** According to Time magazine, "91 percent of Americans live in places at moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, ?ooding, high-wind damage or terrorism."
My definition of survivor encompasses people going through difficult times and also the friends and family who stand beside them. In the cancer community, they're called co-survivors or secondary patients. They're the rocks in your life, the ones you grab on to when you're falling down. They're the pals who escort you to the doctor's office for an MRI. They fix dinner when you don't have energy. They comfort you in the middle of the night when you wake up with paralyzing anxiety. While most attention focuses -- understandably --on the person fighting a disease, co-survivors bear a great burden, often silently and without recognition. They suffer a much higher risk of stress, illness, and even death.* In the tiny field of survivor studies, they're pretty much an afterthought, but they know as much as anyone about beating the odds.
If you look around right now -- in the coffee shop, airport lounge, or public library -- chances are that someone nearby is a survivor. Perhaps the woman next to you is going through chemo and her hair is starting to thin, but she's doing everything she can to look normal. Maybe the man across the way just lost his wife in a car wreck. He's wrestling with depression and wondering how to go on with his life, let alone raise his kids. The guy in the corner may have been let go from his job -- he's got no savings -- and he doesn't know what to do next. Perhaps the woman across the way is trying to figure out how to help her father with Alzheimer's. Should she put him in a nursing home? How will she afford it?
* Every year, more than fifty million Americans provide care for friends or family with chronic illness or disability. The stress of caregiving can shave ten years off your life, according to one study. Another study of couples over sixty-five shows that if your husband is hospitalized, your risk of dying within thirty days increases 44 percent; if your wife is hospitalized, your risk of death jumps 35 percent. These findings are consistent with the well-known Bereavement Effect: If your spouse passes away, your risk of death within thirty days increases 53 percent for men and 61 percent for women.
It's a parallel universe, this unseen world where survivors and co-survivors wage their battles, surrounded by the rest of us, seemingly oblivious. Many survivors describe two coexisting realities. They live with one foot in the regular world and one foot in an invisible realm of hardship and loneliness. Ours may be a confessional culture, but in this other sphere, most people face their struggles quietly, trying not to draw attention. Sure, some survivors appear on TV, give speeches, and write books, but most don't choose to publicize their ordeals. They endure adversity without talking about it. They don't want to burden anyone else. They don't want pity. They just want it to end.