It’s natural, when tragedy appears before us in the newspaper, on Facebook, even in our own real-life circles of friends and family, to reject it: That’s a freak occurrence, that couldn’t happen to the rest of us, we’re just bystanders here, right? It’s also normal to look at the tragedies of others and think: I’m next. That terrible thing is headed my way. In fact, it’s probably already happening and I just didn’t notice until now.
That’s how Andy Steiner ended up in the emergency room. The St. Paul journalist had been working on a story about Jen, a competitive runner who suffered a heart attack at age 37. Jen was young, in seeming good health with young children, but she began to experience some vague but unsettling symptoms. No one suspected a heart attack, and as Steiner began to immerse herself in the subject, she learned that physicians frequently overlook heart problems in women. The symptoms are different in female patients, subtle and similar to the standard exhaustion that busy, stressed parents of young children experience. So similar, in fact, that Steiner became convinced that she, too, was having a heart attack. At the ER, an EKG proved otherwise.
“I knew so much about heart attacks from working on this story that I was certain I was experiencing the same symptoms,” says the writer [and MinnPost reporter; she covers mental health and addiction]. “It’s very easy to not just sympathize but to really internalize the experiences you hear about when you become deeply involved in a project.”
That sense of empathy made her latest book, “How to Survive: The Extraordinary Strength of Ordinary People (Think Piece Publishing),” an emotionally challenging writing process. The book explores the ways ordinary people move on after personal tragedies. Steiner interviewed people, including many from the Twin Cities, who faced down everyday tragedy, including a heart attack, the death of a spouse, chronic illness, the seismic change of a spouse, unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The book profiles these survivors and examines the actions they took to survive and move on with their lives. Steiner found her subjects inspiring but their suffering wore on her, making this book more difficult than anything she’d written before.
‘Survival guide for regular people’
Over the course of her career as a journalist with Minnesota Women’s Press, Utne Reader and other publications, Steiner has interviewed survivors of many kinds of tragedy, and she became interested in exploring the subject in book form. She ran the idea past her friend Adam Wahlberg, founder of Think Piece Publishing, a Minneapolis-based small press with a mission to help people overcome health challenges through community and good writing, and the idea of the book was born.
“I’m hoping this will be the survival guide for regular people. We hear about heroic people doing incredible things, and it’s easy to admire them. But I wanted to explore the ways people overcome the kind of adversity that is really pretty normal but still devastating. The things in my book happen to a lot of us. All of us will experience tragedy at some point and we need to know how to survive, but that’s something that doesn’t get talked about very much in our society,” Steiner said in an interview. “These people are contributing in this world, despite the bad things that happened to them, and they are carrying on and eventually redefining happiness. I find that very powerful.”
One of the most important things the people in Steiner’s book do to survive is to surround themselves with others who understand. Some, like the spouse of a catastrophic stroke victim, start support groups and take strength from being able to talk openly about situations that are highly discomfiting, if not taboo, in the general population. Others search the Internet to find people who shared their experiences. Jen, the heart attack survivor, started a blog on the subject. Others start foundations or nonprofits to honor loved ones. In each chapter, Steiner compiles resources to help readers find online and in-person support.
“Blogs and the Internet are wonderful places to come together with others in the same situation, but I love a long-form read and I wanted to write a book for others who feel that way, and who could maybe learn from people in situations that weren’t exactly the same as theirs. What the Internet has done is shine a light in a place where we can connect and find others like us, but it doesn’t replace a book you can hold and share,” she says.
As she worked on the project, Steiner experienced a series of losses in her own life, which amplified her sympathy with her subjects. Her curiosity became increasingly personal and she looked for guidance from her interview subjects.
Answers and support
“These things happen to everyone. We have a tendency to think the really bad things will happen to other people and we’ll be spectators, affected but not truly impacted. But as I worked on the book, things happened to my family and friends and I became part of it. So I was not just looking for ways to give people answers and support, I was looking for those things for myself,” she said. “These things are just part of life and we continue on because we have to continue on. Tragedy and loss are like stones in the river but they don’t stop the water, it just moves around us.”
The most devastating chapter deals with surviving the loss of a child. Steiner profiles several bereaved parents, including Pat Loder, whose two children were killed in a car accident, and who went on to become executive director of The Compassionate Friends, an organization that supports parents who have lost children. She also interviews Katey Taylor, the Edina mother of Abbey Taylor, who died after a freak swimming pool accident at age 6. Taylor channeled her grief into Abbey’s Hope, a nonprofit devoted to promoting pool safety. No question, it’s tough to face these particular survivors, but Steiner keeps the focus not on the tragedy but on the part that comes afterwards, when the parents restructure a new life with different meaning.
“Life isn’t like a fairy tale or a movie where the sun comes out at the end,” Steiner said. “There are classically happy endings for very few of us, when you’re honest about it. But we come up with ways to get through things and become happy people in spite of everything. There’s meaning to be found and a changed life to live. These people kept saying, in their own way, ‘I’m still here.’ And when you go through the things they did, that’s more than enough — that’s heroic.”
So far in my life I’ve experienced two life-altering traumas. Having a heart attack at age 37 was actually the second. The first, and in some ways far more profound, was the birth of my son 9 weeks premature and weighing only 1 lb. 13 oz. He spent 56 days in the NICU and we spent those eight terrifying weeks sitting helplessly by his side. I remember — with a full-body force of emotion that will never leave me — what it was like to watch people walk along the sidewalks, enter and leave restaurants, drive their cars, buy groceries, and just talk to each other as if nothing was happening . . . as if it were a day like any other. “How can they do that,” I wondered incredulously? “Don’t they know the world is ending?” I’ve since learned that any of those people could have been in crisis too. That’s the thing about it really, you never know what battle someone else is fighting, or how. It is those everyday, quiet, sometimes invisible warrior stories that Andy Steiner wanted to learn about when she set about writing her book How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. How did someone ordinary — like a young first-time mom with a baby in the NICU — make it through? How does someone you know (because we worked together years and years ago) have a heart attack and then keep on going? What makes someone ordinary, extraordinary? Andy was right when she said I wasn’t sure I should really be included in a book of survivors; surely there are tales more dramatic and interesting and inspiring than mine. And comparing what happened to me to what might happen to others — losing a spouse, losing a child — I certainly felt inadequate. But we went ahead anyway and Andy interviewed me over several months in 2012 and early 2013. I’m truly honored to be a part of her beautiful book. There’s no question it is odd reading about yourself from someone else’s view, but she captured my story very well, even interviewing Scott and my brother and my trainer, Stephanie, on the day she came along with me to my hospital-supervised gym, the cardiac rehab unit, and the cardiac wing where I’ve stayed too many times already. And then, because books take time, the story she knew ended and I kept going and kept surviving, in my ordinary way. The book was released just a few days ago, and when I read my chapter I was truly struck by how far I’d come. The Jen she first talked to in early 2012 — training for my marathon victory lap, feeling better than I had in years, in the first months of this blog — was replaced with the Jen of late 2012 and early 2013, brought once again to my knees by a second episode, two new diagnoses, and a slew of new limitations. My survival story in Andy’s book ends with sadness and grief and loss. “The next time I see Jen, it is just a little bit over a week since the procedure and her chest is sore . . . she’s feeling discouraged and set back, and I can see it clearly in her face and the slumped-in way she holds her body. “‘What I once considered a one-time health crisis has turned into a chronic illness’” she says. Her future, as she now sees it, is ‘a stent every year until I’m 60, then quadruple bypass.’ ‘Chronic illness of any kind takes away things you want. You have no choice but to give them up. I’m still adjusting to that reality’.” The best I could muster up is this: “‘I decided I can’t take this part of my identity and hide it away. I’m unable to do that. . . . I’m going to continue to be myself and just bring heart-attack Jen along.’” I think that’s exactly the point of Andy’s collection of survivor’s stories — that we are ordinary, that we are imperfect, that we just keep stumbling along until we come out on the other side, however we define it. We aren’t the made-for-TV stories, we’re the just-like-you stories, and maybe sharing them makes someone else’s survivor journey a little bit easier — or at least seem more possible. Andy’s epilogue is perfect: “[That] was the reason I wrote this book in the first place. I wanted to help other people find their way through their own traumas by reading about the coping skills of others. When I experienced my own traumatic events, my subjects’ stories had the effect I was hoping for. I felt less alone. Sure, life would be easier if we could just sail through it, free of struggle or sadness . . . but I know that an unblemished life is incomplete. . . . Life, while it can be full of joyful moments, can also wear us down. But that’s what makes us beautiful — and real.” In the two years that passed between my last interview with Andy and today, so much extraordinary ordinariness has happened to me — and for me. I survived. I am surviving. And I’m simply just me. Thank you to Andy Steiner for including me in this book and showing me how far I’ve come, and thank you to Think Piece Publishing.
Andy Steiner talks about her book, How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People, a book exploring resiliency in the face of difficult life events, on Duluth Public Radio.
Life is filled with problems and how we deal with them determines how we can achieve peace of mind. How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People by Andy Steiner offers a number of inspiring recovery stories as well as resources to help people get through difficult times. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this book by a writer with some impressive credits to her name, included Self, Glamour and Fitness, to name just a few publications in which her work has appear. You will learn how the people in the book overcame a massive heart attack, bankruptcy, the death of a spouse, the suicide of a family member, and other challenges. For anyone passing through a comparable situation, this will be a welcome book to read.
The Friday Roundtable focuses on resiliency and how average people deal with challenges and struggles in their day-to-day lives. How do we overcome a big crisis or a series of small hurdles?
Andy Steiner covers mental health and addiction for MinnPost, so she’s regularly in contact with people who are struggling with some of the most powerful challenges humans face. She’s written a book called How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. It offers dozens of true stories about survival, ranging from with mental illness to climbing free from debt and unemployment. KFAI’s Chris Tutolo spoke with Steiner about her book and the bleak times that made her want to tell tales of inspiration.
Minnesota writer Andy Steiner’s new book How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People captures the stories of more than a dozen people who have been through enormous personal challenges, including medical and financial crises or the loss of a spouse or child.
It was back in 2008 when Andy Steiner suggested to her agent a book on resiliency, chronicling how people have dealt with chronic illness, unemployment, personal tragedy or the death of a loved one. Her idea was partially a reflection of the time: The I-35W bridge had just collapsed, the stock market had tanked and people were losing their jobs and their homes.
The problem was, the publishing industry was struggling, too, and Steiner’s agent told her it would be a difficult topic to sell. However, Steiner’s idea had a resiliency of its own, and a new Minneapolis firm, Think Piece Publishing accepted her proposal.
The book, How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People, describes the lives of people who have overcome a heart attack, unemployment, bankruptcy, a partner’s stroke and the death of a spouse and child. Her subjects tell of their heartbreak with frankness and explain how it was they were able to persevere.
Steiner, 46, a resident of Macalester-Groveland, writes for several print publication and the online MinnPost.com.
Two of the people she features in her new book also live or work locally. Jen Thorson, a mother of two from Ramsey Hill, tells of how she survived a heart attack at age 37. An athlete and marathon runner, she entered the hospital following a few painful workouts. The doctors told her that she had had a heart attack and discovered that one of her arteries was totally blocked. Sometime later, the pain in her heart recurred and another visit to a physician’s office revealed 75 percent blockage int he so-called widow-maker artery.
Thorson, a communications professional, did what anyone with a talent for writing might do when faced with a similar challenge: She wrote a blog about it and became a spokeswoman for Go Red for Women, a program of the American Heart Association.
“I feel a lot better now than I did when Andy interviewed me,” Thorson said. “Reading that chapter in the book showed me that I’ve really come a long way. I’m less focused on my own issues. I don’t think every day about dying, which I did for the first few years after it happened. I love my life.”
Steiner also writes of Lynette Lamb, the managing editor of the Macalester College alumni publication Macalester Today, who tells of how she deal with the aftermath of a massive stroke suffered by her husband, Robert. Lamb wrote an essay about brain injuries in the Star Tribune, which led to an outpouring of interest from readers in the same situtaion. She also organized a support group for women who were struggling with a spouse who could no longer communicate and participate fully in family life. It helped her to reach out to others and created something positive out of tragedy.
“here’s another woman in my book whose husband died from pancreatic cancer,” Steiner said. “She couldn’t find many people who had had the same experience at her age — she was in her 30s — so she started blogging about it. That’s how she found a commmunity.”
Social media is a quick way to create a community of support in the 21st century. Previous generations founded social clubs or charitable organizations for the same purpose, according to Steiner. Whatever the personal challenge faced by a survivor, she said, it has invariably been experienced by others who are looking for solace and friendship, too.
Steiner’s book is the second publication for Think Piece Publishing, a print and web-based platform founded by Adam Wahlberg, former editor of Minnesota Law & Politics. Think Piece publishes books, interviews and articles on how people deal with misfortune and the resources that are available to help them. Its first book, Losing Tim, chornicles a mother’s struggle with her soldier son’s suicide. And Think Piece will soon be releaing a CD on the healing process by Honeydogs’ lead singer Adam Levy, a former Macalester-Groveland resident whose son committed suicide.
“Everyone has the potential for resilience,” Seiner said. “Sometimes it’s a personality trait that enables them to deal with the hand life dealt them. But everybody has that capacity.”
Not everyone starts or joins a support group, Steiner added. “Plenty of people keep going just because they have responsibilities, like youn children,” she said. “There’s not one thing or one personality that creates resiliency. At some point we all have trauma in our lives. It may seem insurmountable at the time, but we survive.”