I am an elite athlete, and I’m known for running insanely long distances, and for brushing up against the limits of human endurance. But over the past 4 years, I’ve quite literally run myself into the ground, and the thought of stopping terrifies me.
I run to escape the woman who gave birth to me… a woman who beat the shit out of me until she walked out… the woman I vowed never to speak to again, that same woman I so desperately want back in my life. I run because I’ve simply replaced a ‘healthier’ addiction for the drugs and alcohol that tore a hole in my stomach and brought me to the darkest void of suicide. I run because it washes away that corrosive sense of worthlessness I’ve carried with me since being sexual abused as kid. But most of all, I run for that other kid out there who still feels he’s worthless… for that other addict who continues to sacrifice her future for the numbing oblivion of today. I run because I pray that the ache I feel inside just might be the resilience so many others see in me.
For the past 6 months, I’ve been working on a book about resilience, and that has involved interviewing people from around the world to hear how they have continued to move forward in life despite tremendous trauma, adversity, and loss. In well over 200 hours of interviews, I’ve sat with parents who have lost children to suicide and tragic accidents, and I’ve listened to the trembling voices as people describe what it is like to witness loved ones killed in genocide. I’ve seen first-hand the immutable will of former sex workers, and heard stories of people ravaged by addiction and eating disorders—those who live on the margins of society. I’ve listened in on the resilience found at the end life, and heard its echoes in countless voices as they attempted to describe what it is like being draped in hope even while living on the precipice of constant uncertainty.
As I’m nearing the end of the interview phase of this book, there most certainly are overriding themes that weave the ephemeral fabric of resilience. It is next to impossible to articulate something that lies beyond our own understanding. I would go so far as to suggest that resilience is something we only recognize in others, yet it is that very quality of recognizing it in others that allows us to entertain the idea that it may exist within us. If I had to sum up one word that described all the amazing ‘resilient’ people I’ve interviewed, it would be--But. People who are able to move through trauma, adversity, and loss are those who actively choose to be superior to their circumstance—those who continually decide to live on the other side of ‘but’. Yes, I became a quadriplegic in the accident, but I’m not going to let it stop me from living a full life. Yes, I lost my daughter to suicide, but I’ve got two other kids who need me right now and a lot of other children I’ve yet to meet who need me to advocate for them too. Yes, I carry the trauma of my childhood with me to this day, but I choose to move towards the vulnerability of discovering how that past still haunts me today.
In my interview with the former Canadian Olympic sprinter, Ben Johnson, I asked him why he is still widely beloved by his fans while Lance Armstrong appears to be denied that same redemption. Through Ben I learned that an important part of resilience involves creating strong and authentic connection with others so that when adversity arrives, you have a safe place to land. In the words of Ben: “When the ship sinks, there will be nobody there to help you because they will remember the way you’ve treated them. And that’s where [Lance and I] are different… generally people don’t say anything bad about me because of the way I treat people with respect, and in the way I interact with them. People saw that in me when I was running… Even when I was very successful and doing well, I would go back to my roots where I came from and talk to people. I would sit down and talk to people who didn’t have very much, and they would remember when I was a young boy. It’s important to never forget where you came from and the people who were there for you when you were growing up… These are the people who believe in you.”
One of the most beautiful conversations I had was with a young man named Dean Wardak. A few years ago, Dean was drinking with his high school friends at a party, and he made the fateful decision to get behind the wheel of his car. Dean wrapped his car around a tree, and the force of the impact left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It’s a tragic story that could end there, but Dean has chosen to find a ‘blessing’ in that story, and it’s a lesson he shares with other young adults. “When I give talks at high schools, that’s actually one of the main points I make. Even though I was in an accident, I am actually ‘blessed’ because I didn’t harm another life. I’m a very emotional type of person, so I know that had my actions affected another family, that overwhelming guilt would have changed my life forever. Let’s be honest, if you destroy another life, impact another family, that’s a horrible thing, so this is why I consider myself lucky, or blessed. This is the main message I share with high school kids… If you drink and drive, you may not be as lucky as I am… Your actions might destroy another family.”
Time and again, the people I’ve interviewed have shown me that resilience has nothing to do with being bulletproof, or discovering your strength forged in adversity. Instead what I’m hearing is that on the other side of that ‘but’ is fear, discomfort, and uncertainty. One of the most illuminating windows into resilience came from Dr. Carolina Vidal. Carolina arrived as a refugee from El Salvador, carrying with her a lot of trauma and loss. Today, Carolina is a psychiatrist and one of Canada’s leading experts in the field of P.T.S.D. Here’s what Carolina had to say about walking towards what scares us most:
“Resilience is the ability to embrace the fear. Fear is my best friend now in everything I do. If you change your attitude or the way you think about fear, it can be amazing. Especially when both you and your fear decide to jump together. I came here as a refugee from El Salvador, and although I was educated as a doctor, because of my English skills, I had a fear of speaking in public. And I even had fear of getting into relationships that may be hurtful for me. However, now for whatever reason, something has shifted inside of me, to the point that if you tell me I should be afraid of something, the more I want to do THAT thing—today, fear is my friend. I embrace fear because I know nothing bad is going to happen to me… Why would I say this? Because you either succeed at what you’re attempting to do, or you learn… In either case, you’re never going to lose.”
As the interviews for my book are drawing to a close, I feel at times as though I’m struggling under the weight of responsibility that comes with carrying the wisdom and beauty of these stories of resilience. I’m also left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, from a faith that resilience lies within each and every one of us. In the words of Bruce Barton: "Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.”
Look at me on the street, or scroll through photos of me clogging up your social media stream, more than likely what you’d see is an active, healthy, and smiling middle-aged man—an endurance athlete with an insatiable appetite for cookies. But here’s the truth… just like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s iconic poem, I feel as though I’m wandering around encumbered by the greatest of weights:
Ah! wel-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.
But instead of albatross around my neck, my toxic stowaway is something far less visible, and far more socially corrosive—fragile mental health. That smiling athlete you see on Facebook is the same person who at one time, tried to take his own life. He’s all too accustomed to seeing the fear in the eyes of the people who despite the struggle, love him deeply, even at his darkest moments when he can’t love himself.
I take little solace in knowing that like me, millions of others around the world, dread this time of year—not because of the shortened days and biting cold, but because they know that these conditions are fertile ground for depression’s talons to imbed firmly in our marrow. When it comes to living with a mental illness, it is the stigma that can take its greatest toll. Even though I currently find myself on the other side of depression, I am ever so aware of how thin that veil is between me and fragile mental health. It’s times like these, when I’m feeling my strongest, that I realize how important it is to bring depression to the fore—to engage people in conversations about what depression, anxiety, and PTSD feel like. So, how do you describe the aching cavern of mental illness to someone who has never lived through it? I’m not sure if I can, but I’m going to try…
Depression has nothing to do with feeling sad, and everything to do with feeling nothing. Imagine a total loss of direction, a complete disconnect from anything sound, comforting, and forward-looking. Depression is not here one day, and then magically disappears the next. I also believe that no one is ever “cured” from depression.
If you’re fortunate, you may get a blessed reprieve, a gradual clawing back to a life of normalcy, for we know that depression is not an endless blanket of smothering darkness, but rather, more closely resembles a mysterious series of shape-shifting, and what I would describe as quiet, internal seismic victories.
Sitting within the depression, you are forced to draw on a will buried so deep inside that ironically, many of us never get to witness its birthing. And often what this looks like is nothing more than the quietest, yet bravest decision that lies just on the other side of consciousness—a subtle grace that allows you not to take your own life for just one more day.
For me, it was finding that place nestled within the architecture of my being where I unearthed the faith that allowed me to believe that the next moment of my life would arrive with less pain than I was in now. When you are on the outside of depression and are looking in, you will be baffled because depression does not play by the rules. It is a wily, and at times, vicious animal that has slipped its snare and has entrapped someone you love.
From a vantage point on the outside, it’s as though we are looking through the wrong end of a telescope. From the perspective of the individual ensnared in the depression, what is needed most is not the decree of the sane, but the empathetic presence of those who bear witness to that of which they have an absence of vocabulary, yet an abundance of caring.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that hope, and by that I mean a faith in our resilience, lies within authentic conversations about uncomfortable topics such as depression. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem entitled, “The Gates of Hope” by Victoria Safford because within her beautiful words, I find solace in knowing that resilience comes when we sit with the uncomfortable—when we begin to see ourselves in the struggles and joys of others.
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
I’m coming to the end of the 6-month research phase for a book I’m writing on resilience. Over the course of these many months, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over 100 individuals who have demonstrated sustained and remarkable resilience while weathering tragic loss, trauma, and adversity. And in each and every one of these interviews, we reach a point at which, for perhaps even the briefest of moments, I am able to convince the individual sitting across from me that in fact, (s)he is resilient. There is something about resilience that cloaks it from our awareness, an ethereal quality that lies forever beyond our purview—the moment we try to grasp it, or define it, is the moment it recedes further from our understanding.
I was recently listening to an interview with Bruce Springsteen on the program “Desert Island Discs”, on BBC Radio 4. While reminiscing about his own childhood, Bruce said: “I believe every artist had someone who told them that they weren’t worth dirt and someone who told them that they were the second coming of the baby Jesus, and they believed ‘em both.” I couldn’t help but think how those words echoed so much of what I had heard time and again during my resilience interviews.
If what I believe to be true, that resilience is something that lies within each of us, why is it the case that some people appear to be able to move forward in their life after adversity and trauma, while others become disillusioned, untethered, and overwhelmed? I think the answer lies, at least in part, in those words of Bruce Springsteen—a choice, whether conscious or not, to see ourselves not as destitute, but rather, as ‘the second coming of baby Jesus’. Because it is within this place of worthiness and love, that we enlist the fortitude needed after trauma and adversity, a blind faith that allows us to take those tentative steps towards the unknown. Resilience is not a matter of withstanding or surviving something; instead, it’s a decision to let go of what you always believed your life to be in order to reawaken to what life is moving you towards.
We often think of resilience as a manifestation of the human spirit’s ability to survive the unfathomable—those grand disasters and tragedies that populate news headlines and our social media feeds. It’s as though we don’t believe resilience could possible be at play in the midst of our own ‘mundane’ life. A clear example of this arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago, a message from a young mother named Natalie Doyle, a message that quite literally took my breath away with its vulnerability and honesty. The message began, “To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m even emailing you. I don’t even think this is a story for your book… I am no known athlete, actor, or doctor. I am just a mom…”
The letter details the struggles that Natalie and her husband have faced these past five years. She describes being pregnant 5 times, and shares that she has “3 beautiful babies, and 1 angel baby who I was able to hold and at least say goodbye.” She shares that 10 days after her second child was born, they discovered that he has Cystic Fibrosis… She talks about feeling as though a part of her “had died” and that “from there, our lives changed forever… I wanted to give up.” A subsequent pregnancy brought her ‘angel baby’, and now they have a third child who is almost 11 months old… She too has Cystic Fibrosis.
Towards the end of each interview, I always ask the following question because I believe this question elicits the most wholehearted responses—It’s a question that forces us to wrestle with our demons of inferiority and aloneness, and somehow in that process of responding to the question, each person manages to transcend that most painful of human conditions, and in so doing touches the divine within each of us.
So here is Natalie’s response to the question: What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
“For me, it’s making sure that my children are bathed… I’m reading stories to them at night… and trying to teach them strength. To try to teach my kids how to deal with the struggles that you and I have faced in life; and unfortunately, I’m having to teach them this at such a young age… where I don’t think you or I were ever exposed to this kind of struggle so early in life.
I know that I’m not perfect, but most of the time I feel as though I’m doing this. Sometimes I may fall apart, and they see my cry, but what I want to teach them is strength, and I want to teach them that nobody is perfect… and I want to teach them that life is going to throw us curveballs, so we will need to learn how to deal with them.”
And that brings me to the central question of my quest to find the essence, strands, and embers of resilience—Is there hope and redemption in mining our painful past, or is the cost of such a journey too great to embark upon? I believe that our greatest strengths are often found in the stories others see in us rather than in those threadbare delusional stories we tell ourselves, those we have carried around inside of us for far too long. Resilience resides in communion, not in isolation. I can think of no better way to express this than in the closing words of Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.