#BookRiffs: Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience

I don't expect to actually review books here, but I thought I would write a little bit periodically about books that I've read and what I've taken from them. Laurence Gonzales's SURVIVING SURVIVAL: THE ART AND SCIENCE OF RESILIENCE is this week's selection.

"You're probably a lot more resilient than you think you are."

That was one of the last things my partner said to me, before we parted ways for the last time, on the sidewalk outside the emergency room at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, where I'd been held overnight for psychiatric evaluation.

She was telling me that I could live without her, and I guess she was right.

I thought a lot about resilience after we broke up. As the selections in these #BookRiffs attest, I did a lot of reading about how people respond to trauma, how they build themselves back up after bad things tear them down.

And obviously it feels silly to compare a breakup to, say, a grizzly bear eating half of your face off, but it helps nobody to feel guilty about feeling bad about something relatively minor.

It was major to me, damn it. And it seemed like a good opportunity for growth.

SURVIVING SURVIVAL is a sort of companion to Laurence Gonzales's excellent, previously discussed DEEP SURVIVAL. Where the latter is concerned with what determines why some people live through trauma while others don't, this book deals with what happens afterwards.

As in the first book, SURVIVING SURVIVAL is filled with interesting, horrifying stories, and also very fascinating and sometimes over-my-head discussion of neurology and brain chemistry in the wake of trauma.

One of the really interesting connections Gonzales makes is linking mothers who've lost children to people who've had limbs amputated.

As Gonzales explains, a mother's brain literally changes to adapt to a child's presence in her life; the child in many ways becomes an extension of her body.

So if that child dies, her brain reacts as someone would who's lost an arm. The brain is mapped for that child, or that arm. It feels the loss acutely, when the loss registers at all.

It takes a long time for the brain to remap, and when it does, it looks different than it did before the child came along, or before the arm was lost.

The point that Gonzales makes is that there is no going back to who you were before trauma occurred. It's impossible to wipe out the new connections the brain has made, whether it's from coming to grips with a lost limb, or dealing with the aftermath of a grizzly attack.

You can't just erase what happened from your mind and carry on as you once were. You have to find a new person to become, who accepts that trauma and uses it and moves on from it.

Obviously, it's easy to draw parallels here. I still catch myself thinking that life will go back to how it was, someday. I still catch myself thinking that my partner will realize she made a mistake and call me and we'll reconcile and life will be normal again.

But of course it won't.

We'll always have the wounds we've inflicted on each other. There's no turning back time.

There's only rebuilding myself, better than I was before. Taking those wounds and learning from them and using them to grow and move on.

I suppose, deep down, I always knew that. But it's always helpful to hear it from someone much smarter than yourself.