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It came way too fast!

I committed back in November to participate in the Cypress Hills High Altitude Trail Challenge as part of my journey back to health after two years of recovery following a debilitating concussion.

First, you could not have convinced me that what was originally described as a mild concussion would lead to an MRI a year after the injury still showing a micro brain bleed and bruising. It gave me so much understanding as to why my life, and that of my kids, had been so utterly shattered. A personality change,  up-levelled migraines, memory lapses, foggy brain and an inability to form words or write consistently, all led to some pretty dark moments and uncharted territory.

Second, you could never have convinced me I would ever run as a hobby, nevermind register for a 5K! I have been vocal my entire life that I despise running. I had every excuse as to why it was not for me.

My, how things change.

Just over a year ago, our Foundation was approached by a couple who had taken over the organizing of the Cypress Hills Challenge, and they wanted to donate their fundraising efforts to BFF. Through that process, we discovered some meaningful connections and have developed a strong relationship with the organizers, Kelsey and Andre Delorme.

In my role as the ED, I thought it important to represent our cause so people knew exactly what their contributions were doing. While there, I could feel the churning inside of me, compelling me to consider participating in their next run. It took until November to actually convince myself that it was the very obstacle I needed to overcome, this running thing.

Of course, there were other obstacles.

I announced to the Board that I wanted to use this whole journey as a launching pad for a new movement within our BFF community, to encourage healthy choices and ways of being. “Breaking Free for Me” or “#BF4ME” was born and I was committed, no turning back. Theo immediately commented, “No excuses,” and Dawn talked about accountability. Amber was excited that I was taking charge of my healing journey. Everyone chimed in their support and it was clear I would not (could not) back out!

Fast forward.

I may have been ready to get my butt in gear after being sedentary for two years, but a shoulder injury that caused excruciating pain when I attempted to do pretty much anything, reared its ugly head when I tried to get active.

Who knew my shoulder could inhibit my attempt to run? I tried modified exercise to try and build my strength, but nothing worked. My specialist used cortisone as a way to determine where the pain was coming from and after five failed attempts requested an MRI. He was shocked when the results came back because, after 27 years in practice, he would never have anticipated that it was osteoarthritis. I didn’t present that way, my responses didn’t act that way, but in his words, MRIs don’t lie. While it is a common ailment as we age, he told me I was far too young for this. Great.

Life goes on.

It was apparent if I wanted to fulfil my commitment to running, I was just going to have to push through the pain and do it. I went for another injection, this time hyaluronic acid, to hopefully cushion the bones to allow for pain relief and eventually some strength training. That was at the beginning of July and it took over a month for it to kick in.

I would go out for a walk/jog regardless. Walk a minute, jog a minute, while holding my arm up over my chest to limit the movement of my shoulder. I looked truly awkward I’m sure, but I was doing it. I’d decided by this time that if I jogged a little and walked a lot, as long as I crossed the finish line that’s all that mattered.

Kids say the darndest things.

Before I left on my trek to Saskatchewan, my daughter asked if I was excited. When I said no, she promptly responded with, “Lades, you used to be the most positive person I know.” My kids have called me Lady instead of Mom for several years, an endearment that has been shortened to “Lades”. Odd, I know, but I’ve grown to love our quirky family traits. Anyway, her comment jolted me for obvious reasons. I did clarify with her that my reasons were about not being ready to run the entire thing and feeling like a failure.

Augst 18th, 2018 – Challenge Day.

I woke up to sunshine without scorching heat. There was a breeze and it felt like heaven. I was in nature, I was going to attempt something I originally thought not possible, and I was ready. As ready as I could be. There was smoke, something I thought I’d left behind in Alberta. There was altitude. I really should have figured out exactly what that would mean for me. Calgary’s elevation sits at 1,045 metres or 3,428 feet if you’re not fully converted, like me. Cypress Hills’ altitude is 1,468 metres or 4,816 feet, just a wee bit of a difference! The tree roots along the path added interest and caused intense focus to my first 5K experience as well.

I crossed the finish line!

It took about 50 minutes. I jogged a little and walked a lot, but I did it, I crossed the finish line! I ended up with a companion who regaled me with safari stories. We were both so happy we’d made it and now I want to go to Africa and stay in tents where they bring you breakfast and serve you coffee!

Reflecting on the journey.

I was so happy! I had no clue how I’d feel when I was done, but boy was it amazing. For the first time in what seems like forever, I feel like I’ve actually achieved something. For me. For my kids. For my future.

My sense of failure for not being able to run the entire way disappeared. I was completely elated that through the smoke, the altitude, the trees and their root systems, I’d done something I was skeptical I’d be able to accomplish.

When Amber posted pics on social media and said mine was the face of pure joy, she nailed it. I had declared 2018 as my year of finding joy (as prescribed by one of my many doctors over the past couple of years), and at that moment I was joy-filled! The negative self-talk I am accustomed to in my head was silenced enough to let her even post a photo of me.

People need to see that smile. That moment. It is a significant indicator that through my own struggles I was able to push through the pain – both physical and emotional – to get to a better state of mental wellness. While we know that physical activity releases happy hormones and helps move trauma from our bodies, sometimes we can feel like that will never happen for us, at least that’s how it felt for me. Now I know first hand how different life can be when I pursue physical well being.

One day, one step at a time.

Driving home I wondered if I would let myself off the hook and quit walking/jogging because I’d accomplished my goal. What’s interesting is I don’t want to stop moving. My leg muscles weren’t in pain, not even a little, and I’d actually put in 17 kilometres and climbed 33 ‘floors’ when the day was done. My shoulder is no worse for the activity and in fact, I was able to vacuum my living room for the first time in at least a year.

Gratitude

When Kelsey and Andre approached us to offer the funds raised from last year’s run, none of us could have known how both of them would impact me personally in such a life-altering manner. Not only did the Cypress Hills High Altitude Trail Challenge make a difference for BFF, but I have gained two beautiful friends who have truly changed the trajectory of my life and mental/physical wellness. That’s something to be grateful for, I’d say. No emotions here…nope.

Flat out on my back, staring up at the early evening sky, all I could cry was, “No, no, no, no!” My laptop had gone flying and landed about three feet from me. I’d had no warning or time to brace for the fall, as the skiff of snow had hidden the ice that had formed in the past couple of hours. It was December 10, 2015.

The emergency doctor advised I might be stiff for a couple of days, and that within seven to ten days I should be totally fine. If anything, I’d probably experienced a little bit of whiplash, and if it was a concussion, it was mild at best. Karen – the friend who dropped everything to take me to emergency – told me he was wrong. She’s had more than one concussion in her life, and I definitely had a concussion.

I tried to lay low over the next few days, but as a single mom trying to recover from a recent layoff and bills that kept appearing for some reason, I couldn’t take time off from the part time work I’d been given. Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few migraines later, I knew something wasn’t right. The jiggling I’d felt in my head when it hit the ground had most certainly been more than a little whiplash. Lights had already been bothering me yes, but my sensitivities worsened, along with certain noises. My poor teenagers!

My family doctor was on maternity leave, so I went in to see one of her colleagues. She advised that I may have a mild concussion, if anything, and it may take up to a year to recover. Sigh. I’d secured a half-time role with the Breaking Free Foundation that was going to start three weeks after my fall. I was not a happy camper. No seriously, I was exhausted from all the trauma in our lives over the previous few years, and this was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Not only could I not afford this setback financially, the added stress only escalated my sense of helplessness, that was fast becoming hopelessness. The downward spiral continued, and as much as my positive outlook on life had carried me through adversity in the past, this time was so very different. My personality changed, my tolerance levels had diminished significantly, and my kids weren’t sure who I was anymore.

I was so completely frustrated. I should be able to get back at it, to push through, as I had so many times before, shouldn’t I? After months of migraines, light and sound sensitivities, I decided to go back to the doctor to find out if there was more I could do to help the healing along. This time, my family doctor was back, and she quickly apologized that I’d not been given the proper care or attention I should have received. We put a plan in place and she asked that I follow up with her in a couple of weeks. Wow. What a complete switch from the dismissiveness of the other physicians! I’ve never really had bad experiences with our health care system, and those doctors were only doing what they’d been trained to do, as far as concussion protocol goes.

Over the next several months, I was able to get some sleep, but not near enough to be functional. My brain was still a complete fog, and some days I wondered how I still had a job. My doctor expressed repeatedly that she wished I didn’t ‘have to’ work at all, and the fact I was only working half time was a blessing in disguise.

When we were close to the one year mark and I hadn’t shown much improvement, she requested an MRI. So a year after I’d fallen, we discovered I had a micro bleed and visible bruising. No small injury at all, if it was still showing up a whole year later! Oh the relief I felt that I wasn’t actually crazy, and that there was a real reason I couldn’t just push through it.

However, that didn’t make me better. The frustration didn’t go away, my confidence was all but destroyed, and those blasted sensitivities didn’t seem to be lessening either. I began to wonder if my life had been forever altered and if I’d ever get back to ‘normal’. Constantly trying to pull words out of my brain that should roll off my tongue, names confused, some memories gone, was this my new normal? I felt for my kids in particular, if that was the case. The last thing they needed was to be looking after me.

I spiralled downward. It got pretty dark. I often felt no one really took me seriously when I expressed it, because it was something they’d never known of me before. I always pulled through, found a way to make it all work. Resilient. Strong. Capable. Confident. Nope, not anymore! Add to that my lack of activity and major weight gain, my self esteem completely tanked. I didn’t want to be seen in public, nothing fit, I didn’t want to buy new clothes, nor could I afford it. Not being able to afford it was another slap in the face that spiralled me further into a deep black hole. The despair to never seemingly be able to get ahead overwhelmed me.

Now what? How do I move forward if I don’t fully heal? How do I look after my children and my responsibilities? It was easier to think about my kids getting my life insurance policy than it was to figure out how to afford life as I knew it. Like I said, very dark. And here I was, the Executive Director of the Breaking Free Foundation, trying to help others heal from trauma. There were days I felt like a fraud and yet, completely grateful for the compassion and patience extended to me by our Board.

My doctor suggested I go see a chiropractor who had ventured into more brain trauma work than her regular practice. After assessing me and taking days to formulate a plan to help me, we began treatment. Weird thumb-in-front-of-my eyes stuff, standing on a foam mat, getting off of it, closing my eyes and standing on it on one leg…nothing that seemed to me to be brain healing work. She turned out to be one of the greatest gifts in my healing journey. My eyes were not focusing together, which was causing constant strain on my brain, and it was preventing me from getting better. As the months went by and we continued these simple and strange exercises, I noticed marked improvement. My migraines lessened, my light sensitivities weren’t as noticeable AND I could balance on one leg for more than a second at a time. I  didn’t always have to lean against a wall to put my shoes on! When I realized that, I knew I was on the mend.

In amongst all of that, I’d been referred to the brain injury clinic. I finally got in to see Dr. Grant in October of this year, two months shy of two years since my brain got bonked. I laughed for most of the hour I spent with him. He told me four things I could do to improve my quality of life, and then he shared a story. He told me about a patient with a spinal cord injury, who’d been a snow boarder and was now left with more than a brain injury. She was paralyzed. At their last appointment together, he told her he didn’t know what else he could do to help her, but would give her a prescription that might help. He wrote the word J-O-Y on the prescription pad, signed it and handed it to her. When she got home she handed it to her husband and said something to the effect of, “What am I supposed to do with this?” He nudged her along and helped her find a snow sport that both excited her and accommodated her new reality. Months later, she went back to see Dr. Grant and told him it was the best prescription any doctor had ever given her!

He then told me I needed to find more joy in my life. Nice. He talked about how after our brains physically heal, we’re often stuck in a type of depression because our brains have told us for so long that we’re not okay. He couldn’t have known that “JOY” has always (since I can remember) been one of my favourite words, and I have it scattered in various ways throughout my house. Apparently, I’d lost it somewhere along the way.

Now to this post and the reason I’m writing it. I took his comments seriously, and wanted to find a way to get back to joy. I am also a person who figures if I’m going to tackle something, it should benefit others as well. In my quest to help others, and in my role with BFF, I figured what could be better than looking after myself, sharing my journey, and removing the excuses that have kept me from getting after my own healing back towards fulfilment and joy?!

I also determined that many others are likely in similar positions. Trauma that has changed our lives. But instead of staying stuck there, let’s take back our power, our control over our own destinies, rather than feeding our “woe is me” stories, especially when there are things we can be doing to help ourselves.

So today it starts. We launch #BF4ME – Breaking Free for Me! Breaking free of hurt, hopelessness and helplessness. Breaking free to move towards more smiles, more activity, better mental health, and especially more joy. Are you ready to take steps, however small, to making some positive change in your life?

I’ve committed to run a five kilometre run next August. I’ve never run. I don’t even remotely like running. But I felt compelled to do it. In order for that to happen, I’ve got to overhaul a lot of stuff like what I eat, my sleep and activity (lack of) habits. Going public with the Board’s support, I’m no longer able to live in my excuses. Join me, okay, so I’m not doing this alone?

I will:

  • tell you what I’m committing to weekly
  • share my experiences – the good, the bad, the ugly – with you, in a weekly blog post, possibly including photos :-/
  • provide resources that are inexpensive and easy to use
  • encourage you along the way (I hope)

You can:

  • commit to your own small steps toward healing, whatever that looks like for you
  • share with us on social media and use the hashtag #BF4ME
  • join our newly created private Facebook group to create a more personal and interactive connection as we go on this journey together

This week, I will do 10 sit-ups per day, and will record my food intake so I can get a grasp on how far my eating habits have slid into the abyss! I will eat as I have been over the past couple of years, without filtering it or changing it for this week.

Over the next few weeks we will talk about food and exercise as they relate to trauma healing, and we will also talk about how to get through the holidays without crashing emotionally. Holidays can be the worst for so many.

Bookmark our blog, join our Facebook group, declare your commitments and please, please, please, don’t leave me in lurch on this!