2016 and I:
A Tale About Finding Opportunity in the Darkest of Times
“Look down; walk straight; don’t stop,” the police caringly ordered as I went to fetch my personal belongings – and goldfish. I was escorted past my aggressor, into my – suddenly former – home. There, broken glass from the cup she had thrown at me and the shower pole, pulled out of the wall, resting on the floor. It was as if time had been frozen, as if only the climax would ever matter. That was July 28, 2016.
A few days ago, my very last scar disappeared. The last proof of what I had been through was forever gone. The time comes to stop walking and to look back. The time comes to be both humbled and exalted, to realise just how low I fell and how far I’ve come.
2016 meant losing everything, getting beaten down more than ever before. To me, 2016 was a test of my resilience, of my capacity to get back up, to fight back, to refuse to let circumstances define me, and, all the more importantly, define my future.
On July 29, 2016, I was physically safe. I would no longer be abused. Yet I was afraid, no, terrified. The threats continued, and the fear and guilt that were drilled into my head remained. In fact, to this day, they remain.
On July 29, 2016, for the first time in my whole entire life, I’d lost a bit of who I am. The spark, the energy, the passion were nowhere to be found. I was exhausted. I’d been drained of my seemingly infinite optimism and passion.
A few days later, there I was, with my best friend, at the police station, recounting every bit of the past year. My deposition was 17 pages long. 17 pages recounting every moment I was punched, thrown things at, threatened, attacked. 17 pages recounting the stress and fear that had come to define every single minute of my life. 17 pages that, frankly, make me look like everything but a confident, assertive leader. 17 pages that make me look like an idiot. 17 pages that act as a sheer reminder that there is no such thing as strong enough, manly enough, confident enough.
I had to be assured multiple times that my 17 pages was more than the information they needed. Looking back, I realise just how hurt, how weak, I was. I was physically smaller, skinnier. I no longer took up much room in the cold chair. I was crippled. Everything was my fault. I was afraid. My voice trembled, when I spoke at all.
More than anything else, I was deeply afraid to have lost who I was. I was terrified that my optimism and energy were forever gone. I was afraid that disillusion and cynicism had come to define me. I ate once a day and watched CNN for a bit.
My former spouse was also my business partner. Needless to say, she no longer quite felt like collaborating. What we’d spent months building was quickly fading away at the very moment when the returns were starting to materialise.
I lost my business. I lost tens of thousands of dollars. I lost my love. I lost my home. I lost my spark.
All in all, I statistically was in a position only 1 person in 10,000 will ever experience. And I was only 19.
The one thing I didn’t lose was my agency, my ability to choose what these events would come down in my life’s story as: the end of a great story, or the beginning of an even greater chapter. I obviously chose the latter option. I knew that comfort would not be found in our broken criminal justice system, and I knew that revenge steals more energy than pacing forth requires.
So I simply did what millions have done before me. I chose to be a part of our common narrative. I got back up, dusted myself off, and went back to work. Hurt. Weak. But definitely not done. I did what the greatest among us choose to do: I chose to be a survivor, not a victim. I chose to become the exception, rather than the norm. I chose to become the person others would look to in their search for hope and possibility.
I started a new business and went back to my grueling marathon training, with bigger and bolder goals. Far from the fanfare and the recognition; far from this great theatre we call life. With the best allies anyone could hope for: the best friends and family to ever have existed. And with the phrase I had repeated countless times in my marathon journey, “I am not afraid.”
Once again, I was broke. Once again, I was both the CEO and the cleaning team. Slowly, I remembered just how much I loved building. That had remained.
And here I am now, a hundred sleepless nights later, after having wanted to give up every single day, with a business that was steered to profitability just over a week ago, after five short months of existence. Here I am now, leading 20 people and unleashing their power to change the world. Here I am now, reaching thousands every week with my story and further fulfilling the purpose of my life: to help and inspire others to live out their dreams.
So how exactly does this happen? In so many ways, my life begs questions like this one. And in in so many ways, I enjoy that. To ask is to speak the language of doctors and statisticians, who sit in disbelief as they let you know, “What you did is (or was?) impossible.” It is to ask how the autistic kid with a 4% chance of going to university winds up at McGill Law, on the Dean’s Honour List. It is to ask how the kid with asthma becomes a marathon athlete. It is to ask how the shy kid becomes a master communicator. It is to ask how the loner becomes a leader. But more importantly, it is to answer all these questions: nothing can stand in the way of blood, sweat, faith, and fun.
The best way to get through the shittiest of times is to do more than attempt to survive, to crawl out of the ruins. The best way to get through the shittiest of times is to set bigger goals, face tougher challenges and build something new, something exciting, something even better.
I’d gotten back to the drawing board. I’d gotten back to designing what I wanted my life to look like. I started reaffirming that my life was great, that the opportunities that lied ahead were worth getting up in the morning and working insanely hard for. And through the timeless laws of the Universe, these things I affirmed later became true.
I then came to the most important realisation of my entire life: I was blessed to have been put through this. I was blessed to have been reminded of just how fragile, how friable, all of what we build is. I was blessed to be reminded of what really matters in life: friends, family, and character. I was blessed with an opportunity, an opportunity to grow and learn, to define the person I would become, to test my resilience.
I learned that I am far from invincible, that my light can be dimmed, that it ought to be cherished and protected. I learned that I don’t have the energy to save everyone. I learned that the people I love sometimes know better than I do what is best for me.
To be reminded that we are only human is to be both humbled and exalted. It is to be reminded of all that is possible, yet of all that will need to be overcome in making the possible our reality.
Here I am now. Stronger, happier, healthier, and richer than ever before. I stand today humbler yet more confident in the promise of life, more pragmatic yet more hopeful.
Here I am now. A better man, a better friend, a better son, a better brother, a better colleague, a better leader.
The spark was lit up again. And I cry every time I think about that. I’m back. And I’m back more of myself than ever before. I have even more energy, even more passion, and an insatiable drive to change the world. I am more serene, more focussed, more experienced. I can again dance down the streets of Montreal and New York, with warmth in my heart and the trademark smile that is carved on my face.
I live a much simpler yet much richer life. I live a life of passion and purpose. I live a life for others. I chase my dreams and shatter my limitations. I live a life where more love is given and less is expected. I live a life of humility and curiosity. I live the life of the learner, of the kid, with eyes wide open and wonder at the beauty of the world. I live a life where experiences are relentlessly sought and things don’t matter.
More importantly, I live a life of gratitude, a life in the moment, a life of mindfulness. To lose everything means to be forced to find beauty in the simplest of places, to enjoy a walk in the park, to see one’s neighbourhood like never before.
I have acquired a deep-seated faith in my resilience and a deep-seated commitment to be thankful for whatever life throws at me.
Ultimately, I live a much freer life, a life free from fear. To lose everything means to no longer be afraid of losing everything.
I am not one to brag, not one to use glorious terms to describe my “success.” Yet I was pushed by those I love to “describe this for what it is.” I will therefore use the words of my mother and of my psychiatrist to describe what I went through. A few days ago, my psychiatrist described the past 5 months as “the most striking example of resilience [she has] witnessed in [her] life.” And my mother’s words: “In the toughest of times, your outstanding moral strength defines your character.”
I can now reaffirm that life is beautiful, that 2016 was the best, rather than the worst, year of my life.
2016 zips up, comes full circle. From the academic achievement of the early months which came after the countless academic setbacks of 2015, to the exhilarating business success of June and July, which came after months of unpaid work, fear of failure, and desire to quit. From the pain of July, to the early business successes of August; and again from the early business success of August to the countless setbacks of September, October, and November. Finally, from the quiet realisation in early December that my business is here to stay to getting the Zika virus in the very last days of December. 2016 ends with me in a hospital dress in a private hospital in Panama, “resting,” dancing, proud, excited. It ends with me joking around in bad Spanish. A quiet reminder that while the ups and downs will never cease, neither will the refuge I now have within my heart ever be destroyed. Such is the dance of life. A dance which is at the root of life’s mystery and beauty.
In life, you simply don’t “look down; walk straight; don’t stop.” You look up. And once in a while, back, to see how far you’ve come. You don’t walk straight. You fall, you falter. You get up, only to get knocked down. Sometimes you run, sometimes you walk, sometimes you crawl. But you move forward. Forward is rarely straight. But it’s the only way.
And so goes the tale of 2016 and I. It is a tale about finding opportunity in the darkest of times, a tale about resilience and about the power of faith and hard work. It is a tale where the deeply personal becomes a tool to change the world, where stories about pain and suffering find meaning in their power.
It is a tale deeply rooted in our common tale, that of a people which, when faced with impossible odds, rises up to the challenge. A tale where nothing is out of our reach and where our heart is all we need to power us there. A tale where the darkest of times and the hilliest of terrains define who we are far more than our success ever will.