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IPC Health VIC - 'Resilience'

In December of 2021, I was invited to be a keynote speaker for the IPC Health VIC Annual Awards Ceremony. I'd like to share my speech with you, in hope that something resonates and gives you hope for a brighter future, despite the challenges you are currently facing. A recording will also be available in the coming weeks and a link will be added to my website and social media sites. Enjoy!

"I would like to applaud each and every one of you here today for your important work in securing the highest quality primary health care to those in need throughout Victoria. You are amongst the heroes of today, our front-line workers, keeping the Australian people safe. I think we can all agree that health care professionals, in any capacity, have shot to the top of the most respected and appreciated professions around the world, and you all, are a part of that. So, thank you.

My name is Crystal Leonardi and I am the Author of Boy of Steel, a memoir about my time as a parent of a childhood cancer survivor. I come to you today from sunny Far North Queensland, where I live with my husband, and 4 children. We are farmers from rural QLD and now full-time carers for my 3-year-old son who has brain cancer.

So here I am, a mere mortal, amongst the heroes of today to share my story of survival, as a representative of resilience.

There is no question that COVID-19 produced its fair share of challenges to each and every one of us in 2020 and beyond. For me, 2020 can only be described as the perfect storm. A global pandemic and a 2-year-old child with a brain cancer diagnosis. Today, the pain of 2020 is almost invisible but the power of my strength, is visible in unquantifiable amounts. How? you might ask… resilience.

It's funny, I never considered myself to be a resilient person; I loathe change, I love control and routine, and I crumble under pressure, yet I somehow got through a year where resilience was mandatory. It makes me wonder, do we underestimate or misunderstand our level of resilience and how much of our survival relies on the strength of the human spirit during times of adversity. COVID-19 perfectly aligned with my son’s cancer diagnosis and delivered me so much sadness. On the contrary however, it fostered endless amounts of growth. It has broken me but also helped put me back together. And not as the same person, as a better person. A more courageous person, a more compassionate human, and a more generous spirit.

My goal here today is to share my story with you, in hope that my experience and how I arrived here can inspire your own journey and help you recognize the power of your resilience.

The trappings of 2020 meant being stuck between hope & hopelessness as I witnessing my son’s body being slowly taken by cancer, transporting me into a new world filled with anxiety, fear and post traumatic stress disorder. In amongst all of this however, writing was what kept me going. It helped me to survive. It was about taking my thoughts and putting them in a safe place - on paper. Often in the middle of the night when I was woken by nightmares, I would unload all of my mental and emotional baggage onto paper. Sometimes on napkins if we were on a plane, or on the backs of medical paperwork if we were in emergency, but mostly it was in my journal.

I’d like to now share one of these journal entries from my recently published book Boy of Steel where I dive into the emotional impact my son’s diagnosis was having on me at the time. It was around May 2020, 5 months after diagnosis and I had begun to experience symptoms of PTSD, feeling lost and unable to move forward and look to a brighter future. I had continually adapted to change and had no choice but to adjust to uncertainty. However, I was left feeling frozen in time, hopeless, and unable to escape the trauma of the previous months.

May 10, 2020

I found myself going to bed, crying myself to sleep most nights, feeling overwhelmed with doubt and fear that Sebastian’s health would deteriorate, despite our best efforts to keep him safe. My deeply embedded parental protectiveness had maintained my strength through all the months away from home, but now that the storm had passed, Sebastian’s vulnerabilities were suddenly realized.

I hadn’t completely accepted Sebastian’s diagnosis, nor had I had time to process it before Sam and I watched on as the little boy we knew was forced to fight for his life. After surgery on 12 January 2020, Sebastian didn’t look the same, didn’t behave the same, and we had lost the person that once was. Sebastian’s diagnosis was a confrontation with death that was still haunting me months later, even though medically, he was through the worst of it.

I missed the ‘old’ Sebastian and I felt so guilty about that. It was like he went into surgery as one person and came out completely different. I was grieving for my son who was still alive. I was so blessed and full of love and admiration for the ‘new’ Sebastian, but I longed for the ‘old’ Sebastian who was innocently oblivious to the trauma the cancer had victimized him to. The cancer had robbed Sebastian of his innocence, but it had also robbed me of my son who, in my eyes, was perfect.

So what happens when tragedy strikes? Or you feel like there’s no solution to your problems. That you have no control of the outcome, regardless of your best efforts to remain positive.

Living with the unknown is difficult but the reality is, we do it every day without even realizing it. No one can tell us what our destiny is and no one has a crystal ball to guide us through the many ups and downs that life throws at us. So how do we survive? How do we harness our inner strength so that we can see past the adversity and better handle stress?

I use writing as my therapy but how do YOU build resilience so that YOU can overcome challenges and switch into ‘survival mode’ when necessary, like I did?

Resilience is described as the ability to adapt to difficult situations. To face stress, adversity or trauma whilst continuing to function on a physical and mental level. That means allowing your body to experience anger, grief or pain but then decrease your stress by viewing life’s challenges as opportunities for growth.

Another area I believe we get trapped in today’s society is overcommitting ourselves and therefore introducing unnecessary stresses that can distract us from focusing on the really important challenges in life.

Battling to achieve 'balance' each day is exhausting, and truthfully, we all need different amounts of balance to maintain a satisfactory level of sanity.

For example, Today’s stay-at-home parent is no longer just the primary carer for their child. They are also often entrepreneurs, shift workers, online bloggers and Instagram celebrities. Today, we live in a world where the internet allows us to access everything at a click of a button. We too, are more accessible, more available and more equipped to do more and be more to the people we encounter.

It’s a wonderfully small world all of a sudden but sometimes, our resilience to change and challenges takes time to catch up. For as fast passed the world is now-a-days, we too need to keep ourselves moving just as fast, in order to keep up. It’s no surprise then, that sometimes striving to keep up, feels overwhelming.

I know I am speaking today from a place of fulfilment and gratitude after publishing Boy of Steel and living through an earth-shattering reality check in 2020, but the over-committed and therefor exhausted stay-at-home parent that I was pre-childhood cancer diagnosis, yearns to return some days. What's changed for me though is the realization that life isn't perfect and neither are we. 'Perfectly, imperfect' is my new mantra, and reminding myself that almost always, something's gotta give, frees me from the shackles of my own perception of perfection.

Balance within I think, is what we ought to strive for. After all, being able to enjoy the little things, focus on the big picture and reach out to family and friends, or a colleague, when we feel overwhelmed is paramount when building our resilience and improving our outlook on life.

I feel honored to have met with mums who’ve lost their child to a cancer diagnosis, fought a courageous, admirable fight, and then devoted their lives to helping other children & their families. What a phenomenal response to adversity and an extraordinary example of resilience.

Each and every one of us will experience many ups and downs in a lifetime. My advice to you is to firstly acknowledge the problem or challenge, allow yourself to feel it, and then set realistic goals to remain focused on the opportunity to grow and learn from the experience.

Boy of Steel was my way of turning adversity into an opportunity to help others, like all of you.

No matter the depth of adversity, if you believe in yourself, practice self-compassion, and nurture your strengths, you will find many opportunities to turn your wounds into wisdom.

You all have the power to become representatives of resilience, just like me.

I have a child with brain cancer and we are survivors.

So next time you are faced with adversity, I urge you to open your minds and realize your potential as a survivor in the waiting.

Thank you so much for listening.

Merry Christmas to you all and thank you IPC Health for inviting me to share my story with you all today."

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