Kira’s Survivor Story (In the interest of privacy, some names have been changed). My name is Kira and this is my story. I would like my story to show that I am living, walking, breathing proof that one can survive the worst trauma, panic and hardship and still come out alive and smiling. It is a hard story to tell but I feel I am ready for it, and that it will also be an integral part of my healing journey. First, let me give you a bit of my background and how I came to Panic Survivor.
I am 43 years old. Though my parents divorced when I was in high school, I had a loving family and was blessed to know all four of my grandparents, and was close to many of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I was active in my small community and was heavily involved in theatre and music. I lived in B.C. most of my life. I worked for many years in the Travel Business. I had a great career, a loving family and wonderful circle of friends. I had many hobbies and interests that kept me busy and happy. I met my husband Mark when I was just 22 years old and had moved to Vancouver. We dated for a time, went our separate ways, and like a storybook romance, our lives intertwined a few years later and we married when I was 30. Mark and I were soul mates, and madly in love… the once-in-a-lifetime kind of love that everyone hopes to experience but not everyone does.
Early on when we were dating, he knew my love of travel and asked me if I ever would consider moving to the Tropics- it was a dream that we shared and worked hard for many years to make come true. When we married, his mother was gravely ill in Eastern Canada and so we packed up our things, put them in storage and went to help her. It was very important to Mark that he help his Mom. She was an awesome lady, only 58 years old. She had M.S., and had contracted a very rare liver cancer that has only been linked to M.S. patients. She died about a month after we got there, sooner than anticipated. We remained there to deal with various things.
Mark also had a daughter from his first marriage, Lea. She was 15 when we moved back east. We visited her during weekends and our time became so precious. Throughout our time there, it became clear to us that we had been brought there for a reason- his daughter was going through a hard time because her step-father drank a lot. She did not understand what alcoholism was and was blamed for her parents’ trouble. When she turned 16, things came to a head and we were there with open arms. At 30, I was married and now a daughter had fallen into my lap- those were the days! We had no money, work was impossible to find in a small town in the dead of winter in Ontario, yet we were so happy, and felt blessed.
We became active in the local Anglican Church and Mark and I were baptized together- neither of us had been baptized at birth, and after his mother’s death, it became important to us. I sang in the choir, we made a few friends and one year later, returned to our life in B.C. with Lea in tow. She remained with us, graduated from high school and stayed with us until she started her own business and moved out on her own. Mark and I worked very hard for years to save money to fulfill our dream and move to the Caribbean. Our friends and family embraced our idea and threw a huge party to wish us well.
I will never forget that night as long as I live. Friends, family, clients all dressed in Hawaiian shirts and tropical dress showed up to send us off. It was amazing. We had been going to a small tourist community for a few years before we decided that we would move there. Meanwhile, a few trips to Mexico and other places narrowed it down, but I think after our first trip to our “Paradise” (I will call this town Paradise for this article); we both knew it was where we would end up.
It was a small community that was filled with local Hispanics and Canadian, British and American “ex-pats”. We were welcomed by a few friends that we had already made in the years we had been going there. We took 7 months off (we always joked that was one for each year that we had worked our asses off to get there!) In that time, we got to know our environment, became part of the community, swam, snorkeled, played more games of Scrabble than you can count, and sat back and watched and listened. When the time was right, we settled on a business that would cater to both locals and tourists.
The ironic part of that was we swore up and down we would never have a bar (so many people’s dream…to move to the tropics and open up a bar on the beach!)…and guess what we ended up doing? Yes, a bar. But what a great place it was! Very small, but we had lots of room to welcome everyone. We built that business up and became one of the most popular places in town. I am still proud to say that I made THE best Cheeseburger in “Paradise”.
We did a lot of humanitarian work also. Our big thing there was education. It was important for us to contribute and for us, starting from the bottom, with the “kids” was the only way to go. School there was free, but the mandatory school supplies and uniforms were more than most families in this developing country could bear. An organization that we had supported as “tourists” was close to our hearts. In 2004 when we moved there, we had 75 kids in school. We committed to those kids to see them through to graduation. It cost about $50 per kid per year. When I returned to Canada this year, we had upped those numbers to nearly 300.
Mark and I were so proud to be a part of such a wonderful thing. We also helped raise funds for other local charities, including one that housed physically and mentally handicapped children. Every day that we lived in Paradise, we made a difference. We worked hard, but we also learned to live more simply, without as many toys as we had in Canada, without the stresses that our professional lives held. We loved our life. We loved each other. Lea came down several times to visit, and always had a blast. My brother and his wife came and spent Christmas with us one year. My Mom started off coming one month a year and then two, then three, then four! She loved it as well and also helped us with our charity work.
We rented a condo in town that was close to work. We waited until we knew for sure that we wanted to stay, that we could overcome the obstacles of living in a developing country- and then we bought our little house. Mom was there for the signing and moving in. We bought a tiny one bedroom house in a nice community a little further from town, but we had really done our homework. It was the most amazing little place- I had never had a house before- it was my first house and our first house together. We moved in just before Mom went back after wintering with us. We lived in our house for 10 weeks. Mom was there for the first 2 or 3 weeks.
On May 29th, 2007, my life changed forever, ended as I knew it and the panic began. Though we never worked nights, staffing changes had temporarily made us have to for a few weeks. It was my turn to work that night. Mark sat with friends and it was a slow night so we closed before midnight. He went home before me, taking the motorbike. A friend who was a taxi driver waited while I closed up and drove me home. I arrived home to an empty house. The front door was wide open, candles lit inside and out (power outage, normal there) his keys and cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter. He was nowhere to be seen. I assumed he had gone over to see a neighbor to ask why the generator still wasn’t fixed, because it had been a problem since we had moved there. It wasn’t kicking in when it should. Perhaps he had stayed for a visit. I waited for what seemed a long time, and was tired from working a double shift. Mark had always told me that if I was at the house alone, to lock myself in. I did so, went to lie down and half slept and half kept an ear open so that when he came home I could get up and unlock the door.
He never came home.
Because I was half asleep, I do not know how much time passed until I heard a gunshot. I found it odd because we had guards on duty but they never fired their guns. I remember feeling alarmed but somehow I drifted back off. More time passed and I became aware of voices outside, footsteps, my door being knocked on. I went to the door and was amazed at the number of people standing in my yard. Several men, plainclothes, military and police uniformed, stood in my yard. An English speaking woman (who I later found out was Canadian) was asking me for Mark’s passport and telling me he had been in a fight. I woke up fast. Since, in a foreign country the last thing you ever do is give up your passport, I was wary. Every hair on my body stood up and I felt a strange foreboding that something was terribly wrong. I asked her if Mark was okay. She told me he was hurt really bad and that she needed to see his passport to make sure it was him.
At that point, I think I just KNEW. I became agitated. I asked her again, “Is Mark all right?” She looked me straight in the eye and said “No, Mark is not all right. “ I asked her to tell me. Tell me what was wrong. She told me Mark was dead. She said “I really need that passport”…I do not know how I went to the safe, opened it and got it out. I do not know how my legs worked. She said “I need you to come with me and identify his body.” That walk was the longest walk I have ever taken. There were no “police” cars to drive me down that road. Half way down our street, my legs stopped working. Two military police each took an arm and held me up. I think I was whimpering and saying NO! Over and over. Why they did not try and contact a friend of mine, I will never know. They just do things differently there. I think I stopped a couple of times and speed dialed my closest friend. The service was down. I was helped again to walk to the end of my street, turn left and then I saw a large white van sitting several feet away. I stopped, handed my phone to the woman and asked her keep trying.
The next thing I remember is them opening the doors of the van. Straight out of the show “Six Feet Under”, there were Mark’s feet staring me in the face, sans tag. To shed light, Mark’s feet were size 13 and flatter than a pancake. They could have been no other feet but his. Of all the things that stand out in my mind I remember that so vividly. The van was so high up; I had to be lifted up to get into it. I literally crawled across the floor of the van beside the gurney and pulled myself up. He was covered to his neck in a sheet. His face was toward the side of the van but his profile was unmistakable. I gently put my hand to his cheek and moved his head towards me. His eyes were closed and he looked like he was sleeping. The tears fell and I shook. I remember looking upwards because of all movies and stuff I had seen that showed the people going “up”- and I remember saying to him, “Don’t leave me, baby I need you now! What am I going to do???” I have no idea how long I was in that van.
I think that is when I suffered my first panic attack. I remember the walls closing in on me and screaming “Get me out of here!” but then not wanting to leave Mark. I knew that once I left that van it would be the last time I saw his face. I did not want to leave him but I also knew I could not stay. It took four of them to get me out of the van. Next memory- in a car with the woman holding my hand and I got through to my friend Steph. I don’t think I made any sense, and then she took the phone from me and spoke to Steph and told her to meet us at the police station. Next memory- sitting in a chair outside the police station with a cigarette (and seeing my hand shake as I tried to smoke it) and calling our other friends, P & C- Steph already had and they were on their way together…I remember them rounding the corner and coming into sight.
I think I had kind of held myself together, but in a state of shock, until I saw them…they rushed to me…I collapsed as they held me and cried with me and my one friend, C, went to speak to the police to find out what happened. Next memory- a taxi came to take us to the Condo, where my friends lived and where Mark and I had lived for three years. I felt like I was dying. I wanted to wake up. When we got there, despite there being three friends, it was the cab driver (large man, I remember) who carried me in and took me up the stairs inside my friend’s place and put me on the bed. I remember crying so hard I thought I was breaking my ribs. I remember wailing loudly. I don’t remember much more. I know my one friend walked to the nearest “24 hour” clinic to get a doctor to come and sedate me. They told him to come back at 8 AM. It was around 2 AM then. So they knocked on doors at the condo complex until they found someone with sleeping pills to give me.
Next memory- waking up a few hours later, in P & C’s bed. They were downstairs on a make shift bed on the floor. I knew when I woke up in their bed that it was not a dream. I started screaming again and suffered the next panic attack of many to come. They rushed upstairs to hold me. His wedding ring! Oh my god, they were taking him many hours away to the coroner and then to be cremated. I was freaking! They called the woman that had been with me the night before and without a word of a lie she was there within half an hour with his wedding ring for me. She also had more information.
Mark had gone to the next street over, where the administrator lived, to ask to get in to where the generator was so he could manually start it, which he knew how to do. It was a very hot night. No fans, no electricity- he just wanted relief. He banged on her doors and woke her up but they were glass doors and it made a lot of noise. She and Mark had words through the door because she did not want to allow him in to the generator room. A neighbor of hers, who rented a house there, heard the noise and started screaming off of his balcony- you’re waking my kids, go home, etc. He and Mark had words from what the witnesses say, and then he came downstairs and out of his house. Allegedly, this man was known for his use of crack cocaine, but we have never known the real side of why he went ballistic that night. (A police officer that I knew there told me that, a few months later.) From there, the security guard that testified said that the man stabbed Mark four times. He had come out with a knife. The security guard fired his gun to get the man to stop. There were very few witnesses, as it was pitch black out from the power outage.
The man then went back into his house and tried to leave a short while later. By that time the police were on their way and he was held at gunpoint by the security guard to keep him from leaving the scene. Mark was gone very quickly. That one bit of knowledge comforted me- which meant he was not in pain for long. My husband was murdered over electricity- how senseless is that? I spent the next three days in a state of shock, looked after by very good friends while I waited for our daughter, my mother, father and aunt to fly down to be with me.
The night I had to identify my husband's body was the first time I ever had a real panic attack. My legs stopped working, I lost the ability to remember how to breathe, I vomited, I shook, and I blanked. I was hot, then cold, and for days, could not form a complete sentence. I began to suffer from repeated panic attacks that sometimes took hours to come out of. Even after my family arrived to help me, I suffered these attacks...they became a part of my everyday life. I was prescribed Xanax and sleeping pills. I remember very little of the first week. Custom in “Paradise” is that when someone dies, you just GO to that family. Honestly, there was a line-up of people waiting to see me for two days. No one stayed long because I was not up to it, even if they just came to give condolences, or sit outside so I knew they were there or had been, they came in droves. They brought food enough to feed my family for a week. Little things were taken care of so we didn’t have to deal with them…we had much bigger stuff to deal with. My friends had to tell me days later, who all came, because I remembered nothing.
Friends, business owners, people I didn’t even know came to pay their respects. Much later, I remember thinking how proud I was that my husband was so well liked and embraced by the community that so many people came… We went through the motions. Over 200 people attended his Celebration of Life in “Paradise”. The entire community was in shock. I remember C coming back from errands and telling us that the whole town was quiet. The man who murdered Mark tried to get out on bail. The first miracle that happened to us was that a very well respected law firm offered to take our case pro-bono. They described their wanting to do it for us because it was just not a crime against me and my family, but the entire community. One of the lawyers knew us and though he was not a criminal lawyer, he came to see my friends and offer his help. It is because of him that we saw justice. The first thing he did for us was to go to the jail and keep the man from getting out on bail. Had Mark’s murderer gotten out at that time, he would have left the Island and never been seen again. Our lawyers had to do that twice more before the preliminary hearing.
Two weeks after Mark’s murder, my Mom, daughter and I returned to Canada to do the whole thing all over again. His Celebration of Life in Canada was also attended by nearly 200 people. Again, I remember very little. Between September 2007 and March 2008, we attended the preliminary hearing, the murder trial and subsequent appeal (after all, the murderer had rights, too!)…we won every battle and won the war. Incidentally, that murderer changed his story at least 4 times in court. It was apparent to the judges that he and his lawyer would say and do anything to get it thrown out of court. The truth won out. We recently found out that his final appeal to the Supreme Court was thrown out. He is serving 12 years with no parole in a not very nice jail. I was awarded punitive damages as well, that will never be recovered so that when his sentence is over, (if he survives it) will be converted into even more jail time. The toll that this ordeal has taken on me and my family is large. While not bankrupt, we had to pay for flights back and forth for Mom and I, all court costs (other than lawyer’s fees, of course), and I have not worked in over a year and a half.
I was asked by my friends in Paradise, if they could do a fundraiser to help us with costs…I chose, instead, to donate all the money collected to the children’s foundation. In Mark’s name. The small amount that we had paid for our house, which I sold in January, has helped, but there is not much left. Still, I count my blessings because I could be in a far worse situation, financially. My Mom has sacrificed a lot. She has supported me in ALL ways. Emotionally, financially and she has helped me through more panic attacks than anyone could count. She remembers the ones I don’t. With great detail, I am sure. Another fundraiser was held the night before we left for Canada to pay for a memorial bench and garden in the middle of the Plaza where our bar was located. It is painted fire engine red (he looked good in red), and the plaque is inscribed “In Loving Memory”, the dates of his life and “He is the Wind Beneath Our Wings”. That bench gets sat on every day by tourists and locals and is a place where people can remember him, and how he affected the lives of others.
Someday, I will go back and sit on it…someday. I learned from a very dear friend, Copper, (who is also happens to be a Forensic Psychologist- another one of those miracles), that I suffered from PTST, CIS (Critical Incident Stress) and a very bad case of intrusive images. In the intrusive images, (which I call day mares), I saw everyone close to me and myself suffer from very bad things. Rape, car accidents, sudden death, plane crashes etc. I was, and am still, afraid that everyone I know and love and become attached to will die on me. I still have them, though most of the symptoms left when we returned to Canada after winning the appeal in March.
Copper and her husband were amazing, too. She was the moderator of the forum we hosted for our bar and community, and through that forum and our website, published her e-mail address mobile and home phone numbers. From the 30th of May until early July of 2007, she fielded well over 200 phone calls, and many e-mails. She was there, as our contact in Canada, and took calls from all over the world. She kept a list and gave it to me many months later- most of them were first names only, and some were names I did not recognize- people we met maybe once or twice, but whose lives we had touched, who heard about Mark’s death on the news, newspapers or the online community. I still cannot get my head around how hard it must have been for her, having to repeat the story over and over and field these calls until we had some answers, and until I could reach out to some of those people myself.
Slowly, I have weaned myself off the sleeping pills and Ativan. I go through stages that bring it back and I have to take the meds again, but they have become fewer and farther between. I still often find myself wondering why, why me? Why him? I have never known anyone in my life that has been murdered or knew anyone who has, until this happened to me and my family.
I am now ready to go back to work, and though I am a little afraid, I look forward to it. I guess going a little stir crazy is a good sign! Time to jump back in to life, and get my head out of the sand. So I am working my home based travel business and looking for a job as well. People that know me, see that the “old Kira” is back. The spring in my step, my optimism (most days), my smile, my jokes…it is a relief to all of my friends and family to see that I am getting better every day. I feel like myself again, and am slowly freeing myself from the heavy blanket of grief and mourning that covered me for so long. When that blanket started to lift, I felt like a ton had been lifted from my shoulders. The panic started to subside, and while I still have many signs of GAD, the worst is behind me.
I smile and laugh and the nights that I cry myself to sleep are fewer and further between. I am ready to live again and through my ordeal, perhaps begin to help others. I am thinking of publishing my poetry, the writing which has helped me through my grief.
This Christmas, we spent at Mom’s- twelve of us, counting our blessings. I have to say that one of the biggest ones has been how close Lea and I have become in the past year. I don’t know if I was concerned that after the dust settled, that we would drift apart somehow, but just the opposite has happened. She and I have been the ones that have suffered most- she has lost her Dad and I lost the man I thought I would be with forever. We have become closer than I ever imagined we would be.
The final note I have to make, here, is the Miracle of Mark. He’s still with us! Especially during the times when we needed him most- in those first days, weeks, and months. I remember one thing I did when I was holding his face in the ambulance, tears falling, body trembling and feeling like the bottom of the earth had fallen out from under me…I looked up, knowing he was watching me, and spoke softly these words…”Don’t leave me until I am ready, and please show me you are here, baby. I need you!”
Anyone reading this, feel free to PM me and I will happily share the pictures of his “first” visit. He has chosen clouds, rainbows, the sun and the moon for most of his visits. They all involve the sky, the same sky he and I used to gaze at, finding things in the clouds and stars and talking about our dreams under…and unless you have personally experienced a “visit” from a loved one who is gone, there are absolutely no words to describe it. You just know. And this is from a kind of skeptical (but faithful) gal, folks. And all of my visits from him have been shared by a loved one- one of these days I will experience one when I am alone…so I will be patient. I am sure he stands beside me often, when I do not know he is here.
By writing this out, if I can help just one person see that there IS light at the end of the tunnel, and that small miracles happen every day, and that we are not ever alone because we are guided along in this life- silently, steadily and miraculously- it will help me find my peace. Part of the reason I want to tell my Survivor Story is that I want people to know that no matter what happens to us in this life, no matter how painful, how senseless, how bad it is, we can overcome the worst. Time really does heal. Just ask me. I know.