What is the measure of success in life? How do you set goals for yourself? How do you go about attaining them? What if life events change your path in such a way that you have to change your goals and maybe even what is success to you? Caroline Bisson has one of those inspiring journey that make you think anything is possible for the resilient kind. When first diagnosed with bone cancer, she had no idea what the journey to come would be like, no idea that her third amputation would leave her without a left arm, shoulder, clavicle and pectoral muscles. When that amputation came though, she was ready for it. She just wanted another chance at life. What she wasn’t ready for were months and months of atrocious phantom limb pain coming from her amputated arm at any time of the day or night and leaving her physically and mentally exhausted.
“It felt like my arm was bent in impossible ways or burning, that my fingers were being pulled apart. The pain was real, even if the arm didn’t exist. It was hard and I isolated myself a lot during that period.”
When asked about the time the pain stopped, she can’t really tell. She goes back to the journals she wrote in daily when the cancer storm hit her life. It’s because it didn’t go away suddenly. It just slowly eased off, becoming less painful and more just awkward sensations she learned to live with, to the point where she made a friend of her phantom limb. Oscar Cooperfield was his name and like the magician that shares the same last name, he comes and goes as he pleases.
As she learned to live with Oscar, Caroline also had to learn to live with her new body. It was a difficult year during which she had to process what her new reality meant and deal with how others looked at her. She felt uncomfortable and ashamed at first, she saw pity in others eyes, but on a beautiful day where she mustered enough courage to face others with her head high, she saw her newly found confidence reflected in the way they looked at her.
“I had the impression they were looking at me with admiration and it really helped me. I finally thought that I should stop being ashamed, that instead, I should be proud of what I was accomplishing. Finding beauty in my body, finding relevance with having this new body, it teaches me others things.”
What Caroline was accomplishing was a complete transformation. To make sense of the tragedy, she had to find her new purpose. She found solace in the outdoors, enjoying the beauty and company of trees and birds. She uncovered more than she expected. There were all these things her body could still do. She found out she was strong, resourceful. She discovered ways to not be handicapped anymore.
“You’re handicapped when you’re not adapted. That’s temporary. Unfortunately some people stay handicapped their whole life and that includes people that have their full body. It’s not just about physical limitations; it’s about mental or emotional limitations. Once you’ve overcome those limitations, you’re no longer handicapped. I don’t think I’m handicapped anymore because I have found the tools and I’ve overcome emotionally my situation.”
A year after her surgery is when cross country skiing entered her life. Her partner got her into it and although she had tried it once or twice before, it’s at that moment that it really became something she enjoyed doing.
“I do love skiing because it requires a lot of coordination. It’s a very technical sport. You have to understand your body. To become good at it, you have to be in control of your body, more so than in running or biking. It pushes me to be better.”
And better she got. Her passion for the sport only grew. She started competing and found out she loved that as well. The para-nordic ski team coach noticed her and invited her to the following world cup biathlon event. If you only look at the results, the event was a flop for her. She finished dead last, missed all of the shooting targets and had to take 10 penalty laps, but it gave her the desire to get better. To her, it’s the essence of competition.
“You need the competition to get better because there is something to the races that makes you better. Others push themselves and it forces you to push yourself. That’s the healthy part. Others are your inspiration. To me that’s what racing is about and that way, everybody is winning because everybody is pulling and pushing everybody in positive way.”
That attitude leads her to heights she could only dream of. Three years after her ski debuts, Caroline was making the National Team selection to represent Canada to the Paralympic Games in Sotchi in both Cross-Country and Biathlon. She was so proud.
“I worked really hard to have the best results at those qualification events. I had not made the team, I would have not been disappointed, but I did make it. Meeting those qualification criteria was the best thing that could happen, but it all went downwards after that.”
That’s when the pressure really started. Media interviews, spotlight, everyone was on the same page. “Bring back the gold!” Caroline knew she didn’t stand a chance. How do you keep a positive attitude, how do you stay motivated towards your goal? What is your goal when you’re faced with other’s definition of success? Two months before the event, Caroline even considered not going.
“I was stressed about this pressure. I was going to go up, represent my country on the World stage in front of all these cameras and I knew I’d be last. It was such a mix of feelings. It was beyond anything I could possibly think I could do, yet I felt like I was losing. The world thinks I’m losing. Part of it was my pride that made me go and at the same time I had to swallow my pride by going. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
With the support of her partner, Caroline found ways to treat the whole journey as an experience, just like her battle with cancer. Today, she does not regret her choice and as she’s training even harder in hopes to qualify for the National Team to go to Pyeonchang in 2018, she can look at the Paralympic experience as an asset.
“I am here to deliver my best performance on the World stage. I have had the best performance of my life in Korea recently and I’m hoping to go beyond that at the next World Cup event in December and after that, if I don’t make the Team, I don’t think I will lose anything for giving it a try. In French, gagner is to make a gain. If you make a gain, you win and that’s what I intend to do.”
Success is an elusive concept, like happiness. It’s easy to forget that you define your own goals, that they fit your life for a reason and that they will change over time, with you and for you. Do not spend too much time living the life you think is expected of you. Instead, try and find a life that is true to you. There, you might be on the path to finding what success is to you.