I don’t even know where to begin… other than to say that my heart feels so full right now. I just finished interviewing Alissa Parker, whose daughter, Emilie, was one of children who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting. Incredibly, only three months after the shooting, Alissa and her husband sat down to speak to Peter Lanza, the father of the shooter. My interview with Alissa focused on her path to forgiveness and how resilience has revealed itself in her life today. I can’t wait to share her openhearted insights with you, but in the meantime, here is an excerpt from our interview:
JP: Did something have to move out of the way inside of you in order for there to be room for forgiveness?
Alissa: “I believe that forgiveness needed to happen before I could find my daughter again. I feel like forgiveness was getting in my way… And not having a softened heart towards him [Adam Lanza, the shooter] was getting in my way and preventing me from getting the things I really desired. I should add that I wanted to do it in the order that I wanted, but that wasn’t possible. I so desperately needed to feel close to my daughter… to feel healing… to feel that my family was progressing in our grief… But I was not realizing that there was this huge obstacle in front of me—my anger and frustration towards him.
And so, forgiveness and seeing him differently wasn’t about him per se… it really was about letting go and not allowing it to have the power and control it had over my heart. I underwent an evolution of experiences that changed who I was, and what I saw. It’s only later on that I’m able to look back and say, I’m not that person anymore, and I don’t see it that way anymore. When I say the ‘forgiveness’ part, there is definitely an element of choice that comes along with it, and because of that choice, I did begin to feel differently towards him, and that allowed me to not hold on to those feelings of hatred and anger when I felt denied… when I felt I didn’t have my daughter there to experience it…”
Last summer, after months of consultations and negotiations, the Canadian government officially launched the long-awaited “National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” Finally, there is some hope that once and for all, together as community, we will be able to have a candid conversation about an issue that has been shockingly pushed to the periphery of our society for far too long.
Early this week, I saw an in-depth news report on the Inquiry on CBC’s “The National”. That was when I was introduced to Jaime Koebel, an Indigenous-rights activist and artist, and more importantly, someone who will be participating in the Inquiry. Even though I was listening to Jaime talk about being a survivor of sexual violence, I was filled with such hope because everything about her spoke of resilience, courage, and empathy. I knew immediately that I wanted to reach out to Jaime to ask if she would consider being involved in my Resilience Project. Earlier today, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jaime as she shared her thoughts on resilience.
Towards the end of our time together, I asked Jaime the following question: What are you doing when you feel most beautiful? … And here, is her response:
“I am a performance artist, and I have a dance troupe with my children. I feel beautiful when we all dance together as a group, and it doesn’t matter that we are in front of an audience… One time after we had done a song in which we’d been physically active, I remember feeling just so proud. We were are all in step and finally looking like a group… I started crying right after the performance, and I didn’t care who was around or anything like that.
I had this incredible feeling in that moment that this was all I needed. Any thoughts that I had about being a ‘bad mom’… or even if I’m ‘not doing it right’… well, they all just melted away… I was feeling like a good parent. It felt so much like an affirmation, and it was related to all the mental work I was doing to stay on track, and to the physical work sweating it all out. But most of all, I was surrounded by my children.
It very much fits with the ‘medicine wheel’ in our culture. In our language, we say Nehiyaw, and that means ‘four parts’. We believe that in order to be a full human being, you have to honour all four parts––the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and the emotional. That’s our purpose in life… It’s all we have to do… You don’t have to be a mom… You don’t have to be an artist, a doctor, or a lawyer… Those are just roles that we take. The only thing we have to do is to honour each of those four parts of us, and everything else will fall into place.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing David France for my book on resilience. David’s feature documentary, How To Survive A Plague, is a beautifully organic chronicle of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and more importantly, the community activism that ultimately became the foundation for not only cultural recognition but also effective treatment of the disease. There was so much I wanted to cover in my interview with David, but in particular, I was eager to hear David’s thoughts on what he witnessed in terms of resilience within the community of activists, and to a greater degree, the gay community. Here is an excerpt from our discussion:
JP: Watching your documentary, I kept returning to the images you portrayed of ‘hope’ as a means to counteract the immense sadness during those early years of what you refer to as the “plague”. My question to you is, what role do you think hope played in the AIDS community’s resilience, and more specifically, in what way do you see hope as being connected to one’s ability to process or place sadness?
David: “The interesting thing about hope back then was that it was manufactured. Some of the very earliest activists and thinkers during the epidemic felt that it was essential to create hope where there was none––to allow it… to find it… and to nurture and disseminate it. And this was done quite intentionally because the idea at the time was that without hope, we would all be dead, so hope alone would keep us alive a lot longer… And for the first 6 years of the epidemic, there wasn’t even a pill that anybody could take.
Therefore, the hope back then was really baseless, but it existed nonetheless… There was a hope that we wouldn’t get it, or that it wouldn’t get us… and if it did get us, we would somehow beat it. We acted on that hope in ways that were beneficial… We ate better. We slept better. We took care of ourselves. We found a communal love, and a love for the community. We talked about love in that nonromantic way as being an important part of the community.
And the very first thing that offered hope was the invention of safe sex––This is something that was actually invented by people with AIDS. It was invented based on the theory that you could still have physical expressions of sexual attraction even in this terrible time. And they based that on the principle of love… loving yourself and the person you are encountering, even if it is only for a few minutes. So the stress on love, and the marketing of that concept of love, was the foundation for the hope that people grabbed onto during those years.”
JP: I’d like to end the interview with a question that I have been returning to time again throughout my many interviews. I’m particularly drawn to this question because of its ability to subvert all those defense mechanism we engage in order to sustain our resilience… It’s a question that, in a way, unmasks people. So, the question we’ll end with is: “What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?”
David: “In my life, the moment I felt the most beautiful was the day… and I remember this day clearly… It was the day that we heard news that the new drugs were working. There was just something about that moment of triumph that was transformative. And to know that what we had been doing worked… and to know that it was over… I remember the beauty of the day… I remember the beauty of the people I was with. We were a packed room of about a thousand people… It was victory.”
[photo credit: Angela Weiss]
Out in British Columbia, things were going well for Alex Zsager—educated, working in a great job making some good money, but eventually the strains of life started to catch up with him. After a corporate re-organization, Alex lost his job with the Vancouver Canucks, and he eventually found his way back to Toronto and to the Scott Mission, where he started working as Director of Operations. And so, it was as an employee, that Alex had his first involvement with the homeless community in Toronto. And from his job at the Scott Mission, Alex went on to other positions in the private sector.
But as Alex told me in our interview for my book on resilience, once back in Toronto, his life began to go off the rails. Reflecting on that time he says: “Now I’m getting older, and by the time I get into my 50’s, I was downsized at the company I was working for… My severance pay runs out… then I find myself on Unemployment Insurance… I had to give up my apartment. And all of this is going on as the economy is starting to free-fall… So, at 52 I walked into my first homeless shelter—Dixon Hall, here in Toronto. I was sending out resumes, and I was getting interviews like crazy… Everybody wanted to talk to me, but the minute I walked in and they saw my age, I knew right away I wasn’t getting hired.”
Today, Alex is a national advocate for the homeless, and in addition to his work with various organizations, he sits on the board of numerous agencies and nonprofits working to address issues affecting the homeless and the precariously housed. During our interview, I mentioned that most of us have our own image of what a homeless person looks like and acts like—and let’s be honest, it’s most typically a biased misconception based on our own ignorance and fear. So, I asked Alex to educate me on whom he encounters in his work with the homeless community. What follows is Alex’s response:
“Anybody can become homeless, and I’m an example. Here, I had a really great job and good money; but all of a sudden, the company downsized and the economy took a nasty turn. The way the economy is going right now, it usually takes both parents working to keep a roof over their heads… and that’s just to get by, not to live comfortably. If it takes two parents to get by, what’s it taking the single person who is working part-time? There is no job security… There are very few options. So many people are living paycheque to paycheque that if all of a sudden they get sick, or have an accident, they can lose their job and become homeless.
Anybody can become homeless… So, as an advocate, what I have to instill in people is that this too can happen to you… And whose fault is that? Is it the homeless person’s fault… the society… the economy? How old or how young does a person have to be before someone will stop, and do something for that person? And most of the time if you just stop and talk to a homeless person on the street, you will realize very quickly they are just like you or me.”
It’s a difficult lesson each us has to learn. We often take for granted what we so readily depend on, until one day it is no longer there. And it is in this space of dissonance that we come to rely on our resilience to navigate the unfamiliar, what has now become our ‘new normal’. In the fall of 2002, Luke Anderson, a gifted athlete, sustained a spinal chord injury as the result of a serious mountain bike accident. Like so many people I’ve interviewed for my book on resilience, Luke was confronted with a choice—make a conscious decision to embrace the uncertainty and move forward in life, or remain ‘stuck’ mourning the life that once was. And move forward he did! Luke is the founder of StopGap, a group of artists, designers, and advocates who are trying to reshape how we interact with our urban environment by installing colorful accessibility ramps all across the country.
Last week, I met with Luke at his office in downtown Toronto to hear his thoughts on resilience, but more importantly, to learn more about how he is actively trying to change the discussion around disability, access, and inclusion. At one point of the interview, our discussion turned towards the importance of building a community and how it is an integral part of resilience. Here is what Luke had to say about the role of community in changing perceptions:
“After my accident, I started working at an engineering firm. It was a great job, but the building the office was in had three steps to get up to the lobby level, where the elevator was. This meant that every time I needed to get in and out of the building, I had to rely on someone to help me deploy this big, heavy folding aluminum ramp. And to be honest, there was a deep-found frustration that boiled over after dealing with this temporary accessibility ramp.
But I also found a sense of validation because of that temporary ramp. We are all connected by inaccessible spaces. When that ramp was put out every morning and evening for me to enter and leave the building, I was seeing delivery people who wanted the ramp left out… parents pushing strollers wanted it left out too. They all found value in having that ramp in place. So, fast-forward to today, at StopGap we try to bring all of these groups together in a way that engages them to spread the word to support what we are doing.
I believe this work around accessibility needs to be fun… It needs to have a different tone other than the stuffy, political approach. It’s got to be simple and fun, and there needs to be collective support from the community. People constantly come up to me and say: ‘It’s so simple. I love the colors.’ But ultimately, it’s dispelling the myth that barrier-free elements are institutional. It’s showing that barrier-free design can be sexy, fun, and integrated into the urban fabric of our everyday lives. Our goal is for these ramps to be everywhere, and for you not to notice them. Just think about it… up until the early 70’s there weren’t curb cuts at intersections, and now these cuts are so ubiquitous that they have become invisible to us.
And beyond the ramps, one day it would be nice not to have that ‘wheelchair access symbol’. It could be just a green dot on that push-button door opener—It’s for everybody. When you think about it, that ‘wheelchair button’ is exclusive. We are stuck with this old logo that’s sixty years old. And I think you’d agree that with this old logo, the chair is more recognizable than the person… It’s very static… there is no movement to it, and it has a tone of helplessness to it. Whereas with the new ‘active’ logo that we are trying to promote, your eye is drawn to the person, and to forward movement. But this new logo would also simply be a ‘stop gap’ measure until we get to where we ultimately want to go—replacing that wheelchair logo with a simple green dot… No more exclusivity to our spaces. It comes down to removing people’s blinders and allowing them to see others for what they can do rather than what they can’t do.”
[To learn more about StopGap please visit stopgap.ca]
It’s a story that made the headlines—a Canadian humanitarian aid worker is viciously attacked on a beach in Thailand… left for dead… his neck broken. After the attack, Chris Channon spent an entire night alone on the sand, unable to move, literally being eaten alive by mosquitoes and fire ants. As is most often the case, that’s where the media leaves the story, fixated on the sensationalism, and leaving the story before we all get to witness the wonderful arrival of resilience. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris for my book, and at one point of our conversation, the discussion turned to the role of community in resilience. Here’s a brief excerpt from our interview:
Chris: “I fought two years with everything I had to get my old life back. I realized that after this last six months, that I will never get my old life back. That old person is dead; however, now I have the new resolve to take the same energy that I put into getting my old life back and channel it towards building my new life. I think a quieter sense of calm has come over me. I know I can fight, but now that same focus is on making my life better. I’m still Chris… I still have my mind… my desires… my goals… And yes, I have the pain—that reminder every day of the injury; and that will never go away the rest of my life. But now I’m going to fight with everything I have to punch forward and to be a better person. I have thousands of memories of the joy of helping people, and now I want to take what has happened to me and use it as a purpose. Even if it’s just to say to one person, ‘I went through this shit, and it’s ugly… and I screamed and cried… But listen, we can do this… we can get through anything.’ The foundation of resilience is this support structure… Somebody is always there for us, even if it’s only in a small way.”
JP: There is a question I always ask towards the end of my interviews, and it’s a question that by its very nature compels us to think about how we interact with not only our own consciousness, but also the expectations of those around us. So, the question I’d like to ask you is—What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
Chris: “I’ve felt challenged in the past six or eight months because I haven’t felt very beautiful… but there are moments when it does appear. What makes me feel the most special, or beautiful, is when I can sit down and talk to somebody, and feel as if I am inspiring him or her in some way or form. I think that gives me this feeling of beauty at this point of life. And when I’m in these moments, I am not thinking about me. My total attention and focus is on the other person. I’m taking the challenges I’m dealing with, and I’m allowing them to be a springboard of encouragement or inspiration to that person. You can see it their eyes… And as you know, my story attracts a lot of attention—I’m that guy, that aid worker who got attacked on a beach in Thailand… neck broken and left for dead… 40 hours before he even gets to a hospital… The miracle is that I shouldn’t even be alive, let alone walking. But the beauty is when you come to understand that my “story” is not just a story; it is somebody engaging with somebody else… It’s that moment where someone says, ‘If Chris can do it, I can do it.’ So, when I genuinely feel as though I can be an inspiration to somebody, it makes me feel beautiful. Beauty means that I feel my issues are small, and I can be there for somebody else.”
In November 1984, 13-year-old Candace Derksen went missing on her way home from school in Winnipeg, Manitoba. For her parents Wilma and Cliff, it would be 22 years before they would see their daughter’s killer convicted and sentenced to 25 years without parole. But remarkably, out of such tragedy a beautiful gift was born in that for the past three decades, Wilma Derksen has shared her story, and in drawing on the guidance of her Mennonite faith, she has inspired many by speaking about her belief in forgiveness and the strength of letting go.
I recently sat down with Wilma to interview her for my book on resilience, and leading up to our interview, I reassured Wilma that the focus of the interview would not involve traversing the trauma she has lived with, but rather an intimate discussion about the decisions she’s made that have allowed her to navigate such a tremendous loss. Towards the end of the interview, I mentioned to Wilma that the topic of empathy has been a recurrent theme in the almost 300 hours of interviews that I’ve conducted for this book. Today, I would like to share a brief excerpt from our interview, and in particular, what Wilma had to say about how empathy has guided her story:
“I would say that our natural inclination is to disconnect because being in trauma, or grief, we become so sensitive that we are almost ill. And we can detect judgment in anybody, and in everybody. Rubbing shoulders against other people becomes almost painful because we are so oversensitive. Therefore, there is a real temptation to disconnect and to be angry with everybody… and to blame everybody.
Everything inherent in trauma pushes us to want to disconnect… We want to retreat and not to trust anybody again. And so it takes a lot of effort to stay connected. We are social beings with a social brain… We need each other. When we disconnect because of trauma, we are actually harming ourselves. Yes, people will hurt us, but they are also our healers, our angels, and even our worst enemy becomes our teacher. It isn’t that simple that we are all good or bad, so we need to find the good in other people because it’s there. It’s that search for goodness in other people that helps us with our trauma.
I think that love is absolutely something that I’ve tried to foster. My favorite phrase is, ‘Love first. Justice second.’ So often we want justice first and love second. But to me, it’s the opposite… Rather than you have to change, and then I’ll love you, it’s more I need to love you and value you, and even if you hurt me, I will address the hurt… but first, we are going to talk about how valuable you are to me, and then we will talk about how we need to get along in a better way. So, yes… empathy is huge, but it is not something that comes naturally.”
By far the most beautiful experience I’ve had during the interview process for my book on resilience was having the opportunity to sit down for a very intimate discussion with my father-in-law, Derek Newport. Here is a man who has loved me unconditionally for over 30 years… someone who personifies ‘gentleness’ and steadfast presence. For as long as I’ve known Derek, he has been a minister with the Church of England, but remarkably he came to the ministry rather late in life. Derek grew up a farmer’s son, and it wasn’t long before he was running a farm of his own. By the time Barbara and Derek’s three daughters had arrived, they were happily and successfully running a family farm in bucolic North Devon, England. But as is often the case, the universe had other plans for Derek, and he had no choice but to heed his calling to the ministry.
And here we are all these years later… Derek has been battling cancer for the past few years, and during that time, he has shown all of us the importance of meeting life on life’s terms, but more importantly, the beauty of grace. I sat down with Derek two days after Christmas to hear his thoughts on resilience, and towards the end of the conversation, Derek reflected on the arrival of their first great-grandson, Riley. Here is a brief excerpt from our interview:
Derek: “Riley is another generation… and it’s the meaning of life. I’m on the way out, but this is part of the natural rhythm of life. And life and death can’t be separated—You can’t interfere with it because it is going to happen regardless. I think that the world is created by God, and death is not the end of existence. It may be the end of existence as we know it, but I believe there is something beyond the body… beyond the physical. There is a spiritual reality, which is a total mystery to me. I can’t pretend to have any answers, but I am prepared. I think my experience of relating with God has taught me that all I need to do is to let go, rather than to cling on. I just have to let go, and that means I don’t have to fight it.
There is no denying that this illness is a life changing experience, and I believe we all come at it from different directions and with different approaches, but I’m prepared to let go of control… certainly over the last days, weeks, or months… and enjoy what I have and what’s left of me… and by golly life is wonderful gift.”
JP: And I hope you realize what a wonderful gift you’ve been in all of our lives…
Derek: “I don’t see myself as being all that extraordinary, really. It certainly hasn’t been easy for us, but I believe that it is in our struggles that we learn… it’s how we become ourselves. Life is a great adventure, but there has to be a meaning behind it all as well. It doesn’t just get chopped off at the end. I feel that my job, and Barbara’s as well, is done. We couldn’t wish for a better circumstance to be in with our family intact, and all the happiness and joy being shared. We couldn’t ask for more.
The main thing is that I feel at peace… with the world… with myself… I don’t have regrets. People say to me, ‘Don’t you ever regret selling the farm? … or ‘Why did you want to go into the ministry?’ But I’ve never ever looked back and thought we had made a big mistake or shouldn’t have done this… It’s been very, very challenging at times, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s helped me become the person I am; and whatever gifts I have to share with other people… and what I’ve achieved in terms of ministry can’t be counted, or registered… It’s been in terms of small relationships or acts of religious, Christian teaching and by example… I feel that with every parish I’ve come into, I was the right person to be there at that time… the person who was needed… because every parish up until that time had deep problems, and I was always able to leave that parish in better shape than before I came. And that’s been my vocation… to continue working as a figure in community who propounds principles of goodness, charity, and how to lead a good life according to a pattern that has been working for us for thousands of years?”
JP: I guess we’ve arrived at the point of the interview where I have to ask you—Derek, do you believe you are resilient?
Derek: “Yes, I do… I think it’s the only thing that’s been keeping me going.”
When tragedy or trauma touches our life, we are at our most vulnerable. But what happens when a first responder—someone who selflessly rushes towards perilous and hyper-stressful situations finds herself/himself needing to reach out for help? How do we respond as a society to those among us we see as our protectors, and does our culture in someway impede first responders stepping forward asking for that help? It’s these very questions that drove me to contact Jenny Ralph, a paramedic with more than two decades on the job. Just before Christmas, Jenny posted that she had recently been diagnosed with PTSD, but little did she know that her post would quickly go viral, as it was shared thousands of times. Her post begins with: "Well, here goes nothing, I have a workplace injury. Turns out that 22 years of working long hours of shift work and bearing the heavy weight of human suffering can hurt a person." I recently sat down to interview Jenny for my book on resilience; and today, I’d like to share a brief excerpt with you.
JP: You are off work on a medical leave after receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, you’re getting professional help, and you’re trying to regain a sense of normalcy in your life… so what motivated you to hop onto Facebook and make such a public declaration of the private battle you’d been waging?
Jenny: “During this entire process, the weight of my pen has been tremendous, and that’s been really hard for somebody like me who loves to write. The fact that I haven’t been motivated to write has been devastating to me because I usually write several times a day. When the idea of writing what I did on Facebook came to me, it started from a belief that I needed to stop judging myself… Because the reason I’m not telling anybody about this… the reason I’m not talking about it… the reason I’m not fully opening up to even my therapist is that I’m too busy judging myself for this.
When I think of that woman who started on the job over 20 years ago… well, I’m so not ‘that person’ anymore. I can’t keep this exterior up anymore… I can’t keep this level of emotion so high that I don’t feel anything anymore. So instead of judging myself, I honestly decided to put it out there for me to stop looking at myself this way. There was a certain level of acceptance in writing it… but in no way did I expect this viral response to my post… the CBC news interview… the newspapers… I could not have seen it coming.”
JP: We covered some pretty rough terrain during this interview, so I’d like to take you down a gentler and more introspect path. And that brings me to my final question—What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
Jenny: “Certainly when I’m singing… and it’s kind of crazy because all of the attention I’ve gotten from this Facebook post terrifies me, but I’m always willing to walk into a packed room and sing, and feed off that energy… It’s the most amazing force ever. And that truly is the moment I feel the most connected with myself, and with everyone else in the room. My music is transcendent for me. I have to go to the gym… and I have to work out… and I have to eat right… so that is to say when it comes to external beauty, I have to work my ass off! But in that moment when I’m on stage singing, everything about me is beautiful… everything that comes out of me, and everything that comes back to me is all encompassing. The opposite of that feeling is fear—When I’m on stage singing, fear is not there. I’m learning through a lot of self-discovery that fear is my most significant barrier, but in those moments when I’m singing, that fear is absent.”
I first met Alycha Reda three years ago in connection with some work I was doing for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Alycha has spoken both across the country and abroad as an advocate against online bullying and cybercrime in the hopes that no other children will have to endure what she went through as a teen in Kingston, Ontario. Alycha spoke before the Justice and Human Rights Committee in Ottawa, and when asked how they should introduce her, Alycha responded: “As a survivor… I’m still here, and I’m still standing, so don’t fucking re-victimize me by referring to me as a victim of sexual violence. And that’s why today, I’m an advocate for survivors of sexual violence because someone was there for me, so now I’m there for someone else… That’s how advocacy works.”
When I interviewed Alycha for my book on resilience, we spent a great deal of our time together talking about how moving forward after trauma often involves sharing your strength with others who may not be as far along the healing path as you are. I’d like to share an excerpt from my interview with Alycha, and I admit that upon first reading, it may strike many of you as ‘dark’, but the longer I sat with her response, the more I believe that her answer is probably the rawest, most beautiful manifestation of human resilience… a decision to stay on this planet for just one more second… one more hour… one more day. The question I asked Alycha was, ‘Having gone through substantial trauma, battles with addiction, and precarious mental health issues, what do you see as being your crux moment—that defining decision that has allowed you to move forward? And, here is her response:
“Actually, it’s something that I deal with often. It’s very dark… but it’s when I get to the point where I say, ‘Is this it? Am I done dealing with life?’ I’ve attempted suicide many times… back in 2015 was the last… If it weren’t for my partner, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. So that would probably be my crux moment—those times I get so low, but still try to pull myself out it… a decision not to move forward with what my mind is telling me to do… what my plan is telling me to do… And half the time, I’m sitting there, and I’m scared shitless, and I’m tired and don’t want to keep going anymore… My crux moment is deciding not to go down that darker path. Going down that darker path is way easier… Same thing when it comes to dealing with my addiction… picking up a drink or a drug is the ‘easy’ choice… And people may say that suicide is the ‘easy way out’, but I think that’s not true… it’s just the path that takes less energy. It’s not an ‘easy’ set of actions, but a less ‘exhausting’ path to be on.”
By far one of the most memorable experiences from my interviews for my book on resilience took place early last fall, and it can only be described as a truly iconic “Toronto moment”… It was a beauty sunny mid-autumn day, and I was sitting in the lobby of Toronto's City Hall, conducting an interview with Trudy Kerr, a young lady born in the UK, now living in Malta. Halfway through the interview, a man and woman approach us tentatively, and asked if we would mind being their witnesses for their wedding scheduled to take place upstairs in City Hall in ten minutes time! Apparently, the people they had asked canceled on them at the last moment….
So that's what we did… Trudy and I rode the elevator upstairs to the chapel, and witnessed one of the most beautiful weddings I've ever been to. The celebrant conducted the service in English, and then asked if the bride and groom wanted to share a few words for each other in their native Farsi. The couple had met 10 years ago, and the bride had been living and working here in Toronto while she waited for her future husband to emigrate from Iran. Their love had endured such distance, and that in and of itself is a testament to their resilience. At the very end of the service, the new bride told us that we are now part of their family, and that they would have us in their prayers every day for the rest of their lives… How's that for some amazing karma!
So, without further ado… Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Trudy. Nearly seven years ago, Trudy suffered a serious horse riding accident, which left her with 2 brain hemorrhages and a ruptured spleen. While lucky to be alive, Trudy soon learned that the accident had left her with a brain injury. After numerous CAT scans, MRIs, and tests, she was diagnosed as suffering from Simple Partial Seizures—epilepsy. But that’s not where this story ends… Trudy discovered that physical exercise, and specifically running, had a dramatic effect on reducing the number of seizures she experienced. Trudy has gone on to run numerous marathons, and uses her profile has a public figure to help eliminate the stigma associated with epilepsy. During our interview, I asked Trudy what she believes to be a mindset of resilience, and here is her response:
“My regular prayer is not to eliminate the storms, but rather, to find strength within the storms. So, to my mind, resilience is not wishing the storm away, but staying with your strength… your tenacity… and your energy despite the storms. And ultimately, you’re using the adversity to strengthen who you are. In my case, I’m a completely different person since the accident… And in some regards, I’m grateful for the accident because it gave me this experience. I’ve met people and done things that I could never have imagined I would do. And this is despite all of the stigma, and in my case, being so publicly ‘outed’ about my condition. In our national newspaper, there it was, “Women Who Runs Marathons with Epilepsy”… and just like that… Boom… the whole nation knows me as a TV presenter and a radio personality… and now they know that I have epilepsy. That projected my story without me really having a say in that… so instead of hiding, I choose to speak out against the stigma of mental illness.”
I have to admit that one of the guilty pleasures of my deciding to write a book on resilience was the opportunity to interview people I’ve always admired; and more specifically, it’s a chance to have wholehearted and vulnerable conversations that challenge these individuals to think about themselves in a way that many of them have never done so before.
I was first introduced to Kate Van Buskirk when I heard her give a keynote at an athletic awards banquet. Kate is an elite track and cross-country runner, and she won bronze for Canada at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in the 1500 meters. One of the knocks against many elite athletes is that in order to function at such a high level, they often come across as unapproachable due to their hyper-focused pursuit of excellence. When you meet Kate, you quickly realize that you’re in the presence of someone who has faced her demons—someone who has risen not in spite of them, but because of them. Kate has spoken candidly about her battles with depression, anxiety, and suicide, and more recently about a prolonged injury that caused her to withdraw from last season’s racing circuit.
I interviewed Kate late last summer, and during our conversation we focused a lot on her resilience in terms of the mental health issues she has faced. I was touching base with Kate earlier today to congratulate her on running a world-leading time in the mile at the New Balance Games this past Saturday in New York City, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to ask her how she prepares for the lows even while she is in the midst of her current success… Here is Kate’s response:
"You're right that it is easy to feel really good when things are going well, and I think we can lose sight of how to make sure things still feel manageable when things don't go well… whether they're in our control or not. I've been working really hard in my life in general to keep my emotional range relatively small so that my emotional highs aren't too high, and my lows aren't too low. And that comes down to checking in with myself about my emotional response to various situations.
And so coming off a weekend like I just had, I'm feeling pretty great about things, and I think there is room in that emotional spectrum for celebration and recognition when things are going really well, and for an appreciation of those things… But at the same time, I think you really have to take stock of where you're at with whatever the positives are in your life, and remember that there will be times when things aren't going as well.
It’s helps to recognize that both the highs and the lows are just part of a bigger story, and that if you can just keep things in that middle ground more often than not, I think it just helps to prevent those lows from feeling unmanageable. Also, it’s important to think about what it would be like if things weren't this way… when things aren’t going well… when things are going in a less positive direction.
Therefore, it comes down to doing some planning ahead, and equipping yourself as much as possible along the way with tools that will make you feel that you have some level of control so that you can handle the hard times when they come. That's what I've been trying to do… to prepare myself for the inevitable lows when they do come..."
A few weeks ago I received an email from a friend who has been following my posts regarding my book on resilience. The message contained a video link to a clip from a news program earlier that day, and the message simply said, “JP, you need to interview this person for your book!” And with that, I reached out to Marnie Grundman and arranged to sit down with her for an interview.
My two hours with Marnie flew by—it was such an engaging and authentic conversation that caused me not only to reflect on all of the other interviews but also to reaffirm the strength of vulnerability in my own story. Going into these interviews, one of my primary intentions was not to re-traumatize or sensationalize people’s trauma, adversity, and loss. But having said that, some of the individuals I’m interviewing, and I would say this is particularly true of survivors of sexual violence, feel that they need to share a greater scope of their life in order to set a context for how far they’ve come. Here is an excerpt from my interview with Marnie:
JP: You ran away from home at such a young age, and you continued to stay away from home… When we talk about ‘running away’, we generally think of escaping or avoiding our problems. Do you think your running away had more to do with escaping, or was it a measure of your resilience?
Marnie: “I ran away from home at 13, and by the time I ran away, I had experienced being left starving in my crib … I had experienced being dropped out of a two-story window by my mother so that she could sue the landlord for there not being screens on the windows… I had experienced molestation at the hands of my grandfather… and at the age of 12 I was raped… it was just a life-long series of trauma…
Resilience is right down to the core in regards to what you decide in any given situation, how you decide you’re going to get through the situation, and where you decide to put it after you are on the other side of the experience. The opposite of resilience is just giving up and crumbling. Wait… let me restate that… because I’ve crumbled, and it’s actually been good for me. Resilience is being brave enough to go through and feel the pain…”
JP: What are doing when you feel most beautiful?
Marnie: “I feel beautiful when I’m writing something really smart… I think it’s because it’s the closest I get to sharing what I wish people would see about me… It’s how I want to be received, and how I want to be treated. When people see me, they’re just seeing the ‘pretty’… and I know that may sound bad, but there is something that comes along with that image as a woman, and especially as a woman who has survived sexual abuse. As you can imagine, thinking about my body is not my favorite thing in the whole world. There is nothing that I dislike more than when somebody sexualizes me, objectifies me, or doesn’t treat me like I’m smart.
So when I do something connected to my writing that makes me feel smart, that’s when I feel valuable… that’s when I feel good… and that’s when I feel beautiful. And when I feel this way, sadness is missing… emptiness is missing at that moment. So I guess when I feel beautiful in this way, I feel worthy, and the emptiness quiets for a time. And I should add that I’m beautiful because I’m sitting here right now… I’m not sitting in squalor, and I’m not a statistic… my life could have just as easily turned out that way, but I chose for it not to.”
When you meet Jase, it forces you to question everything you think you know about addiction, precarious mental health, and homelessness. Hearing him talk about his relatively young life is like witnessing a litany of trauma, a tragic recitation of a kaleidoscope of labels and acronyms—bi-polar, ADHD, OCD, PTSD and a substance abuse disorder. However, being with Jase compels you to see beyond those labels, to see a fiercely intelligent and passionate young man who has traveled a path from childhood trauma, mental health issues, addiction, and homelessness to where he is today—a thriving university student who now volunteers helping the marginalized community he knows all too well. Here is a brief excerpt from my interview with Jase for my book on resilience:
JP: You recently gave a speech at a symposium on homelessness here in Toronto in which you said, “My experiences may define me, but it is not my identity. Living on the street is the least interesting thing about me.” So what exactly do think is the most interesting about you—What are you putting forth into the world?
Jase: “Well, that’s the thing… nobody ever asks me that. For me, life is not a word, but an action. It’s what I’m doing right now… everything I’m actively involved in is what I’d love to be known for, and asked about. I’d like people to ask me about the things that I participate in because those are conscious choices. I never chose to be involved in homelessness… I never chose to be involved in addiction and mental health… those were things that were forced upon me by life… I love philosophy, and I love to talk, but people don’t seem to be interested in that… They want to hear about my backstory. So that’s why I have to use my backstory as a way to engage people in my present and what I’m doing now. And to be honest, at times it feels as though everyone is in reverse motion.”
JP: Tell me a little bit about how you saw your resilience during the time you were homeless.
Jase: “There is something that I do, and I’m not even sure why I do it… but I search for connection with people. And because of that, when I was on street, I made a lot of friends. You might think that on the street is not the place where you are going to make those types of friendships… Vancouver was definitely hairy, but when I moved to Nanaimo, it was not as intense. I developed a homeless brigade of people—and what was important to me was that I was looking out for them, but ironically I think it was something that I learned from them… They travelled in packs… They would buy one bottle, and we would all share it… I guess it was the home and the family that I didn’t have. We would sleep on benches together, but we would look out for one another… if somebody came wondering in, one of us would be on guard. It was almost like an animal pact mentality—except we weren’t rabid!”
As you can imagine, after more than 200 hours spent interviewing people for my book on resilience, I’ve witnessed inspiring individuals as they’ve opened their lives up to how they are moving through trauma, adversity, and loss. One of the most reverberating themes has been the incapacitating presence of ‘shame’, but more importantly, how walking into the fear behind that shame is ultimately the path towards resilience. The thing about shame is that when it is held up for public consumption, it metastasizes.
Today, I have the privilege of introducing you to the amazing Kai Hibbard. For those of you who may not have heard of Kai, I’m sure you are more than familiar with the reality show she appeared on—“The Biggest Loser”. When it comes to shame, I can think of no better example than this reality television program that built its ratings on perpetuating shame related to body image. Kai decided to go public to expose what really went on behind the cameras, and because of her outspoken condemnation of the program, she has become a hero to many, and a thorn-in-side to the program’s production company. I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Kai to hear her take on resilience. The following is an excerpt from of our interview:
JP: Time and again in these interviews I’m seeing that people with sustained resilience are not what I would refer to as ‘reactors’, but instead they have a tendency to continually think three or four steps ahead. Is this something you can relate to?
Kai: “There’s a running joke in our family… You know how people tend to make ‘plan A’ and ‘plan B’… well, I make plans ‘A’ through ‘Q’, and I’ve always been that way, and not in an anxiety ridden way. For me, it’s a positive way to move through life. When something doesn’t pan out, I can do something else that’s equally positive… and oh my God, I love lists! I think this allows me to not get so disappointed when things don’t work out. Ultimately it allows me to live in what my life looks like rather than in what I thought my life should look like.
To give you an example, I’ve been married for 10 years, and for going on three years now, I have had a husband and a boyfriend. We just did a family photo shoot with all four of us together, and it works perfectly—all three adults are so happy, and my child is flourishing. I had the hardest time at first, and others around me still have a hard time because it doesn’t look the way people think that a traditional relationship should look, or the way a happy family should look… And it’s not the fairytale happily ever after marriage that I once imagined… Instead, I’ve got two really amazing men in my life who bring different things to our relationship… I am so much happier when I live in what actually is rather than what I think should be.”
JP: What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
Kai: “Dancing… I think that I, and others are most beautiful when we do something we love that lights us up. When I’m dancing, I’m most connected with my physical being, but at the same time, I forget everything and I stay present in that moment. Being in the present is a difficult thing for me, and so when I am present, I am at my happiest. I know that addiction and eating disorders are very different in many respects, but they are both rooted in a sense of control. So, I think for me with an eating disorder, and the restricting when I used to get anxious… a lot of it was rooted in an inability to feel where I was at in the moment. And that includes feeling either pain, or feeling pleasure… Therefore, I think I’m most beautiful when I’m allowing myself to feel the emotions in that moment.”
Marcy White's son, Jacob was born with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD), a rare and incurable neurodegenerative disease. Shortly after Jacob’s birth, his parents were given a rather grim prognosis of what life would be like for their son… He would never speak, sit or eat independently, and the intellectual hurdles he faced would be nothing less than daunting.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Marcy for my book on resilience. Marcy is a self-described ‘agitator and shit-disturber’… What others see as an impenetrable wall in front of them, Marcy sees as just one more obstacle that come hell or high water, she will find a way to break through. Marcy advocates for children who have any kind of special need, and for parents living with the reality of a medically fragile child. Marcy is also the author of “The Boy Who Can”, an inspiring chronicle of one mother’s refusal to accept the limitations placed on her son. Marcy believes that “with some creative adaptations and open minds”, Jacob can do anything. During our conversation, Marcy and I explored the interplay of fear, vulnerability, and inner conviction, and ultimately how all of these come together as a manifestation of resilience. Here is an excerpt from our interview:
Marcy: “When Jacob was born, he spent 3 months in the hospital, and I can say that nothing in my life before that had prepared me for what we were now facing. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this… I can’t do this.’ And it’s not like a light goes on, and you suddenly figure it all out… But when you look back over time, you see that you adapt… you get used to things that never in a millions years would you have believed you had the strength to get used to. And the incredibly thing is that there are so many little decisions that bring you to that point.”
JP: We often think of beauty as being an external quality—something we consciously craft or create, but today, I like you to think of beauty in a completely different way… as something that lights you up inside. So, the question I’d like to ask you is… What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
Marcy: “Probably when I’m making my son laugh… There is no tenseness… no shallow breathing… I guess what it looks like is a feeling of lightness within me, and it’s as though even the air around me feels lighter… my brow is loosening… every muscle in my face relaxes. I feel incredibly connected to Jake in these moments because nothing else matters… not the fight… not the struggles… not his health… none of that matters… We are simply in that moment together, and we are both just good. And it’s not really a feeling of absence because I think that everything that brought us to that point is there… it’s just that none of that matters at that moment.”
Yesterday I had what can only be described as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I had the opportunity to meet with Ben Johnson to interview him for my book on resilience. If you’re of a certain age, I’m sure you can remember the tidal flow of emotions as we witnessed Ben Johnson’s spectacular rise and catastrophic fall from glory at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. And if you’re Canadian, you only need to close your eyes to be teleported back to those 9.79 seconds on the world’s biggest stage… the moment when we celebrated everything that is great about our nation—embracing a young man who, as a teen, had immigrated to Canada from Jamaica, someone who now represented our collective heart and soul. But then came the shattering news a few days later… Ben Johnson was being accused of doping… cheating on the world’s biggest stage. And here we are, almost three decades later. If anyone knows a thing or two about resilience, Ben Johnson most certainly does. I thought I would share a little excerpt from my interview with Ben:
JP: Despite all the fallout and public backlash that occurred after your positive drug test at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, people have continued to believe in you, and they still hold a special place for you in their heart. How much of this reaction—and let’s call it compassion and forgiveness—do you think is a direct result of how you have handled yourself throughout the scandal and aftermath?
Ben: “A lot of people in the business of sport, and in our sport in general, have judged me. People pointed fingers, and said things like, ‘He’s no good for the sport.’ But this is a game I can’t win. And as a result, I have just tried to be happy in my life, and do the things that make me happy—I travel a lot, I spend time with my daughter and my grand-daughter, and I’ve learned that’s enough.”
JP: It’s as though people see a genuineness in you, and that’s rather ironic considering your actions around doping. But despite all of that, there is frailty or brokenness in you that many of us identify with. And I think much of this has to do with the passage of time, which has allowed us to have a perspective into understanding the immense pressure you were under at such a young age. There is no doubt that at times, we take a salacious delight in watching our heroes stumble, but I would also suggest that we take even greater pleasure in watching their ascension again… so maybe that’s why so many people continue to support you and wish for your success and happiness. For lack of a better example, when I compare your story to that of Lance Armstrong, I see a sense of contrition in you that we’ve yet to see in Lance.
Ben: “When you compare me and Lance, there is one important thing to consider. He is definitely a nice person in a lot of ways, but I see a big difference between us when I look at the way Lance treats people. You can’t treat people in that way especially when you know what you’re doing is wrong… you’re powerful… you’re making a lot of money, and if people don’t agree with you, they’re gone.
Here’s the thing, 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 we 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.”
The Ironman is considered one of the most grueling challenges humans willingly put themselves through–a test of not only physical endurance but also mental capacity. It’s a sport that involves walking that razor thin line between athletic success and utter annihilation. Last week I sat down for an interview with Ontario’s own Lionel Sanders in order to hear his insights on resilience. Lionel has battled through addiction to become a leader in his sport, and along the way, he has become an inspiration to people around the world showing us that the limits we face in life are often the construct of our minds, and are therefore meant to be challenged and overcome. I thought I would share a brief excerpt from our interview:
JP: As a recovering addict myself, I’m used to therapists, psychiatrists, and treatment counselors talking about how when an addict gets clean and sober, he or she struggles with how to fill that ‘void’ inside, especially now that you’re not filling it, and numbing it with drugs and alcohol. It’s a concept I’ve always struggled with, so I like to hear what your thoughts are on whether or not your competing at an elite athletic level is in some way filling a void inside you.
Lionel: “I don’t know if I really see it as that, or accept that there is a ‘void’ in me, even though it’s something that you hear a lot about in terms of addicts recovering from addiction. If you take triathlon away from me, I’ll find something else to give myself to… Because I believe that no matter what, you have to come to a place where you find yourself, and you find your meaning here amongst the chaos.”
JP: I’d like to end our interview with the same question I’ve ended every interview with because I believe it to be a somewhat disarming question in that it forces us to honestly think about what lights up our soul. So, the question to you is: What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
Lionel: “I think the beautiful thing that can happen to a person is when he or she loses all conception of self. For me, that’s when there is no thinking anymore… and you’re not even conscious of the fact that you’ve reached this state, so you can only identify it upon reflection. So what I love most, and what drives me to continue, is that moment when there is nothing other than when I am present… I am simply being, and I am one with everything… I’m not independent of anything… I’m in that moment, and I often experience it in racing and in training sometimes… and when you come to the other side, you’re in awe of how you went from one point to another, and that there was no in between… there was no passage of time anymore… there was no negative… no positive… it was simply presence. So, I guess that moment is what I’m now addicted to. I really appreciate this question because it forces me to describe a state that is beyond words, and to some degree, beyond conception. I think the conversations you’re having with people about resilience are like ‘fingers pointed at the moon’… You have to look beyond the fingers in order to see the moon.”
These are the facts, and they are hauntingly, undeniable. One minute a carefree young man is sitting around smiling and drinking with his high school friends, then later that night, he is in a trauma ward clinging to life—his car wrapped around a pole while the alcohol is still coursing through his system. His paralyzed body is being kept alive by machines… the same machines the medical team would later encourage this young man’s father to have turned off.
Beating all the odds, this young man, now a quadriplegic, would eventually leave the hospital, but the events of that fateful night would continue to reverberate through the community. Dean Wardak has drawn on his own resilience to move forward in his life, and he now shares his story with young adults reminding them of the devastating consequences of impaired driving.
As I’m coming to the end of the 100 interviews for the research phase for my book on resilience, I can most definitely see distinct corollaries among the individuals I have spoken to. Something that is being echoed in these voices of resilience is the belief that one fateful decision can change our life forever—sometimes tragically, sometimes wonderfully, and often what distinguishes us as resilient comes down to what we make of the outcome of that fateful decision. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Dean in which he addresses just that issue:
“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.”
As a recovering addict, my continued sobriety has been an incessant quest for meaning—a passion fueled exploration into the darkest parts of my life, more akin to the frenetic search of a team of forensic investigators in the wake of a horrific plane crash than to a painstaking, methodical archeological dig. Talk to anyone who has trolled the soulless bowels of addiction, and you are bound to hear a story of untethered grief, repressed trauma, and the aching nothingness that comes from an utter sense of disconnection. Is it any wonder that drug and alcohol addiction is often described as a malady of the mind, body, and spirit.
A few years ago, I was introduced to the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, and it was through Gabor’s insights that I came to better understand my own struggles with addiction. Drawing on his first-hand experience working with the at risk population in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, those marginalized by hard-core addiction, mental illness, and HIV, Gabor offered a more compassioned based approach to treating addicts. His TedTalk and his book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts are groundbreaking in that they challenge not only the medical and research community but also individuals both in and out of recovery to see addiction through a different lens—one that espouses the belief that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but rather, the opposite of addiction is connection.
I was so honoured that Dr. Maté agreed to be interviewed for my book on resilience, and I am eager to share some of his insights with you in greater detail, but for now, I’d like to share Gabor’s response to the final question of our interview because his answer resonated profoundly with me. I asked Gabor, ‘What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?’ and here is his response:
“I rarely think of myself in those terms… I see beauty in others, but I don’t observe myself from that angle. People might see beauty in me, but I don’t observe myself from that perspective, so this is indeed a challenging question.
But if I understand beauty, my sense of it is that the physical beauty we recognize in other people is an example of a much deeper beauty. When we talk about beauty, I believe we are talking about something, or somebody perfectly themselves. Beauty has to do with being true to oneself. You can have people who don’t meet any classical standards of physical beauty, yet they really manifest beauty when they come from their true self. It reminds me of what the poet John Keats said:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
When I’m being most authentic is when I recognize beauty in myself. It shows up for sure in my work with other people… when I can connect with a part of myself that’s absolutely authentic—and it’s not even that I contact it, but rather, it just shows up. There is something about working with others and helping others see the truth about themselves that evokes the truth about me.
Sometimes I’ll say to myself, ‘Oh, that was a beautiful piece of work’… the way I connected with somebody, or the way I helped them connect with themselves… the way I helped them transform their view of themselves from loathing to one of compassion, and even of love.”
It’s 1991… a few weeks before Christmas… and you get the news from your family doctor that you, your wife, and two of children have all been diagnosed as HIV+… Where life takes you next will be greatly determined by the resilience you find within yourself.
Earlier last week, I had the privilege of interviewing, Rob Newman for my book on resilience. I should probably preface this by saying that Rob does not see himself as ‘resilient’, but rather as someone who has continued to move forward in life because he felt as though he had no other choice. This has been a refrain throughout many of the interviews I’ve conducted for this book—something I would refer to as the ethereal quality of resilience that lies within us all, yet so many of us deny ourselves the possibility of taking those first tentative steps towards that unknown strength waiting to be unearthed.
During my interview with Rob, I asked the following question: Talk to me a little about the issues around public disclosure and stigma that you faced when you initially came forward with the news of your diagnosis. Here was his response:
“We went public nationally, and very quickly. But before we went public, we had a fear of people spray painting ‘faggot’ on our garage door, or shunning our children… because we had heard of the horror stories that were happening to Ryan White [an American teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who became a national poster child for HIV/AIDS in the United States after failing to be re-admitted to school following an AIDS diagnosis].
There was also a family in the States called the Ray family, and they had three young boys who were hemophiliacs and HIV+… and their home was burnt down. So, that’s all to say that we were very aware of what stood before us. I don’t know if I would say that we were doing this because our children couldn’t, but rather, we were doing this because we never believed we had the choice NOT to do it… I guess you could describe it as a blind resilience that existed in the moment when we needed to move forward for one another, and as a family.
I would say that blind faith is most definitely a quality of resilience—It’s an ability to move forward without knowing what the outcome is going to be because moving forward is really the only option. You can’t give up on yourself regardless of the decisions you’ve made, or will make. It comes down to believing that moving forward is more important than knowing what lies ahead.
It’s important to realize that moving forward can look very different to different people and through different eyes. When my grandmother died, my grandfather gave the kids to an aunt and uncle because back then, men didn’t do that… men didn’t raise their children when their wife died… so that would have possibly been seen by my grandfather as a step forward because in his eyes, he had done something for his children. And I would add that moving forward doesn’t always result in the right answer, and maybe today, my grandfather giving up his children doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, but for him in 1929, it felt like the right thing to do in order to move forward.
And when it comes to my own life, even though others around me say that I’m resilient, I’ve always believed that I’ve never really had a choice other than to move forward… The alternative is to curl up and die… not to take care of my health… the health of our children… And sadly, that often happens when people are unable to cope with a diagnosis. And maybe my resilience in some way has a lot to do with the fact that I wasn’t the only one on the boat. It wasn’t just about me… and it never has been.”
[a note about the photo: This is the photo that circulated in the national papers at the time Rob and his family came forward with their story.]
Later this week, I will be interviewing Dr. Gabor Maté—one of North America’s preeminent researchers working in the field of addiction and recovery. When it comes to resilience, I believe that addicts, both in active addiction and in recovery, demonstrate an immense degree of resilience and determination. But what can be said of those special individuals who support either a family member or a loved one through a prolonged battle with addiction—how does resilience manifest in their life? I would like to introduce you to Kathy Cunningham, someone who as graciously welcomed me into her life over the past years, and someone who knows all too well what it is like to be resilient in the midst of supporting someone you love through addiction.
“When my husband’s alcohol addiction was at its peak, I was a young wife and mother. I was very naïve and so caught up in the ‘stigma’ of addiction that I internalized much of my pain and distress; and as a result, kept my husband’s alcoholism a secret. I did not think I could be a good mother and support an alcoholic husband at the same time. Thankfully, we had a young, empathic family doctor, and in desperation, I encouraged my husband to speak to him. He referred my husband to ADAPT (Halton’s Alcohol, Drug & Gambling Assessment, Prevention and Treatment Services), where he began individual counseling sessions with a wonderful counselor. I also attended couples counseling at ADAPT, and together, we muddled through. I do not for a minute take any credit for his sobriety, even though he has told me and others he could not have done it without my support. It was he who did, and continues to do ALL the hard work to be able to say he has been sober for 30 years.”
And as we know, addiction travels through time and through families, so once again, Kathy found herself bearing witness to the chaotic storm as another member of her family faced addiction.
“I knew my daughter liked to party hard on weekends, and I prayed that this was just a teen/young adult ‘right of passage’ and nothing more. It was when she was away at university that a family friend came to tell us our daughter was using cocaine that we fully realized there was an addiction problem. This time I knew that if we did not seek help for ourselves, the results would be disastrous…
This was a very low time for all of us, but I had faith. Waiting, watching, and worrying about a beloved child who is an addict is excruciating… and then trying to balance the needs of your other children makes it even worse. As a family, we made a conscious decision not to interfere while she was finding her way, and she has since told me that she was grateful for our trust in that regard. We were always there for her with our love and support – not always easy either!
We are so proud of Kylie's success over the last six years, and our entire family has never missed her annual medallion presentation at her Narcotics Anonymous group. It is so humbling to attend an open meeting at NA and to bear witness to the pain, suffering, and joy in that room. I have a strong faith and I believe that God is the light that shines in our darkness. They say the hour before dawn is the darkest hour, and I can certainly attest to that. It was during that darkest hour on many, many days that I prayed for strength and I cursed God at the same time. A pastor friend of mine told me God can take the cursing – he just wants to hear from us!
[photo of Kathy and her daughter, Kylie]
A few weeks ago, I received the following email: “Hi Jean-Paul… I saw your post of Facebook (shared by a friend) and for some reason, I felt I should contact you… I’m not sure my story is what you are looking for… I am a legally-blind and hearing impaired person. I have struggled with the progressive loss of my eyesight since my teenage years. Six years ago, I had to leave my career, as my eyesight finally became so bad I could no longer perform fully at my job. My journey since “losing my self worth” has been interesting…
Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Pamela Thistle—someone who has been riding the tumultuous waves of resilience for quite some time now. Pamela has Usher Syndrome, which is characterized by severe hearing loss and an eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, a degeneration of the retina causing night-blindness and a loss of peripheral vision.
During our interview, we touched upon the resilience required to live with physical challenges, and at a much more personal level, what it’s like facing the stigma that comes with being labeled as ‘disabled’. I thought I would share an excerpt from the latter part of our interview:
JP: “What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?”
PAMELA: “I love the outdoors… so, I would say I feel beautiful when I’m alone in nature.”
JP: “How does this presence in nature light you up inside… or maybe a better way of asking this question would be… What is not happening inside of you when you’re alone in nature?”
PAMELA: “Well… there’s an overwhelming feeling of peace and calm… and I’m smiling from the inside. And because I’m by myself, I can do what I want… I don’t have to please anybody.”
JP: “The obvious direction for me to steer this discussion would be to ask, who do you feel you typically have to please, and by that I mean, what expectations do you feel are being placed on you?”
PAMELA: “When people see me, they don’t know that I have a disability because I have what you would refer to as an ‘invisible disability.’ So, they just see a quote, ‘normal’ person walking by. But when they realize who I am, I feel as though they are watching me… and waiting to see if I’m going to walk into that wall… trip over something… or they are saying, ‘I don’t think she can hear what we said.’ I’m not sure why, but I feel like I need to make up for that perception somehow. But when I’m alone in nature, it’s just me out there… there’s nobody watching… there are no expectations, and within that quiet, I feel beautiful.”
As I’m sure you can imagine, the interview process for my book on resilience has at times, left me feeling inspired and emotional, but never deflated—and I think that speaks to the empathy that these open, wholehearted conversations generate within us. Earlier in the project, I introduced you to three different parents who had lost a child to suicide, and each shared his/her insights on what resilience ‘looks like’ and ‘feels like’ in the midst of such great loss.
Yesterday, I spent the morning with an incredible young woman named, Amber Sitara McAuley… Her energy and joy for life is electric, something that can only be described as beautifully robust. But as I quickly learned over the course of our time together—appearances don’t always reveal the whole story. I’d like to share an excerpt from our interview:
JP: “Earlier in our discussion, you mentioned that you believe ‘connection’ to be an important quality, or facet, of resilience. I bring this up because when we think of suicide, we often associate it as having to do with a loss of connection. You mention that you tried to take your own life at 25, and if we look at what was going on around you at that time in your life, what we see is a single parent to a young child… a trained yoga instructor… in fact, the owner of a very successful yoga studio. From all outward appearances, you were well grounded and connected to your community. So, I guess what I’m trying to get at is how did ‘connection’, or a lack there of, come into play at that time of your life?”
AMBER: “It’s funny that you brought this up today because I recently started an awareness campaign that features two photos of me entitled, ‘What’s below your surface: Before Mental Health and After Mental Health’. If you look at the two pictures, you’ll see I look exactly the same in both photos—young, vibrant, and smiling, even ‘before’ mental health… But just after that first photo was taken, I made a serious attempt to take my life, and by all accounts, I should be dead. You’ll also see from the photos that ‘after’ mental health, I look the same, but here’s the interesting thing… At that time, I lost my job… I lost my spouse of eight years… I lost my home… I lost my Nan… And everyone around me was like, ‘Oh my god… this is terrible!’ But the difference was that now inside, I felt resilient… I felt strong… I felt capable.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we really can’t see resilience or mental health… Some people may look like they’re falling apart, while inside they’re doing really well, and vise versa.”
Here’s the link to Amber’s post on mental health: http://us12.campaign-archive2.com/?u=8666220beb5ebc246f176ba49&id=12f16f2eb9
A few weeks ago, I introduced you to Natalie Doyle—a young mother who candidly talked about the love, fear, and hope that comes with being the mother of 3 young children, two of whom have Cystic Fibrosis. Within Natalie’s words, we saw the sacred breath of resilience, the courage and strength it takes to be positive and present in the midst of life’s adversity. Perhaps the greatest ‘gift’ of this project in my life, has been witnessing the outpouring of love and support that many of you express in you comments and messages after I share an excerpt from one of my interviews.
Following my post on Natalie, someone suggested that I interview Carole Wright for my book. Carole is a 42-year-old social worker, and inspiring source of joy. Carole was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at 6 weeks of age; and in her words, “I’ve been fighting a terminal illness my entire life… my entire life has been about resiliency.”
During my interview with Carole, our discussion turned to the importance of perspective and how one can go about moving forward in life in the midst of ongoing challenge. Here is what Carole had to say:
“There is a cliché that people use—life is short—and there’s no denying that’s true, but I’m not really sure how many people fully understand that, or internalize that way of being in the world. So, when I say, ‘life is short’, it’s not a cute little expression I’m throwing out there… It’s a reality for me.
I think most people think they are going to live forever, or at least they act that way, or seem to live their life that way. But, when I feel like I’ve had three months in the shitter, I start to panic… three months! I’m never going to get that time back. So for me, I return to that phrase, ‘in spite of’. I am happy… I’m a very happy person, and when you look through my Facebook, you’re going to say, ‘Wow, she’s done a lot of stuff’… and I have… But I’m also living at an incredibly fast pace… I know that I am, and I purposefully do that. But in those Facebook pictures that you’re looking at, what you don’t see is that in some of them I was feeling like garbage… I could barely catch my breath to take that picture… but I was still really happy.
So for me, life can be both—difficult and happy. For some people, it has to be either one or the other, but I wholeheartedly believe that it doesn’t have to be one or the other… In fact, in the muck is often where you will have some of your best experiences in life. So I return to that picture… I’m not healthy, but I’m really happy.
I should also point out that I have an insane amount of perspective, and when my CF friends see that picture, they too are all living the same life and doing the exact same things. We all know that life may be crappy on the inside, yet we are all trying to live it and enjoy it at this insane speed. It comes down to trying to make the best of life ‘in spite of’…”