Katie’s first Retreat Yourself recap

April 29, 2013

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I welcomed the opportunity when asked to write a recap about my first experience at Retreat Yourself Alberta (April 18-22, 2013), but as I sit here staring at my computer, I realize just how difficult it is to put into words what I experienced and how I felt. Somewhere in between the awkward small talk on Thursday and the joyful, teary-eyed goodbyes on Monday, a magical transformation occurred.

Thursday, April 18

Our group gathered one by one at the Holiday Inn Calgary airport. The room was filled with fresh muffins, coffee, and round tables covered with art supplies. As retreaters arrived, they were given a welcome package and a blank name tag to decorate to occupy their time while they waited. Once everyone arrived, we packed up our luggage and wonderful muffins onto our bus from Southland Transportation. With the peers and retreaters on the bus, and facilitators packed into a van, we headed on our way.

Once everyone arrived at Lake Louise Inn retreaters took time to settle in and meet their roommate while we set up the main meeting space. When everything was ready to go, we met for dinner. Our meals were served buffet-style in the main dining room, which was set with two long tables for our group; it was a great atmosphere. We all made our way to the meeting space after dinner for our opening circle. I cannot imagine how everyone felt walking into that room for the first time as I was nervous myself. We spent the next two hours introducing both the weekend and each other. The emotions I felt as we went around this circle were indescribable. Everyone seemed a little hesitant, but I could already tell what an inspiration they were, even if they hadn’t realized it yet. To hear the stories of each brave, young survivor is incredible. Since it was a long day of travel and emotion, we called it an early night and everyone headed to bed.

Friday, April 19

I think one person braved a leftover muffin that morning, but the rest of us headed to an incredible breakfast buffet. I think I ate enough for the day each morning! We did a quick check in with the group after breakfast and then headed into our first session of the day: a small group discussing on relationships.

Once we reconvened after a snack, two of our peer supporters, Colin and Ashley, shared their stories with the group. Like many of the survivors in our community, they are two strong individuals whose stories will resonate with you for a long time. It was wonderful to see how far they have come since before their diagnosis.

We had a few hours to ourselves during the afternoon. One of our wonderful facilitators, Scott, offered a yoga session during this time, which I heard was fabulous; jetlag was catching up to me at that point.

After free time we met again for a second small group discussion around coping with emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Following dinner we had our final session for the day on storytelling which was led by one of our facilitators, Mikey. He started with discussing how to face those awkward moments where you run into someone and they ask the big question, “What are you up to these days?” He joked by saying he would respond “Oh, a bit of chemo, a bit of radiation. How about you?” This got a chuckle out of the group but it was also a reality that most of the group were facing. I found this session to be very eyeopening and judging by the comments from the group, this was one of the best sessions of the weekend.

We finished the night with a bonfire. And you know what bonfires mean–S’mores!

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Saturday, April 20

This happened to be my birthday, and I cannot think of a better way to have spent it. Waking up in the mountains and being greeted with warm wishes was an amazing start to the day. During our morning check in, Vicky, one of our peer supporters, discussed the talent show happening Sunday evening. She decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate a suitable talent so she chose to juggle the now hardening muffins. Needless to say, it gave us a few laughs that morning.

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Following our check in, we broke into small groups for the toughest session of the weekend: fear of recurrence. This is a tough topic, as you can imagine, but with great facilitators and retreaters, I think everyone took a lot of positive things out of this session.

Following this, we had a full group session on healthy living.

We were lucky to have such a well-rounded group of facilitators. Karine, who’s background is in social work, touched on the topic of anxiety. Lindsay, who works in Spiritual Health, discussed how to find your inner spirit, whether it is through God or an activity in your life that you can relate to. Lastly, Bonnie, who works as a personal trainer, and Vicky discussed simple ways to stay physically healthy. They provided the group with simple tips that everyone could relate to like “eat real food” and “move more.”

After yet another delicious buffet, we had free time with the option to go to Lake Louise. Just about everyone decided to head to the lake, and I was beyond excited for this since it was my first trip to the mountains and Lake Louise. Despite the fact it was -14 degrees and snowing each day, I didn’t consider that the lake would be frozen and covered in snow. (It is moments like this that I am thankful for my blonde hair.) Nonetheless, it was beautiful and breathtaking. I found this trip to the lake interesting as I watched our group mingle. Retreaters were not paired off with their supporters or roommates, but with whomever was close by. Some people poked through the shops, some walked along the trails, while others just sat and absorbed the beauty. It was great to see everyone finding not only their own comfort but comfort in connecting with those like them. All in all it, was a great trip to the lake and I will definitely make time in my life to head back there during the summer months to see the lake in all its beauty.

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Once we returned to Lake Louise Inn, we tackled our forth and final topic: Reintrajectorization, or finding your “new normal.” Instead of the typical small group session, we explored this topic through art. With a table full of supplies, everyone found their inner five-year-old and created an art piece to represent their ideas on getting back to your new normal. After dinner we each took time to share our pieces. The analogies that came through art, whether they were initially intended or not, were incredible.

After a fun but long day it was time for some laughs. People were welcome to head to bed if they were tired, but just about everyone participated in game night. Popcorn, which is a YACC favorite, was played by 16 people while just about everyone else cried in laughter on the sidelines. All in all, this was a fantastic day.

Sunday, April 21

The theme of the day was transitioning back into your life. We started with a short video that was filmed 60 years ago, yet provided an accurate analogy to how we all felt. We then heard from Vicky and the dynamic duo, Mike and Bonnie, about how they transitioned from life before cancer, to life with cancer, to life after treatment. Both stories were unique and inspiring in their own way.

Following lunch, survivors had some free time while the facilitators, peers, and staff worked on the closing of the day. The closing circle was emotional, but in a completely different way from the opening circle. All the hesitation and fear was gone and what was left was an overwhelming sense of connection between the group. Each person was given a rock with a name of another retreater on which they were to write one word to describe the person. We then took time sharing our words, the meaning, and what were were going to take home from the Retreat.

Before heading to this Retreat, I assumed this transition day was needed for survivors to take what they learned and think about how they would implement those ideas into their life. While this was indeed the focus of the day, I realized that I had some thinking to do as well. I woke up Sunday morning with the realization that I had been given a gift throughout the weekend. The first thing I realized was that everyone needs to take time in their lives to sit and think, to clear their heads, and to evaluate all that has happened to date. For me, this was one of the first times I had done that. It took organizing a re-energizing event for survivors to realize that everyone needs to get away and re-energize themselves sometimes. The second part of the gift was to interact and get to know 21 strong young adults with a perseverance like I had never experienced before. I feel honored to have met each and every survivor.

Sunday evening was about having fun and spending time together. Our peers put together a talent, or “not so talented,” show. Some of the talents included a Madonna-inspired highland dance, piano duets, funny stories, inspirational quotes, videos, and more. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of talent that was displayed that evening.

Some other “talents,” like an impromptu Chubby Bunny challenge, were a little less appealing. For those of you who don’t know, Chubby Bunny is a challenge to see how many marshmellow one can fit in their mouth and still manage to say “chubby bunny.”

The talent show concluded with a slideshow I worked on throughout the weekend. After the slideshow everyone took turns taking pictures, exchanging information, and writing uplifting messages on each other’s shirts. The event came to a close with a room filled with laughter, love, and some very stale muffins!

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