WHEN TOMORROW COMES
Leigh Sales on finding strength amid disaster.
EVERY NIGHT, when I anchor the ABC’S current affairs program 7.30, it’s likely that at least one person on the show will be sharing the story of the worst day of their life. Disasters, accidents, unexpected tragedies — these things are the mainstays of the news. Reporting them has been my job for 25 years, and the effect of it has been to make me somewhat anxious: When will it be my turn? Why would this happen to them and not to me? Why wasn’t I the person in the Lindt cafe on the day of a terrorist attack or on a ride at Dreamworld the day it malfunctioned?
In 2014, a series of events began to unfold in my personal life that made me even more fearful that my number was up .when my second child was born in February of that year, things went horribly wrong. I had a uterine rupture, meaning that my uterus tore and haemorrhaged into my abdominal cavity. My baby was deprived of oxygen and born via an emergency caesarean with me under general anaesthetic, and I woke up in a high-dependency unit, three blood transfusions and emergency surgery later, with tubes coming out everywhere and the baby nowhere to be seen. He was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.we barely survived that, and then six weeks later, we were back in hospital when the baby contracted viral meningitis. Straight after that, my two-year-old started displaying signs of health problems, prompting years of medical interventions. then, in the midst of it all, my marriage of 20 years fell apart.
It was as if I had tumbled into a raging river, swept along by a current I was powerless against. when I finally clambered onto the bank on the other side, the view of my life was not the same as from where I had set out. things didn’t seem as safe as they once had. Death and illness no longer appeared as far-off threats about which I need not worry for the moment: they felt very real. My sense of security had been lost.
I turned to writing to help me process what had happened to me and that has become my third book, Any Ordinary Day. I wanted answers to some difficult questions: How do we come to terms with the fact that life can blindside us in an instant? When the unthinkable does happen, what comes next? And once we truly understand that we are not exceptional, but are as vulnerable as the next person, what does that tell us about how we should live?
To help me find an understanding, I spoke to people who had lived through some of the worst things I could ever imagine happening to me. Some of them you may remember from the news: Stuart Diver, who lost his first wife in the Thredbo landslide and his second to breast cancer; Walter Mikac, whose wife and two daughters were murdered in the Port Arthur massacre. Other names will be unfamiliar to you, although their stories may ring a bell from landing briefly in the news. they are people who suddenly had their lives turned upside down by events that came from nowhere, and what they taught me about the depths of human resilience has amazed and comforted me.
I also studied cutting-edge research into how the human brain processes trauma and shock. The bad news is, there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself against life’s blindsides, and they are some of the most painful things that can happen to you. The good news is, you are probably way stronger and more adaptable than you could ever imagine. People are able to endure the most extraordinary things and find joy once again.the things you think you could never survive, you probably would.
In the past 20 or so years, psychologists have started studying a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. what if, after a life-changing catastrophe, we don’t merely return to ‘normal’ functioning over time, but instead develop a kind of enhanced functioning? It does happen to some people if the trigger event is huge enough. Dozens of studies have examined the kinds of positive personal transformations people experience after grief and the factors that make such growth more likely. In a 2001 survey, data was collected from almost 200 sexual assault survivors. they ranged in age from 16 to 52, and about half had been assaulted by strangers. Just two weeks after their attacks, some of the women reported positive changes including increased empathy, alongside negative ones such as feeling less safe in the world. Over months, there was a growing realisation of their own strength and resilience. By the end of the two years of the study, for most women, the positive feelings had overtaken the impact of the negative ones. there are too many studies to list in detail here, but during the past three decades, experts have forensically catalogued how people have changed in the aftermath of events as varied as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, the loss of children, plane crashes, sexual assaults, paralysis caused by accidents, the birth of children with profound disabilities, cancer diagnoses, combat service and even a shipwreck. The collected data shows that anywhere from 30 to 80 per cent of people experience post-traumatic growth.
Certain personality traits correlate with a propensity for that kind of growth, including optimism and hardiness. Women tend to fare better than men, probably because they are more likely to talk things through with friends, which helps the brain process negative emotion. Creative expression, such as writing, painting or playing music also helps — again, because it offers an emotional outlet.
Just before Any Ordinary Day went to the printer, life smashed me with another blindside. My father, who had just turned 70, died suddenly of a heart attack. Having done all of this research into trauma and grief hasn’t made handling that any less painful, but it has given me hope that I will endure it. I’ve spoken to people who’ve dealt with all sorts of things far more awful than the loss of a parent and I’ve already seen myself cope with some horrible twists too. It has taught me that I’m stronger than I imagine.
Presenting the news every night has taught me you never know when a day that begins in the most ordinary way possible will turn out to be the worst day of your life. The fact is, every ordinary day of your life is magical. Be grateful for them.
Any Ordinary Day, by Leigh Sales (Hamish Hamilton), $35.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE THE WORST DAY OF YOUR LIFE? And what comes next? Journalist LEIGH SALES deals with stories of sadness and terror on a daily basis. Here’s what she has learnt when it comes to coping with life’s unexpected blows