Two Key Ingredients for Resilience.

The Emigrant – Halifax Harbour

I am gradually realizing that one of the areas of ongoing challenge related to my ABI is the struggle to manage sensory loading in situations that elicit strong emotions. The emotions invariably deal with loss of ability, loss of life, loss or breakdown of relationships, or loss of opportunities.

The emotional loading that comes from experiencing loss is not limited to people I know.  The sense of loss frequently extends to reading or hearing about other people who have suffered significant loss, extreme hardship, death or hearing about people who have overcome serious setbacks through the kindness of others.

What I find interesting is that novels that recreate situations of loss have a minimal emotional impact on me. I absorb the experience as an academic exercise. Despite extensive and realistic character development the characters in novels remain fictitious.

Visiting the Canadian Maritimes

Recently I visited the Maritime museum in Halifax. Being a maritime museum there is no shortage of stories recounting shipwrecks – stories of real people who lost their lives in maritime disasters. The shipwrecks invariably left wives and children mourning which often left them in destitute circumstances. The stories were repeated in several places we visited; other locations in Halifax, in Lunenburg, in North Rustico. Visiting this part of Canada there is no shortage of communities willing to share a heartbreak story with visitors.

The Maritime Museum also housed the story and artifacts of the Halifax explosion. At the beginning of the twentieth century this was the largest man-made explosion to date. While the loss associated with shipwrecks is a calculated risk, the Halifax explosion was a result of a series of unfortunate errors between personnel on two ships in the harbour. One of the ships had a full load of ammunition. The human interest stories that form part of this tragic error are even more heart rending.

Another significant story of loss while visiting the Maritimes is the Acadian experience. We viewed a couple of sites with extensive displays and stories of the experience in Grand Pre, NS and in Miscouche, PEI. The Acadian experience was one of significant loss of life in the process of being expelled by the British, separation of family members, and the trauma of being uprooted from a peaceful way of life. The use of print, audio-visual presentations and life-sized models of the experience creates a vivid depiction of the events.

Pier 21

CNR coach circa 1950

While I managed to pace myself when viewing these historical displays, there was one that proved to be most challenging. The most impressionable experience was our visit to Pier 21. In walking up to the museum of European emigration to Canada I braced myself to keep some emotional distance during the visit. This was the port where my parents landed in 1950. This coincidentally was 25 years to the day that Jane and I got married.

My first impression was the dull green CNR railroad coach orphaned on a section of track to the left of the museum entrance, identical to the one in which my parents travelled. I could picture my parents boarding this coach, newlywed less than a week, minimal command of the English language, less than a hundred dollars in their pocket, riding for two days through December countryside of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, having said good-bye to friends and relatives with the realization they might never see them again. They had chosen Canada over Australia just weeks before emigrating because the next ship leaving for Australia was scheduled much later than they were willing to wait.

Watching my parents riding the coach

I took a few minutes to compose myself before walking to the Pier 21 ticket booth. I realized I needed to keep some emotional distance if I hoped to complete a tour of the museum. On purchasing my admission pass, the first question almost unhinged me. I was asked whether I had any connection to Pier 21. When I mentioned that my parents had landed here in 1950 she welcomed me as a Pier 21 Alumnus as she placed a gold alumnus sticker on my shirt. How to keep a self-imposed emotional distance with that welcome? I was in tears. This put the experience front and centre. Being labelled as an alumnus meant I lost some of my anonymity.

I couldn’t escape the reality. Being an alumnus of Pier 21 has a direct bearing on many aspects of who I am. This place symbolized growing up in an immigrant household, many years of meager means, a bi-lingual upbringing, English technically being my second language, far from grandparents and a stranger to most of my 45 cousins.

Being a Pier 21 alumnus meant I was raised by parents who had big dreams, who had the 20160706_170239will and perseverance to pursue those dreams. Growing up I gradually began to understand that the immigrant ethnic group in which I was raised was not a demographic cross section of those who stayed behind in the ‘old country’. I was raised by parents who made this bold move, much of it for the prospects and wellbeing of their children not yet born.

Taking the guided tour of the building we were shown where my parents and many other emigrants took their first step in this foreign country, the room with wooden benches where they waited for their immigration interview, and had their papers scrutinized before their Canadian status was pronounced legal.

Completing the tour was emotionally tought. Each phase of the tour was a reminder of the magnitude of the decision my parents had made. In the 1950’s emigrating was considered a final goodbye, a goodbye to parents and all other family members.

Accepting Loss

Having experienced unexpected loss following my acquired brain injury, I’ve come to realize how stories of loss are inevitable. I can’t avoid stories of loss. These are stories of real people whether its museum displays, personal stories retold, radio documentaries aired or biographies published. Most of them stories of loss more significant than mine; refugees displaced, indigenous rights violated, corporate interests trouncing traditional ways of life, flood victims displaced, health care denied and the list goes on.

Loss is a significant part of life. It has also highlighted for me that we don’t control our destiny. We have dreams. We make plans. We pursue our goals. How often have I failed to plan with the humble caveat, DV (Deo Volente) “God willing.” There’s something healthy about bringing a level of humility, to downplay the arrogance of planning.

I have begun to accept the reality of experiencing emotions more deeply. In one sense I welcome it. It compels me reflect more deeply on the twists and turns people experience in their life journey. In turn I hope this deepens my sense of empathy as I see challenges unfold around me.

Loss as a partner of Hope

Experiencing loss is a reminder of how small we are. Many of the stories of loss show the flip side of the story, stories of communities rallying, communities unwilling to give up, communities that continue to have hope. This trip was once again an opportunity to take in the stories that gives a particular region or village their identity. In hearing the stories of loss and heart break one can’t help but notice the resilience and fortitude in the telling.

How can stories be shared if hope is absent?

An Amazing Choice!

Bracebridge water wheel
Disabled but not Destroyed

As principal for 11 years at a small Christian school I had the opportunity to bring in a student named Marshall. I had been given periodic glimpses of his life, elementary school and high school. Marshall has cerebral palsy and therefore has very limited mobility and is unable to use his voice. The school I was in did not have the facilities or the financial resources to accommodate Marshal’s needs when he was old enough to enter kindergarten. As a school we could not offer him the opportunities, gifts that he was able to develop elsewhere.

In November 2012 I made arrangements to bring Marshall in to speak with the students. On this particular Monday morning, Marshall shared a captivating message of hope.

Here is an excerpt of what I shared with the school community in the newsletter that was distributed later that same day…

Students … were mesmerized by a presentation given by a student who lives with cerebral palsy. Marshall shared not his disability, but rather his abilities. Despite living with the physically debilitating effects of cerebral palsy Marshal was able to give students a glimpse of his life.

Students had an opportunity to see what life is like when one has challenges moving around. They learned about situations that happen around town when one is not able to speak.

Through conversation with Marshall the students came to a profound appreciation of not only his challenges but also his incredible abilities and determination. Students watched a couple of superbly designed and executed videos that Marshall had developed giving others glimpses of his life. Students were dumbfounded to hear from him that it takes about a month to create a video.

Marshall is able to compose by using a device that scans the alphabet. He selects one letter at a time with a control that he manipulates by moving his head. Students experienced the time consuming nature of using this device during the question and answer time. Students would ask a question and then wait as Marshall formulated an answer one letter at time. The speech synthesizer would then read the response.

At the time I was struck by the quiet patience with which the students waited during the long pauses, at times for two minutes, as Marshall composed his responses.

Students learned that one day Marshall asked is parents to no longer pray for him to be healed from his cerebral palsy. He believed that if he was healed from cerebral palsy he would no longer be the same person. He believes that God created him as he is. He believes that in his cerebral palsy God has a purpose for him.

To quote from last week’s editorial written in anticipation of Marshall’s visit: “… so that God’s power might be seen at work in him.” John 9:3b

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, as the presentation unfolded and as Marshall shared with the students that God’s power clearly is seen at work in him.

I continue to struggle with ABi and the changes that has meant for me. I still identify more closely and prefer the ways in which my pre-life enabled me to contribute to my community and allow me to realize my own goals and aspirations. Given a choice I would go back to my pre-life.

Here was Marshall, living with a diagnosis that put many more constraints on him that I could ever imagine. Yet given the choice he did not want to live in a different body. Given a choice he wants to keep his “pre-life”. For Marshall, life with cerebral palsy is part of his identity. This is how God created him.

Despite regularly being reminded of my limitations I am able to move forward with hope:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,

“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,

plans to give you hope and a future.” 

– Jeremiah 29:11

Potholes in the Road.

Lalande Rd Sturgeon Falls

No matter what road you travel, there’s bound to be a pothole at some point. Potholes can serve one faintly useful purpose, namely testing the resilience of my car’s suspension.

Today was one of those days. I hit some personal potholes. Being short changed on sleep due to the hot weather tested my resilience. I’ve learned by now, the shorter the night the greater my resilience is compromised.

I got out of bed after a 5 hour fitful sleep. My inability to sleep was probably accentuated by the whirring noise of the fan. Don’t know why people call it white noise. For me it was a black hole that zapped every thread of sleep right out of me. At four am I turned the fan off. Why didn’t I figure that out sooner?

After as slow morning I looked forward to taking a nap. If you can call a three hour sleep a nap. It’s not that the three hours cleared up the sleep deficit created by the previous night. Rather, it was a stop gap measure. However, it did little to reduce my physical fatigue or quell my mental fatigue.

The sleep deficit continued to wreaking havoc with my memory. Several times I found myself half way across the house, completely forgetting what I intended to get. Really? In recent months I had progressed to a point where I was able to retrieve two different things without forgetting one or both. Not exactly multi-tasking yet.

The sleep deficit continued to compromise my ability to review and compile a mental list of what needed to be packed for the weekend. The effort was putting my brain into overload. After about 15 minutes I gave up. My mental list read like a shredded to do list.

The sleep deficit continued to block my ability to focus my attention. The more I fought it the more my head rebelled.

It soon became evident that I could not change gears without my body grinding to a halt. Shortly after waking up I had gone to the garden to pick some tomatoes. While I was there I realized the tomatoes needed the soaker hose treatment. While getting the soaker hose I took care of some resilient weeds. Everything was going fine.

Suddenly I was called back to the house. It was time to head out for supper. Somehow I had failed to process this part of the plan a half hour earlier.

Abruptly I had to abandon picking tomatoes. But they were only half picked. I needed to switch my shoes. I looked for a book to take along. While rushing to get ready I felt the pressure to not leave others waiting. I tried to think what else I should take with me. My mind registered a blank. So I quickly ran to the car.

No sooner did I get into the car and buckle my seatbelt when I fell apart. My brain rebelled. I couldn’t see my way through the next block of time. It was like looking into a void. A void lacks a roadmap.

Jane kindly suggested that I not go along. I could stay at home and she would bring home some supper. A practical solution. A workable solution.

From my vantage, I had bailed. I was disappointed. It was the realization that my body could not do what my heart desired.

At this juncture I needed to choose a small world. I needed the familiar; familiar place, familiar routine. Familiar meant less cognitive demands. Familiar meant less chance of meeting the unexpected. I didn’t have the reserves to deal with change.

Being on my own schedule was what I needed; taking my time, switching gears when I was ready to. What I needed was some repetitive physical activity. No instructions to comprehend. No deadline to meet. What fit the bill was taking the next step in making an oversized Jenga game.  Forty eight pieces to be sanded. Pick up one piece. Hold it against the belt sander briefly. Four sides to sand. Pick up the next piece. A repetitive physical activity, unhurried, minimal exertion, the satisfaction of doing something constructive, seeing tangible results. That was the tonic that provided a measure of healing. That served as a stop gap measure to prevent a further drain of my reserves.

For the rest of the day I needed to coast. I wanted to avoid any more potholes at all cost.pothole3

Navigating the potholes is inconvenient but tolerable. I’ve accepted them as part of the journey. While they are not the ‘look forward to’ events, bouncing through them, gives me a reality check. It reminds of my limitations and an indication of some activities that I need to tag as sensory overload culprits. It also gives me a glimpse of the areas in which I am realizing gradual healing.

A Four-fold Miraculous Gift

20160803_164954A Four-fold Miraculous Gift

It was eight days into our extended holiday. I had been experimenting with different strategies to mitigate some of the sensory issues related to traveling. Each day required monitoring activities that threatened to zap the reserves that I would need to complete the day. Each day required adjusting the schedule of activities so that I could replenish my reserves for the next morning.

We arrived at our pre-book campground chosen for its spectacular scenery; Six hundred foot tall bluffs, forty foot tides (38.7 feet to be exact), broad expanses of red beaches, an unlimited opportunities for rock hounding and a tranquil location. That aptly describes Blomidon Provincial Park on the Bay of Fundy.


When we arrived at the campground we had already worked out a refined routine for setting up camp. (The drive to Nova Scotia had included three evenings of setting up camp and three mornings of packing up and pulling out. Between the two of us we each had our tasks. I would set up the camp stove, hook up the propane and make sure the table was functionally level. I would then set up the tent, pump up the air mattress and arrange all the bedding. Meanwhile Jane would set up the campsite; unpack the lawn chairs, retrieve the necessary food supplies and dig out the required cooking utensil prior to preparing our supper. We would share the clean up, the boiling of water for washing, clearing away the dishes and securing the site for the night.

Our time camping at Blomidon turned into four activity-filled days. This included hiking several trails to a ‘look off’ (what most places would call a ‘look out’), cycling, walking along the beach for half a dozen or more kilometers, rock hounding at low tide along the base of the bluffs, reading in the campers` community building in the evening, and excursions into the some of the surrounding villages and historic sites.

After the first night of sleep I decided to unicycle through the campground. It was the first time I had ridden a unicycle since my ABI. I was thrilled to once again experience the delight and sense of awe that children express when they see a unicyclist in action. The children would run to the edge of their campsite and either just stare or be bubbling with questions. I would humour them by idling, which they  would find even more exciting, while answering their questions or responding to their comments. For the very curious I would demonstrate a few extra maneuvers before moving on.

Gift #120160330_135415

The four days of camping was the first time in a year and a half that I experienced no ABI symptoms. The wonder and joy of not having to monitor or curtail my activities gradually washed over me. I can only describe it as a truly miraculous gift. To be able to go through an active 14 hour day and experience no ABI symptoms was truly exhilarating and invigorating. Needless to say, nothing could stop me from increasing my level of activity as each new day dawned.

20160803_182928Gift #2

The absence of ABI symptoms enabled me to help out around the campsite. Being able to pull my weight and feel like I was doing my share of the work gave a boost to my self-worth. It was a glimpse of what I had forgotten had once been possible.

Gift #320160719_153215

The satisfaction of experiencing a restful sleep did not escape me. Being able to sleep ten hours a night brought additional healing. The length of my sleep was the only a subtle reminder of my ABI.

20160803_164954Gift #4

It was four days in which my sense of loss inconspicuously faded away. The emotional toll of being reminded of another loss each time I reached my limit was absent. It didn’t happen with a flourish or fanfare. My sense of loss melted away like a wave being absorbed into sand.

Moving on

The thought of leaving the park on day four was rather upsetting. How could I leave a place that had briefly turned my world ‘right side up’ again? How could I leave a place that had shown me what had once been possible? No stiffness when I woke up each morning because my ‘fight or flight’ response was under control. No consequences from failing to curtail my activities or modifying my plans. No need to plan my day to ensure I didn’t develop sensory overload. No headaches. No blurred vision. No nausea. It was amazing to feel ‘normal’ for a few days.

Some reflection

What was it about my experience at Blomidon Provincial Park that allowed me to shed my ABI limitations for four days? Will the answer escape me or will I come away with some helpful insights?

Was it the narrow range of social interaction while camping with just the two of us? Was it the variety of subtle naturally produced sounds? Even the raucous call of a murder of crows in the top of the trees is easier to deal with than indoor sounds that get amplified as it reverberates off walls and other hard surfaces. Was it the shedding of all the stresses and responsibilities associated with living in a house? Was it the absence of self imposed obligations to participate in community activities? Was it the iodine that mixes into the fresh ocean air that blew through the campsite? (The ‘fight & flight’ response that often subtly accompanies the sensory overload, drain’s one’s adrenalin glands. Iodine taken internally is one way to replenish the adrenalin glands.) Was it just a coincidence – an alignment of the stars?

More questions than answers.

A case for living more simply

One thought is that the four days of ABI respite was partly a result of a simplified life. It allowed for proper sleep hygiene, sleep being important for healing the brain. Each day was comprised of a few simple tasks. Camping involved a lot of physical activity but non-strenuous or stressful. Just to use the washroom involve a 200 meter walk. Getting water required walking two campsites over to a tap fill a bucket and haul it back. Washing dishes involved getting more water, getting it heated on the stove and then washing the dishes with a makeshift set up.

The challenge is to take the possible lessons learned and translate them into new routines and expectations when I am at home.