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Over the past three years, as I have learned to live with cancer and have had thousands of lessons about life along the way, one of the things that comes up often is vulnerability. I have talked about it before – how in the beginning I needed to come to terms with people being a part of and discussing my body and its functions more than is the norm. But once that flood gate was opened, so too was I open to explore all sides of my own vulnerability and what I was willing to share that I might have previously taken to the grave.

I wanted to do a series that explored some of the areas of vulnerability I have been interested in lately. These are both things I have kept buried that I am now willing to dig into and some of the joys that being more open has given me. In this series, I will explore failure and loss, but also dreams and hope for the future.

I hope you enjoy what is in store. I wanted to start on a more positive note. So today’s letter is all about visualization and my lifelong habit of daydreaming.

~ Karla

First time I had a panic attack was on Christmas Day in 2000. It was about three to four months into my pregnancy and it was just a few weeks after I had suffered a stroke. We were living in Prague, Czech Republic. I was working my dream job at Oskar and my parents and siblings had decided to all fly in to offer us comfort and to help Al look after me while I was recuperating.

I think I felt safer having them there and was finally starting to deal with everything that had just happened. We found out I had a factor v deficiency, a bleeding disorder that prevents blood from clotting properly. It is a rare condition that is only found in one in a million people, but it can provide a lot of complications in pregnancy. Some celebrities who have experienced and spoken about this are Serena Williams and Sharon Stone.

During the stroke, I kept going in and out of not being able to write or talk and it was terrifying. Once I arrived at Motol University Hospital, a large teaching hospital on the western side of Prague, I not only could not speak the native language, but was only able to communicate with broken English. We had to play a game of charades to explain what was happening to me.

They moved fast and got me in with an MRI within minutes. Quickly seeing that I had a stroke, they gave me medicine and I had to wait until it kicked in to see if I would be able to talk, write and read again. As I waited, I was also planning how I could still run a business without those skills. While I was never the biggest fan of English class, I quickly realized the value of reading, writing and oral skills.

The waiting seemed to take forever, but everything did eventually come back. When I was tested on it, one expert thought my writing was not as strong as expected for my age and job and was worried there had been some lasting effects. It was shameful to say that I thought these skills almost seemed better than they were before. Those that know me and my family quickly become aware that we are all horrible with spelling and grammar, sounding out complicated words well into adulthood. (This story couldn’t have happened without the help of a skilled and patient editor.) We have no luck learning other languages, as we cannot even speak our own very well.

Anyway, back to the story.

The whole family was sitting around our house on Christmas and I remember feeling more comfortable than I had in maybe months, being surrounded by the people that I love and their familiar voices and laughter. And then I guess I finally let my guard down and WHAM! Everything hit me all at once.

I could not breathe. My heart was all of a sudden racing. I was sweating. I demanded an ambulance, I was sure I was going to die.

Coincidentally, a few minutes later, my neurologist Dr. Martin Bojar arrived at our door to drop off  some Christmas carp fish for all us Canadians to try. My sister quickly shuffled him up the stairs, telling him that I thought I was dying. He quickly realized it was a panic attack and got me a bag to breathe into and gave me pills. At the same time, he calmly got my to lie down and asked me to picture the place where I was most happy. He asked me to describe this and next to think about activities I would do there. He asked me to explain what the surroundings looked like and think about all the times that this place had given me so much joy and relaxation.

So, with a mixture of medication, breathing and this visualization technique, I was able to recover from my attack and rejoin my family to celebrate the Christmas dinner with the carp as our yummy appetizer.

Dr. Bojar was the Minister of Health in 1991 and was a neurologist and psychiatrist. He was doing yoga way before it became trendy and would do breathing and movements with me that he had learned from his teachers in India. He knew so many interesting people in Czech and would tell me incredible stories to distract me from my stress and anxiety. One story was that he once helped with a campaign for safe sex. He went up in a helicopter and threw out loads of condoms onto the streets of Prague. For this, he made international headlines.

Now, looking back on that experience, what strikes me are the factors that led me to have my panic attack that day. It wasn’t just caused by all of the traumatic events that I have recently lived through and my own fear and anxiety. It also happened right there and then because I was feeling comfortable, protected and completely like myself. I was able to open myself up completely and while this let in the joy and laughter I got from spending time with my family, it also allowed in emotions that I had been desperately pushing down.

In the next couple of newsletters, we are going to talk about my experiences with visualization as a therapy practice and as a way of manifesting a positive outcome for the future. This was my first experience with visualization as a calming and focusing technique and I truly believe that if that doctor had not shown up to guide me through that experience, that day would have been a traumatic and we would have wasted the time of ambulance coming, and it would have escalated to something where they had to knock me out. We would have not been able to taste the traditional fish or spent a lovely holiday together.

Visualization has helped me not only sort out feelings and emotions when I need to, but also has helped me realize all of the different sides of ourselves and potential that we all have inside of us all the time. We could all be a few seconds or one interaction away from total bliss or a total breakdown. It’s always there.

And vulnerability and digging deep can both bring the best and worst to the surface.

Since then, I sometimes will experience minor panic attacks and have used the same technique that Dr. Bojar showed me to calm myself down and get through it. For years, I didn’t have a name for what I was doing or really understand the power behind it or why it was effective in my times of need. I just knew that it worked for me.

Now, I realize that the reason visualization can be so effective is that it takes you to a place of comfort, but also a place of total vulnerability. You are feel to be the most complete and open version of yourself, and there you can sort out who you want to be and can make a plan for moving forward.

Author Mark Manson explains on his website, “The key to true vulnerability is that you are willing to accept the consequences no matter what.” Within visualization exercises, we are able to explore and imagine with a total safety net and no fear. On that Christmas Day, I was able to let my emotions out without worrying what others might think, because I was surrounded by love and support.

Vulnerability and the many different effects it can have on our lives and the ways we can tap into it has been a topic I have been fascinated by in the last few years. The next few newsletters will focus on different sides of this topic.

~ Karla xoxo

Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC.  She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills.  Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach.  Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre. 

Check out her blog,  and her podcast Stand Up Speak Up which ranks in the top 10% for most listened to podcast.

You can find her at @standupspeakup, LinkedInKarla’s Korner Facebook group.

The Empowerment Scarf
You are most powerful when you believe in yourself, let this scarf give you an extra boost of confidence and comfort.

The Healing Scarf  this talisman was inspired by our founder, Karla’s own path to healing. Let it be a shield to protect you and an emblem to empower you.

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