2015: Conquering the roller coaster

As the sun sets on the final day of 2015, I’ve been quietly reflecting on a year that can only be described as an emotional roller coaster. When I was a kid, I loved roller coasters with an unholy glee. For me, nothing beat that adrenaline-pumping, terror-inducing, breathtaking thrill of being thrown for a loop on the squeaky tracks of a man-made monster.

About six months after my eldest daughter was born, I went to an amusement park with friends, eager to conquer the coasters of my youth and whatever new torturous options were on offer that year. I did not count on the thrills of the past being replaced by abject terror. For the first time ever, I was truly afraid during every nanosecond I was on that ride. Gone were the raised arms, the open eyes, and laughing into the face of the person beside me. That coaster-loving girl was long gone. Instead of leaning in to the dips and turns with the abandon of youth, I resisted with the caution of adulthood. My heart pounded, my breath caught in my chest, and tremors of fear chased rippling waves of anxiety through my veins with each gravity-defying twist. I haven’t been on a roller coaster since.

Then came 2015. The year started off innocuous enough. I’d been having some health issues I attributed to a potential parasitic infection I thought I picked up in Africa the previous October. Test after test showed nothing. Then one weekend, I started bleeding profusely while making a bowel movement. That led to more tests, and a scheduled colonoscopy. With so many people close to me dying from, battling or being diagnosed with cancer, you can imagine the thoughts that were running on an endless loop, roller-coaster style, through my mind.

At nearly the same time, our dog Samson was diagnosed with a carcinoma that required a delicate, hours-long surgery followed by several rounds of chemo. My heart was broken. That dog was my best friend, and I felt as though he’d been handed a death sentence. I misjudged the size of the fight in my very large dog, but couldn’t see that at the time. My fear for him, for myself, and for Gabe was so great that it was a palpable thing.

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Then, a week before Valentine’s Day, Gabe announced that our relationship was no longer working for him, and I moved upstairs with my two children, where I would spend three long months in purgatory before moving out. In the midst of this, a close personal friend of ours, Steve Martin, passed away. We knew he had cancer, and that this time he had chosen not to fight it, but we both thought he had more time. He had been due to fly up and spend the first half of March with us. The loss – one more tie that bound me to Gabe severed – was a devastating blow. I had to grieve alone as Gabe stonewalled me.

Then came the untold horrors of colonoscopy prep. I won’t go into gory detail, but suffice it to say I think that putrid liquid they force upon you should be used in biochemical warfare – slip it into the enemy’s water supply and invade while they’re otherwise disposed. As I was heading in for the procedure, I received a call from my landlord telling me that my new place wouldn’t be ready for April 1, but May 1. That meant one more month in purgatory.

Throughout all of this, I made intermittent appearances in court with my ex-husband for my child support claim. Like police officers, judges make me feel insanely nervous, and incomprehensibly guilty. I suppose it’s the power they have over your personal freedoms. In the days leading up to an appearance, I’d shake uncontrollably, and my heart would pound so hard and so fast that it felt as though it would explode. Even though I was well supported by my lawyer, and even the judge, I couldn’t tamp down on the anxiety. That’s how much I detest conflict.

All the unabating stress and anxiety caused me to develop a bacterial infection that required some heavy antibiotics; the kind they give to alcoholics to dry them out. As I was headed out for a hedonistic weekend in Vegas with friends, I decided to start the antibiotics upon my return. Good thing, too, because I had a major allergic reaction that caused a large, raised, red, and intensely itchy rash on my face. I thought it rather matched the wretchedness I felt within.

By this point, the twists and turns of my life were almost comical. In the fleeting moments where I had enough breathing room to look at it impartially, I could see that the trials I was facing – heartbreaking as some of them were – were not insurmountable, on their own or altogether. But when you’re alone in a small rowboat in the middle of the ocean being tossed around by a maelstrom, it feels like you don’t even have a second to catch your breath before the next tidal wave crashes over you, threatening to crush you.

It took me a while to realize one simple thing: that life is a roller coaster, and as long as we live, we’re strapped in for the ride. We can’t fully control the careening, the spins, the loops, the climbs, or the falls. What we can control is our experience of the ride. That was my biggest lesson of the year.

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So, what did I do next? I opened my eyes. I leaned in to the dips and turns instead of resisting them. I realized that the ride wasn’t going to stop, so I shouldn’t either. I learned that when I closed my eyes softly (instead of tightly with fear), and drew on the strength within me, I could find balance and peace even in the chaos. And when I opened them again, I found myself raising my arms at the next turn. I found my own happiness, and before long I found myself engaged to Gabe, my partner on life’s roller coaster.

So when the next dip came – the death of our dog Samson – it didn’t throw me for a loop. Because I was no longer just along for the ride, I had become one with the coaster. Fear was no longer my passenger, even when Grief joined the party.

I’m not sure what 2016 will bring. I am sure that whatever comes my way, I can handle it. Because in 2015, I found my voice, my groove, my grit, my balance, and my love – on equal footing. I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions – or the public sharing of them. Real change comes from within, from promises made to yourself, not from things you speak out loud on the last night of the year. And yet, in honour of the year that was, I do make one promise to myself, and publicly: To get my ass to an amusement park in 2016 and conquer a coaster. After the year I’ve been through, no Leviathan could get the better of me.

See that one dude in the image below? That’s going to be me. Who wants to join me for the ride? All you have to do is raise your hand.

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