I used to think I was resilient. But when I contracted a mysterious illness (which turned out to be a chronic autoimmune disease) at age 28, I quickly fell apart — not only physically but also emotionally.
I couldn’t accept that the fearless journalist who had hiked Mount Everest just a few weeks earlier was the same gaunt woman who stared at me in my bathroom mirror and struggled to muster the strength to walk to the mailbox. Instead of responding like the serene Buddhist meditator I was trying to be, I cried and cursed and raised my fist at whoever was pulling the strings up there.
As the years went on, I met and marveled at the people I encountered as a journalist who had overcome serious traumas — war, natural disasters, death of a loved one, and poverty — and yet I couldn’t come to terms with my own struggles, my compromised health.
This made me feel small, incapable. So, I decided to do something about it. I set out to ask masters of resilience what had helped them through their darkest hours. Did they have a resilience code? Could I crack it?
I started my research (which turned out to be research for my book, Bouncing Forward) with the U.S. Army, because I believe that no organization has a keener interest in figuring out how to fortify people for tough experiences and how to heal trauma.
More than ever before, the U.S. Army is dealing with staggering numbers of soldiers who come back from war depressed, angry, and anxious. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to war, so there's no ignoring the fact that the mental health of the members of our armed forces is an urgent issue.
The woman spearheading the resilience training is a retired brigadier general named Rhonda Cornum. She told me, “The time to train for a race is before the race, not after you’ve run it. You don’t start learning about first aid when a person has just collapsed in front of you. You need to learn this before a challenging event, and then re-learn, and practice.” Resilience is like a muscle that strengthens with exercise and withers when left idle.
You might think the Army’s idea of resilience was a “buck up and shut up” kind of thing. I did. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Together with resilience specialists, Rhonda initiated the now $160 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program in 2009. Every U.S. Army soldier (all of whom are required to attend the program) is trained in strategies like self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strength of character, and connection.
Rhonda has personal reasons for making a mission of resilience. As a young flight surgeon, her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in the first Iraq war. She was critically injured, taken hostage, and sexually assaulted. Her indomitable optimism and fortitude were major elements in her survival.
There's no one I'd rather have teaching me how to survive when hope seems an impossibility. Here are the major takeaways from my experience at resilience boot camp: