WHEN TO­MOR­ROW COMES

Leigh Sales on find­ing strength amid dis­as­ter.

Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) - - Contents -

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

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