I used to live life in a box. It was pretty from the outside. Well decorated. It might have looked like the kind of box others might like to live in. I went to lengthy measures to ensure it was well maintained. Inside of that box was all of my fears and on the edges of that box was all of my protective, self-defence mechanisms that kept me safe. I never strayed from the familiarity of the box and didn’t question things that would call my reality into question. That was dangerous and I was a firm believer that ignorance was bliss.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment the change happened. I know it was pretty immediate. How I conducted my relationships, how I safeguarded myself, how I viewed the world…it all shifted considerably within a few short hours on the day I was diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia.
Sometimes it’s strange trying to think back to who I was before I was sick. Sometimes it’s even hard to remember elements of who she was. She was definitely a control freak, she was anxious, she had poor boundaries and she was forcing herself to be someone she knew in her deepest being that she wasn’t. She was already on a quest for self-love and self-worth before the sickness came. It started with her love for her daughter and she was trying really hard to find herself years before.
She was able to make improvements on her own. She spent a lot of time wrestling with her demons and the ideals imprinted on her as a child. She started setting boundaries and expectations of what she wanted for not only her daughter, but eventually for herself too. She realized her value as a skilled employee. But she was still really hard on herself. So critical of herself. Still anxious about the future, shameful of the past. She was making strides but still living in that pretty box.
Then she got cancer.
I, like many survivors have been propelled by the myriad of emotional, psychological and physical challenges that I have faced since my diagnosis. As I’ve written before in many articles, such as 3 Important Things To Know During Cancer Treatment, How Complacency Almost Cost Me My Life, Cannabis You Say? No Thanks, I Don’t Use Drugs, as a control freak, losing complete control of our lives can either break us or teach us to let go. Not so different from what the rest of the world has experienced globally due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, for me, letting go meant soaring. It meant smashing that pretty little box to pieces. So, what does that mean for me now?
It means I would begin living my life in a constant state of self-disruption. I would begin living my life actively seeking discomfort. Like a good workout, to build muscle, you must work what you have to the point of injury and then you let it heal. And when the healing is complete and I start to feel comfortable with that discovery, realization or skill, it’s time to start questioning what I can do to grow beyond that point. Why? Because we simply aren’t designed to stay the same. Stagnancy is where disease grows.
One such adventure took place in the form of a four day cancer survivors retreat in March 2020 BC-19 (before Covid-19). In my quest for knowledge in 2019, I came across an interview on the news with a mental health professional, in collaboration with a non-profit organization out of Newfoundland called Young Adults Cancer Canada (YACC). The interview spoke of the unique challenges young adults face during cancer and I could most certainly identify with some of those challenges. I was intrigued by the study, called the YAC Prime Study, they had just released documenting statistical information related to said challenges. True to my (new) nature, I reached out to YACC.
I had a wonderful chat with a beautiful human named Karine Chalifour, YACCs Program Director who inspired me to learn more about this organization. As it turned out, they had two upcoming events – one of which was Retreat Yourself Ontario 2020. I decided to sign up.
There were many times I thought about cancelling this event before it happened. I came up with every excuse in the book – I’m aging out next year (as they service those between 18-39) so what’s the point?, do I want to share a room with a complete stranger?, what do you mean shared bathrooms?! The list goes on. I have always highly valued my personal space and my bathroom time. I am a princess. Always have been and I’m at peace with that. In fact, right in the middle of one of these most doubtful thought processes, I got an email from Lesley Morrissey, YACCs Community Engagement Manager. It was sent to the whole group who would be there assuring us that the exact doubtful thoughts I was having is normal. Not to worry. They were looking forward to having us there. I figured, worst case scenario, this experience would give me the opportunity to live outside of my comfort zone for a few days. That email – a very effective strategy on YACCs part, I must say!
Next thing I knew, it was THE day. I will admit, I definitely had some nerves but I headed to Paris, Ontario ready to immerse myself in this experience. The retreat was held on native land called Five Oaks Education and Retreat Center. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by Lesley Morrissey, she knew who I was and I felt welcomed. She informed me that my roomie had cancelled last minute and they hadn’t had a chance to fill her spot. So, I got straight to unpacking in my cozy room for one which was conveniently situated right beside the best washroom shower in the joint! This was a great start!
The first day and the last day’s schedules were unique in that they weren’t full days. The first day began mid-afternoon with an opening circle ceremony.
In a very large room, all seats were arranged in a circle. Karine Chalifour opened the circle by welcoming everyone and setting house rules in the most elegant way. The expectation of absolute consideration and respect for each other was delivered as eloquently as what was expected of us in return. Each and every attendee from organizers to facilitators to participants shared who each of us are, what our diagnosis was or is, a challenge we were experiencing and what we hoped to get out of the retreat. Seeing the unstoppable emotion bubble up while sharing their experiences was heart wrenching and palpable in the room. It created an instant sense of empathy and an instinctive need to protect these people whom I had only just met. Listening made me feel grateful for my own experience. Yes, it was intense – the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But the worst of it was over for me. I’ll come back to this later. The opening ceremony was finished with a trust exercise that included 40 people and a rope.
The first night ended with many of my new housemates and I sitting in the dining room over hummus and veggie sticks, talking, continuing to share, laughing and it was the first time in my entire journey that I had ever sat at a table full of people who really got exactly what I had gone through…and was still going through.
Each of the 3 full days of the retreat started with breakfast and a group check-in. Check in consisted of an overview of what was to come for the day, and usually was the break off point for smaller group sessions if there were any that day. There were four small group discussions throughout the retreat, topics chosen by greatest demand. The discussions were about an hour and a half long and led by a professional facilitator and a peer supporter. Each session ended with a collection of 3 – 5 ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ that would later be shared in a full group discussion each day. First up, emotional health.
I thought I was emotionally sound. Once I stopped taking methotrexate and my wedding flurry of activity stopped in 2019, I was sure I was quickly on the road to complete emotional health. It wasn’t until I started reading ‘When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress’ by Dr. Gabor Mate, that I started questioning if I was as emotionally sound as I thought. I mean, I felt fine. After years of beating myself up, I had learned to forgive that naive 14 year old girl inside of me. I strongly believe there is no place for guilt in life if you live it as honestly as you can. But the book discusses repressed emotion in relation to the onset of disease and I wondered if there was any of that in me.
I sat in this group listening. Sharing some of my own ‘pearls of wisdom’ and offering support where I could. By this point in the retreat, nearly 24 hours in, I had this sneaking suspicion that I had not come for me but for the others around me, some of whom were in such deep, cutting pain. Getting to sit with people with such different stories and lives than my own gave me new perspectives I had not previously considered. Some of them were hard to relate to, even made me wonder if that’s how my family and friends might feel when I try talking to them about my cancer.
Next was a large group discussion with two of the facilitators, a psychologist, Dr. Norma D’Agostino, and psychiatrist, Dr. Pamela Mosher. We discussed self-regulation, positive and negative thoughts and strategies, relationships with ourselves and those outside of ourselves too. My favorite pearl from this session was ‘JOMO – Joy of Missing Out’, rather than ‘FOMO – Fear of Missing Out’. The joy or misery of any situation in life is most certainly in the eye of the beholder.
After lunch was the first of two yoga sessions scheduled for the retreat. This was an optional activity during free time. It was a one hour session offered by instructor, Angela Bryson, owner and founder of Angels-Landing Yoga and Wellness. One of my areas of focus over the last few months has been my ability to ground myself. I’m acutely aware that anxiety can rear it’s ugly head and wreak havoc in my life pretty quickly and when I spiral, I’m lucky enough to have the bestest bestfriend in the world who reminds me of how important grounding practices are. While I have developed some tools to deal with anxiety, most have been related to sleeping so I was on a quest to fill my anxiety combating arsenal. In addition to seeking out grounding practices, I am also acutely aware of the importance of professionals who can help me hold myself back a little. Sounds ridiculous, I know. Most people look for personal trainers, yoga instructors, etc. who will push them harder. As an all or nothing kind of girl with very angry joints and tendons and not much muscle mass to speak of, it is far too easy for me to do real damage right now. I was very pleased to learn during the session that Angela is one of those people who could really help me. Her instruction and vibe was very gentle, soothing, open. This was no small victory. Needless to say, I left my first session with Angela feeling refreshed and excited and headed to the next small group session, on relationships.
Honestly, is there ever enough time to discuss or space on pages to write about relationships? I don’t think so. The beautiful and, sometimes, frustrating thing about relationships is that they are ever changing. Relationships with ourselves, relationships with others…the growth or destruction of relationships as a result of either. Even the best of them can be challenging once in a while.
The groups for this session was organized a little differently. They were hand picked to include groups of people who have similar life situations in mind. My group was married women and moms, but not necessarily both. The pain in this group was so relatable. Here’s the thing, unless you’ve ever been a cancer patient, you can not understand the experience of a cancer patient. Period. That doesn’t mean there can’t be empathy, compassion, encouragement, comfort or support – but understanding, likely not. This poses a massive challenge in many relationships. In addition to the regular day to day challenges any relationship can have, makes our situation…complex.
SPOILER ALERT! I’M ABOUT TO GEEK OUT! Think of a Romulan attack against the star ship Enterprise. Those pesky Romulans will have to hit the Enterprise with everything they’ve got to cause damage. It takes time, a build up to the climax of the fight before Jean Luc Picard does something crazy like beam onto their ship himself and taser their asses!
People all have a cloak and usually it takes some time to wear it down but pretty much the moment we hear, ‘You’ve got cancer’, our cloak drops, our defences are gone. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to state that this as a common experience for many of us. What’s alarming to those of us who experience this is, we lose our cloak, we have no defences against attack, and we are forced to deal with our own shadows all at once. We change – grow whether we like it or not, and as I started this article, the change is acute and inevitable.
In general, people aren’t really big fans of change. And what is one of the most common challenges any relationship faces? Communication. Now, for a moment, try putting yourself in the shoes of a survivors spouse. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them to experience your cancer diagnosis, to still be dealing with it? Their fear, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, pressure to hold your family together through a medical catastrophe.
If you take one of the biggest relationship challenges with any ‘normal’ couple and then add potentially exponential change of one partner at a rapid rate AND a supporting partner who has been dealing with a heightened state of emotion, including anxiety, you have a recipe for disaster. Miscommunication, feelings of neglect, insecurity, maybe even resentment. But what do we do about it? That is the real dilemma.
My own husband has done everything he can within his own ability to support me and to cope with my transformation. But to ask him to do the same thing, or to even understand entirely what is happening within me – to expect the same rate of change, any change at all from him, or even acceptance of my change with the same certainty that exists within me is simply unrealistic. All I can do as his partner, is to have compassion and empathy and give him the space he needs to move through and adjust to MY changes.
The resounding message I reinforced with myself and also shared is, we MUST be empathetic with each other. We MUST be compassionate with each other. We MUST step outside of ourselves to understand the experience of others and support our partners in any way they will allow, just as we wish them to support us through our challenges. However, we must also set boundaries and be true to ourselves – grow, blossom, and live our own truth.
Throughout the course of the four days, there were presentations made by the four peer facilitators who were in attendance. Getting to hear the personal experiences of others who have similar experiences as me was very helpful. It helped me realized that some of the changes in thought process I’ve experienced and things that are now meaningful to me aren’t so different than the experience of others. Furthermore, it was reassuring to see the successes others have had through their own transformations. What struck me most was those who had taken on new ventures that may or may not have worked out but – here’s the punchline – even if those initial ventures didn’t work out, they were fine. They tried something new. They adjusted their lives however they needed to in order to accommodate their dreams, efforts, journeys. It was both humbling and encouraging.
Each day ended with a large group check out. These end of day check outs were opportunities for the entire group to share what they had learned and how they were feeling. This was a great daily activity to build on the opening ceremony the day before which helped the group to feel connected, and ultimately promoted an environment which allowed complete vulnerability.
After the Friday check-out, we had free time. I found myself with a wonderful group of women that evening, lounging on the comfy couches, with tea in hand, talking about our common experiences and I was astonished by how much we had in common. By the end of that night, I felt it was likely that at least one of those beautiful souls could have finished many of my sentences for me. I went back to my room that night with an unexpected sense of sadness. At this point, I was still holding on to this idea that I was meant to be at this retreat to help others and I was likely missing my family, the familiarity of my home because, let’s be honest, I’ve barely left my home for over two years now and this retreat had thrust me out of my comfort zone in a pretty significant way. I turned my attention just then to the empty washroom beside my room. While most others were still socializing and playing games, I took full advantage of the quiet, alone time before bed.
Saturday started with a peaceful walk, early enough to catch a look at the deer before they hid in the forest for the day. After breakfast, and then check-in, groups were once again split into specific groups. The mornings topic was a heavy one – fear of re-occurrence & death/dying.
Fear of Re-Occurrence, Death/Dying
This was the one topic that I had the hardest time coming to terms with having to discuss. I can remember being a teenager standing in a dollar store. I think my childhood best friend and I were there buying tealight holders. A man walked into the store and passed us. The smell that hung off of him sent chills down my spine. To this day, I don’t know why but that smell reminded me of death and it made me feel afraid…uncomfortable. I actively avoided people who were sick and dying my entire life. Time after time, I had to gather my courage to attend funerals or wakes and in each case, the fact always remained that it was the last place I ever wanted to be. I remember the first time I ever willingly went into a hospital to visit a friend who was dying. She was a vibrant, feisty and deeply caring woman in her 50s who had developed brain cancer. It was caught late, there was nothing they could do for her but make her as comfortable as possible and she was moved into the palliative care unit. She was one of the first people who befriended me, was nice to be, I felt didn’t judge me. Work etiquette, deadlines, service level agreements aside, she treated me like a human being and at that delicate stage of my life, I still hadn’t harnessed my strength which left me vulnerable to bullies. Unfortunately, at that time in my circle, bullies were abundant. Talking to Ann was refreshing.
I decided to visit her in the hospital. It was overwhelming. She was in such bad shape. Not really able to speak anymore, her fire was gone. I couldn’t even tell if she was lucid but I talked to her anyway. I wanted to be there for her but on the inside I feel like I was asphyxiating. When I got up to leave, I told her I would be back soon to visit. I did not return before she passed away. That was ten years ago. For all of that guiltless resolve I talked about earlier, this is one of those times in my life I still hold guilt about. The discomfort of facing death was just too much for me and I couldn’t bring myself back as soon as death would take her.
Before I was diagnosed, I mostly did everything I could to avoid sickness and death. It just came too close to testing the security of my well fortified box. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I started this website. I know I was not alone in feeling that way. Considering statistics in Canada, nearly 1 in 2 people will experience a cancer diagnosis in their lives. And so, I felt it so important to normalize cancer among the healthy, the young, the old, anyone who would listen. When I became one of the people I feared so much, I realized something really important; I was still me. One of the peer presenters was palliative. Listening to her speak to the group further reinforced that. She was someone who was educated, gentle, kind. Someone who celebrates small wins and experiences struggles – maybe different struggles than you and I sometimes. But she was a beautiful human and she deserved human connection and compassion just like the rest of us. We have since lost Stephanie which was a devastating blow. May she Rest In Peace.
No one wants to admit their own mortality but stepping away from those who are on the brink, who even question the possibility of death coming sooner than anyone thought is literally the worse possible time to step away from someone. They need you. We need you. We need each other.
The group verbalized fear of re-occurrence, challenges related to the primary diagnosis, what we each want to focus on going forward with our lives. Something else I had never verbalized since rebounding from my own diagnosis is not the fear of death or dying but the fear of another primary. What that means is, while I don’t fear APL coming back, I do strongly fear a different cancer diagnosis. Verbalizing this weighed a little heavier on me than I was comfortable with. After all, once you’ve said it, it’s real. You can’t deny it and there’s no take backs. I’ll address this again later on. Next up was a presentation by Dr. Scott Adams, Exercise Physiologist.
How COOL!!! I didn’t even know such a thing existed until a couple months ago. You may recognize Dr. Scott’s name from the most recent article I published, You Want Me To Do WHAT During Treatment?, Dr. Scott presented on the work he is doing with Princess Margaret Hospital and University of Toronto on Exercise Oncology. I must say, I had done some of my own research as stated in the mentioned article about the benefits of exercise during and post cancer treatment but some of the numbers Dr. Scott shared are staggering. One of the most important facts that Dr. Scott shared which I don’t think could be restated too much is, ‘No two people have the same survivorship. As such, everyones experience is different’. For this reason, their studies look at what they call ‘Precision Medicine’, which is fancy talk for individualized care. Since the studies focus on the needs of each individual, Dr. Scott was able to breakdown the metrics that make up ‘enough’ exercise to make an anti-cancer impact. And the good news is, according to Dr. Scott, the cells responsible for causing an anti-cancer environment within our bodies stay active throughout our entire lives. So it’s never too late to start!
Since this topic is vast and I believe there was a lot of really valuable information shared, I’ve created a separate article with as much detail I could pack in without sending Dr. Scott to your front door to redo the presentation in person. Click here for the detailed information.
After lunch a few of my housemates and I went for a beautiful walk in the woods. It was a little chilly but the fresh air felt great in my lungs after a heavy morning and the light conversation was equally as refreshing. Next up was the last of four small group sessions. The topic was moving on.
This was a mixed group, no specific commonalities among the participants, other than being survivors. The first thing that struck me about this conversation, especially on the heels of the Exercise Oncology presentation, was that, while most of what was discussed I couldn’t relate to (I think because of my age and stage of life), hearing the physical struggles of others struck a couple of chords in me. What was really mind boggling was, I could only dream of doing some of the physical activities that others discussed in that session. Yet, those individuals considered what their current capabilities were an embarrassment; something to be ashamed of. I certainly don’t say this as a judgement or comparison by any stretch. One of my hard and fast rules in life is NOT to compare myself to anyone for any reason. Doing so results in absolutely no personal gain, and therefore, the only person I compare myself to is me. I truly was floored by their feelings of inadequacy but in reflection, I wondered if others felt the same about me for different reasons…or maybe even the same reasons. I wasn’t really used to being on this side of envy, but here I was and that was a new feeling to explore.
I am critical of myself though, and have had a very hard time with my (lack of) physical capability. I have spent a significant amount of effort and time working on my own self-criticism. This, I know, is a particularly insidious personality flaw. What sitting in this group did for me was really solidify one of the initial points Dr. Scott mentioned in his session; everyone’s starting point is different and therefore no two survivorships will ever be the same. How this translates to a life lesson or reminder for me is, honor our differences. And this was a hard hitting, valuable reminder.
What struck me as new about myself in this session was, as I listened to the thoughts, feelings and concerns of the others, I felt sadness for them. Their situations. Their unique challenges, most of which I could not personally identify with. Up to that point, I believed strongly that I had dealt with everything I was consciously aware of that I needed to deal with. Therefore, I realized what I was feeling was truly empathy. That’s new. Throughout my adult life, even my adolescents, I can’t recall truly being able to empathize with others. It’s always been easy for me to go to a place of enacting defences – most certainly in my earlier life. Then, as an adult, to a place of fixing…but rarely feeling. Unless it was my own situation but even then, how I managed things before being sick was not always helpful. Always thinking, not always feeling. To sit in a place where I was able to identify my own emotions was already something I had been exploring. To sit with other peoples emotions simply hadn’t happened. Yet here I found myself, sitting and listening to the anguish in the voices of others, actually able to see their fear, sadness, hopelessness, I found myself in tears…feeling profound sadness. Maybe some of it was my own sadness, maybe not. But I knew with certainty in that moment that what I was feeling was their pain..and that was a major breakthrough for me. A breakthrough which has inspired some deep digging and a call to my psychotherapist.
After a full day of some pretty heavy talks, it was time for a light activity, Art Therapy. Essentially, this activity was meant to help relieve the tension after some heavy stuff but grounding people in a fun activity. I am NOT an artist. In this capacity, I have basically no talent. As previously mentioned, as my own worst critic, being bad at things isn’t something I cope with well. This activity didn’t really help me calm down (at first) but it did accomplish one of the things I went to the retreat to do in the first place – be out of my comfort zone. Throughout the activity, I gave myself permission to be bad at art. I told myself it wasn’t about creating a Picasso but allowing myself to be in the moment, enjoy a breezy activity and decompress. And, at the end of the hour and a half I found myself smiling. I felt joyful. And it didn’t turn out to bad either.
After supper was the check-out for the day. The topic was, something new that we had learned or share our artwork and what it means to us. It was one of the most gratifying things to hear the personal discoveries and confidence that began building in some of these humans in the short 48 hours or so that we had been together. Only the day before, I could have taken some of these beautiful people and tried to shake self-worth into them. The need to insist they realize their own value was so strong that when it came time for me to share my closing thought for that day, I had to refrain from saying anything at all. Yet, here we were merely 24 hours later and they were finding themselves.
Shortly after check-out, I returned back to my room for the night. I was physically and mentally exhausted and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last two years, it’s when to call it quits and recharge.
Day three was quite different than the others, the heavy work was done. We were all spent and it was time to sit back, spend time processing, continue the decompression work we started the day before. After breakfast we listened to the last two peer presentations and Karine gave a presentation about YACC.
YACC Presentation – A Call to Action
As a highly engaging speaker, I probably could have listened to Karine talk all day. She shared the history of YACC from how it came to be, to how they are currently generating donations as a non-profit organization, that keep the doors open servicing a growing population of young adults with cancer. They host a number of events annually, one of which was the retreat I was attending, which is a free experience for survivors. They will even cover travel costs for some people depending on personal circumstances. A newer experience they’ve started is called Retreat Yourself Adventure which is an outdoor experience hosted in Newfoundland every year. Click here to learn more about it. Another is an annual conference that happens in Newfoundland. Karine shared that this years conference had 358% greater demand than spots available in 2019.
With the AYA community wildly under serviced, this organization is one of few, if not the only with the type of capacity they already have. But in order to appropriately service the entire nation, they need help. Karine discussed the ways in which people can support YACC – primarily through fundraisers but I would appeal to ANY institutional corporation to learn more about this organization and help them expand their capacity to service those extra 358% of people who desperately need their help. The bottomline is, there are 22 young adults who are diagnosed with cancer in Canada EVERY DAY and only 1 of them will find YACC. They need your help.
After lunch was free time, and yoga session #2 with Angela Bryson. By this point in the retreat, my body was tired. Even a little sore but I felt it was important to attend this yoga session. As previously mentioned, I felt I had only scratched the surface of what yoga, under Angela’s instruction, could do for me and there was not a single reason I could think of that negated why I shouldn’t explore this opportunity.
What Angela hadn’t done too much of in the first session was what some people might consider ridiculous…silly…ju-ju maybe even. In this session, Angela had the group conducting activities to help ‘reset the nervous system’. Doing so consisted of a series of physical actions that might be perceived as beating yourself up! But in actually, awakened my entire body. It was a fascinating to be able to feel all my nerves firing at once. Next, we were bouncing and swaying…and I must say, this was a bit of a stretch for me. I felt completely ridiculous…but hey! When in Rome…
Towards the end of the yoga session, what I found was, 1. Practicing my balance and flexibility felt amazing and maybe that’s all I really needed to be doing at that point in my recovery (other than some cardio), and 2. The feeling of sadness that I had started experiencing the evening before was back. I found myself feeling weepy at times during the day but didn’t spend much time sitting with that feeling. But at this point it was undeniable. I forced myself to acknowledge that the sadness I had been feeling was likely not that I missed my family – I did, but it wasn’t the first time I spent 4 days away from home.
Having acknowledged by this point that this retreat was stirring some deep emotions in me. I headed into the final large group activity, the closing circle…with some Kleenex. Rocks were collected and the name of one person in attendance was written on each rock. Everyone in the circle took one rock out of a basket, if they got their own they had to put it back and choose another but we couldn’t see the names on them until it was removed from the basket. Once everyone had a rock, we were to think about one or a few things about that person and write it on the rock. Then one by one, everyone revealed something they were letting go of, something they were taking home with them and whose rock they got and what they wrote.
This, my friends, was the end of the ‘no hugs’ rule of the retreat. Before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, schools being shut down for two weeks had only been announced after we arrived at the retreat so the seriousness of the situation had not really settled in this group yet.
Seeing the emotional response of sharing and giving was profound. I could feel the weights lifted off the shoulders of those who had decided to let go of their guilt, who decided to put themselves first, who decided they would distance toxicity in their lives or get rid of it all together. The stability that those who needed it found in new friends, likely lifelong friends, was heartwarming. The irony of the rock I got was too coincidental to be coincidental. It was one of the beautiful souls that is considered palliative – the same person I spoke of earlier that opened my ignorant eyes to the reality of someone in her position. I was grateful to get her rock. As my turn approached to share my experience and rock, I had everything I wanted to say sorted out in my head about growth and triumph. But when it was my turn, nothing I had practiced in my head is what came out. I cried. What my subconscious decided to share was not action items. It was feelings – deep ones that I now suspect have been buried for a long time. I expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be there, gratitude for the people who had helped create such a loving and supportive environment.
Receiving my rock from one of the quietest members of the retreat was an honor. She told me I was well spoken, eloquent, unique and pretty. Being the badass I am, I hugged her. I think, at least hope, that translated into having helped provide my fellow house guests with nuggets of insight I have picked up and tried to live by through my own journey. One of the things I’ve heard a lot over the last couple of years is, ‘You’re so strong’. I honestly believe that as a cancer patient, I haven’t really had a choice. Most of us are driven to live at any cost and so when the threat of death exists, you push through – do things you never thought you could. Simply because you have to. That said, there are few things in the world that I am more determined to do than to give some of that strength to those who need it more than me. I hope this exchange signified that I was able to give some of my power to help them choose to honor themselves, to prioritize themselves, to set boundaries and most of all to advocate for themselves. If my hope is the reality for even one participant, it was an absolute privilege to help in this way. And if so, I feel the retreat was a success in my eyes.
In summary, I got far more out of this retreat than I thought I would. I went in with the intent to learn more about this organization and hoping I might learn something new about myself. I’m happy to say I accomplished this goal. What I didn’t expect was the rest.
After much reflection, Retreat Yourself Ontario 2020 helped me face some personal challenges like facing my discomfort and being able to offer support to those who have a better idea of their end date than I do. It helped me live outside of my comfort zone by doing things like yoga and art therapy and sharing a bathroom (feel free to chuckle at my expense…I’m comfortable enough in my eccentricities!). It showed me that I am capable of connecting with people and providing emotional support not only in a group but one on one also. It offered me a safe place with emotional support. It gave me new friendships and a sense of belonging to a new community. And when the hard work got too heavy and when it was done, it let me laugh. Sometimes until I cried.
Most of all, it gave me one of the most meaningful gifts I could ever ask for – it gave me a deeper understanding of myself by helping me get in touch with emotions I suspected lived inside me but I just couldn’t find on my own. Something new to explore in my self-discovery journey. The realization that self-discovery never stops because we never stop growing or learning. It gave me direction in helping build the supportive environment I want to create around myself and for others – my family, my friends, my colleagues, my clients. If I could, I would package this knowledge and give it to the world because frankly, we could all use more of this…especially now. In fact, I’ve always believe if you shoot for the stars and make it to the clouds, you are still accomplished so I think that is what I will do. I will seek to share the same love, compassion, empathy, support, safety I felt during the retreat with the world. And I will set my boundaries to encourage and protect the same I am building for myself.
On the final morning of our stay at Five Oaks Education and Retreat Center, we annihilated the no hugging rule. We all expressed our gratitude for having met and spending time together. We made plans for the future together. We continued to lift each other up, and I’m probably not too far off base when I say most of us likely weren’t ready to step out of that environment. I know I wasn’t. I cried as I pulled out of the driveway. Although I felt physically beat up, emotionally beat up, I felt like I had just scratched the surface of something important during our stay. And while it wasn’t realistic to stay in this bubble of safety, I was able to walk out of there that morning knowing we would likely see some of each other again, speak again, continue to support and cheer each other for some time to come, even if it was from opposite sides of the country.
Until next time, be well.