Many of my friends have often admired me because of what they see as my resilience. However, I’m here to tell you, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a fraud!
I had been working at Cairo University Hospital in Egypt teaching about intensive care for premature infants. After two weeks of long grueling hours and a diet of mostly falafels and mashed beans I got sick. I found myself lying on a lumpy futon in a hotel in Alexandria, Egypt, suffering with chills, fever, nausea, and body aches. All I could think about was getting out of Egypt and heading to Rome where we had arranged for a lovely hotel and relaxing respite. Not to be disparaging to our Egyptian experience, which was amazing in so many ways, but I was looking forward to a nice soft bed and having some pizza instead of falafels.
The day of our departure from Cairo I was feeling a little better but not 100%. My mood however was high because of my anticipation of being in Europe with soft beds, fluffy white pillows, and goose down comforters. Just that would cure my aches and pains. We boarded the plane for the hop across the Mediterranean to Rome. While I was a seasoned traveler my companion had never left the mid-west until this trip. She had done well in Egypt but we were in a larger group. Now it was just the two of us and I was not up to par.
After picking up our luggage at the carousel in Rome, we exited the airport to be faced with an on-slot of taxi drivers all screaming and gesturing at us in Italian and all wanting to take us to our destination. As a seasoned traveler I knew not to allow an aggressive taxi driver to usher me into their cab before negotiating fees and such. My companion, not so savvy and I not being on my game soon found ourselves in a cab speeding down the Via into Rome. “OK, be flexible and make the best of the situation,” my resilient self said. We told the driver the address of the hotel and sat back for the ride.
When we arrived at the hotel there had been some mix-up and we had no room for that night and they could not accommodate us until the next day. At that point it was around 8 pm, I was exhausted and very achy so I did what any resilient person would do and burst into tears in the taxi.
The driver, who only spoke Italian but like all Italians could gesture very well, smiled and pointed down the street to another “pensione” all the while continuing to speak excitedly in Italian which I do not understand. He backed the taxi down the street to the front of what looked like a youth hostel. He went in and within minutes without asking us we were booked in a room on the 4th floor of a somewhat seedy looking “pensione”. Returning to tell us the good news and continuing with a big toothy smile like all was OK he took our luggage from his trunk, put it on the sidewalk and tore away before we could say no.
Stunned and still crying I walked up the dingy front stairs into the sparsely decorated dark lobby and got the key to our room. By now all my resiliency skills were buried deep in my tired aching body. All I could think of was that I have taught classes outlining the ten most useful resiliency skills and I couldn’t even come up with one of them to help in this situation. Defeat was definitely winning.
Of course a place like this would not have an elevator so by the time we climbed the four flights I was ready to flop down on that nice comfy bed I had dreamed about. We opened the door and were met with a very large sparsely furnished room, more like the size of a dorm room that could easily fit four to six twin beds. However, there were only two cots, yes I said cots, one on either side of the room and a single uncovered light bulb on a wire hanging in the middle of the room. No soft comfy bed with white fluffy pillows, and a goose down comforter was anywhere to be seen As we stood in the enormous room in shock, I continued to cry. Then pulling the two cots to in the middle of the room we sat on them in silence with the glow of the single light bulb the only brightness to be found.
At that point I once again attempted to list in my mind the resiliency skills I have so often espoused to my students to use in such situations.
This time they came to me like a flash despite my exhaustion:
1. Keep a positive attitude, (Right!)
2. Be flexible, (I’m tried)
3. Reframe negative thoughts, (Not right now)
4. Find a role model that is resilient (Not me, by the way)
5. Face your fears but go forward anyway (Do I have a choice?)
6. Identify and develop your individualized coping skills (I think I left them in Egypt)
7. Take care of yourself (I just want to go to sleep)
8. Develop your set of core beliefs (I have them buried in my core)
9. Recognize your strengths and play to them (Play, I’m too sick to play)
10. Have a safety net of close friends to be cheerleaders (Left them all back home)
I even reminded myself that research has shown that people who are resilient use these strategies during times of stress and toggle back and forth between the ones that will help in any given situation. However, at this particular point I felt like they all fell short. After my half -hearted attempt to summon my resilience once again defeatism won and I laid down to try and sleep the nightmare away.
The following morning it happened. My companion became my safety net despite her lack of traveling expertise. Being in a better place than I was, she was able to the reframe the situation. Using her own resiliency skills she helped me see clearly to leaving my defeatism behind. We packed up, dragged our suitcases back down the street to the nice hotel, and found ourselves where we had dreamed of being; a cheery room with a comfy bed, soft white pillows, and a down comforter. I recovered from my illness and the remainder of our trip went smoothly.
As I always say life is full of lessons to be learned. This one taught me how important all of the resiliency tools can really be. Having a group of friends that can, if all else fails, boost your emotional strength, validate you, and help you see the forest for the trees when you are completely lost is paramount at the times when all else seems to be failing.
It also reminded me that resiliency does not mean we have to go it alone. It does not mean we are invincible and don’t ever need help. Resiliency is about using any and all the tools at your disposal. This experience taught me that even when you think none of the tools are working, there is always one that will. Keep looking until you find it. Resiliency is a learned skill that is then honed with much practice throughout life. Even with practice we will sometimes falter. A big part of resiliency is forgiving yourself when you aren’t resilient, learning the lesson, and trying again. In rethinking this particular life lesson I guess I am not really a fraud after- all, I’m simply a work in progress, ever moving forward and striving to be more resilient.