RESILIENCE – Trigger to Triumph, It’s all in the Breath
PART I – Significance of the Sigh
In the memorable words of my Yogi, “Sigh it out … Ahhhaaaa!”
A deep and cleansing breath brings many health benefits namely, a life worth living.
How does this work? It provides oxygen-rich blood to all the important parts of the body, specifically the cerebral and cerebella cortex1. The predominately grey matter of the brain responsible for control and information processing – aka critical thought.
I guess that’s why the perfecting of one’s breath, is triggered early in life by a swift spank on the tuchus by a well-intentioned doctor, the gift for this most embarrassing moment … life.
It’s curious that without this cue or triggering event the outcome could be grim: cognitive impairment, stunted growth or even death.
Now that we understand the power of breath, I would like you to accompany me on a journey of two life events that sculpted my resiliency muscle, one vicarious, yet remarkable and the other a catalyst for my transformation from a survivor to thriver.
PART II – Escape from HELL
Have you ever known someone who has died and gone to HELL? Well, if you don’t, you do now! Actually, I have been to hell, heaven, and purgatory all without leaving the comfort of my home, bed or even boarding a plane. How, you ask? All the destinations were that of the mind or the grey, for that matter.
Yes, I have escaped the clutches of H-E-L-L. I know, I know, no one has ever heard of this ominous place having a back door or safety hatch that one could make a great escape, but I assure you it exists. Its just that very few live to tell the tale.
To understand how one comes back from the dark side is to first establish a common understanding of the word “resiliency.”
PART III – Resiliency by No Other Name
According to Psychology Today, resiliency is: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.”2
That sounds wonderful right? Pretty straightforward, you know … a little dash of life drama here and there and then voila, recovery and you’re out of the woods, ready to take on the day.
Well, not so fast. This seemingly simplistic process of acquiring resiliency is not how many of my clients have ever experienced recovery. As a human resources consultant and realtor, many of my clients have spoken of true and harrowing accounts of struggle, conflict and even wrestling with oneself to come to a profound epiphany or concession to a triggering event. It certainly had not been a simple path to bouncing back!
The many revelations that I have experienced on the path from trigger to triumph were not for the faint of heart. The events definitely left unmistakeable soil residue from the trek in the valley, as many endeavoured by choice or force into a pit of turmoil, coming face to face with their shadow self to regain their place among the land of the living - despite the distinct smell of hickory on their way out!
I know … pretty dark, right? Or is it just, well, accurate?
The question I have always had after each client session, or in reflecting on my own challenges, is what makes one person merely survive triggers or trauma, while others thrive?
PART IV – The Resiliency Cocktail
My ability to become resilient came with a few pre-requisite life lessons. If you have ever tried to fast track a course using Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) in university, life lessons are equivalent to street cred in Resiliency; meaning you have to enter the pit and live to tell the tale. Using life’s experiential learning to jump over, push aside and avoid ensuing upsets is the sign of an advanced student. If this is you, you can fast track through this part of the story, but if you have had a pretty easy life until now, I humbly suggest you pull up a chair and take note.
First, seek out exposure to failure, challenges, and discomfort – this will be your saving grace. Yes it seems counterintuitive, but (rest assured) it will improve your survival rate and give you a bonus dose of emotional intelligence.
Second, come to understand that you, I, we are all here filing roles to arrive at our respective purpose or destiny, that may be beyond our comfort level or control.
Lastly, learn to be still.
Pause, if you will, go inside and remember … breathe!
PART V – How to Avoid GAS
To avail oneself from getting stuck in the pit is to move mindfully with curiosity and not necessarily swiftly through as to avoid General Adaptation Syndrome [GAS]3 or reduce the likelihood of falling prey to Stress Response Syndrome [formerly Adjustment Disorder]; both coded disorders within The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM]4.
PART VI – The Road Less Travelled
My path in life was not easy, how boring!
As a result, it has been truly insightful and full of prideful moments – triumphs. The rewards came as a result of many lived experiences shouldering a societal Super Power of Invisibility; being the youngest girl in an immigrant family, a child of visible culture and showing up to the outside world with dominant masculine energy.
If that was not enough, I became a reluctant member of the ”Me Too” movement before it came to be, and unwittingly developed survival mastery skills in navigating abusive/narcissistic relationships.
My resiliency muscles were fully engaged, flexed and in frequent use, by the age of eleven.
PART VII – The Epidemic
A memory. Beads of sweat slowly rolled down my back, as I walked down the unlit hallway of the abandoned wing. A slow and expansive breath accompanied me as I arrived at the illuminated doorway. I think I thought I could hold my breath until I left the room. I knew it was humanly impossible, me being an asthmatic and there being a minimum 20 minutes’ worth of work for me beyond the threshold.
By the time I got to counting the fifth Mississippi, I replenished my breath and relinquished my fate to the double surgical masks I was wearing. “Why isn’t anyone down here with me, I’m only 15?” I thought to myself. “Snap out of it Michelle!” I don’t remember much of that day, but I do remember the echo of my footsteps, as I got closer to the yellow garbage bags that lay outside of his room. I do remember the loneliness, yes, the loneliness and despair that filled the air as he sat there on the edge of the bed.
“Hi,” I said in my most chipper voice. With less than grace, I negotiated every step to enter the hospital room, as not to unravel myself from the safety of the double gown, mask, gloves, booties, and hairnet that lay between THE VIRUS and me. I truly don’t know how he even made out what I said, because when the words came around to greet my ear it sounded like my tongue was stumbling over cotton balls.
I do remember a small red truck, a red truck on his window ledge radiator. I remember thinking, “Why would a man have a toy truck and why do they have him here, all alone, and out of sight from everyone?”. Just then my mother’s saying raced into my mind: ”No man is an island.” My mother’s phrases showed up at the most inopportune times and rarely ever with warning.
The young man’s eyes met mine and there we were, both filled with awkwardness, yet so happy to see the reassurance in each other’s smile.I hurried to make his living space and then entered the washroom. I had never seen so much hair in a bathtub before; it didn’t make sense to the full head of hair that appeared to still be on his head.
The next time I came to visit him, I would be met with a different kind of quiet, a stillness and deep knowing. The room was empty, the bed was made and the red truck … gone.
That would be my first encounter with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and the first wave of the global epidemic that emerged in the ‘80s.
PART VIII – The Breath
The day my world stood still. The deepest BREATH – Friday March 13th, 2020
Six hours away from home in Northern Ontario, a newly-widowed client and I were grabbing a bite to eat after completing her home buy and sell that would be the catalyst for the start of her new life. Our phones lit up with Amber Alert like buzzing and bleeping. As we read the messages one after the other, we became consumed by disbelief of the surreal messages: we were under lockdown and world was amidst a pandemic.
In that moment, I started to have what I could only explain as an existential near-death experience. It was like a wave of panic, the flashing of life scenarios, trying desperately to remember where my kids were at that very moment, then a quick mental shift to realizing I was a day away from home, life, and safety.
As the weeks progressed and more information was thrown at this self-professed academic, faster than a ball machine could pitch to an amateur athlete, I remembered just wanting to run away, or at least pull the covers over my head and “tap this one out.”
As the first Black female President and Chairwomen of a 40-year charity with only a few months before retirement, “tapping out” was not an option. At this point what stood between me and ending my career with leadership distinction, was the realization of False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR).
It was then that I realized FEAR was not going to be a useful ally; overcoming it was. I was going to have to be the Sandra Bullock to this challenge; my Bird Box. I would face the realities that manifested along with the virus; hate, deceit, community polarization, prevailing lack of intuitive critical thought and – most unnerving – the global awakening to racial inequities, systemic injustices and civil unrest.5 The social tension brought me back to realize the significance of one of my Dad’s life lesson field trips to meet Nelson Mandela in the Queen’s Park in Toronto.
So, I did what any self-respecting Virgo would do, I threw myself headfirst into hermit mode. Allowing my vulnerability to be grounded in nature, I harnessed my inner Super Power of Invincibility.
I pressed pause, became still, implemented the BREATH. Dug deep introspectively, in order to show up as the leader all had come to know me as. After all, I had been prepared from the first spank … to that moment, my legacy journey.
PART IX– Inspired Breath
In the research I did to stimulate my juices for this story, I endeavoured to understand the mechanics of breathing. This is what I found.
When you breathe in, or inhale, it is called inspiration. Your diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This increases the space in your chest cavity, and your lungs expand into it. The muscles between your ribs also help enlarge the chest cavity. 6
The contraction of your rib cage both upward and outward is to make room for new inspiration – a life worth living.
I hope I have inspired you to pause, go inside and… breathe into existence your unique Super Power – Resiliency.