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.

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My adult Christmas wish list

As a kid, writing my list to Santa was one of my favourite holiday memories. I spent weeks thoughtfully researching my list, based on playground gossip, ads that appeared between segments of Saved By The Bell and Goosebumps and the weekly Toys ‘R Us flyer.

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My Dad and brothers in the midst of a wrapping paper tornado on Christmas morning.

On Christmas morning, there was a smattering of presents around the tree and I almost always found my entire wish list wrapped in colourful paper – and then some. Our tree was beautifully decorated, there was family around and plenty of food to eat – I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were luckier than most.

I distinctly remember one Christmas at my Uncle Jerry’s place; I was excited my grandparents bought me a Nano Baby so I could “practice” my babysitting skills. I glanced over at my Uncle and was horrified by his pile – tea towels, kitchen utensils and lame grown-up stuff.

Sensing my eyes on him (and noticing the scowl on my face), he said “wait ‘til you get older kiddo – these sort of presents will make you excited, too.”

I couldn’t imagine ever being thrilled about something as ridiculous as a matching tea towel set – there were just too many other cool things I wanted like new clothes and gadgets and a TV for my room and the latest shoes. Those were the important things.

Fast forward 15 or so years and, thankfully, I’ve changed my tune. (Yes, you were right, Uncle J).

In fact, I had a really hard time giving my fiancé ideas this year. There really isn’t anything I need – or want – for that matter. I have more clothes and shoes than I know what to do with; we can afford to pay our rent and still save a little; we have a fully stocked fridge and we live in a beautiful city. We’re healthy, happy and if anything, still spoiled by many people’s standards.

It got me thinking… if I could make a list of all of the things I wanted whether they were attainable or not, what would it look like?

So, behold, my first official adult Christmas list. (Bear in mind, I don’t have kids, so you’ll notice an absence of “a weekend away from parenting” type inclusions below.)

  • Health

I plan to be around for another 50 or so years and will do my part to eat well and exercise, but I know sometimes that’s not enough. So, if I could have a guarantee my health would be as pristine as it is now, I’ll take two please.

  • Family & friends

My family and friends are amazing, even through we drive each other mental sometimes. Still, I don’t know what I’d do without them so please keep them around for the next several decades as well.

  • A year month without bills.

I completely took for granted not having to pay bills as a kid – I had no idea my parents made monthly mortgage, hydro, food, water, electricity and insurance payments. And this doesn’t even touch activities or savings. Life is expensive and I wouldn’t mind a month off… or two. If you’re really feeling generous, a year would be spectacular.

  • Magical restocking fridge

Life is expensive (see above). Plus, going to the grocery store is about as much fun as getting a leg wax. How awesome would it be to have a fridge that restocked itself?  If it could also throw a few bottles of Pinot in there every so often, I’d be in heaven.

  • More time

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s found themselves out somewhere or on holiday or just sitting with someone and wishing to hold onto the moment a bit longer. So, I’ve added having more time for the things that are important – and the ability to hang onto those moments – as a wish list item.

  • A weekend of adolescent-inspired sleep

As a teenager, I could sleep through an earthquake. Now, if someone in the apartment three floors above me rolls over in their bed, I’m jolted awake – and stay that way for hours. Just for a weekend, I’d love to sleep in late without being woken up by something six floors up four times a night.

  • White Christmas

Call me a hopeless romantic, but there’s something so beautiful about waking up on Christmas morning to freshly fallen snow…. Except when it covers your doors and windows. So, if someone could arrange for a snow fall overnight on December 24 that’s not too excessive, and then melts before we have to drive in it, I’d be a satisfied customer.

So, there you have it Stu. I’m not entirely sure how you wrap some of those, but perhaps when you find out where to get them, the place will offer a gift wrapping service.

What’s on your wish list that money can’t buy?

 

Media pager: Who really deserves compassion

As part of my job, I’m on a rotating media pager schedule. Essentially, we’re on call after hours for any media inquiries that come in during the weeks its our turn. It’s a common practice for many communications department both private and public sector. In a world where we crave – and are used to – information anytime, anywhere, being accessible and available is crucial, especially during emergencies.

As important as it is, media pager duty can be a drag – I don’t sleep well for fear of snoozing through a call; I plan my time around “what ifs” and I can’t go far from the city, just in case.

It sucks even more when there’s a major incident like the bus crash tonight and every media outlet in western Canada calls at three-minute intervals for, literally, hours on end.

I was feeling sorry for myself and nursing my adrenaline hangover when I thought about what is really sad about situations like these: families who are on the other end of the phone getting the news their loved one was in an accident or the first responders who put everything they have into saving someone but can’t, or the hospital staff who inevitably work overtime and miss their family events, birthdays and holidays to make sure every patient coming in is taken care of in a way they’d expect.

So, after hours of fielding calls, chasing down outlets to correct misinformation and repeating updates for what felt like the 1,000th time, I sit here feeling pretty grateful.

Thanks to all of the people involved in the rescue, transport and care of the patients tonight and during every incident. It’s an inspiring reminder of why the work we do is so important.

Ok, now someone please pass me a glass of wine.

What does courage mean, anyway?

Courage is a word that we often hear associated with people who save lives or are taking risks to change the world. It’s not a word you normally use to describe people who voluntarily turn their lives upside-down. A year and a half ago, my girlfriend used it in this different context.

We were sitting on her couch catching up after I moved into my sister’s place. My marriage had ended, my ex and I had sold our house and divided all our property. It was the loneliest and saddest and lost I had ever felt – and it was entirely my doing.

She carefully asked how I was coping. We sipped wine as I told her I was scared and had no idea what I was doing but deep down, something told me it might be the right thing. I said I felt felt horribly guilty for hurting someone I cared about.

“It took a lot of courage to do what you did.”

Pardon? 

There’s nothing courageous about breaking someone’s heart or choosing to walk away from a life that by all accounts, was relatively comfortable and happy by most people’s standards.

The definition of courage is the ability to do something you know is difficult or dangerous.

I’ve started to realize that perhaps she didn’t mean it took courage to break someone’s heart, or sell my house or eventually move out west later that summer – what really took courage was being true to myself. It just manifested itself in those actions.

There is courage in having the gonads to chase what you truly want. I was scared beyond belief when my marriage ended, when I sold my house and when I moved out west. I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing or where I’d end up. I just knew I needed to try. 

I also had to accept that happy by most people’s standards doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness for me. We each are responsible for defining and living our own happiness – whether what means a nomadic life of travelling around the world solo, settling down with kids mid-20s, climbing the corporate ladder at any expense or having a family later on.

A wise friend recently said he’d rather regret doing something than wake up one morning and
realized he hadn’t done anything at all. It’s a great way to look at things.

Too many people do what other people think is the right thing to do or don’t follow what they truly want for fear of rejection or perhaps hurting other people. I know this firsthand. The only thing more painful than hurting someone you care about it is lying to yourself.

A nurse studied and wrote about the top regrets of the dying a few years ago and the main sense of remorse was not having the courage to live a true life and not pursuing what made them happy. So, it appears I’m in good company, although thankfully I’m not dying – just yet anyway.

The difference between those folks on their death bed and me is that I’m chasing what I want to do now while I still have the time. I’ll learn from their mistakes and make the life happen that I want to live, instead of living the life everyone else thinks I should. 

If that makes me courageous, then so be it. Let’s be honest, I’ve been called way worse.

Was there a time you felt scared to make a big change? What inspired you to do it?

29 years, 29 lessons

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me knows I’m a bit of a birthday diva. One night of drinks or celebrating isn’t enough – I generally extend the party over the entire month of February. Although it’s the shortest month of the year, for my friends and family, it probably feels like the longest.

This year, it’s my last 20-something birthday…. Or my first (of many) 29th birthdays – however you want to look at it.

To celebrate, I’m going out with friends (again) and sharing some of the most important things I’ve learned over the past nearly three decades. Whoa.

  1. Getting old is a privilege denied to many. I’ve lost enough people in my life and wished I had more time with them. Instead of wishing away my birthdays or whining about getting “old” I truly celebrate it. All. Month. Long.
  • Loyal friends are hard to come by – hang onto them. In our professional and personal lives, we’re constantly meeting people. It’s not hard to find folks who share similar interests, or who will grab a drink after work or go for a walk on the weekends with you. Loyal friends are harder to come by – they’re the friends who defend you behind your back instead of stabbing it and will check in on you instead of simply saying ‘let me know if you need anything’ because they know you need help but won’t ask for it. Cherish these friends – they’re few and far between.
  • Time is a great healer for a lot of things except my paralyzing fear of spiders. That only seems to have gotten worse.
  • Family is forever, but they won’t be around forever. Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives we let weekly phone calls slip and emails go unanswered. Since losing my Dad, I’ve made a valiant effort to try and stay in better touch with my family. No one on their death bed said they wished they stayed in less frequent contact with those who love them.
  • Changing how other people feel or think is about as plausible as me giving up wine – it’ll never happen. Learning I have no control over what other people think of me or how they feel towards me has been a hard but important lesson. I can’t make someone like me just like someone can’t make me feel a certain way towards them. It’s crummy, but it’s true.
  • Having a passion is as important as oxygen – we need it to feel alive. Getting back the ice after a 10-year hiatus was one of the best choices I ever made for myself. I didn’t realize how much I loved it – or missed it – until I laced up my skates and just did it. I may not be the best skater in the world, but I love being on the ice and have a hell of a lot of fun making an idiot of myself doing it. It gives me purpose outside of work and adds another layer to the complex, hormonal monster that is Alyshia.
  • Giving back is essential. If you’re reading this, you have access to either a computer or mobile device – you’re miles ahead of more than half the people we share the world with. We sometimes get caught up in our own miniscule problems like shitty Wi-Fi connections or not having enough money to go out with friends with the fourth time in a week that we forget there are people who are fighting for their life every day. Some of my most satisfying and memorable experiences have come from giving back – it’s an amazing feeling to know that in some small way, you can help make life a little easier for another person be it through donating time, money or other resources.
  • Health, like time, can’t be bought. All the money in the world means absolutely SFA when you don’t have your health. You can only drink to excess, smoke, eat chocolate for dinner and not exercise for so long before it starts to catch up with you.
  • Fear is great motivation. I made a lot of choices over the past couple of years that scared the shit out of me. I made them because I knew they were the right choice without knowing where my next step would be. For a compulsive planner like me, it was terrifying but so far, it hasn’t killed me. And I’ve learned a few things along the way. So, embrace the fear and go for it. You’ll get there, I promise.
  • Saying ‘no’ without offering any explanation is incredibly liberating. I’m kind of a ‘yes’ gal. I say yes to coworkers, to friends, to family and commit to things I know I probably shouldn’t take on but do anyway. It’s caused me stress, tears and heartache. I was always worried if I said no once, it meant no forever. Now, I’ve realized it’s OK to say no and not feel bad or feel obligated offer an explanation.  Sometimes, the answer is just no – end of story. And trust me, people will ask you again.
  • Never underestimate the healing powers of a good cry and a tub of Luna and Larry’s chocolate peanut butter ice cream.
  • My body doesn’t bounce back after a night out on the town quite as quickly as it did when I was a teenager. A round of shots when I was 19 meant the party was just getting started.  At 29, it’s a punishment – it’s a sure fire way to guarantee I’ll be hugging the porcelain god later and dragging my ass around the entire weekend trying to recover. And partying on weeknights? I’d rather get a Brazilian than deal with a hangover at work.
  • There’s no shame in having a night in, even if it’s a weekend. Spending a night in on the couch binge watching Orange Is The New Black in my Winnie The Pooh onsie doesn’t mean I’m necessarily missing out on anything spectacular if my girlfriends are on the town… except maybe a wicked, weekend long hangover (see above).
  • Crosswords are nearly impossible to complete without cheating a little bit. Sometimes, you just have to turn to your trusted friend Google for the answer. Yes, I’m a communications professional but I’m a terrible thesaurus. I mean, how many ways are there to say fight, seriously?
  • Confidence goes a long way to helping you get what you want, be it landing a job, getting asked on a second date or just being approached by someone who needs help. If you’re not confident on the inside, fake it til’ you make it.
  • Learning to cook more than three meals is key to surviving living on your own and not becoming the size of a house Especially if one of those meals is KD. Plus, it impresses dinner guests when you can whip up a signature dish that doesn’t come from a box and has more than two ingredients.
  • Cheap wine is not always bad wine and expensive wine is not always good wine. Sometimes it takes trial and error to differentiate between the two. Accidently picked up a bottle of sub-par vino? Pair it with some cheese and girlfriends – they’ll help it make it bearable.
  • On that note, a good, trustworthy, reliable girlfriend is worth her weight in gold. I’m fortunate to have a great group of gals I can call on when I want to go out, need to vent, or just be brought back down to reality. I wouldn’t be where I am without the ladies in my life and I’m eternally grateful for their friendship…. And their wardrobes, which I occasionally borrow.
  • Before you can truly enjoy the company of others, you have to appreciate your own (Thanks Auntie Sandra.) If you can’t stand being around you, how can you expect other people to? I was 25 before I took myself out to the movies solo and 27 before I went to a restaurant to eat by myself without a book or phone to distract me. I wish I’d done it sooner. Escaping daily distracting to spend a bit of time your own and inside your own head is a gift too many people deny themselves. Without distraction, you can think, you can process, you can reflect, you can just be you without having to worry about everything else around you.
  • Trying to keep up with The Jones’ is like trying to roll a boulder up a mountain. It’s hard, it’s exhausting and if you keep at it long enough, it’ll eventually destroy you – and your bank account. Family and true friends don’t give a crap if you’re wearing Prada or second hand, as long as you’re happy and being true to yourself.
  • You only have one pair of feet – take care of them and they’ll continue to carry you where you need to go. Crappy shoes make for angry feet, hideous bunions and painful blisters. I learned this lesson the hard (and sore) way.
  • Just because something has always been a certain way, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Variety is the spice of life, or so they say. Sometimes changing things up leads to better things. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll got a good story out of it.
  • A relationship has to go both ways. When one person gives more effort, passion or understanding most of the time, they’ll eventually start to feel taken advantage of. You may not agree with or like everything your partner does, but at the end of the day, they’re still human and they’re choosing to be with you as much as you are with them. Reciprocate efforts, be respectful, show affection and be empathetic – or you’ll risk losing them.
  • Worrying about things or situations that may or may not happen is a bigger waste of time than watching Glitter. Anxiety is something I’ve battled my entire life and have only just gotten control over the past few years. I’ve worried about what other people may or may not think, I’ve worried what they’ll do, I’ve “what if’d” every god damn situation in my life, right down to what would happen if I sent a particular work email, which resulted in me thinking I’d lose my job, be sued by someone who didn’t even know I existed and end up on the streets. Seriously. All of the energy I’ve wasted worrying about stuff that never happened or was something I had no control over could power the city of Beijing for a year. If you can’t control the outcome, let it go. Things will happen as they’re supposed to, both good and bad.
  • Sudoku is impossible to master.
  • Your outlook is a choice. There are some things beyond our control – whether we’re 6’1 or 5’2 or whether we inherited Aunt Jean’s crooked nose. But how we look at things is something we are definitely in power of. Being positive and focusing on moving forward and improving instead of dwelling on nonsense issues speaks volumes about who you are as a person. Positive people attract positive relationships, situations and experience.
  • Forgive yourself as easily as you forgive others. You wouldn’t hold a grudge for the rest of your life against someone for making an innocent mistake, so grant yourself the same courtesy. Mistakes are part of being human. And, sometimes, they’re kinda fun to make on purpose.
  • Coming up with 29 things that I’ve learned was really freaking hard. 

What’s the most important or meaningful lesson you’ve learned?

Easing back into blogging…. West-coast style

It’s been 18 months since I last posted on my blog. 18 MONTHS. A lot can happen in that time. In fact, a lot has.
I’ve moved four times: out of my first house and into my former in-laws, from there I bounced to my sister’s and a year and a bit ago, I packed my entire life into my little red Mazda and drove 4,800 kilometres with a girlfriend in search of a new beginning. Then, I moved into my own place. 
In September 2013, I started the job that enabled me to fulfill a pipe dream I had at 18 years old to relocate to BC. Now, I’m living it. It still feels totally surreal. Except the rain. The excessive rain feels very real. And wet. 
The first couple of weeks felt like a vacation. I started my new job, met people at work, shopped, and celebrated with friends I already had in the city. I was foolish enough to think that life would continue to carry on with my feet floating above the ground.
My crap literally invaded my aunt & uncle’s place

A few weeks in and with my much of my stuff still sitting in suitcases that were tucked into every corner of my aunt and uncle’s townhome, reality started to sink in.

Run dates with my sister were replaced by FaceTime calls where I could see her but not visit her. I had to get used to living in someone else’s house, again, surrounded by their things and their routine, which caused me to feel displaced. I missed my friends. I missed my family. I missed home.
I spent weeks, perhaps even months, second guessing some of the choices I had made both before I left and since I arrived in Vancouver. It’s taken some time, but I finally feel like I’ve settled in and can call this beautiful city ‘home’ without feeling like a total fraud….. Except for the fact that I still don’t know how to speak Starbucks. 
I’ve promised myself that I’m going to start blogging again – even if it is just once a week. I mean, my life isn’t THAT exciting. So, grab a glass of shiraz or pinot and read on – I’ll be sharing some experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and hopefully providing some entertainment along the way.
Stay tuned!

An Enviable Legacy – My Dad’s Story of Donation

“Your father will never wake up.”
On a hot July afternoon in a cramped family meeting room at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, those six words changed my life forever.
Only five days before my Dad, Malcolm Higgins, had been in a single-vehicle car accident. He sustained a critical brain injury and was in a coma. At first, my siblings and I were hopeful. Over the course of the next few days, we quickly became familiar with diffuse axonal brain injuries, EEGs, and how the Glasgow Coma Scale worked.
When the doctor delivered the grave prognosis, I didn’t believe him. Surely, my Dad would recover. He was strong, he was healthy – he was just 49 years old.
By day, he was a paralegal and professor at Everest College. He was well-respected, passionate and intelligent.
By night he was a rock star, singing in one of the best AC/DC tribute bands in the country. He was incredibly talented musically and tried as hard as he could to pass it onto my three younger siblings and I.
As youngsters, instead of reading bedtime stories, he sang to us. The four of us knew the words to AC/DC, Steve Miller Band and Guns and Roses before we could recite the alphabet.
He was full of life, energy, and ambition and would never have wanted to live hooked up to machines indefinitely, completely incapacitated. We made the decision to withdraw life support, but I never imagined at 24 years old, I would be the one signing the papers to do it.
Shortly after we received the news, my siblings, my dad’s father, sister and I were approached by an organ and tissue donation coordinator who talked about the possibility of donating Dad’s organs.
The choice to donate Dad’s organs was an easy one – he had always discussed it with us and had registered to become an organ donor should the opportunity present itself.
For us, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make, just a decision made during a difficult time.
The night we let my Dad go, three of his four kids were by his bedside, along with his older sister. We brought in our iPod, played AC/DC and waited. In order for him to be eligible for donation, he had to pass away within two hours of being removed from the ventilator.
The wait was agonizing and as my Dad slowly slipped away before my eyes, I thought about the irony of the situation: he was in one of the best hospitals in the country and the very people who we had hoped would save him were standing around waiting for him to die. It just didn’t make sense.
Thirty-three minutes after we began the process, my Dad passed away. His final heartbeat was perfectly in tune to the last note of Thunderstruck, which was always the finale at his shows.
On July 14, 2010, seven days after his initial accident, I made the most difficult phone call of my life and told my grandfather his only son had taken his last breath. It gave me a small bit of comfort knowing that simultaneously, three other families were receiving the best news of theirs.
I knew donating his organs was the right decision and it meant we were honouring his wishes. I knew lives were going to be saved because of him. What I didn’t appreciate was the profound the impact his donation was going to have on my own.
A few weeks after my Dad passed, I read an article in the Toronto Star about organ donation. I was amazed the impact this gift had on the recipient that I reached out to the reporter to thank her for the piece.
Two months later, she emailed and asked if my family would like to be featured to talk about the donor side. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
Together with my sister, we told my Dad’s story: how he told us his wishes in advance; that he carried around a blank donor card in case he met someone who wanted to consent on the spot; and about the young child with leukemia he helped save by donating bone marrow so many years prior.
Five months to the day Dad passed away – December 14 – I received the most incredible Christmas present: letters from Dad’s double lung recipient and two of his family members. Trillium Gift of Life Network facilitates anonymous contact between recipients and donor families. Neither side is obligated to write a letter or reply to anything they’ve received but it gives an opportunity to reach out if you wish.
Here was his letter to us:
Dear Donor Family,
As I begin to write this letter of thankfulness, I have mixed emotions. I am so very sorry for the loss of your loved one who has so generously donated their lungs for transplantation.
I am so grateful to be the recipient of your loved ones generous donation. My quality of life has improved dramatically, as has my wife’s – my caregiver.
Prior to my operation, I had been on oxygen since 2003. Almost immediately after my operation, I did not require oxygen for life support.
I am so grateful to you, the Donor Family, for donating this precious Gift of Life to me.
Now I will be able to continue my life in good health with my wife, family and friends.
From a Grateful Recipient 
For a long time, I was angry my Dad had been taken from me. I was frustrated because I felt he had so much life left in him. I was angry at him, at the accident, at fate, at everything surrounding his death.
Getting these letters really touched me and proved to me what I knew all along: my Dad did have a lot of life left in him. His lungs give every single breath to a man, allowing him to hug his wife, kiss his daughters and walk up the stairs without gasping for breath. His kidneys saved two other men from the rigorous routine of dialysis and his eyes have given sight to two others.
After receiving the letters, I knew I had to become involved and continue telling his story.
I began volunteering with Trillium Gift of Life Network. The first year he was gone, his story was featured in several newspapers, placed second at a film festival in California, and was shared at more than 10 different speaking presentations. 
We also finally gathered the courage to write back to his double-lung recipient and within two weeks had another set of letters from him. This time, he shared he was visiting his family for the first time in Alberta in 10 years and that he was finally able to sing like he used to. He and my Dad had more in common than we realized.
A year-and-a-half after my father’s death, I was invited by a fellow volunteer, who was a recipient, to Toronto General’s annual lung transplant party. Merv thought it would be appropriate for me to learn about another piece of the donation puzzle – the wait list.
There were about 100 people at the party – recipients, family members, those waiting along with staff and physicians. Merv was walking my sister and I around the room, introducing us to nearly everyone. Just when I thought we were finished, he introduced us to a man named Richard. He was a short, older gentleman and looked to be about 70 years old.
He indicated he was a recipient – his transplant was July 2010 – and had written to his donor family. My sister and I were touched and thanked him immensely. After all, the reason I became involved was because the recipient had the courage to reach out to us a year before.  
“Do you know much about your recipient, because I know a lot about my donor”, he said to us. “I know he was a former police officer, he had four kids and he sang in an AC/DC band.”
For a moment, I thought I might pass out. My sister started crying as Richard slowly connected the dots. His chin began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears.
I managed to find my voice and said, “you have my Dad’s lungs.”
My sister and I with Richard.
Tears running down his face, he grabbed mine and my sister’s hands and pulled us through the crowded room to where his wife was standing.
“Joan, meet our donor daughters,” he said. She, too, couldn’t believe it.
Through our tears and hugs, we quoted the letters back and forth to make sure Richard really was my Dad’s recipient. After a couple of minutes, there wasn’t a doubt in our minds it was him. As it turns out, he and his wife live 20 minutes from my house.  We’ve stayed in close contact and even had the opportunity to meet his two daughters, who are my father’s age.
Since meeting Richard in December 2011, I’ve continued with my volunteer work. I wrote an article for the United Kingdom’s Live Life Then Give Life organization, who featured my Dad, a Scotland native, on their website. I started a group called the York Region Gift of Life Association to help raise the low registration rates in our community. In less than a year, we’ve attended or participated in more than 50 events and presentations and recruited a force of 30 amazing volunteers. We also spearheaded the largest organized registration drive in Ontario’s history, supported from all three levels of government. I’m humbled to be a very small part of what this inspirational group accomplishes – they truly are incredible.
Dad always said his four kids would be easily able to surpass his achievements in life and that we would amount to greater things than he ever could. I beg to differ.
There is no greater gift you can give someone than life itself, and he’s done that three-fold.
The man whose selfless decision saved three lives and gave sight to two others; the man whose selfless decision has been featured in three countries and dozens of articles; and he man whose selfless decision motivated his four children and countless others was my father and for that, I couldn’t be more proud.
April 22 to 26 National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week. Right now, there are nearly 1,500 people waiting for a life-saving transplant in Ontario. Please, please register your consent at beadonor.caand speak to your family about your wishes.