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Toronto author builds new life after a stroke, eating disorder

After suffering a stroke in her 20s, Dina Pestonji, who grew up in Willowdale, had a long road to recovery ahead.

That road included penning a book, Surviving Myself: How an Eating Disorder, a Car Accident and a Stroke Taught Me to Love My Life and Start Living It. It helped her deal with long-standing personal issues she hadn’t tackled.

Article by Justin Skinner | Toronto.com

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“We all have challenges — I had a stroke, someone else may have cancer or any struggle,” she said. “(The book) is really there to hopefully help people not to feel so down, to feel like they can overcome their challenges.”

As much as Surviving Myself aims to help others, writing it was therapeutic for Pestonji. She had never really dealt with the fact that she struggled with anorexia throughout her teens, due in part to the fact that such matters are often viewed as taboo.

“I didn’t realize how important it was to talk about it,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma around eating disorders and, until around two years ago, I blamed myself.”

Her editor keyed her in to the fact that she had a problem, and that she wasn’t alone in struggling with an eating disorder.

Pestonji had gotten her life on track when she was in a car accident on a narrow highway in the Napa Valley region of California. The accident left her with two hairline fractures in her back, which left her feeling helpless.

“I’ve always been a big runner, and I thought, ‘If I can’t run, I can’t live.’”

While she recovered from that injury, life threw her another curveball in 2012. She had settled into a new condo and had a new career when she started experiencing severe headaches. Doctors soon discovered a two-centimetre mass in her brain, a precursor to her stroke.

“I was always super healthy — I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs — so to have a stroke at my age was so rare,” she said.

Pestonji’s recovery from the stroke was a long, arduous process. Her family feared she was in a vegetative state. Even once she showed signs of consciousness, she was essentially paralyzed on the right side of her body. As hopeless as it may have seemed, she was determined to get back on her feet.

“The rehab team (at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute) was great,” she said. “We went from me having trouble wiggling a toe and them having to lift me up, to running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 10 months.

“I started at ground zero. I had to learn to talk, to move, to do everything again, but I’ve never had a problem with determination.”

These days, Pestonji still can’t fully open her right hand but, apart from that, her struggles are all but invisible to observers — not that she feels she has any reason to hide what she’s been through. While having physical limitations embarrassed her at first, she is now more than eager to share her story, with the publication of Surviving Myself and her presentations as a motivational speaker.

“For the first three years (after the stroke) I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb,” she said. “Then for a while, I would only talk about my stroke.”

Writing the book let her know there was more to her story and the challenges she faced to overcome than the stroke, however. Now, Pestonji is open about her eating disorder, as well, and has discovered that she can provide inspiration and help to others by discussing it.

“I wrote an article about it and a mother wrote to me saying, ‘Now I understand what my daughter’s going through,’” she said.

“My entire goal in writing the book is to help people embrace exactly who they are.

“We all have so many expectations on ourselves and from society. I hope when people read my book, they can tune out a little bit of that noise.”