The idea for Resilience Gives may have fallen into my lap when I was given my umpteenth pair of boring non-slip hospital socks, but it remained just an idea until my journey with cancer forced me to reconsider what I knew about resilience.
Immediately following the end of my junior year at Wake Forest University, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Determined to graduate on time, I returned to school in the fall and continued treatment. Back at Wake Forest, I resisted telling many of my classmates about my diagnosis because I didn’t want to be pitied. In my mind, part of this challenge was not only about sustaining inner strength, but also managing how others interpreted my well-being.
Was I scared to be vulnerable? Yes.
Then, just after midterms I received a call from my doctor alerting me that the most recent PET scan showed the lymphoma clusters in my chest continuing to grow despite the chemotherapy. She very frankly explained to me that we would have to significantly dial up the intensity of treatment, and as a result, college was no longer a priority.
I started ICE chemotherapy immediately and eventually would graduate to a stem cell transplant. On day 19 of my stem cell transplant, I remember standing outside the shower, taping a dressing over my central venous catheter while the water warmed up. I found my eyes in the mirror. Buried in gaunt cheeks, they left nothing to question. I began to cry. I cried because the bathroom smelt like poop from the bloody diarrhea sitting a few feet away that I couldn’t flush until I showed the nurse. I cried because I was struggling to support the weight of my body, even though it was 20 pounds lighter than the day I was admitted. I cried because I felt like my body was decomposing while I still lived in it. I cried because I was pitiful.
I thought resilience was about putting your head down and pushing through.
Standing there, my watery eyes eventually wandered down to my feet. There, looking back at me on the oddly grippy bathroom floor were my favorite pair of socks. I had forgotten to take them off and was about to take a shower. I stood there crying, hand clutched to my IV poll, staring down at my naked and decrepit body dressed only in a pair of well-worn, orange and green Aztec patterned socks with an image of a wolf howling in front of a rising sun. Fixated on what was surely the quirkiest yet awesome pair of socks I owned, I began to feel the slightest smile creep slowly across my mouth. Starting in the corner of my quivering lower right lip, it eventually overtook my face and culminated in an awkward but very real combination of laughing and crying.
Such is life.
I thought resilience was perseverance. I was wrong.
I learned that all of us have a breaking point, and it is at this point when we are most vulnerable, but when we acknowledge this vulnerability, we find strength in being our weakest self. We find strength in being a feeble naked, orange-and-green-wolf-sock-wearing hospital patient. Resilience is not about avoiding this at all, but rather, it’s about embracing it and rebuilding yourself piece by piece, moment by moment.When I got out of the shower, I played a video my sister made for me—it was a conglomeration of videos from friends and family simply letting me know they cared about me. I recognized that I was broken, but I knew that I had others fighting to help me heal.
I felt their support.
I felt their love.
Gradually, day by day, my stem cells went about restoring my body, and when my absolute neutrophil count moved above 1200, I was discharged. Stepping outside for the first time in weeks and feeling that warm Florida sun, I sat down to bask in its glory, and then promptly vomited. Slowly, though, I would regain my strength, and as I healed, my mindset began to shift. No longer was I just thinking about getting through it, but instead, I began to think about using my experiences to pay it forward.
This had been one of the most formative experiences of my life, and I felt compelled to do something with it. Naturally, I thought back to my experience with those orange and green Aztec patterned socks. I thought back to the many patients I’d met who were having difficulty paying for their healthcare expenses. Each day, I was walking a little further, and each day, I was working a little longer on the concept that would become resilience gives.
Looking back on my experience, I realize my journey was hardly unique. For many people personally affected by chronic illness, we yearn to do something with our experience – to be a force for good for something that has deep personal meaning.