In May of this year I spent two weekends working as guest speaker, culinary nutrition expert, and yoga teacher with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, as part of their "wellness weekend" events for staff. The theme of these getaways was focused on how to achieve and maintain life balance even during the hairiest of times. I was honoured to be able to not only host one of my raw food culinary workshops and lead some vinyasa yoga classes with the groups, but I was also selected to speak for two hours about my life. The title assigned to my "talk" was Thriving Through Chaos and Dancing Into Bliss, a title that so well describes what I have lived the last few years, and where I am heading now. Having left a twelve year career in television production just over sixth months ago after a series of life altering events, I am thrilled to be able to share my experiences and hopefully inspire more loving kindness in people I reach, and perhaps help instigate even a tiny shift in people's perceptions and reactions to stress in life.
Whenever I meet new people, they always seem curious about why and how I got to where I am today; what happened in my world to motivate such massive shifts in my life's direction. So today I want to share the Cole's Notes version of my journey.
So, lets start at the beginning.
Bulimia. In my teens, as early as fourteen, I was spending a lot of time with the older, cool kids in school, and had taken up smoking, drinking and drugs. I was drunk every weekend, and often skipped class to get high or sneak a few beers before study hall. I wrote exams high on acid and was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day by fifteen. I felt great pressure to fit in in every way, and had my first experience with binging and purging in grade ten. That initial euphoric moment in the bathroom at my girlfriend's house led to an abusive relationship with food that I have now spent more time with, than without in my life.
I got things together enough by the end of secondary school to be able to head off to college and train for a career in media, a course that I excelled in and helped land me my first job in Toronto with Global TV at age twenty. I spent much of the following decade bouncing around in the biz, working various jobs directing and producing at every major network in the city, never satisfied, never really content, always in search of the next promotion that would make me enough money to land me the bigger flat, allow me more travel, grant me the freedom to be happy. All the while I numbed myself with too much booze, most nights not recalling crawling into bed; whether solo or with a strange unnamed man I met while leaving the bar that night. And I was racking up massive debts at the grocery store with my ongoing bulimic binges to support my eating disorder during the day, and my alcohol binges at night.
And then in 2009 I met the man that would eventually (well, right away actually) sweep me off my feet. He was older. Wiser. More aware. Within three months we were living together, planning our future. We decided that if we were to meld our worlds together via the act of marriage, then I needed to clean the slate. We did not want to bring my accumulating debts into our union, and so we made the decision, together, that I would file for bankruptcy.
And on December 3rd of 2009 I did just that.
At this point in time I was in another job transition, having just quit my post as director with one of the city's top morning news shows in favour of a less stressful nine to five gig with a satellite TV provider. Things were looking up.
Then, in February 2010, everything changed. I received an email from my mother explaining that she and my father had been to the doctor several times, and that what we thought was just a hearing problem affecting dad as he moved into his sixties, was in fact something much more serious. FTD. Or, frontotemporal dementia. Dad's brain with failing him, degenerating slowly, and eventually, that new label, that four letter acronym, was going to prematurely take his life.
In my panic (manic?), I quit my new job, unable to control the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and terror I felt every day after that. My man, witnessing my downward spiral, decided we should rent a car and travel down to Florida where my parents vacationed every March, and spend what might be one of the last they could have there, with them. At this point my dad had lost much of his ability to speak, and it was clear the FTD was robbing him of many of his skills as an eloquent, mannered man. As we dealt with these changes, my man, the fixer that he was, also decided we needed to even further distract from this new reality of my father's fate, and so two days after we arrived home from the south, we were on a plane to Costa Rica. A trip that ended up being our "promise trip", a trip where he committed to one day proposing to me.
April 2010. Our next trip as a couple brought us to NYC. The romantic trip to end all romantic trips. We did it all; Tiffany's, dress shopping, fancy dinners out, Central Park carriage rides, and champagne at the boathouse that ended up in an engagement ring on my finger. Bliss.
Over the next few months, I realized I needed to venture back into real life, and eventually found a job running admin for a vegetarian restaurant chain as we began planning our nuptial celebration. We decided to put a rush on things, to guarantee that my father would be able to walk me down the aisle. But the stress of coordinating a venue, choosing a guest list (it grew from 27 to 75 all to quickly), deciding on a menu and seating charts, and designing invitations, eventually did us in. It was on a sunny July weekend during a trip to the country that we called it all off. After an explosive argument (that I think started out as a simple disagreement, and eventually turned into the inherent issue of our age difference), we went our separate ways.
What transpired over the following months was a lot of heartbreak, self-destruction, and the eventual disintegration of our co-dependent, obsessive and addictive relationship. I was couch surfing, having nowhere to call home after moving out of his apartment, and was struggling to get my EI in line and even just make my car payments.
About a week after what was to have been our wedding day (October 2, 2010), I received another phone call from my mother. She and my father were just back from a three week trip to China, and were about to set off on another to Greece. But she called to let me know that they had been to the doctors again, and after another battery of tests, my father had been given yet another dire diagnosis.
ALS. Another three letters from hell. Lou Gherig's disease. Now, my father's body was not only coming apart cognitively, but now his muscles were deciding to bail too. It was only a matter of time.
By Christmas of that year, dad was functioning at the capacity of a child, no longer able to care for himself. My mother became his full time caregiver, pureeing his meals, tying his shoes, helping him with all the normal every day tasks our minds and bodies carry out that we oft take advantage of. It was terrifying for me; I can only imagine the toll it took on my mom.
January 2011. By now I was a wreck. I was working again, but was anesthetizing the pain with daily runs, yoga, acupuncture, wine, and men. One cold and lonely January eve, it all became too much and I experienced a massive relapse in my bulimia that saw me held overnight at St. Joe's hospital, with a twelve inch long spatula lodged in my chest. I had swallowed the kitchen utensil whilst trying to force myself to vomit after an aggressive binge. I was out of practice, and ended up driving myself to the emergency room where I narrowly avoided open-chest surgery, thanks to a crew of outstanding doctors. In all the years ED (my eating disorder) hovered over me, I had never let it get to this point. But there I was, 31 years old. I took a few days off from work, and then I went back to living in my state of destruction and denial. Things couldn't possible get any worse.
February 2011. It was Thursday night, and I was just leaving my weekly therapist appointment when I noticed that my mother had called. My heart sunk, my thoughts immediately going to my father. Oh God, what had happened? I climbed on the King streetcar and dialed. Mom answered, saying that I had better sit down. I had better pray for my nephew. That hour, at Hamilton Children's Hospital, my then 6 year old nephew was about to go in for emergency brain surgery.
As it turned out, my brother in law had taken my nephew in for a routine round of eye exams earlier that day, and upon the discovery of some swelling on his eye, an MRI was ordered. And from there, we learned that he had a softball sized tumour growing on his brain, that the doctors can only imagine had been there since birth.
By 4am the next morning, the little guy was out of surgery, sewn up (titanium plate and all), and asking for a Popsicle. The tumour had crushed the optic nerve in one eye, blinding him, but overall he came thorough like a super hero. One more crisis. One more survival.
May 2011. I was hired by a TV show that spring that required me to travel all across Canada for the month of May. From Halifax to Vancouver, I spent three weeks out of province, at the time that my father's health was taking the most drastic turns for the worst. He went from using a walker in April, to requiring a full wheelchair come May. The week I landed back in Toronto at the end of the month, was the same week that landed my father in the hospital with a bout of pneumonia that just didn't seem to want to let go. The night I got the phone call from the hospital we all knew was inevitable, my ex-fiancé was actually by my side, us attempting yet another try at things. It was near midnight, and thanks to him, I was able to get to my family, get to my father's side. By the time I reached him, he was long unconscious, barely holding on. And I couldn't wake him, as hard as I tried. I couldn't say my goodbyes, I couldn't say all that had long been left unsaid...
It was just before noon the following day, a sunny Sunday, when my father finally opened his eyes to see all three of his daughters and his loving wife before him, only to take a final breath and close them once more, once and for all.
And on that day I knew I was forever changed. It was that moment that I felt I had the strength and love inside me to make great change. I had to.
And so I did.
Even during all the chaos, there were two places that I went to feel peace. One was my kitchen (even with all my food troubles, cooking was always very therapeutic for me), and the other, my yoga mat. So I read a ton of books, signed up for countless classes, and used all my income to pay for certification courses that would allow me to live the life of my wildest dreams. I busted my butt seven days a week, creating a bubble of bliss that I could exist within, saying goodbye to all the things and people that no longer served me. I dedicated several hours a week to yoga practice, taught myself how to be mindful, and started saying "yes" to every opportunity I was given. I fell in love with life.
And now, just over three years since it all began, I am the happiest, most at peace, and most whole I have ever been. As I look towards my thirty third birthday in November, I am also firming up plans to move to Costa Rica, where I will begin work full time as yoga teacher and raw food retreat facilitator at a rustic retreat centre on the Pacific coast there. The small seed of intention I planted so many years ago during my first visit to the beautiful Central American land has grown and flourished into a future of unknown beauty, an opportunity for greatness.
I have thrived through the chaos, and will be dancing my way into bliss, in the tropical heat of Hacienda Del Sol, and am forever grateful for everything that I have gone through and for all it has taught me. I am a broken person, held together by love, and that is ok.
Because after all, "there is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen