Resilience lesson #3: thriving despite personal trauma

Four women who refused to let their personal trauma define them

This is the third in a series of blog posts about resilience, highlighting the stories of women featured in the UBS-sponsored Wall Street Journal e-book “Resilience: How 20 Ambitious Women Used Obstacles to Fuel Their Success."

People deal with personal trauma in a variety of ways, but as Veronica Dagher, senior reporter for The Wall Street Journal and host of WSJ's “Secrets of Wealthy Women" podcast discovered, the act of working through trauma is in itself a mark of resilience. From unexpected, deeply personal losses to physical assaults, the four women Dagher interviewed all shared stories of resilience and recovery.

Writer Mary Higgins Clark, Olympian Bonnie St. John, advocate Sukey Novogratz and former executive Susan Packard each spoke about how they moved forward in the face of fear, grief and pain. Two main themes emerged from their stories, and while these themes may seem contradictory, they, in fact, fit together perfectly.

Use your gifts to move forward

Mary Higgins Clark

Mary Higgins Clark lost her husband when she was just 36. Reflecting on how her own mother had struggled after becoming a widow, Clark was determined to make a future for herself and her five children. “I had no right to curl up in a corner and feel sorry for myself," she told Dagher. She worked her way up at a radio station and eventually started her own radio programming business. As she continued to navigate her career, Clark never abandoned her dream of becoming a professional author.

With that determination, Clark wrote short stories and eventually transitioned into writing novels. After multiple rejections, Clark sold her first novel for a modest advance. But Clark's true big breakthrough happened in 1976, when she sold her next novel for $1.5 million.

It had been a little over 10 years since her husband had died, and in that decade, she stayed focused on moving forward to pursue her dreams versus allowing herself to crumble. Clark's story is a moving example of how important it is for married women to be active participants in their financial lives because—according to UBS Own Your Worth research—eight out of 10 women will be solely responsible for their financial well-being at some point in their lives.1

#ownyourworth

Many people told Clark she wouldn't become a successful writer, but she kept fighting for her dream and for her family.  “I simply refused to be discouraged," Clark says.

Bonnie St. John

Bonnie St. John had a very difficult childhood, challenged by both physical and emotional pain. Born with a rare medical condition, St. John had to have her leg amputated at just 5-years-old. As part of the physical therapy, St. John spent many hours with a nurse, who ultimately became a major influence throughout her recovery. Her nurse would make her push her healing limb into a pile of books to prepare her for a prosthetic leg. St. John cried, but the nurse made her keep at it. “She taught me to push through pain," St. John told Dagher. That tenacity stuck with St. John as she discovered her passion for skiing.

While St. John persevered to regain her physical strength, she struggled silently while her stepfather sexually abused her growing up. Burying the trauma for years, St. John found distraction and escape in skiing, a sport that started as a hobby and transformed, over time, into an Olympic-winning career.

Though St. John had achieved exceptional athletic success, she kept the trauma from her childhood buried. It wasn't until she sought professional support—therapy, yoga and prayer—that she could overcome what she had been through, heal and become the parent to her daughter that she always wanted to be.

#ownyourworth

St. John recommends that those who have suffered abuse seek out professional support to help them process and heal from trauma.

Heal yourself to heal others

Sukey Novogratz

Like many 18-year-olds in the summer before college, Sukey Novogratz was excited to start the first chapter of her independent, adult life. This happiness was quickly taken away after being drugged and raped by a group of men before her first year at Princeton University. Overwhelmed by the trauma, she found herself living in autopilot, distracting herself as best she could and hoping her routine could return to the way it was before her violent assault.

Twenty-three years later, the suppression caught up to her. “I could no longer ignore my uncomfortableness. My 40-year-old self began a dialogue with my 17- year-old abandoned self. It wasn't all pretty, but necessary, as my own two daughters were approaching the age of my assault," she told Dagher.

Novogratz started meditating, and got involved in the advocacy community, as a board member of Joyful Heart and also as a producer of documentaries that seek to raise awareness about rape. She connected with other female survivors and began openly sharing her experience. “When I was 17, I thought my rape was just disastrous luck. … But now, many, many years later, I understand that my waking up to the experience of my trauma forced me to find out what I was made of and, in fact, helped me become who I am today," Novogratz says.

#ownyourworth

In her work to heal and connect, Novogratz has learned an invaluable lesson: “If you haven’t danced with all of your ghosts and demons your ability to help will be limited.”

Susan Packard

Susan Packard was an ambitious twentysomething living in Chicago and working in television in the 1980s. This was the first job that required her to travel frequently, an exciting way to see the world and meet new people. But it was on one such work trip that Packard was assaulted by a stranger at her hotel room.  Shortly afterward, on a different trip, Packard was strip-searched at an airport, an experience that resurfaced her initial trauma that she had not fully dealt with or addressed.

Packard’s initial response to both occurrences? She put her feelings on “lockdown.”

Over the following years, Packard fully committed herself to her career and found ultimate success as the COO of HGTV.  However, when confronted by a number of tragedies – a coworker's suicide, the death of her father, and the unexpected passing of her sister and mother, Packard recognized it was time to address the traumas of her life.

Packard took time off work and decided to make major changes to her life: She sought treatment for a drinking problem and began practicing centering, a method of meditative prayer. Over time, she began to feel a sense of peace, became a better listener, and saw her relationships deepen and her anxieties wane.

Resilience, she realizes, was also a crucial ingredient in her healing process.

#ownyourworth

You have to tune into your feelings to heal, and show up as an honest, authentic person—rather than hiding and hoping the pain stops, Packard says.

Next in the resilience series: Overcoming Doubt.


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