10 Things I’ve Learned through Stories of Overcoming Adversity

As regular readers know, I have an interview series on this blog. In those interviews, I hear real-life stories of overcoming adversity from people from all walks of life. Some are fellow bloggers.

Many are Millennials. Others are Boomers like me. There are businessmen and women, single people, and others who are married.

Some of the stories that I’ve heard:

  • I’ve interviewed people who’ve overcome addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling.
  • One young woman grew up sexually, physically, and emotionally abused.
  • I talked to a doctor who got through medical school reading at the bottom 5% of his class.
  • Two grew up in poverty, one in what he described as urban poverty. The other lost his dad at age seven and went on to get an undergraduate degree at the Wharton School and an MBA from Harvard.

And that’s the shortlist. There are many more who faced challenges equally as difficult.

What do they all have in common? None let their adversity define who they are. I’ve learned a lot from them. As I thought about what I’ve learned, I narrowed it down to a list of ten things. There are many more. Let’s call this the top ten.

This post was initially published on ThinkSaveRetire.

A thank you

Before diving in, I first want to thank my good friend Steve for allowing me the opportunity to share this with his readers. Steve is a veteran blogger whose writing and style I’ve always appreciated. He’s not afraid to jump into the deep end and challenge conventional thinking about any given topic. I can relate. I’ve ruffled a few feathers with some of my articles. He’s probably a bit more tactful than I am.

His articles are always well-researched and written. You can’t ask for anything more in a writer.

Anyway. Thanks, Steve, for paving the way for bloggers like me who are fairly new to the community.

With that, let’s jump into the list.

1. No one gets through life without adversity

It seems to me we all know someone who appears to have it all together. You know. The perfect family pictures on Facebook and Instagram. The great job. The “always-on” positive attitude.

I knew a guy like this (yup just one for me). He grew up in a great family with loving parents and a loving sister, was a leader in our church, a musician, and he married a great lady. All seemed perfect.

Then life happened.

We left that church and lost touch with them. What I remember is his wife had either a mild stroke or a TIA (trans ischemic attack), which has stroke-like symptoms and can often lead to a stroke.

As a result, she had to reduce her responsibilities at her job. She eventually decided to quit. I hear she’s doing well these days. These events put a scare into both of them, as you might imagine. Their lifestyles changed. They went to one income.

There was no guarantee she would get all of her abilities back.

Shortly after his wife’s TIA, his mother had a stroke. The stroke was mild, and she’s doing well. The perfect life everyone thought he had was quickly changed.

Life after adversity

James (not his real name) got teased all the time for his “perfect” life. Many were jealous of what his life appeared to be. He never looked at his life that way. He was a humble, caring man who’d give you the shirt off his back.

What’s the point? No one gets through life without adversity. No one has control when or how it hits. James, his wife, and his family chose to deal with the challenges head-on. Neither of them complained. They didn’t blame anyone for it. Nor did they let it define them.

That’s a common characteristic of everyone I’ve interviewed.

2. Isolation is the enemy

I’ve been amazed and moved by the willingness of my interviewees to tell their stories. To the person, all did it to help anyone dealing with a similar issue. In fact, one of the standard questions I ask people is something like, “What encouragement would you give others dealing with a similar issue?” 

For all of them, one common denominator they shared was the feeling of being alone in their problem. Isolation kept them from getting the help they needed. Whether from embarrassment, shame, stigma, or any of a host of other reasons, they turned inward.

In most cases, the problem worsened when they did.

Fortunately, all of the people I interviewed came out of their isolation and got the help they needed. Sometimes, caring friends or family members pulled them out. Other times, they finally had enough and took steps on their own. Every one of them went through some period of isolation before getting better.

It seems to be part of the process. My wife and I experienced that dealing with our son’s heroin addiction. We can completely relate to how this happens. Like others, it took years for us to talk about it and get help.

I’m so glad we finally did.

3. Anxiety and depression are real and hard to overcome

Depression is insidious. It is sneaky and hard to identify. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness. They affect more than 40 million adults age 18 and over in the U.S. That’s over 18% of the population.

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand.

According to the ADAA, close to half the people who suffer from depression suffer from anxiety and vice versa.

Many of the people I interviewed dealt with both anxiety and depression. Two of them attempted suicide. One had a brother who committed suicide. For some, depression is event-related.

In other words, traumatic or difficult times in their lives led to depression. Some of them sought help and got medication prescribed to help level them out through the rough spot. Some stayed on the medication. Others stopped.

All went through the period of isolation before getting the help they needed. All are living healthier, more productive lives as a result.

If you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, don’t isolate. Get the help you need.

4. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness

The stigma around mental illness makes it more difficult for people to get the help they need. As one who has been treated for depression for years, I can personally attest to that. Those I interviewed have a similar story. Much of society still views depression (though it’s an illness) as a sign of weakness.

Because of that, people have a much harder time asking for help.

Society has a jaded view of what men and women should be. Men are to have the macho image of being, as one friend calls it, a manly man.

Admitting or showing weakness isn’t part of the package. Women, on the other hand, have a completely unrealistic expectation of how they are supposed to look. Both are impossible standards to reach.

So, what do you think happens when we feel less than what those images tell us to be? We get depressed, turn inward, and try to hide what’s going on inside us.

To admit we are depressed or have a problem dealing with problems indicates weakness, and the feeling of not being enough. At least that’s what some parts of society would have us believe. The people I talked with that death with mental illness all eventually got the help they needed.

They tell their stories to help others.

5. Drug and alcohol addiction is genuinely at epidemic proportions

As I mentioned earlier, we have a son who is a recovering heroin addict. At the time I’m writing this, he’s ten months sober. He was an active intervenous user of heroin for almost twelve years.

In our journey through our son’s addiction, we’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about it. Today, people are more likely to die from an overdose than an auto accident.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 72,000 people died of an overdose in 2017. The most substantial increase in overdoses came from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, with an estimated 30,000 deaths. These synthetic opioids are a game-changer. Addicts are in more danger of overdose than ever because of these synthetics.

The study also says the 2017 death rate is a two-fold increase over a decade. It’s a severe problem that requires serious solutions. We have tried jailing our way out of the problem. It hasn’t and won’t work.

The best solution is treatment.

An alternative to prison is treatment managed and administered by Drug Courts. Once Jason, our son, decided he was sick and tired of being sick and tired, he applied for and got approved for our county’s newly introduced drug court treatment program.

It’s an intensive fourteen-month heavily supervised program. Before drug courts, his most extended period of sobriety was maybe a month. He will tell you it’s one of the keys to him staying clean this long.

We can and must do better than we have been dealing with the opioid crisis.

6. Cognitive and learning disabilities are some of the hardest to overcome

I interviewed three people who have struggled with learning disabilities. One doctor got through med school reading in the bottom 5% of his class. He told me he would be working on the second or third questions while the rest of the class was finished. He said he was fortunate that he knew the material cold, and that’s how he got through it.

It’s hard to imagine how difficult that must have been. He’s now a professor of anesthesiology in a major southern university.

Cognitive disability

My pastor revealed to his congregation that for all of his life, including today, he deals with a cognitive disability. I’ve been at Reston Bible Church for almost ten years. Mike Minter, the pastor, is a friend and mentor to me. We meet regularly.

Most of the entire congregation had no idea about his struggles. He shared that his biggest nightmare is leaving a parking garage. His disability means that he can’t determine the right way to put the card into the reader. He can’t discern the arrows, or which side is supposed to be up.

If he gets through the parking ticket, he has to deal with the same thing when using his credit card. Often, a line piles up behind him when he finally has to ask someone to help. He is one of the best preachers and teachers I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing. Yet he has a daily struggle with simple things like getting out of a parking garage.

Steve, the author of this blog, grew up with a learning disability. Steve had difficulty reading. He told me he would finish reading several pages and not remember one thing, yes, one thing he’d read. I’m sure being teased and made fun of was part of growing up for all of these men.

Like all the others, they persevered and overcame (or learned how to deal with) their disabilities.

7. We can’t control what happens to us only how we respond

We live under the illusion that we can somehow control what happens in our lives. Virtually everyone who’s ever dealt with significant adversity thought that too. Of course, we should set goals, make plans, and try to execute those plans. We should also prepare for the unplanned things that will come our way in life.

Job loss, health issues, depression, catastrophes, and many other things are part of life. Trust me, no parent signs up to have an addicted son or daughter. No one suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental illness said, gee, I’m so thankful I got this. I’ve been planning for this for a long time.

Seriously. Why do we somehow think we can control what happens to us? I do. I’d be surprised if anyone reading this doesn’t to some degree.

But life happens anyway, doesn’t it?

It’s one of the most overused cliches but it’s also true – “we can’t control what happens to us., only how we respond.

Every single person I’ve interviewed all responded to their adversity by working hard to not let it define or control them. Did they have to fight hard? Absolutely. Did it take time? Definitely. Did they persevere?

In every case.

8. Going through difficulty helps us grow

As a result of their perseverance, those who go through and overcome adversity have said it made them stronger and better people. The book of Proverbs 27:17 puts it this way, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” 

Think about building muscle strength. When we work out, we work our muscles to the point of exhaustion or even atrophy. They then recover and come back with even more strength than before.

That’s the role adversity plays in our lives. It can seemingly tear us down when we’re going through it. When we come out the other side, we are stronger and better equipped to deal with the next challenge that comes our way.

Look, I’m not suggesting that we throw a party when we’re dealing with the heavy stuff that comes our way. What I am saying is we can do things to get through them in a healthier way.

One other cliche I hated as a kid, I appreciate after getting some life under my belt – “the darkest hour is always just before dawn.” It rarely feels that way when we’re in the midst of it, but it does when we’re on the other side of it.

9. It’s easier to get through adversity with the support of others

In almost all of the people I interviewed in my series, a significant factor in their overcoming the adversities they faced came with the help of others.

One of them was going to commit suicide. He was in the car, in a barn, engine running, with the exhaust pumping into the car. A friend hadn’t heard from him and called another friend. She found him in the barn and got him out in time to save his life. That girl is now his wife.

For others, help came from family members.

In some cases, it was a spouse or significant other. I’m sure I’m beating this point to death, but it’s important. Isolation is the enemy when we’re going through junk. Cathy and I isolated for years to hide our son’s addiction. Depression causes us to turn inward. When we turn inward and isolate ourselves, we are rarely thinking good, positive thoughts.

Stinkin’ thinkin’

Zig Ziglar called this stinkin’ thinkin’. I think that’s pretty accurate.

A friend from my church who spent over 35 years at the highest levels of the intelligence world talks about it from his perspective. I’ve heard him talk about this several times. When the U.S. or other countries leave an area where evil is prevalent, they leave an empty space. He asks the question, “What do you think is going to fill this space when good leaves?” 

You know the answer to that. Space gets filled with more evil.

I would submit to you the same thing happens in our minds. When we’re depressed, embarrassed, feeling shameful for whatever reason, good thoughts don’t fill the space of our minds. We seem to be wired with a default toward the negative. Surrounding ourselves with positive, helpful, supportive people can provide us a way out of our ruts.

So please. Don’t isolate yourself when you’re in trouble.

10. The strength of the human spirit is amazing

Last but certainly not least I’ll comment on the human spirit. It has a remarkable ability to transcend almost anything that gets thrown at it. In every interview, the strength of the human spirit is the force that guides people out of the darkness.

If you believe in the Bible, Scripture says exactly that. 1 Corinthians 10: 13, “There hath no temptation taken hold of you but such as is common to man. But God is faithful; He will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that which ye are able to bear, but with the temptation will also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 

You don’t have to be a believer to gain wisdom from this verse. With every challenge that comes our way, there is always a way out of it. That’s the human spirit. The spirit comes through in the form of perseverance. Iron sharpens iron. Adversity builds character.

While going through the last almost twelve years of our son’s heroin use, I can honestly tell you not once did I think about how wonderful it was that our character was being strengthened. No sir. It sucked! And it sucked for everyone I’ve interviewed as well. But once we’re on the other side of our adversity, it’s in retrospect that we see the growth.

Final thoughts

It’s been my great honor and privilege to have so many people come forward to share their stories with me and my readers. It has benefited me as much as it has them. I hope this post helps you think differently if and when life happens to you. If you’ve endured hardship (who hasn’t?) and are on the other side of it, I hope you feel like you’ve grown from it as we have.

In closing, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from Cathy’s and my favorite TV show. We’ve watched Criminal Minds almost from its genesis in 2005. We maybe picked it up in season two or three. It’s about the behavioral analysis unit of the FBI. They investigate the worst of the worst crimes across the country. They are called in for help by the local police departments when it’s outside of what they’re used to investigating.

One of the things we love about the show is the nuggets of wisdom that come in the beginning and end each episode. The team represents the community I’ve talked about in the post. They support and help each other as they deal with some of the most horrific crimes you can imagine. The end of one show stands out for me.

SSA Rossi (Joe Mantegna) is leaving the scene of the hospital after his team rescued someone from a psycho and saved their lives. His words of wisdom:

“Our scars tell us where we’ve been in life. They don’t have to define where we’re going.”

For everyone I’ve talked to, this saying holds true. Don’t let your scars define where you’re going. You get to decide that for yourself.

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