this, we become more aware of ourselves, we learn, we don’t dismiss the process and we rise strong. Resilient.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s also not helpful to minimise whatever you’re going through because there is something worse happening around you. This is described by Brown as comparative suffering, and it is more relevant now, during a global pandemic, than ever.

For me, reaching out for support during what I knew was a high-pressure time for literally everyone I know was difficult. Professional help was harder to access and I didn’t want to take an appointment away from someone who might need it more. It seemed selfish. But, as Brown says, hurt is hurt and ‘the refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbour who is going through a divorce’.

Yes, there’s A LOT going on right now. Yes, everyone is feeling it. And whether your struggle is related to the COVID19 situation, or something entirely separate, how you feel about it all matters. Not only does it matter, but it’s essential.

Pulling up our collective bootstraps may be necessary but it should not at the expense of allowing ourselves to feel how we feel, and just sitting with that for a hot minute. It’s the only way we can build the resilience we need to get through whatever is pulling us down right now. Compassion and empathy—for ourselves and each other – aren’t finite, and the only way through…well, is through.

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