Although Resilience Project took shape after my rebellion against standard issue hospital socks, it stemmed from something larger, something much closer to my heart than a pair of socks. Every family has baggage and mine is no exception. Beyond my mother’s battle with breast cancer. Beyond my parents’ divorce. Beyond my father’s recovery from a crippling drug addiction. Beyond my sister’s late diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, there is one story of resilience that has been perhaps the most formative experience of my life.
Ten years ago, after uncharacteristically beating my brother Eric, who is three years to my senior, in a game of pool, I went upstairs to find an empty bottle of antidepressant medication. Waiting on edge while my mom rushed home to take him to the ER, I remember struggling to understand why my brother, my own flesh and blood, would ever want to take his own life. He had been diagnosed with depression and psychosis, but I didn’t understand what that meant. To me, it felt like he was in a funk and should snap out of it; mental illness was too intangible for my thirteen-year-old brain. However, that changed when I visited him at the psychiatric hospital. Imagine walking onto a hospital floor of psychiatric patients around your age—some being physically restrained as they scream obscenities at hospital staff, some looking like overmedicated zombies, and imagine one of those patients being your brother. Imagine listening to him swear at your mother, insisting that she was not his real mom. This was the same brother with whom I had shared so many skinned knees, the same brother who had saved me as a toddler from walking into the street unaccompanied, and yet here he was, denying any affiliation with my family.
Gradually, the hospitalizations became less frequent as Eric worked through regular therapy sessions and found the medication that worked best for him. This was not a linear process, as many more painful experiences came before there was relief for Eric and our family. Now, 10 years later, Eric has earned a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University and is using his personal experience battling mental illness to help others. Once a teenager unable to separate reality from the permanent nightmare living inside his head, Eric has become a force for good in a world stigmatizing mental health.
Eric’s experience demonstrated that adversity takes many forms, and in some cases, it can literally be inside your head attacking from within. When my oncologist called me on that fateful Friday of October 8th, 2015, and described the significance of my PET scan showing continued growth of the lymphoma clusters in my chest, I was no less scared than any twenty-one-year-old, but overtime, I learned to cope because Eric had given me a mental model of changing from within. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, writes, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Resilience isn’t simply about perseverance, it’s about adaptability. Resilience Project isn’t about socks. It’s not about cancer. In my freshman year computer science class, the professor, Dr. Paúl Pauca, told us the following when talking about his handicapped child, “Years ago I made the conscious decision to count up on the things that he can do, and not down on the things he can’t.”
That child is Victor Pauca and he’s our first non-cancer patient. Resilience takes many forms.