I Am Unsinkable

The danger of sinking below the surface has been something that I’m well aware of in my life.

The desire to remain on top was learned from an early age.

I grew up as a water baby with older siblings who thought that the only way I would learn to swim was by trying to drown me. I am mostly kidding about that, but I did always try to keep up with them. Those early years in Southern Ontario were a lot of fun, but then just before my 7th birthday we moved. After a year, we moved again. Life still continued to be idyllic until my parents split when I was 11. We moved again to be closer to friends but to my dismay we now lived in town.

It was hard for this country boy to fit in with other kids who had very different interests than mine. I was the new kid with students who had been together most of their school years. I’m not unhappy with how life was, it just shaped me into what I became. Disruption in the family, multiple moves to different schools and the lack of a father figure took a toll. I went from being a confident, fun-loving kid to an insecure boy who didn’t really know how to relax.

As I got into high school, I had a couple good friends and we stuck together through a lot of crazy teen years. I played every sport I could to get me out of the classroom to burn off what I now realize was anger and frustration. I wasn’t a big guy at 5’10” and 140lbs, but I always fought to keep up. In rugby, I played above my size and coach moved me to the scrum with the big guys. I absolutely loved it. I could run very fast all game long and take a beating. During a practice in my final year I woke up looking at a circle of faces over me. I had tackled a guy wrong and took a knee to the jaw. Coach wouldn’t tell me what happened, just that it was no big deal and I just got my bell rung.

Eager to prove how tough I was, I took his word for it and continued on.

I was one course short of grade 13 when my mom decided to move west to Manitoba where the older siblings had gone. I didn’t plan to move but I ended up there anyway. One sunny morning my buddy and I were canoeing in the spring runoff, shooting mini rapids. We had done this before but this was our biggest plan ever. We left one car way downstream and picked a place to start. From the shore the first falls we decided to shoot looked tame enough. We knew exactly where we had to hit it, but the drop was much higher than anticipated. I was in the rear and I’ll never forget the look on my friend’s face when the bow went straight down and the just thawed water flowed over him. “It’s c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-cold!”

Our plan didn’t involve swimming and despite the sun, the air temperature was pretty brisk so we were dressed up and wearing rubber boots. I knew I couldn’t swim in boots in that water so I kicked mine off and struggled to shore. I pulled myself out and looked back. My friend, who I always competed with, and always came in second best to, was caught in an eddy and was too weak to get out. I went back in and hauled him to shore.

The canoe was floating down river and I got elected to go retrieve it. I got to it, threw the rope to my buddy and he pulled me back to shore because I was too whipped by this time to get back. We had to paddle the leaky canoe to the other shore to get back to the car but we made it across before it sank. We stripped off our clothes and turned the heat on high. It took hours to get warm.

I started to realize that talent, or strength is not everything. Even though my buddy was the better athlete he would’ve likely drowned if I hadn’t come back in to get him. My will to survive proved to be what kept us alive. The turmoil as a kid had kindled a fire in me to survive, to beat the odds. I wasn’t the fastest, or most talented, or smartest, but I sure wasn’t going to quit trying. I had been told all my life I couldn’t keep up but that never stopped me.

A few years later, on May 15th,1991 while helping a neighbour on his farm, I destroyed half of my face and damaged my neck and back.

The first hospital wasn’t up to dealing with me so I was transferred to a city hospital. I had stopped responding to the myriad of doctors who kept coming to poke me to check my reactions. In my mind it was a conscious decision but I was probably in a coma at this time. I heard the doctors discussing me. “The best case scenario is that he’ll be a vegetable but he’ll probably die.”

Today, when I’m talking about my story I joke that they were right about me being a vegetable since I look like Mr Potato Head with the lack of hair and a round belly.

But that day, I knew my friends were praying for me and dying was not an option for me.

Because it was expected that I would die, they didn’t operate on me right away. A nurse named Vivian (Vivian means “Alive”) was tasked with trying to keep me alive. Away from the doctors, I talked and joked with Vivian. She was a part time nurse, putting in hours to keep up her license, and she wasn’t told much about me. I don’t know what she did to/for me, but she helped nurture that will in me to never quit.

The next time I saw her was after surgery. She came to me in tears, apologizing for not realizing how serious of a case I was. I told her that she was what I needed.

Now when I’m hurt bad, I make jokes, and try to cheer up others around me who are worried about me.

My wife was 7 months pregnant with our 3rd child at the time of my accident and when our little girl was born we named her Vivian Joy to celebrate my survival and the nurse who was essential to it.

The next 10 years were a struggle of work, kids, anger, frustration at knowing something was wrong but not knowing exactly what it was. I thought I needed to push harder. There was no way I had mental health issues. I didn’t believe in depression!

My family doctor was good, but brain injuries weren’t understood very well in the 90’s. Today we’ve come a long way, but there’s a lot more to be learned. I prided myself on my toughness and made life hell for co-workers and family. I had no time for so-called ‘weakness’.

Thankfully, in 2001, while sleeping in my semi in Tallahassee, Florida, a rookie driver ran into my truck. My resulting head and neck injuries weren’t nearly as severe but the effect was worse.

After I was flown home, I started getting the help that I so desperately needed. I started to understand depression, panic attacks and the connection with my childhood and head traumas.

Again, I was written off. Doctors said I would never be capable of doing more than pumping gas for more than 10 hours a week. But six years later I was back working full time. Driving a truck. Giving up and sinking beneath the surface of life was no option for me.

I decided to learn about my depression and mental health issues. I searched for information on head injuries, went to therapy classes, researched on my own and asked other people about their own experiences.

I wept when I realized how much better I could’ve been if I had been willing to learn in the 90’s. It was a very humbling and crushing time in my life. My will to survive was alive and well, but it was being tempered with humility and acceptance for who I had become. The knowledge I gained was teaching me that pushing hard wasn’t always the correct method of recovery.

More testing came on May 10th, 2016 when I fell from around 13 feet high onto a paved road on to the back of my head. In the following months, sick, nauseous, with constant severe headaches along with many other post-concussion symptoms, I wished I had died. I’d had suicidal thoughts before, but this was getting bad.

I had been constantly rehabbing since 1991. I had always pushed hard and partially due to head injuries, I injured myself many times. Broken elbows, blown out knee, ankles and herniated disks plagued me and I was tired of it all.

At this point, my will to survive was dangerously low.

As a last ditch effort I was put into a mind, body and soul rehab program. Either I would graduate back to work or I would be retired for life. It was initially an 8-week program but no one, not even myself, expected that I would succeed. A few weeks into the program, our education therapist came to me, peered deep into me, put her finger on my chest and proclaimed, “David. Remember who you are. You have a story to get out.”

But I had forgotten. I had lost my way. Because of my childhood and the bullying, I had always tried to help the lost and the downtrodden. But I had forgotten that I was a helper. She saw that. She didn’t know all of my story, but she knew what was hiding inside. I started helping other patients, especially those with head trauma. My 8 weeks turned into 15 and against all odds, I graduated. But when I went back to work, I was told that I was no longer needed. I was viewed as a liability. My workers compensation options were exhausted at this point and I was on my own.

I was unemployed, broke, technically able to work but not sure how good I would be in the workforce.

I’d had an idea that I might get fired so I had prepared a resume and gotten a driver’s abstract. I spent some time crying in a parking lot and then I moved on. I was not going to sink and lose all that I had gained. I knew of 3 companies where I wanted to work so I went to the first place. Somehow I got an interview and a few days later I signed on. Two and a half years later I’m still there and so thankful the boss took a chance on me. It is because of him that I’m able to continue to get my story out and to be a help where I can. They don’t just allow me to do this, they encourage me to keep it up.

I don’t know how long I’ll be able to continue driving a truck, but I know that whatever happens, I’ll continue to work at being a better man.

I’m thankful for the crazy twists and turns in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for an easy life. Every hard step has made me better. I know of some of the lives that I’ve touched and that’s very special. Looking back it seems amazing, but it’s really been just single days and moments of never quitting. Each moment you never give up is another victory. One more pull of your arms through the waters of life. Then another. And another…

We are all Unsinkable.