Sunday, May 13, 2018

duuuun dunn...duuuunn dunn...(That's the Jaws theme song)

Evan and I are fascinated by sharks. The fascination began as an intense fear that we both experienced when we were young (I blame "Jaws"), and has grown into this obsession with all things shark. Personally, I think sharks are inspirational. Sharks are fearless, majestic, powerful, and smart. They command respect. Sharks don't wallow around in self-pity after injury, they just power on, doing bad-ass shark things. I think that over the years, sharks have gotten a lot of a bad press as man-killers, and I've always felt that they are grossly misunderstood (can we blame them if they misidentify a surfer as a seal? Lighting is shit under the water, people!)

We love sharks so much, in fact, that we celebrate them every August at the lake during our very own "shark week." We typically try to time our celebration with the famous Discovery Channel's week long event. We watch hours of shark videos, dress up like sharks, and drink on the boat. Why? Why not! We've had the opportunity to dive with Caribbean reef tip sharks, hammerhead sharks, and nurse sharks, but have always dreamt of getting into the water with the King of Sharks - the Great White Shark. So it was a no-brainer that our South African adventure would include a Great White Shark Dive.

We hopped on a 2 hour flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, grabbed a (very) quick night's sleep and started out early for our 2 1/2 hour drive to Gansbaai, located on the Western Cape of South Africa. The waters off the coast of Gansbaai are like the Sizzler Buffet for Great Whites. Migrating Great Whites are attracted to the wide range of fish species, seals, and an ideal temperature of 12-24 degrees Celsius.

We arrived at the Great White Shark Diving training center just as a heavy mist of rain enveloped the harbour. I actually said to Ev, "Well this looks ominous." To be honest, I wasn't particularly nervous. I had watched countless youtube vids in prep for our adventure, and other than the unfortunate incident where the shark jumped into the cage, it all looked rather safe to me. I did become nervous; however, when we began watching the training video. The video clearly showed how you hop in the cage, submerge yourself underwater, hooking your legs to the bottom of the cage, and listen for direction to look left, right, or down, in order to see the shark clearly. This all sounded cool to me. What did freak me out was the manner in which we were to exit from the cage. With 10lb weightbelts around our waists, we were to climb out of the cage and hoist ourselves back into the boat. Gulp. Climb? Dammit. I began frantically whispering to Ev, "Shit! My knees can't climb! I'm never going to be able to get out of the cage!" Always cool an calm, Ev reassured me, "We'll figure it out, buddy."

Before the dive: I was sooo excited. This is Ev's excited face. 
It took about an hour via boat to reach the special shark spot - sharks do not show up on a fish finder, by the way,  so the tour boats rely on each other to communicate where the sharks are at at any particular moment. They began by chumming the water with fish guts in order to convince the sharks that we were worth checking out. Within about 20 minutes, we had an interested shark and were instructed to gear up and get in line. Suddenly all my fears about exiting the cage had disappeared and my adrenaline kicked into high drive. Instead of waiting for Ev to get his wetsuit on, I abandoned him so that I could be first in the cage (What's my favorite kind of seafood? SelFISH. haha). The staff on the boat moved a giant fish head on a long stick around the boat so that the shark would stay and play a while - kinda like playing with a kitten. Eventually, the shark will realize that it's not legit food and carry on its way, but in the meantime, we all get a close-up glimpse of these incredible creatures, and the sharks are not harmed in the process.

The sea was angry, my friends

The shock of entering the 15 degree Celsius water momentarily took my breath away, but before I could protest, our shark sighter frantically yelled, "DOWN!DOWN!DOWN!" That was the cue to take a giant breath and submerge yourself down to the bottom of the cage. I gasped and hooked my feet to the bottom rung of the cage, ensuring that none of my body parts were exposed outside the cage. I pushed my face as close to the cage opening as possible, looking frantically to the right, trying to get a glimpse of my first Great White. The visibility was not good. All I could see was dark nutrient-rich water all around me. I pushed my face closer to the opening, searching the waters for an approaching dark shadow - nothing...nothing...nothing...BAM! Suddenly the Great White was right in my face! He seemingly appeared from nowhere. I watched in awe as he swam from right to left, directly in front of me in the cage. He had a huge bad-ass scar across his body, and appeared to be completely focused on his "prey." He had zero interest in me. After that first sighting, I became addicted to viewing the sharks, holding my breath until nearly passing out just so I could gain an extra few seconds with these magical animals. I closely examined their gills, the intensity in their eyes, and their massive scarred bodies. When it came time to exit the cage the first time, I simply shouted, "I have bad knees!" and one of the boat staff picked me up and plopped me on the boat. Easy peasy! Shaking from cold and the shock of spending about 5 minutes with the most badass creature ever, I grabbed a towel and got back in line for a second go with the sharks.


I can't feel my face or my fingers. This is awesome!

Pure joy. 

Most of the customers on the boat got 2 encounters with the sharks. Me? I got 4. I bullied and pushed my through College students, large men, and even a kid. Where was Evan? Did he get a turn? Apparently he got 2 turns and then videoed from the top deck of the boat.  Pulling my wetsuit hood over my head, I shamelessly lied my way back into the line. I NEEDED more time with the sharks! On the last go, the staff warned me, "The sharks seem to be dwindling. You might just be sitting in cold water for this turn." Fine, ya, get me in there! As warned, after watching one massive 15 foot shark rip apart the fish head and swim away, I stood in cage, submerged in freezing water for 15 minutes, chatting up a young American exchange student in 15 degree water with no sharks in sight. Teeth chattering, my cage neighbour expressed her concern that hypothermia was imminent. I agreed that this could be exactly how Jack felt right before he froze to death on that floating door in Titanic, but I also (very wisely) said, "Just think about where we are right at this moment? We are in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Africa with Great White Sharks! This is unreal! Screw the cold!" (ya, I was totally hopped up on adrenaline. Sharks, NOT cocaine, people!)

Say "cheese" - such a lovely toothy grin

I loved when the shark came from below - natural hunting style

Watch shark video here

Overall, I had an incredible experience. Evan wished that the experience could be more authentic. His wish is to observe a Great White hunting without the enticement of chum and fish heads. But, um...I'm thinking this might be a difficult thing to witness - unless you are, in fact, the hunted. Just sayin'. Although there is some controversy over shark "tourism," I think that as long as the practice is not harming the sharks or changing their behaviours, it is, at the very least, educating people about these beautiful animals and raising awareness about the threats on sharks. Worldwide there are an estimated 100,000,000 sharks slaughtered annually. Man is killing these beautiful animals for shark fin soup, trophy fishing, and as bycatch (when a shark becomes entangled in a fisherman's net).  I can guarantee you that every single person on that boat that day experienced the same awe-inspiring appreciation for the Great White Shark as I did.

We left Gansbaai on a serious high...after living through  lions, cheetahs, and Great White Sharks, we had no idea that the greatest threat, the African Baboon, was soon to unexpectedly enter our lives.

Stay tuned for killer baboon gangs, Penguins and Wine...lots and lots of wine.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lions and Elephants and Giraffes - OH MY!

Our very first glimpse of Beefy
Hey Friends!

We've had an eventful few weeks, as we were finally able to take a much anticipated holiday to South Africa! And it did NOT disappoint. Ev and I have been discussing this trip for years, but due to a few knee surgeries, a doggie back surgery, and the neverbending story, we've had to put it off. In addition, I've had issues committing to booking the trip, for fear that my knees would suddenly protest, and Ev would be stuck dragging an invalid through the African plains. So this trip became a goal that I set for myself, and I knew that if I could just get through the surgeries and work my ass off in rehab, I would eventually be well enough to not only go to South Africa, but to engage in activities with a med-free brain and pain-free knees. And I did it! I felt really good during the entire vacation, and was able to participate (mostly) without pain in every activity that we had planned. It is a huge accomplishment for me in my knee journey! Hurray! Suck on that one rare cartilage disease. I mean that with respect. (Ok, I'm still a little scared of my disease).

We are very lucky to have various friends and co-workers on island who are from South Africa who basically planned our trip for us, recommending a timetable, flights, restaurants, and hotels. We had such an incredible experience, as all of the recommendations provided were fabulous.

There's so much to share, and I just can't do the trip justice in one blog post, so I've decided to share several over the course of the next month, beginning with our experience on the Nambiti Game Reserve.

After a solid 16 hour flight from Atlanta, we arrived in Johannesburg, got some shut eye, rented a car, and drove 4 hours to the Nambiti Reserve. Nambiti is a private game reserve consisting of 22,000 acres and over 40 species of wildlife, including "The Big Five" - the Lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, Rhinoceros,  and Elephant. Within minutes of hopping on the open air Land Rover to get to our lodge, we ran into a massive African elephant, lovingly referred to as "Beefy." Beefy is the oldest elephant on the reserve, about 50 years of age, and teeming with attitude. Seeing an elephant, feet away from you, in the wild, is a breath-taking experience! Little did I know that Beefy had plans for us.

We checked into our luxurious lodge (we definitely were NOT roughing it) and we sat down for lunch, overlooking a watering hole. Lisa, our fabulous Ranger, came to our table and announced, "So, you have some company at your room right now. It's not safe for you to walk back alone, but I will walk with you." As we followed Lisa back to our room, we could see that Beefy was standing directly in front of our door destroying chomping on a  tree! We crept quietly as close to the edge of the building as possible and Lisa carefully watched Beefy's body language. I held my breath as we inched a mere 5 feet away from this beautiful creature. At one suspenseful moment, Beefy postured and Lisa whispered frantically, "go go go!" I guess Beefy was beefed that we were so close to his food (see what I did there?). We raced to the door and safely entered our room, Lisa shutting the door directly behind us. We were than held captive in our room for about 10 minutes, as Beefy set up shop directly outside our door. We peeked outside our door every few minutes only to see Beefy's massive leg directly in our view. What an incredible welcome! Interesting Fact: Did you know that an elephant's trunk has 40,000 muscles??? They destroy everything with that trunk, as evidenced by the mess of branches and leaves that Beefy left in his wake.

Watch us held hostage in our room here

We had 2 drives a day, one at 5:30Am and another in the afternoon/early evening. All of our drives were fantastic. We saw herds of elephants, including 2 big guys "tuskling" (I made that word up - you know, a tusk fight), as well as zebras, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, impalas, and warthogs. We witnessed a Mom and baby hippopotamus grazing in the water, a cheetah snacking on his zebra kill, and white rhinoceroses -  Mom and baby too! We watched a lioness attempt and fail at catching a family of warthogs ("Run, Pumba, Run!!"), as her lion cubs patiently waited in the bush for dinner. We watched male water bucks show off for the ladies during rutting season by smashing their horns together (the noise is incredible!) We witnessed the most unbelievable sunrise, and sipped wine beside a waterfall while watching a thunderstorm roll in at sunset. I spent my afternoons soaking in a luxurious claw foot tub, sipping Amarula, and watching elephants frolick in the water, holding their trunks above like a snorkel - all directly in front of my window! It sounds magical, doesn't it?It really was.

Run, Pumba, RUN!

Nice horns!

"Tuskling" for a lady

The Queen of the jungle - blocked our path and stared us down. 

Waiting for Mom to bring home the bacon (literally)

I saw this on Lion King once

"Grab the camera, kids! It's one of those humans from Canada!" 

See his buddy on his head?

The most awe-inspiring sight we saw; however, occurred during our second early morning game drive. At about 4am, we awoke to a massive ROAR that echoed in our room. It sounded as though lions were in our bathroom! When we reached the Land Rover at 5:30Am, Lisa explained that the two largest male lions on the reserve were communicating with each other. It appeared as though they had gotten separated in the night and were desperate to re-connect. I had barely wiped the sleep out of my eyes when we turned a corner and came upon the massive male lion with his dread-locked looking mane, standing directly beside our car. I panicked slightly and shrunk down into the seat (great plan! Make yourself look smaller and weaker, Kirstie!) We all held our breath as the lion paced back and forth next to our car, sniffing the air frantically in an attempt to locate his brother. Seeing a frantic wild lion a few feet from you as the sun rises, and hearing the lion sniff and grumble was just...there are no words. I felt very small, insignificant, and incredibly in awe of such a majestic creature. It's 5 minutes of my life that I will never forget.

Watch Lion video here!

Our Game Ranger, Lisa, was full of knowledge and passion for the animals. Upon seeing the White Rhino Mom and her babe, Lisa urged us not to share any rhino photos on social media, as poachers were using the coordinates to track these beautiful animals for their valuable horns. As I watched the hornless baby (they remove the horns to prevent poaching) snuggle up to her Mom, I felt especially saddened by what man has done to such beautiful creatures. I just don't get it. On the other hand, Lisa also helped me to understand the importance of responsible hunting, as an abundance of animals can lead to disease and famine. We spend a few hours on a game drive with Lisa tracking a lioness and her cubs. We followed footprints and searched endlessly through the brush. Lisa's enthusiasm and excitement, upon realizing that we were just feet away from the group of lions was palpable! Overall, we learned so much from Lisa, and gained such a respect for these remarkable animals.

We spent 4 awesome days at Nimbiti, and as we exited the park on Tuesday morning, I had to wipe a few tears from my eyes. Those who know me well know that I am not generally an emotional person. You know - hugs are for special occasions only ;) I'm not sure if I was overcome with emotion just thinking about my journey to get to this place - there have been moments where I thought that I would never feel well enough to travel and enjoy life again - I've come a long way, baby! Or perhaps this place just moved me in a way that created intense emotion? I'm not sure. Maybe a little bit of both. Nambiti was so so special to me and I am grateful that I was able to experience such a magical place.

Stay tuned for JAWS: Cage Diving with the Great White Sharks!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The "Just you wait" phenomenon

My first experience with a Just You Wait-er occurred when I was a senior in high school. I had accepted an award for exceptional grades when a familiar adult commented, "Just you wait until you go to University. You won't have the top marks there!"

My exposure to Just You Wait-ers increased in my 20's. I recall dancing in my mini-skirt, serving beer at my summer job, and being confronted by an older woman who snarled, "Just you wait until you have kids. You'll never have a body like this again!" I also remember jumping for joy upon receiving a dozen roses from Evan, only to feel deflated by an observer who grunted, "Just you wait until you get married. The flowers will stop." 

The Just You Wait-ers continue to haunt me today. An online support group for those suffering from Osteochondritis Dissecans is trolled by Just You Wait-ers. After explaining that I was struggling to find a balance of pain medications before surgery, a Just You Wait-er chimed in, "You think you have pain now? Just you wait until after surgery."

This is the phenomenon I'd like to call "Attack of the Just You Wait-ers." The Just You Wait-ers are everywhere, at every turn, just waiting to burst your bubble and stomp on your hopes and dreams . Whether you are revelling in a new success or floundering and seeking support, the Just You Wait-ers are lurking, ready to drag you down to their depths of despair, causing you to feel like total shit with one simple phrase, "Just you wait." Do you know these people? Just You Wait-ers are generally unhappy and insecure people who feel empowered by causing fear and uncertainty in others.
The Just You Wait-ers, whilst donning  a smug smirk on their face, thrive on warning threatening you with their knowledge that life is about to get much worse for you. Oh yes, much much worse. Just you wait. 

You think this is bad? Just you wait!

Now that I'm weeeellllll into my 30's (I still refuse to use the adjective "late" in front of 30's), I have observed the Just You Wait-ers in their glory, at their peak of their Just You Wait-ness. You see, the Just You Wait-ers flourish during the child-bearing and child-rearing years. Nothing causes a Just You Wait-er more joy than letting an expectant/new mom know that things are going to get worse. Much much worse. Time and time again at baby showers, brunches, and birthday bashes, I have heard the loud indignant Just You Wait-er exclaim: 

"You think you can't sleep now? Just you wait until you have newborn!"

"Better enjoy the freedom now. Just you wait until he's walking. You will never sit again."

"You think she's defiant now? Just you wait until she's a teenager and hates your face."

Ugh. Why? Now I am not a mother, but I can only imagine that entering motherhood must be a terrifying and daunting experience for many women. I observe that my new Mom friends are uncertain, often seeking advice, support, and reassurance from someone with a kind heart and experience. At this stage in life a woman is vulnerable, not to mention hormonal. Why on Earth would someone think that it is OK to threaten another human during such a challenging time? And, let's be honest, that is exactly what "just you wait" is. It's a threat. 

So here's some advice from a passive aggressive non-confrontational person: Cut the Just Wait-ers loose. Just stay away. If you are the confrontational type, you could also respond, "This is not helpful," followed by a giant shove, and perhaps a few kicks to the knees. (Jokes. Knees are precious). Life is too short to surround yourself with people who build themselves up by pulling others down. Seek out the empathetic and supportive friends who will listen, celebrate, commiserate, and kindly offer advice when needed. 

I would also like to propose that it is possible to turn the Just You Wait Phenomenon into something positive. Observe:

"You think you are excited now? Just wait until you hold that baby in your arms for the first time!"

"Just you wait until that surgery is over. You will feel such relief!"

"I can see that you are tired. Just you wait until he's sleeping through the night. It will get better."

"Falling in love is wonderful. Just you wait until you are married and get to spend everyday with that person!"

Got it? Rant over. 

Cheers my friends!

Oprah for President! ;)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Adventures in Pain Management: 4 Chronic Pain Strategies

I've experienced my fair share of pain over the last 6 years. Pain is such a subjective thing, and difficult to communicate to others. I've always struggled to "rate my pain" at the hospital, often underrating it in case it got worse and we had exhausted all of our pain control options (It's happened!)  I've experienced and described countless types of pain to my medical team, using words like, "throbbing," "aching," "dull," "electric," and "sharp." I've also gotten creative with metaphors and similes in my explanations, "You see Doctor, it's like someone is stabbing my knee with a dull pencil and twisting it around...and around..and around" (sometimes you need to be dramatic!) But let's be honest, no one will ever understand how your specific pain feels, regardless of your extensive pain vocabulary. My pain accompanies an injury that is visible to others. People can see me struggling on my crutches or limping to work, and say, "Wow. It looks like you are in a lot of pain." The advantage of having a visible injury is that people tend to offer more sympathy and understanding towards your pain and your limitations. I really feel for those who have "invisible" pain, and who are constantly struggling to express the pain that they are experiencing.

Although I am not without pain today, I was able to discontinue all of my prescription pain medications around the first of January, and have not felt the need to take anything stronger than Tylenol since. This is the first time in 4 years that I have been without pain medication. I didn't stop the pain meds to be a hero or prove a point. I simply did not feel that my pain was strong enough to warrant these powerful medications that wreak havoc on my body in terms of nasty side effects. Don't get me wrong, I was very grateful for the pain meds when my body needed them - they did their job! but thankfully I have graduated to a place where the pain is presently controlled via other means. I am well aware that with this condition, Osteochondritis Dissecans, things can change quickly. The pain meds are packed away, but I will likely need them again someday, and that is OK. It doesn't make me weak. It makes me human.

Hey baby, I'm on Gabapentin tonight (wink wink)

Now I am not a pain specialist by any means, but I have had extensive experience working with Pain Specialists and Pain Psychologists, and they have been incredibly helpful. Given this experience, I thought it might be beneficial to share some knowledge and pain strategies that have really helped me.

First, just quick run-down of pain. There are 2 types of pain: 1) Acute pain and 2) Chronic Pain. Acute pain is sudden onset pain that typically has an identifiable cause. Examples of acute pain include spraining your ankle, recovering after surgery, or cutting yourself with a knife. It often resolves within 3 months. Chronic pain, on the other hand, refers to pain that persists longer than 3 months and often cannot be attributed to a specific injury. Chronic pain may accompany conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or nerve damage. Chronic pain can be very complex.

Here's an overly-simplified outline of how pain works: 1) There is stimulus (i.e. a hot stove, a needle, etc),  2) Our nerve receptors sense something,  3) The nerves send the signal to the central nervous system,  4) Our brain decides what do with that information. Number 4 is the kicker: OUR BRAIN makes sense of the information it receives and DECIDES if the pain is "Get me to the hospital I'm dying!" pain or "Calm the f down you stubbed your toe" pain. It's much more complicated than this, but you get the gist.

What I have learned is as a result of my disease, my receptors are constantly sending a signal that something isn't quite right in my body. My nervous system is working overtime! So my brain is inundated with information and often overreacts, telling me, "Call 911! You are dying!" when in fact, my knees are a little angry and just need some extra TLC. This is challenging, both physically and mentally. In the past, I have felt pain and often attributed it to something terrible happening in my body ("I think a piece of cartilage has just torn off!" Sometimes it is, unfortunately, a piece of cartilage that has torn off!). And can you guess what happens when these thoughts spiral out of control? You betcha - the pain gets worse. It can also be incredibly frustrating when the pain is intense, but there doesn't appear to be specific cause to explain why the pain increased so suddenly. This can definitely mess with your head, and make you wonder if you are entering crazy-ville.

I have worked extensively with a Pain Specialist, who has determined the perfect concoction of pain meds needed to calm down my nervous system. I have also worked with a Pain Psychologist who has helped me change my way of thinking so that my brain calms the F down and stops overreacting to each and every signal sent its way. I have found both to be very helpful and I highly recommend seeking advice from both types of professionals if you suffer from chronic pain. Prior to working with these professionals, I was sick of hearing airy fairy tips like, "think positive," "drink your greens," and "meditate regularly." I needed something more concrete. Therefore, I am sharing 4 specific strategies that really helped me with my pain control, in hopes that one of these suggestions might help someone who is also suffering from chronic pain, and to inspire those with chronic pain to seek professional help.

1) Keep Moving

I know I know! The last thing that you want to do when you are experiencing pain is to go on a long hike. I get it. But I got stuck in a rut where as soon as I experienced pain, I rolled myself up into a ball on the couch with the goal of not moving a muscle for 48 hours. Bad idea. You see, when I did unintentionally move a muscle, a signal was sent to my brain, and it sent instant alarm bells out to my body "Danger! Danger!" resulting in increased pain. I needed to let my brain know that I could move gently and it was OK. I actually set my watch for 30 minute intervals and consciously took 5 minutes to stretch gently, crutch slowly to my window, or even just do neck rotations. There was a new stimulus every half hour, the message was transmitted to my brain, but instead of freaking out, my brain said, "Oh it's just Kirstie stretching again. This is not an emergency. All is well." When my Psychologist recommended this, I humoured her by adding it to my to-do list. It sounded all a bit hokey to me. But it helped. Plus, mentally, it was good to have goals throughout the day - even if was simply to touch my toes or stretch my hamstrings.

2) Distract yourself to stop the negative thoughts

Easier said than done, right? After speaking with my Psychologist, I became aware of how my thoughts were affecting my pain. Here's how it worked for me: 1) I felt pain, 2) I catastrophized that pain, thinking, "Oh here it goes again. Something else is broken. Here comes another surgery!" 3) The thoughts became more persistent and negative ("I will probably never walk again. I may as well quit my job. I am useless!"), and 4) The pain became worse. My Psychologist helped me realize that I needed to stop the spiral of negative thoughts. I tried various meditation techniques but the one strategy that helped me the most, and I still implement today, is a mindfulness technique that I have named the "Cease and Desist" strategy. As soon as I catch my thoughts spiralling out of control, I stop and say to myself, "Stop. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you see? What do you feel?" I take a few minutes to experience my environment and answer each question in my mind. For example, "I can hear the air conditioning unit kick on. I can see my pup sleeping on his bed. I can feel a soft pillow behind my back. I can smell a bounce sheet from the laundry," etc. For those 2-3 minutes (or however dialled in you are with your senses), I am present instead of catastrophizing my pain. I am able to stop the cycle. Plus it helps to increase my awareness of my negative thoughts. Instead of beating myself up about these thoughts, I simply think, "It's interesting that I'm having these thoughts," and quickly move on to "Cease and Desist." This simple exercise has decreased my pain and my anxiety levels. It's also a great strategy if your thoughts are interfering with your ability to fall asleep. Try it!

I am not going into surgery. They are wheeling me into happy hour and it's going to be amazing. 

3) Be Honest

No one wants to hear about how much you hurt. I told myself that repeatedly, and got to the point where I attempted to hide the pain that I was feeling. It also caused me to avoid interactions with others. Pain can be incredibly isolating. I even rejected help on a regular basis as some weird type of self preservation ("No I don't need help carrying my bag. I am doing just fine crutching with a bag wrapped around my neck, thank you very much!"). Good God! I realized, again in discussion with my Psychologist, that being honest about my pain with my friends and family was important. Now I don't think it's healthy to go on and on about your pain on social medial and to each and every person you interact with on a daily basis ("Hi cashier at grocery story. I hurt like a bitch today!"),'s important to disclose that you are having an especially rough day to those close to you. Once I became honest about my pain, I felt much better. Plus, I realized just how much my family and friends cared about me and went out of their way to offer assistance. That was helpful. Instead of passive aggressively hissing at Evan when he left a dirty dish on the counter, I found myself saying, "I'm having a shitty day with pain and I know I'm overreacting but this dirty dish is just pissing me off." He appreciated that. In addition, I challenged myself to find a few key people in my workplace that I knew I could ask for help if I needed it. Instead of struggling with bags and stairs and suffering for hours afterwards, I simply tapped my buddy on the shoulder and said, "I'm having a tough day. Do you mind giving me a hand?" Easy. It wasn't a big deal. I didn't feel like a piece of shit for asking, and I probably got an extra mile out of my knees that day. It's OK to ask for help!

4) Make a "flare-up"plan

A flare-up is a sudden increase in pain which may or may not be attributed to an event. Some people experience flare-ups when they over-do it, when the weather changes, or when they are experiencing a high level of stress. On the other hand, I can experience a flare-up with no known cause or trigger. I view a flare-up as signal overload to my central nervous system. The nerves transmit a chaotic mix of signals to my brain and my brain becomes overwhelmed with interpreting the signals. It's confused. My brain doesn't know how to attach meaning to this mess of signals so it decides to send out an alarm, "PAIN! TERRIBLE PAIN!" Ugh. My flare-ups typically feel like waves of electric shocks to my knees (good times!) In my case, a flare-up can last a few hours to days or even weeks. Flare-ups happen are often a part of chronic pain. The key is being prepared.

My Psychologist encouraged me to create a "flare-up plan." I don't recommend creating your plan in the midst of a bad flare-up. It's difficult to think straight and clearly during intense pain. Choose a low pain day to create your plan. A flare-up plan needs to consist of things that help you with your pain, so each is highly individualized, based on your personal pain and experience with the pain. There is no one flare-up plan that works for everyone.  It may include increasing or adding medications that you know will reduce the pain, but it also needs to consist of non-drug strategies that have worked in the past to reduce your pain. Sometimes a flare-up plan works beautifully. Sometimes it's not as effective. I am always tweaking my plan and adding more strategies in case I hit a wall during a particularly bad flare-up.

Flare-ups make me feel powerless, increase my anxiety, and decrease my confidence levels. Creating this plan, and having it in my back pocket when needed, has made me feel more in control of the situation and instills faith that I can cope and manage this difficult period of time. Just to give you an idea, my flare-up plan is a check-list and includes: 1) hot bath/heat,  2) 300mg Gabapentin (a nerve pain medication), 3) short walks with the dog every few hours,  4) Stretching on a foam roller, 5) Massage, 6) Asking for help, 7) Increasing sleep/rest, 8) gentle exercise in the pool, 9) Cease and Desist 10) Shots of tequila (Ha! Joking on that one. Or not. You'll never know).

Pain is a bitch and there is no doubt that it has changed the way in which I live my life. I refuse, however, to succumb to the pain and let it run my show. Been there, done that. Although pain will always be a part of me, my condition has made me realize that I am not helpless. I do have the power to control aspects of my body and mind. I have the ability to manage this pain and continue to live my life to the fullest. I hope that if you are experiencing chronic pain that you seek the help of professionals, adopt a problem-solving attitude towards pain, and take back the control.


hehe. Dat's bad. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Finding your place

I wonder how many people really love where they live? When I say, "love," I refer to feeling a  special connection to the city/country/state in which you reside. A sense of living somewhere that you truly belong - a place that feels like it was designed for you.  I know a lot of people choose to live in a location based on family, where they were raised, or where they could find the best job and make the most money, but I wonder how many of us truly love where we live.

As a child, I was oddly infatuated with all things tropical. Given that I was born and raised in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, this was a peculiar fascination! I remember an art project in grade 4 that required us to draw a silhouette of our favourite landscape. Most students drew what they knew - wheat fields, mountain ranges, lakes. I drew the silhouette of a palm tree. I obsessed over movies that took place in tropical locations like, "Romancing The Stone," and watched  MuchMusic videos on repeat that depicted sandy beaches (Belinda Carlisle's "Circle in the Sand" and Madonna's "Cherish"). I memorized the words to the Beach Boys, "Kokomo," and was saddened after a desperate Atlas search revealed  that Kokomo was a fictitious place (damn you Beach Boys for false hope!). My parents brought home catalogues from travel agents filled with pictures of turquoise Caribbean waters and I spent hours pricing out holidays. I was fortunate enough to have a Mom and Dad who loved holidays and took me along on tropical vacations every year (lucky spoiled me!). When we returned from our vacation, I cried, wondering why the hell we lived in snow and cold. My parents listened to me complain and suggested that I choose a new place to live when I was old enough to make my own decisions. So my first "adult" decision, at the age of 17, was to spontaneously tattoo a tropical angelfish on my ankle. There! I had never scuba-dived, nor had I ever lived within 2000km of the ocean, but I had put it out to the universe. I felt like that angelfish suited me. My dad, on the other hand, did not. Sorry Dad!

The fish that took me out of the Will (temporarily)

I'm a big believer in "trying out" places to live (otherwise known as "fear of commitment to location"). Ev and I had the opportunity to live in 18 different cities throughout the years - from London, England to Biloxi, Mississippi. There were always elements of places that I loved (The people in Scotland were fantastic! The beaches in Pensacola were pristine! Candle Lake summers are breathtaking!), elements that I disliked (The traffic in Calgary sucked! London was way too busy), and elements that I loathed (-50 degrees today in Saskatchewan? Come on!). We spent many years searching for a location that fit us, and although we lived in places where we had awesome friends, good jobs, and a comfortable life, I just couldn't shake that silhouette palm tree drawing from my head.

Then one dark frigid January morning in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, snot frozen to my face, I angrily shovelled my car out of a snowbank and threw a legit toddler temper tantrum. "Why the F#$% do we live here?" I shouted repeatedly into the arctic air. I threw the shovel into the snow and something clicked in my brain. Yes. WHY. DO. WE. LIVE. HERE? That day, I began searching for jobs. I literally google searched: "Speech therapy jobs on tropical islands."

And here we are. Living on a tropical island. It all makes sense! Even after 4 years in Cayman, it blows my mind (at least on a weekly basis) that I was able to make my dream a reality. I am well aware; however, that my future here is somewhat beyond my control. Every 2 years, I request another contract and wait with bated breath to see if it's been granted. I was super pumped to learn that I've been granted another 2 years in paradise. This means that I have job security until July 2020! Awesome.

Making the decision to move here was one of the most difficult things we've ever had to do. We took a big leap of faith and never looked back (OK. Truth bomb: I looked back a few times, shrugged with uncertainty, shed more than a few tears, and kept going). I'll never forget the first view of our (very) tiny island from the airplane window. My stomach churned with excitement/absolute terror. It was incredibly unsettling - like jumping out of a plane and hoping that parachute actually opens. But man, was it worth it.

I'm not saying that moving to a tropical island is for everyone. I've watched plenty of people try out our little slice of paradise and realize that it's not their jam. There are days when the island flips me the middle finger, and I find myself gritting my teeth with frustration ("Please join this long line. It goes nowhere and no one is working it, but you need to stand in this line for a very long time.") There are days when I desperately miss my family and friends. But it was the right decision for us.  On the other hand, I understand that every one is different: some feel a special connection to winter, deserts, jungles, etc. Many people dream of raising their kids in the same neighbourhood that they grew up in. Some people feel incredible loyalty to their country of birth and never intend to leave. That's cool too.

It's totally awesome if you've found a place to live that meets your needs and offers you comfort. And even if you don't love it, I hope that you are at least really in like with it.

But...if you find yourself asking the question, "Why do I live here?" on a daily basis, then do something about it. There are a million excuses not to -for weeks I convinced myself that my health wasn't good enough, that we didn't have enough money, or that we wouldn't make any friends. It would have been way easier to say, "Meh, it's just a pipe dream. Maybe in a few years. We will just book more vacations to combat the winter blues." I'm so glad that I was able to push those fears aside. Be brave. It's uncomfortable. It's scary. Start slow. Start with a google search! Every evening when I see the silhouette of a palm tree outside my window, the same palm tree that I drew in fourth grade, I applaud our decision to perform that life-changing google search which led me to live in a place that I love.

Cheers to finding your Kokomo!

This is THE palm tree!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Christmas Hangover

Bored and anxious to get home on New Years Eve, I curiously observed the other passengers shuffling along the security line at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. One family, consisting of two children (about 10-12 years in age) was not in a good place. The 10 year old boy hid behind his mom, while she smothered him with kisses. The exasperated sister found a moment when her mother wasn't looking, glared angrily at her brother and mouthed, "I. HATE. YOU." Closer to security, an adult daughter sighed with frustration as she snapped at her senior parents, "JUST MAKE A DECISION ALREADY!" A young couple wearing "bride" and "groom" hoodies quickly transitioned from wedded bliss to pure annoyance when the "bride" discovered multiple bottles of liquids in her carry-on. Now I know that airports are not an environment conducive to fostering healthy relationships; however, this mood was exceptionally grim. It dawned on me in that moment that everyone at George Bush Intercontinental Airport was suffering from the Christmas Hangover.

The Christmas Hangover is more than just the after effects of excessive food and drink. It can be summed up in a simple equation. Christmas Hangover = Your Christmas Expectations -  Your Christmas Reality. The larger the disparity between your expectations and your reality, the more severe the Christmas Hangover. How can your Christmas expectations not be high? Movies, TV commercials, Christmas specials and Christmas carols begin setting the bar to an unachievable level, raising our expectations in early November. We imagine the perfect holiday season, complete with egg nog,  Christmas cookies, joy, love, laughter, and pure Christmas happiness. When a tantruming child, a holiday gift gone awry, a forgotten Elf on the Shelf or a disagreement between Uncle Joe and Cousin Eddy arises, we feel panic and disappointment. It's not supposed to be like this! This isn't what I envisioned! Although I love Christmas just as much as the next guy, including holiday baking, Christmas music, Christmas movies, and catching up with family and friends, I've become more cognizant of the stress level and pressure that many feel to meet their Christmas expectations.  In addition, since the loss of special family members over the past few years, I am more conscious of the fact that Christmas can be a horrible time of year for someone who is mourning a loss. I could definitely sense a collective sigh of relief once the holiday season (and all the pressure that comes with it) reached it's end this year.

Contrary to my above thoughts, my Christmas was quite nice. There was no arguing amongst relatives, disagreements, or Elf fails. I was able to catch up with Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins. I cuddled up on the couch with my sister and watched National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (my favourite!) I decorated a real Canadian Christmas tree with my Mom and Mother-in-law. I got Grandma hugs and Baba kisses. I devoured perogies, turkey, and butter tarts. We reunited with our Saskatchewan posse and caught up over prosecco and shark fins. All good. The weather, on the other hand, was terrible. I must admit that I've gotten a little soft since my move to a tropical island almost 4 years ago; however, the weather in Saskatchewan over the holiday season was atrocious, even for the most seasoned Canadian. With windchills of up to -50 degrees Celsius, it was much too cold to stand outside for more than 30 seconds enjoy outdoor winter activities (by the way, did you know that at -40 degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit become equal? Mind. Blown). The frigid temps wreaked havoc on our "stuff," which typically only operates during the summer months. Our water line froze, and I found myself angrily melting snow on the stove like a freakin' pioneer. The diesel in our truck even froze, rendering us vehicle-less for the last part of our holiday.  The weather was not fit for human (or nonhuman) habitation, and that put a damper on things. Although I felt negligent leaving our friends and family behind when we flew back to Cayman, I have to admit that I was very ready to return to the island. I exhaled a huge sigh of relief when I stepped off the plane in Cayman, felt my joints begin to thaw, and was able to walk without pain again.

I'm pretty pumped about 2018. Let's call a spade a spade: 2017 was not my year. I admire those who can reflect upon a tough year with realizations such as, "I learned a lot of lessons" or "2017 challenged me!" Not this girl. With 3 knee surgeries, crutches for 3/4 of the year, the #neverbending story, and enough painkillers to kill a horse, 2017 does not deserve an inspirational saying, and will forever be known as "The year that sucked." Thankfully, I am heading into 2018 in pretty good shape! Today I am painkiller free (cheers to brain clarity!), am hitting up the gym again with light weights, and am feeling much more stable emotionally and mentally. Although I still experience pain and suffer from moments where I temporarily freak out about the future of my cartilage, I'm learning to embrace the here and now. And here and now I am a poster child for Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation recovery. Boo ya! In addition, there was an incredible sighting in my bathroom mirror this week - my ass! It's slowly returning from the depths of the unknown. I don't want to brag, but I'm presently a few squats away from the Kardashian-ville (No. Not even close).  It's difficult to express the relief you feel when you make it through the other side of shit and find your old self (and ass) after a long 12 month hiatus.  I am happy Kirstie again, and you know the saying, "Happy Kirstie, happy life" (I totally made that up, but I would argue that Evan would fully agree with that statement). After a year of watching from the sidelines, I am so looking forward to "doing" again!

Cheers to a health and happiness in 2018!

My Posse

Eggnog, Canada slippers and Rudolph

sister hugs!

Christmas Eve with Baba

The Candle lake view has changed since August

Tea with Grandma

Rockin' around the Christmas tree with the girls

Ev's mom got to experience a cold Candle Lake Christmas!

The day the truck gave up on life: heaters, blankets, and blow dryers. No luck. 

All thawed out. Cheers!