Before delving too deeply into this topic, let’s define the word hero, as provided by my favourite reference work, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):
Hero: noun. 1 A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
I felt it best to begin here as the overuse of the word hero has led to the dilution of the meaning behind it. People have tended to throw it around in modern usage, both mainstream media and social media circles, to the point where the fact that you still draw breath and have a regular pulse is enough to meet the watered down definition. You’ll see why the true definition is my preference by the end of this post.
I believe that I have been very lucky, some would say blessed, in that over the past decade I have regularly been able to meet some of my greatest inspirational people in person. There is no cookie cutter template for them, they are all inspiring and heroic in their own ways and in various fields and endeavours.
And, in the typical Canadian fashion, every single one of them are thoroughly humble and some are downright bashful about their accomplishments in making a difference in the world for others. These are not the people who go in search of fame and piles of awards and media coverage, and get off on being a media star. No, these are the people who quietly, confidently, and by being totally unstoppable, cause positive change to happen in the world, which affects the lives of countless others. While this may not be their original aim, it is the result of their tireless efforts. These are the people who have to be convinced to do an interview, pose for a picture, etc., because they just want to do what they do best, and keep making the world a better place.
The last exercise that I do with the students in our lectures at Ryerson University (past tense, the professor we worked with will not be teaching, going into the research side next school year) is “the hero exercise.” It is something I quite literally created off the cuff, in the moment, calling on my previous teaching experience to do something that would leave an impact. It all starts with a conversation about the Maya Angelou quote in this graphic:
This began some months back, when a mutual friend suggested we should talk. Another mental health warrior who is really making a huge difference for everyone. “Who is she?” I asked. @ParamedicNat1 is her Twitter handle, check her out and introduce yourselves! I remember at that time, Natalie was getting quite excited, her first book was due to be released in the coming month and everybody was all abuzz about it. I honestly don’t know what it is, it seems that those of us who battle PTSD and the various issues that go along with it, we seem to have a sixth sense with each other. What began as a simple conversation turned into us being like best lifelong friends instantly, and we were fascinated with all the details of each other’s lives and worlds.
We discussed the people we met during the recent Bell Let’s Talk campaign, an impromptu support group that arose from conversations that day, why it was so vital to tell our stories and be open about our own battles with PTSD and mental health issues. I loved her outlook, they are not illnesses, they are injuries. My point of view that I have explained on numerous occasions, look, you go to the dentist to take care of your teeth, you go to an optometrist regularly to check your eyesight, you see an audiologist to check your hearing, plus various other specialists that are just part of growing older, so why the hell would you let your mental health go without a checkup? We started sharing our stories from the classrooms from when we had gone out to deliver seminars or guest lectures. Earlier this year, my friend Lee Harrington was in Toronto and we met for a coffee and conversation and got to sharing our tales from the classroom as well. No matter how serious/significant the topic may be, there are still laughs to be had from the experiences. Well, Natalie wanted to see Danielle and I in action delivering one of our guest lectures, and one of the dates worked out perfectly, she was due to host a book signing that evening at Indigo Eaton Centre.
In the meantime, Natalie’s book launched and literally was an overnight bestseller! Could not find a printed copy for love nor money anywhere in the city, they were snapped up by pre-orders before they even had a chance to be placed on the bookshelves in the stores. Damn!! Ah, then the eBook version of Save-My-Life School was released on the Apple iBooks store, and the day it was posted, I bought my copy, downloaded it, made a pot of coffee and devoured it from cover to cover.
I did not tell Natalie that I had planned to review her first book for one of the magazines I am an editor and writer for, Queer Voices, but she knew I had finally gotten my hands on a copy, and while having a quick break had sent me a message asking what I thought of her work. I simply said to her, “that first section, I swear you are describing my life too.”
If you want to read my review posted on Queer Voices website, you can find it here.
I did have one thought afterward, eBooks are nice, and easy to carry, but how the hell do you get the author to sign it?
The day of our guest lecture, Natalie solved that issue for me when she placed a signed copy of her book in my hands prior to our starting. The inscription moved me beyond words:
Now, I must tell you, I was not half excited that day! My best friend Ashley would be there as well (and she had just recently received her pre-order copy and was excited to have the chance to have it signed by the author), we met early and had a quick bite at Starbucks. Another friend, and founder of our coffee club, Cathy would be there as well. People are often curious about what we do in these guest lectures, and why some students come back to see us more than once.
But, I must tell you, from the minute Natalie walked through the door with her friends and their supplies for that evening’s book signing, we were inseparable. The original plan had been to introduce Nat and mention her bestselling book and her book signing later that evening. But I thought, wait a minute, I have a woman who is a personal hero, an inspiration to me, an example of overcoming what has been thrown at you and making something good come of it for others… how the hell can I let the opportunity pass to have her up front and sharing something with the students? I cut part of my usual presentation and shared my time with Nat, and our professor gave her the topic to speak to that fit in with the theme of her course.
And the moment arrived, I introduced Nat, and she stood in front of 150 students and shared a truly heart-wrenching bit of her life with them. Even a crusty old broad like me was moved beyond words.
People seem to be of the opinion that it is easy to get up and talk about a topic or your own life. That opinion disappears quickly when they actually have to do it. It takes more courage (aka intestinal fortitude) to be able to stand in front of a hundred plus strangers and open yourself and your life up to them. To share the parts that at one time you would have been mortified to discuss with anyone, even a medical professional. So, my one wish would be that the listening audience would realize what it takes to stand there and lay your life bare in such a fashion. After a time it seems simpler, but there are still a few nightmares lurking that may revisit after relating that part of you again.
And I look at all of her other accomplishments and think to myself, how is it that this woman has gone unnoticed by those who select new members of the Order of Canada? Check out the Wings of Change Peer Support groups. What began with trying out a format to see if it would work well, has now spread across the Country, with new chapters opening up regularly.
And yet, with all of this, still that humble Canadian hero, just one of the gals, happy with a bottle of Perrier and a bag of sour cream and onion chips, friends to share it with, and a multitude of laughs to be had.
And what was meeting one of my personal heroes like?
Natalie has to be one of the most down-to-earth, caring, loving people I have ever met. The only part missing was having Anne there to meet her as well. I can imagine her children think they are the luckiest around to have a mom like Nat. I have had the honour of meeting many mental health warriors who are doing their damnedest to eliminate the stigma around mental health by discussing their own experiences openly, whether it be their own battles, or the battles of family members, or working in a field that supports those dealing with mental injuries.
I quite honestly think anything is possible. I fully expect to have the experience of sitting in the audience one day soon to watch my friend Nat deliver a TED talk. If I had my way, I would be hopping on the train and stopping to pick up my Nurse Sunshine and heading up to Ottawa to watch Nat receive recognition from the Governor General for her work on mental health and supporting first responders properly.
And the one thing I am certain of, we will most definitely be lifelong friends. Even when I slip into mother hen mode and cluck at her to make sure she has enough self-care and downtime built into her packed schedule.
I was recently asked to add my thoughts to an article currently being worked on about mental health women warriors. I was given a batch of images and asked to select the one that best represented to someone who these women are, what they do every day, what it takes for them to be both hero and warrior. So, this image was selected to represent our mutual friend Laurie, Natalie, and Natalie’s friend Clara.
Kinda fierce, eh? I thought it perfectly represented the courage needed to face every single day, and to share their stories until that future day when we have successfully put an end to all stigma around mental health.
And if you wanted to know mine…
My wish for you kittens, when you have the opportunity to meet your personal heroes, that they are as spectacular as mine continue to be.
And my personal note to my hero…
Natalie, I love you dearly, my greatest hope is to see you succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and to sit quite Zen-like, with a slice of pie and a cup of coffee and celebrating the memory of the day when the stigma was eliminated around all mental health issues. I am massively proud of you, and the distance you have traveled and the new projects you are beginning, you truly are an inspiration to many. You are family now, chosen family, the best kind.