2,174 days: A letter to Dad

Dear Dad,

Today is six years.

Two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four days.

You’ve missed 20% of my life, just like that. One day, you’ll have been gone from it longer than you were part of it. I can’t even bear the thought.

Time has a way of playing tricks with our mind: some days, it feels like it was just yesterday I was walking hopelessly through the halls of Sunnybrook’s ICU, the sweet smell of hand sanitizer wafting through the air. I remember the hissing and clicking of your ventilator as it pushed oxygen in and out of your lungs, its noise overshadowed only by the dozen monitors by your bedside, beeping every few moments to let us know you were still alive.

But deep down, we both know you weren’t. You left us at the side of the 401 when your car crashed and the paramedics had to revive you. I remember feeling such hope that you would recover.

1451559_547247985370227_460062791_nIn my naïve, 24-year-old mind, you were going to wake up despite what the doctors said. You would be one of those cases people talked about, the person who comes out of the devastating coma and continues on with his life. But as the days ticked on and your sedation wore off, it became clear you’d never open your eyes again. You’d never take us for dim sum. You’d never call. You’d never do anything again – except, in your last act of selflessness, become a hero to five other men. It sounds so simple, but it took me months to appreciate the impact of your gift on those other families.

The seven days in the hospital felt like an eternity – back and forth between family meetings; trying to keep all of your many friends and co-workers updated as they came by, called and emailed (you have no idea how many people were praying for you, do you?); making sure Papa and the other bees were OK; beginning to make your final arrangements; working with hospital staff to determine your eligibility for organ donation; and most importantly, spending time with you.

I remember the last time I came to see you by myself in the hospital. We were letting you go that night, because it’s what you always told us you’d want if you were ever in that terrible situation. We used to laugh about it, because the changes were so slim. “Nothing can take out your Daddy!”, you’d joke. But there was nothing funny about that horrible day in July.

You were snoozing away in your hospital bed, thanks to the help of your ventilator, and although we were inside protected from that blistering Toronto summer day, the air felt muggy. Your room was dark even with the curtains were open– I suppose that’s the benefit of having your bed in the middle of the room between two concrete walls. In any other circumstance, the plain walls and sterile bedding would have felt so cold but knowing you were lying there, completely incapacitated and without a hope of recovering made me flushed with panic. The room felt like a prison rather than a space to heal.

I stood at the foot of your bed for a moment, still in disbelief. How did a man who had little more than a cut on the side of his head have such a fatal brain injury? The patients in neighbouring beds were visibly injured – broken bones, stitches, missing limbs, bandages and monitors galore – yet their prognosis was more favourable than yours. They were going to walk out with their lives while we were about to sign the papers to end yours.

I pulled a chair up to your bedside and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to ignore the taunting beeps of your monitors. I imagined I was somewhere else, anywhere but a hospital room saying goodbye to you.

I grabbed your hand, the same hand I hung onto as a kid when we went out for walks. The same hand that high-fived me when I graduated college. The same hand that was supposed to give me away when I got married. The same hand that was supposed to one day hold grandchildren.

I squeezed it, so desperately wishing for a reaction – anything – back.

I put down your bed rail, took out my iPod and put an earbud in each of our ears. I remember you telling me you used to sing Joe Cocker’s ‘You Are So Beautiful’ to me as a little girl when you were trying to comfort me. In those final hours, it was my turn to comfort you. I turned on the song, closed my eyes and laid my head on your pillow, convincing myself you could hear it, too. I began to cry so hard my entire body shook. The realization that this would be our last time hearing this song together hit me like a freight train. When the song was over, I had covered your pillow in tears.

A few hours later, surrounded by those who loved you most and with AC/DC playing in the background, your heart flickered its final beat, perfectly in tune to the last note of Thunderstruck. That moment, for me, remains hauntingly beautiful – your final song at your AC/DC shows perfectly aligned to your final moment on Earth.

On July 14, you went from being present to a memory.

When memories are all you have, you hang onto them for dear life. In the beginning, I talked about you incessantly. I was terrified of forgetting the littlest details, the most insignificant stories. In those the first few months, I felt I was constantly chasing you – that you weren’t really gone, but just around the next corner, except I could never catch up. I found artificial comfort in the bottom of bottles and felt sheer panic from listening to the music you loved. I couldn’t take a deep breath – it’s like there was an elephant on my chest for months. A beach ball had inflated in my throat and every time someone asked me how I was, it felt like I was being strangled from the inside out. I became short tempered, withdrawn, and dependent – a far cry from the vibrant young woman you had seen just months before.

I knew losing you would be hard. I knew losing you would change everything. But I didn’t appreciate just how much. The physical impacts of grief were almost as bad as the emotional ones. Some days, I just couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed. I hurt everywhere. It was painful to breathe. My stomach ached for weeks on end. I was devastated. Then uncontrollably angry at you. I was convinced I would die from a broken heart.

But gradually, over time, the physical pain subsided. I’ve had six years to get used to this new normal: a normal where you’re untouchable, yet the memories of you are close; a normal where I can’t see you yet I know you’re always watching; a normal where nearly everything has changed except one thing: how much I miss you.

I still talk about you often; I share your stories – your funny antics, your ‘Malcolm-isms’ and your painful moments. You weren’t perfect by a long shot, but then again, none of us are.  (And don’t worry, my boycott of your beloved music didn’t last long – I no longer see listening to it as torture and have instead embraced my inner rock star, belting out lyrics, completely out-of-tune, every now and again.)

You’ve missed so much in six years, Dad. Your boys have become hard-working, loyal men. You daughters have become strong, independent women. Remember how we always used to say I’d end up out west? I’m here. I’ve married an incredible man you’ll never meet but would have absolutely adored. I’m doing a job I know you’d find “really fucking cool”. I eat dim sum on the regular. I went back to school. I started skating again. I’m (painfully, slowly) writing a book. I’ve screwed up along the way – a lot – and I know you’d probably ask what the hell I was thinking at times, but I’ve gradually found my way.

I feel, for the first time in my life, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. If only you were here to see it.

We miss you, Dad. Your sisters miss you. Everyone misses you. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re gone.

In the beginning, I would have given away years of my own life just to have five more minutes with you. At one point, even 40 years seemed like a reasonable trade. Although losing you irrevocably changed me, your decisions and death have taught me a lot.

It’s bittersweet. By losing you, I’ve gained perspective I would have never known otherwise yet am so grateful for.

I know firsthand how short life is.

I know firsthand how strong I can be, because being strong in those weeks and months was the only choice I had.

I know firsthand how important it is to be surrounded by people you love during happy times, and especially during difficult ones.

I know firsthand that by simply making your wishes known to your family, you can dramatically change – and save – the lives of so many others.

I know firsthand how important it is to ask for help when you need it.

I know firsthand  that sometimes the best outcomes come from making really, really hard choices.

I know firsthand how important it is to listen to what your gut is telling you.

I know firsthand that I can only control my own actions, no one else’s – including yours- no matter how badly I try.

Most importantly, I know firsthand I’ll be OK.

I survived losing you, though you’re still very much alive in our memories. We carry your legacy for you and know that those five men whose lives you positively changed forever think about you every day, too. We’re continuing to move forward, because it’s the only choice we have, each of our respective milestones coming with a pang of sadness that you aren’t here to celebrate, support, laugh and cry with us.

You may have only lived 49 years, but you crammed a hell of a lot into it and gave me a lifetime of memories. Of all the Dads in the world, I’m so glad you’re mine.

Today will be a little harder than yesterday – the milestones always are. The beach ball will reappear and I’m sure at times, I’ll fight to keep my composure but I’ll still honour you just as you would have liked: by blasting some AC/DC, making a big Scottish breakfast and continuing to make the same – and different – choices you did.

You’re desperately loved and missed everyday, Daddy.

Love always,
Alyshia

 

The anxiety hangover – the worst kind

This weekend, I suffered the worst kind of hangover. Not the one that comes after an afternoon patio wine party-turned evening dance off. Not the one that comes with laughs over a greasy brunch with friends the following morning. Not the one that comes with gaps in your memories. I’m talking about the hangover you get after a massive panic attack.

The excruciatingly painful adrenaline headache. The fuzzy brain and inability to concentrate. The lightheadedness. The sore chest from having your heart beat so hard and so fast it nearly breaks through your rib cage. The desire to sleep for days.

And for me, the worst part is that I felt the same level of regret and embarrassment that I would feel if I had drank too much sangria the night before and did something stupid. But this wasn’t self-inflicted. I didn’t choose anxiety or panic attacks. They chose me.

I’ve been suffering from panic attacks for nearly a decade. Like many people, the first time I had one, I didn’t know what it was. I was checking out a customer at the grocery store where I worked when I suddenly felt hot. I felt myself get flushed, like I always do when I’m about to speak in front of a large group of people. I noticed my heart rate was increasing so I closed my lane and went for a walk. It was a beautiful sunny day, which made the changes in my vision all the more terrifying. I felt completely out of control.

Maybe I just needed to go back inside.

I walked as fast as I could to the back room to my supervisor. She must have seen the panic on my face – she told me to sit down and take some deep breaths. By this point, it felt like an elephant was on my chest and someone had their hands wrapped around my throat. My vision was blurry and I felt like I couldn’t focus on anything. I tried to stand up and fell. For a moment in time, I thought I might actually be dying. I was terrified.

She called an ambulance and by the time they arrived, the mysterious episode seemed to back off. They took me to a local hospital where I waited six hours to be seen.

Somewhere between the arrival at the hospital and the time I left, my symptoms had all but subsided, except for the slight knots in my stomache and thought that perhaps there was something seriously wrong. Or was it that I was just going crazy? Maybe it was all in my head.

After a clean examination, normal blood work results and some convincing from the nurse that I wasn’t completely out of my mind, I went sent home with the recommendation to see my family doctor.

That particularly panic attack spiraled into months of reoccurring episodes and depression and I was finally put on a daily medication and given a benzodiazepine to help alleviate the immediate symptoms of a panic attack. It took time but I eventually went to speak with someone, learned what my triggers were and how to manage them, came off the medication and for the most part, carried on my merry way.

When people spoke about their anxiety stories, I empathized and shared small portions of my own. The further away that episodic summer became, the less I talked about it. I stopped referring to what I had as anxiety and panic attacks and instead replaced it with high-strung or over-thinker. “I’m just a worrier” became my favourite line. Most people can relate to worrying about something at one point or another. I found that if I told people I had anxiety, they either became uncomfortable or thought I was exaggerating. So I just didn’t.

Admittedly, I thought maybe these attacks had disappeared and were just a phase. Had I outgrown them? Every once in a while I’d notice the odd time where I’d feel my heart racing or throat being squeezed but attributed it to an upcoming public speaking event, uncomfortable situation or just being overtired.

Last night, there was no denying anything. My friends and I had planned a festive Canada Day – walking in a parade to support a local business followed by drinks, board games and fireworks. But my anxiety didn’t give a shit about my plans.

During the parade, I started to sweat and feel uncomfortably warm. My cheeks felt like they were on fire and I was sure they were the colour of tomatoes – a stark contrast to my pale skin. Walking in front of thousands of people would make most folks uncomfortable, right? I tried desperately to ignore it while continually checking the status of the parade route. Only two more roads to go. Now one corner. At the end of this street we’ll be done.

When it was finished, I could’t get away from Granville Island fast enough. I was suffocating – the loud music and throes of people weren’t helping. I just needed out.

We stopped at the grocery store on the walk home and as we were checking out, I could feel my heartbeat in my neck – it was pounding so hard it could have been seen across the store. When I glanced at the cashier, a dark line appeared in my vision. I got outside as fast as I could.

“I can’t see” I exclaimed to my friend and husband. I realized how ridiculous I must have sounded.

“Maybe there’s make up in it”, I said, trying to downplay. I knew exactly what it was. And I wished it was just eyeliner. I sat down on a park bench and rubbed my eye. I had them both check it to see if anything was in it. Of course there wasn’t.

We continued walking and they decided I was just dehydrated and needed something to eat. I played along.

At my friend’s apartment, the feeling of being strangled intensified. I downed a few glasses of water and closed my eyes. I could still see the line that was causing my vision to skew even with my eyes closed. Was I having a stroke?

My thoughts were racing but I reverted back to the self-talk I used to do when I panicked. Take a deep breath. Everything will be OK. It’s just a panic attack. You’ll be fine. This will pass.

I started to feel a bit better and joined in a conversation with my friends, talking about my new place, summer plans and work all the while running this cyclical thought through the back of my mind that maybe something was really, seriously wrong with me. (For me, the cyclical thoughts are the worst part – they nag and nag and nag at me and cause my stomache to be in upheaval for days.)

When my arm and tongue went tingly and my stomache turned, I knew I was in trouble. (The mind is an incredibly powerful enemy in these situations.) This was bigger than I’d ever experienced. And the worst part was, I didn’t even know what triggered it.

The walls of the apartment were closing in on me and ran for the balcony. Even with the fresh air around me, I couldn’t find the strength to take a deep breath. I was being strangled from the inside out by my panic and thoughts.

My friend continued to ask if I needed anything – maybe a glass of wine would help? In her mind, she thought it might help me relax and I did appreciate her gesture – she was only trying to make me feel better. Under normal circumstances, yes, I love a little Pinot to help me chill out. A glass of wine in the middle of a full-body, full-blown panic attack would have sent me over the edge that I already felt I was teetering on.

I insisted I was fine before bolting to her bedroom. The group continued to laugh and carry on and I felt incredible envy – how come I couldn’t just be like they were in that moment, free and happy instead of trapped inside their own mind? I started crying and couldn’t stop. I was embarrassed; I was terrified; I was completely out of control.

My husband came in after a moment and tried to console me but I knew only one thing would make me feel better. He gathered our things and quietly said we were heading home. I wiped the tears from my flushed cheeks and came out to say goodbye.

The eyes on me were sympathetic but I still felt the need to apologize. I was incredibly embarrassed that as a 30-year-old woman, I couldn’t pull myself together – or at the very least articulate why I was so upset. I said I was sorry a half dozen times, that I was just a little crazy and I’d be fine – I just needed to get home and eat something.

I missed an opportunity to share what was really going on – something had triggered my anxiety and caused me to have a panic attack that was bigger than I could control in that moment. Instead, I hid behind the same lines that I had been using for so long; the same ones that continue to feed into the negative stereotype associated with anxiety that I so desperately wanted to help break.

By the time we arrived home and I got into my pyjamas, the panic had all but passed and the only thing that remained was the hangover. I put myself to bed early and tried not to dwell on what my friends could have possibly thought about my unusual behaviour. I finally managed to fall asleep.

I apologized profusely this morning again to my husband as soon as I woke up and thought about calling the friend whose party we had to leave early, even though I had told her how sorry I was, through tears, the night before. Thankfully I came to my senses.

Anxiety and panic attacks are not things that we need to apologize for – they’re just a couple of many mental illnesses and disorders that require treatment and support. Someone with diabetes wouldn’t apologize for being diagnosed, so for me to think I need to say sorry for having uncontrollable panic attacks and experiencing anxiety is equally ludicrous.

I won’t apologize for what happened because I couldn’t control it. What I will do is continue to seek support when I need it, and perhaps most importantly, change how I talk about it: I’m not crazy. I’ve not lost my mind. I have anxiety and experience panic attacks. It doesn’t make me any less of anything – it makes me me. If I change the way I talk about it to people, I’m hoping people will echo those words instead of feeding into the negative stereotype and in turn, better understand and support those who experience them. I didn’t choose panic and anxiety – they picked me. And they don’t define me – they’re just a small part of who I am.

I’d also like to respectfully ask for your help – if you suffer from anxiety, or know someone who does, tell them you’re there to talk, whenever they’re comfortable enough. Tell them it’s OK and that you’re there for them. Remind them to take a deep breath. Offer them a hug – or space. Tell them they’re not crazy, even if they insist – because they’re not. Let them know it will get better. Let them talk – or let them be silent. Ask if they want to go for a walk. Offer them a glass of water. Ask them what they need – just please don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Your support will go a long way.

For more information in Canada, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health or BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services.

* Please share any resources you  have below.

Photo credit: PublicSafetyFacts.com.