In This World You Will Have Trouble (Part One)

June 18, 2015

I couldn’t remember how I got there, but I knew that I was being buried alive. As the earth piled on me, and I found it harder and harder to breathe, I heard someone above me shouting, “The white devil is in there! He has to die!”. I tried to cry out or push the earth off of me, but I couldn’t move or even open my eyes. My heart was racing, and I felt like I was suffocating, I began to think that this was the moment I would die. Slowly, I became aware that my head was on a pillow, and realized that my hands were gripping bedsheets. I was in my bed. This was just another dream. Dreams like this were induced by my anti-malaria medicine, and were common until the Peace Corps switched me to a different medicine. My relief of realizing I had been dreaming was cut short, though. My heart started racing again as I realized that part of the dream had been true: someone was outside my window shouting about the white devil inside who needed to be killed.

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My time serving in Cameroon with the Peace Corps was a time that tested my resilience. Especially in my first year where I was relatively isolated in a remote village without electricity or running water, I was met with many new experiences that required me to adapt and change my view of myself and of the world we live in. Death was a regular part of life – I saw a lot of sickness, violence and death. I didn’t have food that I was familiar with available to me, and sometimes had no control over what I ate, so I was regularly deworming myself like you would a pet dog. I often had stomach issues. My outdoor latrine was right next to my neighbors’ outdoor kitchen which was not great for the hygiene of their kitchen, but was also embarrassing for me to have them so close when I was dealing with my stomach issues. My choices for bathing were splashing myself with a bucket inside my latrine, or going to the river where everyone else bathed and washed their clothes – neither of these options left me feeling very clean. The list could go on, and my point in sharing all of this is to try and communicate what I felt: namely that I lost a sense of my humanity, and the humanity of those with whom I was living. Prior to my experience in rural Cameroon, I assumed certain standards of hygiene, health, access to care, and general quality of life that separated us from animals and made us human. When those were gone, I had to redefine what humanity meant, so that I could continue living how I was living and still view myself and my neighbors as human. This process took a huge psychological toll on me. Though I could recount many specific stories, I want to bring this general idea in to discuss something that is important to me, and to the staff and clients of CARE for AIDS. I want to talk about resilience. What is it? Why is it important? And how do we help our staff and clients develop it?

Before I go any further, I would like to stop and acknowledge that everyone experiences stress that must be met with resilience. As you read this, I ask you to keep in mind that normal stressors in your life – even if you live in a clean, hygienic, safe, American suburb – can contribute to similar levels of physiological stress that I dealt with in Cameroon. Whether you are experiencing sickness or death in your family, or dealing with daily stressors like traffic and bills, you need resilience to keep moving. We all do.

So what is resilience? According to a recent TIME magazine article about the topic, resilience is “essentially a set of skills – as opposed to a disposition or personality type – that make it possible for people not only to get through hard times, but to thrive during and after them” (Oaklander, Mandy. “Bounce Back.” TIME, 1 Jun. 2015: 28-30. Print.). The same way rubber regains its form and strength after being pushed, pressed, and pulled, so do resilient people.

So, resilience is the ability to “bounce back” after experiencing stress or a set-back. Some people’s personalities or upbringing make this ability a natural response. Others have a hard time overcoming stress and hardship. Leading scientific research gives us good news: it is possible to develop resiliency. This gives hope to those of us who are not born with an inherent ability to “bounce back”. It also gives hope to those of us who may have natural resiliency, but are thrown into circumstances that test that natural strength and call for effort not usually needed to overcome. It also gives us hope as we work with the clients of CARE for AIDS and help them gain the social, emotional and mental skills required to overcome the hardship, isolation and hopelessness that many of them face because of their HIV-positive status. According to psychiatrist Dr. Dennis Charney, “resilience training can help people deal effectively with chronic disease and improve their quality of life. It helps people cope” So how does one develop or strengthen resiliency?

We will explore the how in Part 2…stay tuned!