How A Near-Death Experience Changed My Life

Life is relentless. Ever-changing, shifting, and evolving. Each day we add to our personal stories. Everyone has a story. I often reflect on how we come to be within our story. Who contributes to the narrative that we carry as our story? I recall seeing an ad for Harley Davidson motorcycles: ‘When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.’ For a long time, I wasn’t the author of my story. Outside pressure forged an internal belief that I held. I let the outside world hold the pen and I carried that story the world wrote for me for far too long. I wish I learned earlier if you don’t author your own story, someone else will. I gave my pen to stigma.

For some, having your story written by others may serve you. Perhaps the world says you are brave, smart, or strong. You internalize this message and it motivates you. I internalized a different message—the story says that people who navigate fractured self-esteem or mental health are broken. As a teenager, I hit rock bottom. I lived with so much pain and despair that a healthy future seemed impossible and unattainable. But that despair and hopelessness can lift. Like a storm that is blocking the light, the light still exists even when we can’t see it. My future was there all along. I just had to fight for it. And that fight started with taking back my story.

My todays are filled with opportunities, privileges, and a deep sense of purpose and meaning. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that this life would be available to me.

I feel loved; I can love; I am enough. My head, heart, and values are finally aligned.

I am surrounded by family – a loving and supportive husband, Jeff, and three children who I am completely and totally in love with: Hunter, Ava Lesley and Jaxson. We have two playful puppies—Luna and Apollo –- and even three wee rescue cats. All share this bright and joy-filled life and home with me. Dear friendships and meaningful opportunities to be of service to others fill my days. I never dared to imagine what 40-year-old Robyne’s life would look like because for most of my adolescence I was told I would not see 18 years old.

I have lived a life cast in armour that protected me and those I loved. I tried to distance myself from my teenage-self because it held so much embarrassment, guilt, and hurt. As a former Grade 10 high school dropout, I put 10 years of university education, including a doctoral degree, between who I was then and who I am now. Interestingly, running away from who I was in the past motivated me to achieve some ambitious goals, but when I met those goals, I did not feel fulfilled. I found fulfillment only when I realized I was enough all along. But stigma tried so hard to tell me otherwise. Stigma was holding me back.

My mental health challenges started as early as 8 years old and carried into my twenties. Living with depression and a fractured sense of self-worth was not even the hardest part. The hardest part was recognizing that the stigma and shame that I felt for decades and carried with me everywhere, from primary school all through to adulthood, was created by a society. Faceless people and noise shaped a collective consciousness that says people who struggle are broken. Well, society, I have taken the brokenness of my life, the years of hurt, embarrassment, shame, depression, rejection, fear, self-doubt–you name it, and I have created my personal masterpiece. I believe wholeheartedly that others can too. We can all be proud of the mosaic of our lives. My head, heart, and values are in alignment.

My resiliency is anchored to my soul because of a single sentence: I can do hard things. This sentence turned into to a belief that changed my life.

As a 16-year-old, I was completely lost. My days were dark and my future seemed to be something I could never catch. And yet miraculously, I was found clinging to the edge of the ice of the Otonabee River in the darkest hours of February 7th, 1996. I was driving home one night as a blizzard rolled in. My driver’s license was weeks old, and the road conditions were treacherous for any driver. In the glow of headlights bouncing off walls of snow, I recall hearing a loud bang and feeling the dirt from my floor mat hit my face. Moments later, I felt my vehicle being swept away by a mighty force that my brain could not process. And then I felt it – a sudden and aggressive wave of water struck my face and engulfed the vehicle. I took one last gasp for air as my vehicle became my tomb. The cold water pierced every part of my body. Soon it began to fill my lungs. They burned. I wished my body to surrender quickly.

My thoughts did not linger on the fear; rather I embraced a memory of my mother. To this day, I still recall feeling deeply saddened that we were going to be apart. I did not want to die like this. In that moment, I recalled how my mom used to say, “Robyne can get herself out of anything – homework, chores, and even difficult situations. Robyne is a problem solver – Robyne can do hard things.” My mind made a decision and my heart followed suit. I was going to try to live.

Step 1: Get out of the seat belt. Step 2: Get out through the window. Step 3: Get to the top of the water which was completely black and my vision blurred. I couldn’t tell which way was up. The headlights lit the most eerie and frightful scene. I was completely disoriented in the deep, frigid waters. The vehicle was being pulled downstream and sinking with each passing second. I used the last of my energy to quiet my mind. I made the decision to let the final drops of air slip through my lips and follow the bubbles up.

When I reached what I thought was the surface of the water I felt ice and, at the same time, waves of exhaustion pulling me down. The current was pulling me aggressively downstream, dragging me under the ice. My winter coat and boots felt like cement. My body was fighting the edges of despair and once again part of me wished to surrender and make this end. But, I also knew I just had to get to the edge. My hands scrambled to grab the edge. I felt the flesh of my palms tearing as the ice ripped my frozen skin. I gasped my first breath of air—a million razor blades tearing my lungs apart. Every cell throbbed with exertion and screamed in pain. Waves of exhaustion and a nagging feeling of sleep took over me. Then I heard it—a faint sound coming from the darkness. Someone was out there! My mind was screaming but no sound escaped my lips. Finally, I heard his voice: “Help is on the way. I am Joseph.”

Believing in my bones that I can do hard things changed my life. After my accident, I made the decision to keep fighting and create a healthier self. The voice inside me that doubted and held me back for years was replaced that night with the steadfast belief that I could do hard things.

Life is hard. Recovery and getting help is hard. Loving yourself and forgiving yourself is hard. Thankfully, we all can do hard things.

I believe one of the biggest barriers to asking for help is the stigma that persists around mental health in our society. Stigma is a social cancer. Stigma is also multifaceted. In my experience, the stigma of getting help differs from the stigma that I used to carry with me into my recovery. I felt stigmatized as someone who had experienced a mental health episode. I felt branded as someone who became broken in her adolescence and was therefore an unlikely candidate for a healthy future. I felt like a time bomb; at any moment, whatever I built could be lost.

A lot of life has happened since my teenage years. I can’t stress enough that my recovery was not linear. The dance of recovery is steps forward, back, to the left and now to the right, and then the tempo changes, and you have to relearn your new way of living over again. No recovery is straightforward. We need to be cognitively nimble to adapt and shift to the ever-changing landscape of what we need in order to be well. I am very much the person as I was back then, but I am better version of myself. The dark days of adolescence are very far behind me, yet I keep the miracle of my rescue close to my heart. I was given a second chance at life that night.

I still wrestled with negative thoughts years into my recovery. My mindset in adolescence became a self-destructive loop. But I learned how to recognize the patterns. For years, when life got too stressful, unpredictable and scary, my first thoughts went to a very dark place. I had to retrain my brain not to go there. I had to develop a script to meet the negative thoughts. My new script radiated self-compassion, strength, and a commitment to keep working – to stay in the race. Each time those negative thoughts hijacked my brain, I acknowledged them then asserted that I didn’t need them anymore because that way of thinking no longer served me. I would meet those thoughts without judgment or pressure; I would invite myself to envision another approach that was rooted in self-care, love, compassion, and body kindness – and a deep commitment to keep going.

Rest but don’t quit.

I believe that our truest self is revealed in moments when we can either give up or get up. These moments shape our capacity to be resilient. I have experienced significant heartbreak and disappointments since my accident. New beginnings are not always smooth. Knowing that I can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles is part of who I am. I also believe that our parents’ voices and lessons can guide us in our darkest hours. Today, I live my true vocation: mother, wife, educator. I am living a life of service to others.

My newest adventure has me working with people, families, organizations, and corporations all over Canada and the US. My heart is full working with educators, Indigenous communities, school boards and unions, first responders, health care professionals, military personal and their families, front line workers, health and safety professionals, college and university sectors, elite sport teams, and business professionals including legal and medical personnel. I am now working with Speakers Spotlight in Toronto and taking my work to new heights.

I also still work at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, which is nestled between the banks of the Otonabee River, the very river that almost took my life (but also allowed me to take it back). The man who rescued me was awarded the Governal General’s Award for Bravery for rescuing a stranger. Each day I acknowledge that my life is possible because Joseph was sent there that night and my heart is full of gratitude for his courage. I am also humbled by his inherent lack of judgment. Joseph did not know if I was someone who was worthy of his bravery. He unquestioningly put the need of a stranger above his own safety.

Stigma will no longer hold me back. The work of Unsinkable is close to my heart because that is exactly what we are doing here together – breaking down stigma and making space for authentic sharing and learning. We are no longer alone or held back by the opinions, biases, and discrimination of others who have not yet learned differently. We have one another. We are a community of everyday warriors, showing up and doing the best we can.

Maya Angelou writes, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I lovingly accept that adolescent Robyne was doing the best she could. Now that I know better, I am doing even better. Each of us matters and our worth is not determined by others. You are worthy simply because you are a global citizen of our planet. You are here and you matter. I am here as a gentle reminder that our life is not defined by the broken parts. Maybe those parts of us are not actually even broken in the first place! Failure or mistakes are events, not characteristics.

Bravery comes in so many forms. It can look like Joseph. It can look like Robyne. It can look like you. Sometimes, the bravest thing you can do is make the decision to forgive yourself and let go of stigma and self-destructive narratives. By doing that, you can embrace the life you deserve. You are enough. Pick up your own pen and start writing your story your way.