Strength in Stillness

“How long will this inconvenience me?” I asked the medic in an ambulance headed for Montreal. I was 12 years old and had just been run over by a school bus. Within two days, I was back in class. What drove me to return so soon?

As I approached midlife, I began to examine my motivation for endless striving. It was fuelled by a restless drive to achieve, starting at the age of two, when I set my sights on scaling a 6-foot tall backyard fence. Over time, I allowed productivity and accomplishments to define my self-worth and kept raising the bar, chasing higher grades, bigger sales records or faster cycling times. No effort ever felt good enough; my mind always pursued new challenges, avoiding failure at all cost. With every heartache, injury or illness, I quickly rebounded with stubborn independence—until I hit an obstacle in my 40s too daunting to handle alone. A series of surgical complications suddenly uprooted my world, leaving me confined to my couch for three quarters of every hour with my leg above my heart.

God took what I feared most, losing my mobility, and turned it into my greatest gain: learning to slow down.

Nagging ankle pain following a 200-mile bike ride had led to an ‘interesting’ find on an MRI, followed by surgery to remove a large mass. Within weeks I developed Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), now known as CRPS, a rare incurable condition which kept my leg in a near-constant state of crippling pain. The disorder has three stages, each one scarier than the last, and potentially spreads throughout the body.

I had known the pain of traumatic injury, the pain of prolonged separation from loved ones, and the pain of infertility and pregnancy loss. But nothing exposed me to the helplessness and loneliness of suffering the way a sudden period of indefinite immobility did. When learning to walk again, each new victory became a treasured gift. As I plunged into rehabilitation to reclaim my active lifestyle, I pondered what I most wanted to resume. I did not want to limit myself by learning to live with pain or by restricting hobbies. However, to repair my damaged nervous system, I first had to embrace stillness.

Large doses of dizzying pain relief drugs quieted my nerves and reduced my life to a simplicity I had not experienced before. Stacks of DVDs, books and ambitious projects remained untouched, as energy turned to coaxing movement from my contorted, swollen limb. Life revolved around self-care, which felt indulgent and unproductive, yet strangely liberating, as all my efforts turned to healing. I listened to calming music or inspirational stories and reached out to friends who rallied to support me. My days filled up with physical therapy visits and weekly mindfulness-based stress reduction classes where I focused on filling my diaphragm with air and emptying it again hoping it would cure my insomnia. Over time, I learned to tune out ruminating thoughts and ringing ears; when fears bubbled to the surface I acknowledged them, but did not let them escalate like before. Simple pleasures like fuelling my body with healthy food, feeling the warmth of the sun in my face, or walking in bare feet took on new levels of appreciation.

As I focused on each small step of recovery, I learned to accept my current state and not allow how I felt in the moment to determine my whole future. For the first time, I began to tell others what I needed.

Physical healing led to emotional healing of past traumas that I had long buried in a desire to put on a happy face. I became more true to myself and stopped seeing life as black or white. The ability to accept pain while embracing joy is a lesson I never learned until I was stripped bare of all that had previously seemed important. All my life I wanted to be the one to help others and now I was fixing myself. When my doctor said, “You need to balance your chakras,” I stared at him skeptically. While I knew I had been a vortex of energy since infancy, where no crib could contain me, I was unsure about these energy fields he described. But I knew I needed to relax to balance my body, so I attempted acupuncture. When the needles I had dreaded penetrated my sensitive skin, it provoked a feeling of calmness and surrender I had never felt before. The health crisis that once consumed me eventually led to sharing my story on a pain foundation website, and inspiring countless people who contacted me online.

I prayed to walk and received so much more when invited to do a triathlon relay, a sport which has expanded my world with new friendships and experiences. Since my recovery six years ago, I have completed dozens of “TRIs,” runs and rides. I do not chase podium awards or personal bests, and am no longer driven by a fear of failure. My rewards now come from passing on hope and healing resources to others, the way strangers once provided for me. After each race, I resist the urge to compare my results to competitors (at least until I get home). Helping people accomplish new feats they felt incapable of and seeing the smile on their faces means more to me than any finisher medal or age group award. Swimming, biking and running remind me of God’s presence and healing, and connects me to a community of like-minded passionate people I resonate with.

Temporarily losing the ability to walk initially rocked my world, but opened up doors I never imagined. And gave me a new confidence. In conquering the challenging races I had most feared, I found reserves of strength I did not know existed. Perhaps my biggest victory was a race I chose NOT to complete in. To gain control of my life, I discovered that I have to admit weakness and vulnerability in order to become stronger. Only then can I feel true love and acceptance, and take pride in my efforts— even if I cross the finish line last.