Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and narrative series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
I was always a happy kid. When I became a teenager, my sister ran away from home. She was still going to high school and I was the go-between. It just crushed my parents. That was the first time I felt depressed. When I was 18 or 19, this darkness came, and I knew it was something I was going to have to live with my whole life, and fight my whole life, and how much that sucked.
In March of my senior year in high school, I got a very bad sore throat. Eventually, my pediatrician just said you need to go to the ER and they need to figure out what’s wrong with you. The nurse read my temperature, and it was 41 Celsius. She tried to convert it for me but it was off the charts. My mom is a nurse and she’s the one that noticed that I started going septic because my legs went purple. I got put into the ICU. I had the Sacrament of the Sick, which is like the last rites.
I was delirious and so much in pain that I don’t remember most of that time. It turned out that I had some thing called Lemierre’s syndrome, which is a sore throat that turns into a blood clot that’s septic and starts to break off. It wiped out most of the energy of my senior year. Everybody else was celebrating and I was just grateful that I was alive.
Going into college, I had this story to tell, because it was so formative. It made me really, really grateful about things. I still celebrate life day, which is the day I got out of the hospital. It’s going on nine years.
My junior year of college, I studied abroad in Toulouse. While I was there, my dorm had a fire very early one morning. One half of the building was an inferno. Eventually they put the fire out. There were some pretty crazy rescues of people jumping off of the building. Then they got us into a cafeteria and told us that someone had died. It was really surreal to me how they said it in French, and you could hear all of the people who understood French gasp. And all of the people who didn’t were looking around, like, what just happened? And then they said it in English. There was something to me about that gap. That’s the feeling that I go back to. I always leave a building if there is a fire alarm, and I always send wishes of goodwill with fire trucks.
After I graduated college, I went to work for the Peace Corps in Guinea. One day, I was sitting next to a pool in this beautiful house that the country director owned. Suddenly there were footsteps and this man appeared, just like a tar-dipped skeleton. He ran at me, and tackled me to the ground. His arms were like a vise around me. My only thought was, “I’m not going to let this happen without fighting back,” so I bit him. Anyway, it didn’t work because biting someone’s scalp is really ineffective and all I ended up with was a mouth full of sewagey hair. It was not good, but part of me is still proud of the fact that I fought back. Later we found out that he was being beaten by someone in his family and he was running away.
A week later, I had my first panic attack. Someone dressed in all black had come to shake my hand with both hands forward, which is a very respectful way to shake someone’s hand. I couldn’t see him well so I flinched. It was so rude of me, and I was beating myself up about it. I came back to my compound and found out down the road a semi-truck had hit a car and all seven people in the car had died. That was my running route, so for the next seven months I ran past this destroyed vehicle.
I tried to deal with it, to get a handle on the fragility of life, but things kept happening. I got a bad sore throat, and I thought, “I’m in a West African country with no health infrastructure and I’m going to die.” I had a complete meltdown. It ended up being some weird infection. They put me on antibiotics and I got better.
From that day on I had PTSD. I was having nightmares every night, especially that there was someone in my room standing over me. In late May, a child was hit by a truck and my best Guinean friend said, “You should stay away,” but I still think I saw body parts on the road. Two weeks after that happened, it was time to come home, because I was crying every day.
I didn’t realize I had PTSD. I was working with the Army, and I went to a seminar on a virtual counselor they have for veterans with PTSD, and she was describing the questions it will ask you, like: Do you have nightmares? Do you ever feel like you’re re-experiencing bad experiences? I was, like, check, check, check. I got this cold feeling that I was really sick and messed up.
I had started drinking way more than I ever drank before. Once I finally realized what was wrong with me, I said, you’ve got to stop drinking and you’ve got to get help. I read up on treatments. I got cognitive behavioral therapy, and antidepressants, which I felt shameful about, even though I knew, as a mental health advocate, medicine is not something to be ashamed about.
I imagined I was at the bottom of this dark pit and trying to scrabble my way up the sides. When I got on medicine, it was like someone said, “Here’s a step stool.” So I was still in the pit, but I was five feet closer to the top. I swallowed up any bit of pride that I had had, and took every bit of help I could get. Gradually I started getting better.
Anyway, when I came to MIT, I felt pretty good. I practiced changing my thought processes. Mostly I have this fear of cars. I just give myself five to ten seconds to make it through that scary period. If you’re still good after that, then you’re alive and it’s okay. If they swerve and hit you, you’re dead anyway, so what does it matter?
I think of PTSD as an injury rather than a mental illness. It’s like my tennis elbow. Over the course of multiple traumatic events, I injured it. Now when I think it’s going to get injured again, I protect it.
You have to believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not sure there is for everybody. PTSD isn’t something that people always come out of, but I believed I could, and that may be why I’m doing so well right now. I might not be great forever, but if I am ever in that dark pit again, I have the tools to climb out.
Mary Tellers is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at together.mit.edu. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.