RIP Tess Ley – Adventure Through Adversity

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There is something about major change that drives many of us into the wild or toward a new destination. We seek the movement of limbs and strangeness of new environments to stimulate our problem-solving capacity or to find a lost part of ourselves — as though with each step we are actually moving closer to some unknown solution. But as with any adventure, it is the journey, not the destination that brings about more change than we anticipate.

When first diagnosed with breast cancer — at 32 years old and 20 weeks pregnant with my second son — the very real fear of significant change overcame me. I knew, as I collapsed to the kitchen floor, a worried doctor on the other end of the phone and my husband rushing into the room at the sound of my sobs, that this diagnosis would change everything.

Within a week, I began the first of what has now become 8 surgeries, over 40 chemotherapies, more than 30 radiotherapies, 3 immunotherapies and countless pokes, prods, biopsies, blood tests, scans and scares within 2 years. Cataloging my procedures gives a small sense of the physical trauma I’ve undertaken, but no sense of the severe emotional toll of now having ‘advanced’ (which is the politically correct term for ‘terminal‘) cancer at 34 years old with two children under 5 years.

I’ve lost my job, my sense of security, my life plans, much of my physical ability, and to top it all off, my travel insurance (which is strangely a real kick in the guts to someone who loves to explore the world). In short, nearly everything has, in fact, changed. But in different ways to what I had predicted.

The unexpected upshot of my illness is the insatiable craving for adventure that quickly emerged. Whilst I’m the most physically broken I have ever been, I’m also the most physically active and adventurous.

In the past year alone, I have spent days on end hiking, kayaking, horse-riding, paddle boarding, high ropes adventuring, snow shoeing, bushwalking and even an attempt at rock climbing (which wasn’t great after all that upper chest surgery). Each activity has been my own personal pilgrimage, helping me come to terms with my impending mortality and profoundly extending my understanding of why adventure is an intrinsic partner in times of change.

Adventure teaches us to cope with adversity in ways that are deeply healthy. Just as regular exercise increases your fitness; regular adventure increases your capacity to deal with uncertainty and a lack of control. You plan as best you can, but you never come away from an adventure without at least one unexpected curve ball. Be it a broken piece of equipment, a wrong turn, or the heavens opening above us, we quickly learn that nature and adventure don’t care for our complaints. You can surrender to your situation and do something about it (accept that it is raining and put on a waterproof jacket), or you can complain and get angry, but either way: it’s raining.

This lesson, demonstrated over and over, in so very many forms on my adventures, has been pivotal in transforming my mindset around my illness. Because, adventures require conscious attention. Conscious decision making. Using the rain analogy, you don’t just accidentally fall into your rain jacket: you must consciously choose to put it on. And with the consistent practice of surrendering to changes of circumstances, and making conscious choices to improve my outlook, like anything, I am now better at responding to changes in my health and personal life.

The separation from my everyday life is undoubtedly part of this process. To remove ourselves physically (not just figuratively), from our home environment and to place ourselves in a foreign environment is essential to provide a space for independent reflection. Segregated from the ‘stuff’ that makes us ‘us’, we are left with little material possessions on adventures. Our homes, our books, our clothes, our trinkets. As we separate from our belongings, so too do we separate from our distractions, from the third party ‘things’ which form our personal identity. And often, left to our own devices, we gently (and almost unconsciously), shift back into our true selves. We can suddenly recognise what is truly important to us. A realignment with our inner values. I often notice that my 4 year-old is just as happy playing with sticks and stones on a hike as he is with the latest Lego at home; the joy comes from the act of play, not the toy itself. As we separate from the ‘things’ that form the habits, we are left solely with the act itself and we have no choice but to face it head on.

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The pull toward habits while adventuring is something I have found confronting, largely because the effort it takes to maintain any one habit highlights the addiction to the habit itself. I have been known to drive an extra 15-20km just for a cup of tea at 10am. But the truth is, adventuring causes a conscious examination of these habits and an incremental shift away from the subconscious control they have. We buy a coffee from the random milk bar at the local town on the way to a hike; we sleep on a side of the tent that is different to the normal spot in our bed at home; we don’t check our phone for messages because we already know we’re out of range. The change in innumerable old habits begin to unconsciously serve a whole new lifestyle more aligned with our personal values. We naturally gravitate to an authentic us, what millions before us have sought, as they placed one foot in front of another on their pilgrimages to Bethlehem, Santiago or Mecca. Reflection, clarity and spiritual enlightenment toward their own personal inner conflict.

Change is inevitable. As Marcus Aurelius stated, “Every part of me will…be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe, and so on forever.” Whether adventure is a coping strategy for dealing with change in your life, or whether adventure has been the catalyst for change in your life, the consciousness with which we approach adventures can often lead to unexpected (but not unwelcome) enlightenment on what we wish to do in our short, but very precious, time on this earth.

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Words By: Tess Ley (September 2018)
Images By: Tess Ley and Michelle McKay

RIP TESS xo: 18 April 1984 – 1 April 2019

“Tess passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by me, her Mum, Jazz and her two beautiful boys. No more pain anymore. She truly loved this community (Tiny Green Hands) and drew so much strength from it. My wife was a women that lived life to the fullest, with grace and dignity. So many lives are brighter because of her. Thank you all. “ (Jeremy Ley)

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