In the beginning months of 2016, I can honestly say I was the worst version of myself.
I was stressed out unnecessarily at a job that didn’t fulfill me (or treat me well for that matter) and I let that flood of anxiety trickle into every facet of my life- making my thoughts and behaviours unrecognizable.
I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) in third year university, and although I handled it well for several years, the flare ups started to make it feel unmanageable.
I often sought refuge in exercise and movement.
However, Yoga-which had often been a ‘cure-all’ for the ailments in my body and mind-no longer helped soothe me; so much so that I dropped out of my 200hr Yoga Teacher Training (something I had wanted to do for SO long). On top of that, I couldn’t focus at work or at home and was constantly angst- ridden- to the point where my physical health fell apart. I was sick constantly, not sleeping, exhausted and eating sparingly or not at all. Because of what was going on in my mind, it felt like my sense of self and my life were spiralling out of control.
My anxiety eventually got so out of control that my doctor recommended I consider anti-anxiety medication.
On April 4th 2016, I held my Dad in my arms as he passed suddenly from a aortic aneurism.
In that instant, the safe, comfortable, self-indulgent 20-something life I had known had vanished forever — and in a way so did the anxiety that I had been struggling with. His passing came as such a shock to my system, that it caused a full body and mind reset. The day of his passing felt like the first day of the rest of my life.
And in the midst of that restart, I felt myself go numb.
There’s no guidebook for life, and even less of a guidebook for when someone dies. In the immediate moment you’re surrounded by so many friends and family. But- then the funeral passes and friends and family fade into the background as they resume their normal lives. The person who is grieving is left surrounded by a pile of tiny shattered fragments of their former life with no instruction as to how to rebuild it again. Although well intentioned, folks will share their thoughts as to to how to pick up the pieces, which looks a little something like:
“You should go out more”
“You definitely need to stay in more”
“Maybe therapy would help”
“I’m starting a new XYZ cleanse I think it could help you too”
“You should try and push yourself”
I think you get the idea. Sadly, not one of these stamens is a ‘cure-all’ for tragedy.
At the time of my Dad’s passing it made sense to withdraw a bit and to take stock of my life, my goals and my relationships. I knew movement had played an important part in managing my mental health in the past, but something about this circumstance was different.
Due to the sudden nature of my Dad’s passing, and having had to respond to his calls of distress, I developed severe anxiety around being away from my phone. In my mind, if I was near my phone I could react and help if someone needed me. “What if something happened to my mom?” I would think. Because of this, my regular yoga classes weren’t an option. I remember trying to go to yoga a few days after his passing to clear my mind and having severe panic attacks because of not knowing what was going on in the outside world. Classes were no longer an option for me.
However- I was still operating with an urge to move- so I began running 5k a day. Just far enough from my house that I could make it back in time (should something happen). Those runs were my time to feel free, to think, to cry and to sweat. I became so focused on making each run better than the last. It was the one thing I had control over while my life seemed to be spiralling out of control.
I was at a followup appointment with my naturopath in the spring of 2017 when she suggested I try a mix of HIIT, weight training and intensive cardio in order to better manage my stress. The thought of trying a class worried me, but I was also committed to getting myself on a healthier path.
Indoor cycling was becoming popular in Toronto and my friend encouraged me to try a class at Spokehaüs with her. I wish I could say it was love at first pedal-stroke; but it wasn’t. I was out of breath, my lungs burned, I couldn’t keep up with the class at all and I kept panicking about not being able to get to my phone.
It was a mess.
However, something sparked in me — if I was struggling to keep up with a class like this, it meant that I needed to boost my cardio health. For obvious reasons, heart health had become very important to me since my dad’s passing. I knew I had to keep at this.
In the following summer I began bouncing around a few indoor cycling studios during my lunch hour at MOVE. During this time, my Mom began experiencing severe back pain- so between her doctors appointments and visits to the emergency room, I was finding it hard to commit to class times. From June to August we were back and forth between Doctors, Physiotherapists, Acupuncturists and Orthopaedic Surgeons.
My Mom was rushed to hospital the last weekend of August 2017 for emergency surgery after she had lost feeling in both legs.
During her surgery, they found a tumour. A biopsy and more waiting lead to the news that would again, alter my life forever: The excruciating pain my Mom had been experiencing was a rare, incurable cancer known as multiple myeloma. She would have to stay in hospital till she was strong enough to come home.
In that moment, our roles became reversed. My childhood officially ended.
I was no longer a daughter, but a caregiver to my Mother. I made it my mission to ensure she received the best care possible. My brother and I couldn’t afford to lose her, especially so soon after losing my dad. This meant doing things like attending any and all doctors appointments, coordinating second opinions, cooking or picking up dinner along with anything else she needed everyday after work and keeping her company on the weekends. It was a role I slipped into wholeheartedly. It was difficult but I was determined. And she was too.
I knew I didn’t want to slip back into a state of acute anxiety, so I knew I had to keep moving. Worries about not being close to my phone became an afterthought after my Mom was diagnosed.
Phone or not, if life was going to change, there would be nothing I could do to control it.
In addition to weight training, I pushed myself to attend my first class at SoulCycle. It had taken me a few indoor cycling classes to psych myself up for it and (truthfully) it was also conveniently along my commute to the east end of Toronto for work.
Before I knew it, 7am SoulCycle classes became part of my routine.
I would call my Mom and the nursing station at 6am to check in on her before going into class. Within the dark room, those 45min became my refuge — in my SoulCycle class there was no cancer, no sickness, no anxiety.
Just me, the bike and my breath.
I left each class feeling a little bit lighter. I was able to leave everything that weighed me down in that rom. In a way, SoulCycle became my good luck charm. Before any big follow up appointment of my Mom’s at Princess Margaret Hospital (appointments that were truly life and death) I would be sure to book a morning class so that I would be in the best headspace possible to ask the doctor questions and advocate for her care.
On one such appointment, however, it seemed that my good luck charm had run out.
“You have one more line of treatment left to try, but if it doesn’t work and it doesn’t seem probable then we will have to have conversations around palliative care.”
Time froze as the words left my Mom’s oncologist’s mouth.
It couldn’t be. I had made sure to do everything right. I got my Mom a second opinion at the best cancer centre in Canada, I had done my research, I made sure she was eating the right foods, I was trying to take care of myself — how could this be?
One thing I knew, is that we weren’t giving up. Following that final follow up at Princess Margaret Hospital, I began researching doctors and hospitals in the USA. Call it fate or circumstance, but I was connected to one of the top specialists and grandfathers in the treatment of multiple myeloma, Dr. Barlogie who worked out of The Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC.
Within a week, I was riding in the back of an ambulance transport in the middle of the night with my Mom in a stretcher as we made our way to New York City. My caregiving commitment went from the after work, weekends and the odd workday to 14-hour-a-day bedside care. My Mom had received a second chance and I wanted to be there for every moment. She needed me, and I needed her.
The highs and low’s of a cancer journey are so incredibly extreme. The highs of a successful round of chemo are euphoric and intoxicating. The lows of recurring disease or complications are so bad that you find it hard to even wake up in the morning. Also as an aside, that’s just my caregiver’s perspective. The patient feels these peaks and valleys tenfold.
After a particularly difficult day, Anna, my Mom’s Physiotherapist noticed me upset in the hallway and came over to comfort me. She asked me what I had been doing for myself since moving to NYC to be with my Mom.
“Nothing,” I said simply. “But I was really enjoying SoulCycle when I was back in Toronto.”
“Oh no way!” She said, “My friend is an instructor there, I should connect you.”
I didn’t think anything of the gesture until she found me in the hallway a few days later and told me that she had told her instructor friend Becca about me. She handed me Becca’s number.
“She’s expecting you to message her.” Anna said.
I knew I had met someone special within the first few exchanges I had with Becca that evening. She was positive, kind, vibrant and it felt like her loving heart radiated through the phone. She invited me to ride in her class anytime I needed to as a guest. I couldn’t believe it.
During the 4 months I was in NYC with my Mom, I rode with Becca as much as possible. My days were committed to the hospital and her care, but my mornings became time for me. Time to just let go, connect to myself and centre my mind for the gruelling days ahead.
Outside of class, Becca and I became fast friends. She was a constant reminder of how important it was to take time for myself amidst my circumstances. She also gave me support in remembering who I was before my Mom’s illness. It gave my Mom and boyfriend comfort to know that I had made a friend in the city that could support me.
On July 13th, 2018 in the Intensive Care Unit at The Mount Sinai Hospital, I held my Mom as she passed away from complications due to her stem cell transplant. She had achieved her long sought after remission, obtained her healthy stem cells but succumbed to a virus due to her compromised immune system. Again, only 2 years after losing my Dad my world was shattered.
I had lost both parents before turning 30.
I was silent most of the car ride home to Toronto. My boyfriend, his uncle and his Mom tried their best to keep my spirits up and positive. But all I could feel was disappointment. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had let my Mom down.
I returned to SoulCycle a few days after coming home to Toronto with a few friends. I needed a place that felt familiar and like home. I walked into the studio to find ‘Welcome Home Fran!” spelled out in big letters under the front desk. My eyes welled with tears. Becca had told Jenna — our instructor in Toronto- that I was coming home that day.
I knew my SoulCycle bike would always feel like a safe place for me.
After the funeral had passed, and ‘normal’ life began to resume again, I was left with thousands of pieces. Some that were leftover from when I had lost my Dad- but now, there were new pieces to fit together: those of having lost my Mom and those from losing both my parents. I began feeling very, very low.
One Friday evening, my friend Chelsea told me a few of my friends wanted to take me for dinner. I was told I didn’t have to plan anything and was told she would meet me after work that day and walk me to dinner. As we were walking up King Street, Chelsea said she had to run into SoulCycle to buy a few credits because the site wasn’t working.
I walked into the studio to see a crowd of people. After a few moments I realized the studio was not hosting a Media event and the crowd of people that had formed was everyone near and dear to me!
As I looked around the room, I took in what Chelsea had organized: A raffle to collect money (to be donated to the International Myeloma Foundation), a hair braiding station (my Mom LOVED braiding my hair) complete with monarch butterfly hair clips (I’ve seen so many butterflies since my Mom passed) and most importantly: the space was full of love.
“Get ready to ride!” Everyone exclaimed!
In my shock I managed to change into workout clothes and head into the studio.
I was still in tears as Jenna began to lead us in a ride in memory of Maria.
But the best surprise was yet to come.
The doors opened after the second song and a silhouette appeared. As it moved towards the room, I unclipped right off my bike and ran towards it for a big sweaty hug.
It was Becca.
For her last week working at SoulCycle, she had asked to be flown to Toronto to ride for Maria. She took the podium and I rode (read; cried) my heart out.
For me, SoulCycle and really any of the movement I undertook to heal was never about the equipment, the physical gains or the athleisure. It was always about love — for myself and for the community I cultivated and gained.
We often don’t realize how much we receive when we put our bodies and minds into a beautiful space through movement.
The healing journey ahead of me now is one that will last a lifetime. Each day will be different with it’s own advances and detours. Healing is the furthest thing from a linear process.
What I can always come back to is this small space in the world I chose to carve out for me:
45 minutes in the dark to think, cry and breathe.