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How My Twin Brother's Battle With Cancer Inspired My TEDx Talk About Psychological Health

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When the organizers of the TEDx at Linnaeus University in Sweden asked me to give a talk about "How to Practice Emotional Hygiene," I wasn't surprised. I had just published a book about how to heal common psychological wounds such as failure and rejection and so my work fit nicely into the theme of their conference -- changing habits.

What they did not know was that over the past year I had faced my own struggles with psychological health due to an incredibly upsetting situation. My identical twin brother had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he had undergone a grueling course of chemotherapy.

Getting the news about my brother having cancer, especially when it turned out to be such an aggressive one (there were visible tumors all over his body) was shocking and horrifying. My brother and I had always been incredibly close -- true best friends -- so watching him fight for his life, watching him bravely deal with all kinds of terrible side effects, watching him suffer in silence without once uttering a word of complaint or distress, was both devastating and inspiring.

TED talks are short talks (18 minutes or less) that are supposed to offer big ideas that can hopefully inspire people and get them to think about their lives in different ways -- a tall order at the best of times. But how could I write an inspiring talk about psychological health when I myself was feeling so devastated, so worried, so emotionally unhealthy?

On the other hand, my brother had an incredibly positive "I will beat this" attitude. Almost from the moment he was diagnosed, his unyielding optimism never wavered. I wished I could be as strong as he was but I couldn't help giving in to terrible worry and catastrophic "what ifs." The same was true when he started chemotherapy. The sicker he was, the more devastated his body, the more positive and stoic he became and the more distraught I felt.

Here was my brother, incredibly sick in body but incredibly strong in mind. His physical health was terrible but his psychological health was amazing. Meanwhile, here I was, healthy in body, but devastated psychologically.

That's when I realized what my talk should be about. Our psychological health is no less important than our physical health, yet we treat them radically differently. We do so much to maintain and care for our bodies and so little to care for our emotions and our minds.

And that was the thrust of my message: Our physical health and our psychological health should be equal in our minds -- they should be twins.

It became clear to me that the best way to illustrate this principle was to use stories from my own life, my own experiences, and my own "twin-hood" to show how important it is to develop good emotional hygiene and healthy habits that support our psychological health. And so I wrote the talk. I included our baby pictures, stories from our teenage years, and even a picture of my brother undergoing chemotherapy.

I felt quite nervous giving a talk that was so incredibly personal (psychologists don't usually talk about their own lives), and although my brother could not be with me in body, he was with me in (electronic) spirit -- mostly via a barrage of texts messages he sent insisting I report how it went as soon as I finished.

So if you're curious about the talk, how I conveyed my message, and how my brother is doing -- here is a link to the talk.