I recoil when I hear the word resilient. It makes me cringe and I don't always understand why.
I've been thinking really hard about this topic for two reasons. 1. The word is used all of the time. 2.I'm working on a story about resilience.
I'm not trying to convince anyone not to use the word resilient. I just want to share why it is a hot button word for some.
Yesterday, I found an example that helps me put this into words.
I was reviewing a fascinating study done in 2011 on 746 Danish soldiers which showed that pre-deployment trauma, not combat experience, is the crucial factor differentiating the soldiers who get PTSD from those who do not.
It's a fascinating study.
I learned about it via a webinar, "Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress in Medical Care: Promoting Health and Healing Throughout the Lifespan," given by Dr. Beth Grady, who is a member of this network.
Anyhow, the study itself is interesting as PTSD is still thought of by many as something only veterans get. Of course, that's not true. Plenty of civilians get it from wars fought in the home by children trying to survive childhood who have high ACEs and/or adverse community experiences.
This particular study is unique because it looks at pre-deployment stress and measures PTSD symptoms before, during and three times in the first eight months after soldiers arrive home from a six-month service in Afghanistan.
Back to the word resilient, though.
It's used a lot in this study. There are two groups, which make up the 84% who have little or no symptoms of PTSD before, during or after deployment. They are termed the super-resilient and the resilient.
They are also the ones who have not experienced pre-deployment traumatic stress.
The "non-resilient" are the ones with PTSD symptoms before, during or after deployment.
Those with the "non-resilient trajectories" are the ones with a history of pre-deployment trauma, most especially from childhood adversity.
So often, in the medical community and in general culture as well, those who have symptoms from trauma are considered non-resilient and those without symptoms are considered resilient.
I don't understand why this word is used to describe people.
I don't understand why we can't use words that celebrate the protection that a lack of trauma offer soldiers. Indeed, isn't that a reflection of low ACEs, good luck and good fortune, rather than resilience?
I understand, that for many, resilience is about protective factors in communities. But often, and painfully, people are considered non-resilient when having symptoms of PTSD and those without are considered resilient.
This is what, for many of us, feels minimizing.
The soldiers who do not get PTSD are considered "robust" and one article describes them this way.
"They are a resistant group, and do not allow themselves to be affected by their everyday situation either before their posting, during their tour in Afghanistan or after returning home."
It's not just that differences in symptoms are being assessed but that the word choices reflect bias and judgment.
But more, they don't take into account what Jane wrote about so eloquently yesterday:
"Talking about ACEs normalizes the experiences of childhood adversity, brings them to light, and shows time and again how we’re all swimming in the same ACEs ocean, how we’re all breathing the same ACEs air."
I think this study could be used to show how protective a low ACE score might be and how a higher one is associated with more risks. We all have an ACE score. We are all impacted, in positive or negative ways, by that score.
Ideally, understanding this is good for all of us. It de-stigmatizes those with symptoms and high scores and motivates us all to have a society filled with children with lower ACE scores.
But instead, the tone of the article is different and it's a tone present and palpable for many of us.
A tone that forgets or fails to see that absence of early adversity isn't robustness. Absence of pre-deployment traumatic stress is wonderfully protective, but it doesn't make an individual resilient in the way the word is used: as a compliment rather than a condition or a fact.
I think that's what so many of us who recoil at the word resilient.
My boyfriend is a techie and we were recently talking about resilience. He is confused by it as well, but not for the same reasons as I am. He always asks if it's about a system or a person because in computer networking it means this:
"the ability to provide and maintain an acceptable level of service in the face of faults and challenges to normal operation."
Isn't someone with pre-deployment stress, with a history of trauma in childhood, who still serves in Afghanistan for six months, even if they get symptoms, resilient?
I think they are. Isn't that resilient?
I don't think symptomatic should mean non-resilient.
Those with low ACEs have "symptoms" of good health. They are symptomatic too. But often, their lack of symptoms are treated as personal strength or character. Or even as a set point.
This is the part of the seesaw I think we sit on long and hard enough. We don't appreciate how much better those with low ACEs often fair. It's not just that high ACEs come with risks but that low ACEs offer great rewards.
We can use ACEs science for the benefit of us all.
All I know about ACEs helps me feel compassion for myself and my parents, because of our high ACE scores. Simultaneously, it motivates the heck out of my parenting because I don't want my daughter to inherit this score. I want her to have symptoms of a low ACE score.
I think it's wonderful that so many soldiers have not developed PTSD. That's great. I also think they should be aware, when facing future trauma, that they are at greater risk. And if symptoms emerge, for them, it's not because they stopped being resilient but because they may be overburdened by toxic stress.
It makes them human.
I think we have to be careful with when and how we use the word resilient. It's often used to describe circumstances, conditions and individual personality traits and character.
For many of us with a history of high ACEs, we've been told that our symptoms are optional, and that if we were more resilient, we would suffer less, be burdened less, would or could struggle less as though resilience is a cup in out reach that we refuse to reach for, drink from and fill.
That's why many of us love learning about ACEs. We see that actually, our symptoms are almost predictable, that others, with scores similar to ours have struggles similar to ours. It's actually not as personal as we've thought. It's less a personal problem and more a social issue. This can be empowering, in our healing as well as our activism efforts.
I know we need to understand what protects people, what we can do to prevent PTSD and pain as well as how to recover from it. I just hate when the focus on resilience seems like another way to minimize causes of suffering rather than understanding symptoms as responses.
Resilient is a word that can polarize instead of unify us. Many of us have felt badly that we aren't more resilient we didn't understand that almost any human, with a high or low ACE score, has some predictable outcomes, no matter their individual quirks or personality style.
Trauma, even that happened in the past, impacts us in the present. That's true for the 746 Danish soldiers.
Our ACE scores, high or low, impact us all the time.
That's true for all of us.
It doesn't mean we are powerless but it's not as though we could have chosen to be resilient and failed to make that choice.