IN HER SHOES is a beloved feature of Red Shoe Zone. In it women open their hearts and allow us to look inside. Christie Dakin, 56, courageously shares her story.
There was a passage in Christie Dakin’s life not too long ago, that was emotionally wrenching, frightening and void of any certainty. Looking back Christie can see why it had to be that way. The journey was an important one. It would be a path to understanding, forgiveness and most importantly personal freedom. Through the darkest of times she would receive the greatest gifts – faith – hope – love.
Christie was riding high. As a Master Therapeutic Counselor she enjoyed a thriving counseling practice, life as a single parent of three kids was rolling along smoothly and she had a deeply meaningful spiritual life.
Then without warning a sudden bend in the road. It came in the form of what she describes as the biggest heartbreak of her life; the relationship with her personal and spiritual mentor ended abruptly, thrusting Christie into a cascading spiral she couldn’t stop.
The struggle continued for two years. She couldn’t imagine anything worse.
But life has a way of giving us exactly what we need.
An even sharper bend was ahead.
“You have leukemia,” the doctor said.
The devastating illness would allow Christie to reclaim life and begin anew.
Cheryl: Let’s go back 5 years, if you will Christie, and talk about the relationship with your mentor. This was a deeply meaningful relationship. The ending threw you into an emotional abyss, a 2 year soul destroying spiral that you could not release from. Yet on the ‘outside’ you ran a successful counseling practice that you’ve described as going ‘gang busters’. How did you maintain this dichotomy?
CHRISTIE: I was working on autopilot. I knew how to be a counselor and I used the abilities that I had. In fact, when I was with my clients, I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was able to transcend whatever was going on with me personally. Time with my clients was a sanctuary. I was reminding them of the truth and myself as well. I also could understand their heartbreaks and misunderstandings from a more empathetic perspective.
Cheryl: Other than the brief respite when you engaged with clients you maintained a ‘face’ that masked the truth of what was going on inside. What was the impact of heartbreak and despair on your body?
CHRISTIE: When my mother died in 2008, people were concerned about my state of mind and regularly asked how I was doing. But in this case, with the loss of my mentor, it didn’t seem to be such a big deal to others and so I didn’t receive much emotional support. People generally couldn’t relate to this experience. I was presenting on the outside as though I was fine but inside I was in huge turmoil. I was blaming myself for what happened in my mentorship relationship and I suffered with massive guilt. I asked for a lot of guidance and help on a spiritual level. Sometimes I believe the leukemia was the answer to that request. It forced me to decide whether to live my life or not.
In my body I felt compelled to keep busy to distract myself. I was sad and lonely without my mentor and the group of people I had worked with for so long. I judged myself heavily and I felt very unhappy and then judged myself for not being able to snap out of it. I am certain that this guilt and self judgment had a heavy toll on my mind and my body.
Cheryl: Finding out you had leukemia wasn’t something you ever expected…..
CHRISTIE: I was tired and flu-y for a week in September, October and November 2013. I’m slow to go to the doctor but decided to just double check with her. I thought maybe I needed iron or my thyroid was too low. I had the blood test on a Thursday. I was called on Friday morning to come back into the Dr’s office that day. I told the receptionist that I had clients all day and asked whether I could come in the following Monday. She said no. Then she said the doctor needed to see me today and that I could bring a friend. Bring a friend! WHAT??!! I asked the receptionist whether it was serious and she said, yes. I felt scared and very nervous.
I went in at 11 am alone and saw a doctor who said these unbelievable words to me, “I hate to have to tell you this but you have leukemia”. I felt my world tilt. I had to ask him what it was exactly and how serious it was. It is a blood cancer and on a scale on 1 – 10 he said the level of seriousness was around 8, 9 or 10. I was in absolute shock. He told me that I had to report to the Vancouver General Hospital on Monday and would be in the hospital for a few days for tests.
Cheryl: You must have been in complete shock, denial and overcome with fear.
CHRISTIE: Honestly, at first I thought they had made a crazy mistake. I found out that there are 4 types of leukemia and two are more serious than the other two. I was hoping I had one of the less serious types. I was alternating between panic and rationalizing the situation to myself. I called my close friends. I got a lot of support. It meant so much to not be alone at this time. I didn’t know much about leukemia but I was about to learn a lot. Indeed, one of the first things I learned was that I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia which is a very serious form of leukemia. That was why I was swiftly sent to the hospital just two days after diagnosis.
Cheryl: Treatment began immediately and the first of what you call ‘many gifts’ arrived. You saw how deeply you were loved….
CHRISTIE: A good friend organized a number of friends to make dinners for me. My 25 year old daughter offered to quit her job and come home to look after me. At first I declined because I couldn’t really get my head around the level of assistance I would need. She insisted and it was lucky she did because I would truly need her help in the months ahead. My youngest son lived with me and was very sweet. My 23 year old son was working towards his CA accounting designation at a firm in Calgary and he came back to Vancouver although I did protest it wasn’t necessary.
Another friend who I had only known for a few years wrote me the most astonishing email saying she would put aside everything in her life and devote her time and attention to me. Whatever I needed she would do and she also offered to let me stay at her condo near the hospital. This was very touching and I appreciated it very much.
Cheryl: You were surrounded by love.
CHRISTIE: Yes… my friends and family felt like a perfect orchestra. Everyone came at the right time. This includes phone calls and visits at the hospital. People would offer to bring me food and drinks although I wasn’t eating much. I had a friend who stayed with me during every procedure. I had another person who was there for me at every turn. Mostly, I was completely astonished by the beautiful friends and family I have in my life. I have NEVER felt so grateful. It still makes me tear up to think about it.
Cheryl: Do you think this contributed to your healing?
CHRISTIE: Yes, I believe that feeling so incredibly supported and loved made a huge difference to my healing. I became very trusting of the process and believed everything would work out exactly as it should. I was cheering for life but if death had happened, then I would have dealt with that when the time came too. There was a solid sense of acceptance within me. Accepting what was.
Cheryl: You describe yourself as having been a ‘controlling’ person. Here you were in a situation where you had no control. How did you deal with it?
CHRISTIE: Well, I had no control over my body. Clearly I was on a journey that I didn’t particularly want to be on. I decided that my body was in the hands of the doctors and nurses in charge of my care. Leukemia is not like other forms of cancer. There are not optional forms of treatment. There was just one clear path and few alternatives. I released my body to their care.
However, my mind and my thoughts were my domain. I gave myself the job of my mind. I have a very clear spiritual path and along with that I used Louise Hay’s statement for leukemia patients; “I am safe, I am loved and I am totally supported.” This was very calming and helpful. I also bought hypnotherapy CD’s and listened to them regularly. I used music to keep myself calm. I used everything I could to stay in a peaceful place.
Cheryl: You talk about things popping up and coming into your life exactly when you needed them and of the gifts you received. Can you talk more about this…..
CHRISTIE: Well, this list is rather large. Everything comes exactly when we need it and this process taught me the truth of this statement clearly. One example was that I had chemo prior to Christmas in 2013 and I wasn’t allowed near the stores to shop. And so my friends and kids bought everyone’s gifts. I didn’t buy one present! It was awesome.
I was very afraid of having radiation therapy prior to my bone marrow transplant because it was full body radiation twice a day for three days for 10 minutes each time. My good friend offered to walk beside my stretcher during each 10 minute trip from my hospital room to the radiation room and back. That came at the perfect time. We ended up singing on the last day on the way back to the room. That tunnel has great acoustics! Another friend brought some beautiful blankets into my room which completely cheered up the room. Again, it was like a perfect piece of music.
Cheryl: The ‘orchestra’ you talked about….
CHRISTIE: Yes, the timing was perfect and everyone did what they could to help me. Some people visited me and some gave me a call. Others made food and sent notes. I had many emails and good wishes electronically. Some brought food which was a blessing because the food at VGH is really REALLY bad. I am not a foodie and not overly picky but sometimes I could not believe what I was given to eat. It made me laugh it was so bad. So people would import food. It was lovely.
Cheryl: Hospital food is mystery food – as in What kind of ‘food’ is that? You were blessed to have imported food! On a serious note…..What do you know now that you didn’t know before the leukemia diagnosis and treatment?
CHRISTIE:I didn’t know how much I was loved and cared for. I didn’t really know how precious life is and that I can choose not to waste it on blame and guilt and worry. I didn’t really know that my life could go sideways like this. I makes me appreciate every single day
Cheryl: It’s interesting how we are given experiences that teach us and ultimately allow us to live at a much deeper level within ourselves. So often we’re living on the surface and don’t even realize it. Thankfully…you are now well down the recovery road. There are 2 big hurdles ahead. April 2016 will signify 2 years cancer free and April 2020 will be the important 5 year anniversary. How are you feeling about these markers?
CHRISTIE: For my first year anniversary I went back to the leukemia floor of the hospital and spoke with three people about to go through a bone marrow transplant. I wanted them to know that it could honestly all be OK. There are so many side effects that COULD happen with a BMT (bone marrow transplant) but it is also possible everything will be fine. I wanted to give them hope.
This year? Maybe I will do the same thing or I might ask my Dr. if I could chat with a few people in a larger group on that floor. There is so much fear with leukemia. The fact is that it kills people. On the other hand, people can make it. I think one has to learn to make friends with death. Then it doesn’t seem so scary and you don’t dwell on it.
Cheryl: I understand you live at the simplest and purest level of ‘being’ alive. November 2015 was significant you traveled to Portland, Oregon and to meet Craig your bone marrow donor. I can only imagine how emotional that meeting was…
CHRISTIE: One year following a BMT (bone marrow transplant), Be The Match, the agency responsible for collecting bone marrow donors, will exchange contact information with you if you’re are still alive and the donor if both parties are willing. Both of us were very willing. Meeting Craig was very emotional. It was the weekend of American Thanksgiving 2015 which was highly appropriate. I instantly loved him. He has a beautiful open face and is pretty easy to love. I went with two girlfriends and we all thought he was a wonderful person.
He described his process in detail. It took 5 days of shots to over stimulate his stem cells. The extra cells just fell into his blood stream. On the fifth day, he was hooked up via IV to a multi-million dollar machine which collects his blood from one arm and then separates the stem cells from the blood and returns his blood to him with an IV in the other arm. It took 6 hours. The stem cells went into a blood bag for me and I received them the next day, April 26th 2014. He said many times when I was with him that he would gladly do it again. A pretty amazing guy!
The meeting was bitter sweet because he had lost his wife in August 2015 to cancer.
Cheryl: Maybe you’re helping each other heal…..
CHRISTIE: Yes, possibly. I am sure it was wonderful for him to see that I was so healthy. I felt such sadness for him to have lost Lori so suddenly and through cancer. It seemed ironic and unfair that he saved my life and then she died. He is so sweet and kind and it sounded as though Lori was lovely as well. He told me that when I sent them the photos of me before, after and during treatment that she cried. I know her death is a huge loss for him.
Cheryl: I’m thinking of your angel Craig with a heavy heart as he grieves his wife Lori.. You say, “Leukemia was a blessing in my life”. Do you live life differently now?
CHRISTIE: It taught me so much. It taught me that I am so supported, I don`t have to do it all alone. In fact, I can`t do it all alone! Leukemia woke me up to my life and the decision to live it. I try to live as fully as possible and yet I do find myself sometimes just living my days on auto-mat. Then something will nudge me and I will think, no. Don`t do it this way. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Do things that bring you joy. What makes your heart sing? Do that instead. I speak kindly to myself now.
Cheryl: What was the biggest lesson learned?
CHRISTIE: Life can be sweet. Life is to be enjoyed and yet many of us punish ourselves when something happens in a relationship or a situation. Maybe that situation was there to help us. Maybe that situation is in our best interest. I think that I trust that much more and hopefully I continue to live in a more joyful manner.
Cheryl: You articulate the blessings so beautifully Christie. Your message of ‘trusting that life provides us with what we need’ is so important. It encourages us to simply ‘be’ and let go the illusion of being in total control of our lives. It opens a pathway to love, joy and peace. This is a gift from You to all of us.
A Heartfelt thank you Christie. Blessings and love to you and angel Craig.
PS. Please pass this along to anyone who is in need of hope. When we are in a place of suffering we often fall into…why me?? WE fight, struggle and resist sometimes making ourselves sicker in the process. If we can surrender into the situation we are able to change, “Why is this happening TO me?” to “This is happening FOR me what are the gifts to discover?” as Christie did. This changes everything and promotes not only a healing environment but starts to create a new life of joy and peace and brings more love into our life than we can imagine. If you know anyone who is suffering right now please share Christie’s story and give them a ray of hope and something to hold on to.
Do you have a story of Faith, Hope and Love? Please add your comments below and join the conversation on Facebook.
Sharon Paulse, Patient Education and Support Manager, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada says
Thank you so much for sharing this remarkably moving story. I hope that that Christie’s story inspires other people who are facing health and other life challenges.