optimism

Not my street cred: A story about livers and attitude

This is not my story. But it is a story, nonetheless.


Almost 2 years ago, I joined my current company. As part of the onboarding process, I was teamed with an “office mate”, a dude named CSD, to show me around, answer generic questions, be my go-to person about life at the office. He worked in Ops, was a manager and was chosen because he is “youngish, funny, outspoken, opinionated like you, Vanilla. Pretty sure you guys will really get along.” CSD quickly became my friend & my ally. Ops and Finance sometimes struggle to collaborate, so it was great having someone to keep me connected to the “real” world from up top in my ivory finance tower. CSD is super smart, efficient and pig-headed like me, but goes about office politics very differently from me. I value his opinion, and would often seek it out. We chatted almost every day.

About 9 months ago, CSD started missing work with semi-regular frequency, and working from home. I missed my buddy – who could I rant to, when I needed to say the things that I couldn’t, as a manager, say in front of my team? Why was CSD not in the office when I needed him? I didn’t pry, bc CSD has excellent work ethic, so his absences could only mean health issues, and that was none of my business. About 6 months ago, the frequency became almost weekly. I worried. But coworker-friends are different from non-coworker friends: privacy & boundaries are a thing. CSD eventually asked for my advice on how to broach a health update with senior management, because of my talent for writing: revealing enough to address their worries without over-sharing. That’s how I found out that CSD was up against a big-time health issue, not a small-time hypochondriac issue.

It’s no secret that the Qc healthcare system has not been good to my family (Exhibit A: my mom. Exhibit B: my youth, how I was branded a cripple before I turned 12. Exhibit C: my difficulty finding a GP). So when CSD’s health issues proved to be complicated to diagnose, I mourned, anticipating another life derailed by Fate and our bureaucratic, incompetent, healthcare system. It seemed so unfair: CSD was young, took care of himself, ate healthily, exercised regularly. Pretty sure he recycled.

Last week, CSD underwent a successful liver transplant, necessary to save his life. Chatting with him via Messenger, 24 hours after surgery:

Holy shit I’m kicking some ass and taking names! Vanilla, I’ve set 3 hospital records already. What did I tell you about that attitude, lol? I woke up today and demanded the ventilator be removed. I was eating solids and walking less than 24hours after the op. (Side note: that alone BLOWS MY MIND. In each of my surgeries requiring a general anesthetic, I was puking my guts out for almost 2-3 days, so violently did my body reject those drugs.) How? Well, I’m a bit of an animal. I hate hospitals. And I have a tenacious attitude to get the fuck out. I gave myself a goal: I get a new tv and PS4 pro if I can get released for home. Then in 6months a 2week vacation down south, and in 1year a 2week trip to Greece with the fam.

Here’s my philosophy: I don’t know what’s in front of me but I know I have to jump off the deep end and just keep swimming. Can’t turn around, just keep moving no matter how fast the current. (*)


I sat with a goofy, teary smile plastered on my face for an hour after getting the news his surgery was successful. My relief was so profound. I realized that for all these months, I’d assumed that his would not be a happy ending. That’s a pretty fucked up attitude to have. Maybe my friend is not wrong when she suggests I have room for improvement in my optimistic outlook on life. I marvel at CSD’s messages immediately post-op. That would not be my attitude. I am not sure I am even capable of that attitude (**). I do know that no matter what life throws at me, no matter how deep my despair, I have this seemingly endless capacity to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when I can’t see my way forward – that is what makes this battle with my shadow so exhausting, but is also, as my therapist reminds me, what stops me from being suicidal, so “count your blessings Vanilla!

Still, I can draw certain parallels btn CSD’s approach to life, and my own. We both believe in investing in one’s health on a regular, preventive basis. His habit of regular exercise and mostly healthy diet is a huge factor in his supersonic recovery. Most of my therapy sessions are not covered by my insurance, because mental health is still taboo, and psychologists do not enrich Big Pharma and the economy, so insurance companies do not typically cover more than a handful of therapy sessions. I calculate that between my previous 20month therapy stint, and my current one, I’ve paid $10K out of pocket. This funk might be a bad one, but those $10K have given me a toolbox to help me put the breaks on this funk’s attempt to spiral into something much worse. Then I wonder if maybe we both are kidding ourselves: if Fate really wanted to fuck shit up, there is nothing anyone could do to prevent it.

I’m so happy Fate decided not to fuck shit up this time. And I’m so so happy that CSD’s story has a happy ending. 


This is the Facebook post CSD made public yesterday, which I share with y’all to raise awareness of both the medical condition and the organizations in our province and country that work to bridge the gaps in our healthcare system, and because I can’t possibly do a better job than he at conveying his inspiring attitude.

As many of you may not be aware today is the one week anniversary since I was the recipient of an orthotopic liver transplant. This emergency and life saving operation was required due to a very rare genetic blood disorder known as Budd-Chiari Syndrome and without it, I would have been lucky to have made it to my birthday next month.

Because things have been going quite well and (fingers crossed) I’m on my way to a successful recovery, today I finally felt comfortable to publicly start sharing a few photos of my story as well as take this opportunity to draw some much needed attention to highlight a few of the many, many amazing people and organizations that make life saving transplantation in Canada possible.

Firstly, I want to share my thanks to the selfless and incredible work of the nursing and support staff from the ICU and transplantation units at the MUHC Royal Victoria Hospital. Without them none of this would have been possible and I cannot begin to express my gratitude for the incredible quality of care. They, along with the doctors, have been the highlight of this whole experience. We are very fortunate in this country to have these men and women dedicated to our healthcare and make no mistake, they need our support. So especially if you’re a resident of Quebec, please take the time to become informed on the funding current situation. Our nurses and doctors deserve better.

Side note – I will be writing about my experiences in an upcoming op-ed in the coming weeks as I’ve had the chance to hear many, many of their stories. And, after spending a number of weeks deeply imbedded in the public healthcare environment, I’ve become a very strong advocate for a patient-specific healthcare system in this country.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to a number of the organizations that raise awareness, funding and provide support for transplantation in Canada. Please consider donating. Without them, many of our fellow Canadians would not be with us today.
The Canadian Transplant Association (CTA), is a registered charitable organization founded to enrich and celebrate life while promoting organ and tissue donation across Canada.
The Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) is devoted to providing support for research and education into the causes, diagnoses, prevention and treatment of all liver disease.
CORD is Canada’s national network for organizations representing all those with rare disorders. CORD works with governments, researchers, clinicians and industry to promote research, diagnosis, treatment and services for all rare disorders in Canada.

Thanks, and look forward to sharing more of my story as I continue down the path towards better health and a full recovery.


Disclaimer: I requested, and received, CSD’s full permission to share his story on my blog. This is one of those rare times where I write about a coworker on my blog – mainly because this story is far bigger than the restrictive label “coworker”.

(*) CSD would like it to be known that he was high off morphine when he wrote that. While he stands by the content, he wishes to clarify that his normal writing style is mildly less grandiose.

(**) CSD also would like to point out that he played an 18-hole round of golf after getting the phone call that he’d been matched to a liver, and was to show up to the hospital the next morning for the transplant operation. I am definitely not capable of that attitude. 

A different kind of colour blind

I have lovely friends. Several reached out to me after my last post, just to remind me they are there. One girl in particular – she doesn’t get depression. We’ve had so many talks about it before; she sees how miserable I am, she worries, but she doesn’t get it. Can’t I just trick myself into feeling better? Fake it till I make it? Practice optimism?

That’s cute.

No, I can’t.

As in, I actually can’t. I fully acknowledge the benefits of optimism. I try avoid negativity whenever possible – it is such a drag at work, or in group dynamics. I look to assume positive intent, to see the good in people and the situation. Fucking hard, oftentimes sometimes, but I work very hard at it. I aim to extend to others the same compassion I hope to receive when I am struggling. I can do all that and still be depressive.

Depression is the inability to feel joy. It’s like waking up one day and being color blind.  My current funk is nowhere as drastic as my 2014 depression where I woke up one day in a world of claustrophobic grey. It didn’t matter that I knew that just the day before the sun was bright and the sky was blue; it didn’t matter that I could remember those colors. I was living in a world of grey. For the past two years, I’ve been mostly symptom-free, experiencing the full rainbow of emotions, discovering for the first time what it meant to be alive. I’d say that my current funk is more like living in a world where the Instagram Crema filter has been applied: everything is dimmed, and occasionally the saturation drops to almost nil. My capacity to feel deeply, especially deep happiness, is gone. I can optimistically believe that I will overcome this funk by diligently applying my toolbox: but I am still living in a bland world, and cannot see the bright variety of colours for what they are.

On Monday, I didn’t wanna go to kuduro. But the cornerstone of my tool box is exercise and kuduro = #sweatlife, so I made myself go. I vaguely remembered that once upon a time I loved kuduro, but that love was completely absent on Monday. I wanted a nap. In dance class, we learned a new choreography. It was fast, tricky footwork. I struggled to keep up. I came close to walking out of class several times: this is stupid, I’m a shit dancer, I can’t even count to 8, I look like a newborn giraffe, why the fuck am I here, I hate this, there’s no point. But vanity stopped me: that would be diva behavior, worthy of censure, and a poor reflection on the school & team. I’m no diva. Towards the end of class, I stopped trying to drown out those negative voices – impossible anyhow – and channeled my remaining energy on merely executing the steps (instead of dancing aka expressing myself).

 

Now, I KNOW I love dancing. I KNOW that kuduro makes me feel alive – I’ve documented it extensively in this blog. I can reread those posts all I want, I am the same physical person… but my depressive state makes that joy inaccessible. It has stolen my pleasure.

My rational brain knows my emotional brain is fucking around. But that’s the thing with emotions – they override reason. It doesn’t matter that my brain knows that my emotions are false, untrue, incorrect. These feelings dictate my reality. And to the extent my rational brain understands that this perceived emotional reality is false and unreliable… that adds a layer of confusion, doubt and exhaustion to every moment of the day.

It feels like a war. A constant battle between my two brains. The rational brain fighting to have its balanced, reliable, reality acknowledged and the emotional brain seeking to cover everything in this dark shadow that shuts out love, joy, happiness and sunshine. It is exhausting. “I know that I exist in a world of color and that even though I am only seeing shades of grey right now, the bleakest of views, I am probably ACTUALLY surrounded by vivid colors. But I can’t tell. I can’t feel.” And just like a color blind person can’t fake it by wearing colored lenses, I can’t fake it by plastering a smile on my face and hoping that will result in me feeling better eventually. A depressive person is incredibly skilled at smiling and appearing normal.

It almost seems like a cliché to say comedy comes from pain, but real comedy is connected to the deep pain and anguish we all feel. I worked with Robin Williams in an obscure film called Club Paradise. (…) Robin is one of the most deeply melancholy people you’ll ever meet. You can just see it all over him. It’s what makes him so human, and I love and respect him. Deep down, Bill (Murray) is as serious as a person can be. He’s raging, angry, and full of grief and unresolved emotions. He’s volcanic. Comedy gives them a place to work out ideas and entertain – and these guys love to entertain – but they want you to know they feel. (…) You go see Robin Williams do standup, and you can’t get more laughs than that. I’ve been onstage. I know what it feels like to have those waves of laughter. It’s like being bathed in love. Once you’ve had it, it’s like a drug. It wears off, and then you need something more. I want the audience to feel something more than that. I want them to feel my pain. – Harold Ramis (Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow, p.126)

If the battle is long enough, and the emotions vicious and destructive enough… that’s why the Robin Williams and the Chester Benningtons of this world seek the bliss of permanent silence.


I got this message today from a friend from my extended social circle:

I’m so proud of you! You’re opening up and addressing important mental health issues. My friend was talking about her struggle with depression and I gave her my phone so she could read the article you posted the other day. She was trying to find words to explain to me how she feels and I just said – read this. And then, when she was done reading, she said “Yup! That’s me”. It allowed us to have a really great conversation once it was out in the open. So thank you.

I’m clearly doing not that badly, because I did feel something reading that. Possibly that was my rational brain jumping up and down excitedly, sticking out its middle finger at my emotional brain, and shouting, “SEE, motherfucker?! Vanilla DOES have a voice, she DOES have painful stories, and she WILL continue writing.”

Bliss and bombs

Paradise is sitting on a bench in a cobblestone plaza, eating French pastry and sipping a café au lait, next to one of the most historic sites in France, la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims.

Nutritious!

Ugly scaffolding


The scaffolding is an eyesore, yes? I was disappointed when I saw it, but having learned a bit more about the place, I think it is perfect.

The Cathedral is the site where all of France’s kings, dating back to the fifth century, were crowned in a sacred ceremony. Its cultural importance was so great that it was spared during the French Revolution, albeit temporarily repurposed as a hospital. It is embedded in the French collective identity.

Reims, being close to the German border, was bombed continuously throughout the 4 years of WWI. The Germans specifically targeted the Cathedral, attempting to grind it to dust, so as to break French moral. And they very nearly succeeded. The lead roof melted in fires, parts of the church collapsed, and 80% of the city core was levelled. My tour guide said that only 60 houses were still inhabitable after WWI; the others had been destroyed or needed to be demolished out of safety. That is why most of Reims has a modern (ugly) Art Deco look: despite being one of the oldest cities in France (existing before the Roman Empire), most of the city was rebuilt after the first war, in the 20s.

Which brings us back to the scaffolding on the Cathedral. The damage was so extensive, the restoration is still ongoing today. That’s right. 100 years later, the scars of that First World War are still visible in everyday French life.

That is why I love France so much. With every step I take, I feel the ghosts of the past walking with me. Every site is pregnant with joy and sorrow, beauty and horrors I can’t even imagine. 

France’s history is both glorious and ugly. That duality is what is so endearing, so very human. The ability to accept such complexity is what I miss the most, when I’m in North America: everything is black and white, good or bad, partisan and never non-partisan. We feel like immature spoiled children; something my grandfather (a WWII survivor) always said about locals, that our innocence and naivety sprang from a lack of suffering – life was too good in North America.

When I’m in France, my heart aches with joyful sorrow. I also feel hope, because here, in this country that has seen absolutely everything for 15 centuries, the best and the worst humanity has to offer, here I can believe in the resilience of mankind. More importantly, this country is proof that although as a species we are capable of great harm, destruction and hatred, and although the consequences of that behaviour lasts for generations, our capacity for beauty and love is greater and stands the test of time. 

100 years’ worth of restoration to heal the wounds of war… On a church that is 1500 years old and is still standing.

Vive la France!!!

Gargoyle removed from the Cathedral during restorations. The melted lead from the roof (due to the fires caused by the German bombs) flowed through all of the gargoyles, instead of rain drops. If y’all notice in the pic of the Cathedral, most of it is blackened? Those are the burns from the bombs. Most of the cathedral is black now.

When Google IS helpful

Guys – humans of the male gender – this post is safe, if somewhat irrelevant, for you.

It will come to no surprise to any of you, after my last post about drowning in the Red Sea, that I am anemic. I’m falling asleep everywhere, and can’t drag myself out of bed, nails are peeling and breaking all over the place. Before resorting to iron supplements (stained teeth! constipation! SEXY TIME!), I’m really trying to change my diet to eat as many iron-rich foods as possible.

Namely, dark chocolate.

A small bar of Lindt dark chocolate easily provides up to 67% of the daily value for iron. In a form that is easily absorbed by the body.

So basically, I have NO CHOICE but to eat a LOT of chocolate. For my health.

lemonchocolate

Life is very hard, sometimes.

I leave you with Mr. Bean. He gives a very good argument for a steady diet of chocolate in the clip below. Mr. Bean the Wise.