Through the darkness, Tori Hillier's light shined through 

Celebration of life for former Whistlerite set for Feb. 11 at Maury Young Arts Centre

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - light up Tori Hillier, who died in December, was a former Whistlerite who was known for her spontaneity, creativity and deep sense of compassion.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • light up Tori Hillier, who died in December, was a former Whistlerite who was known for her spontaneity, creativity and deep sense of compassion.

To the casual observer, and even to some of her Whistler friends, Victoria Hillier must have seemed like she had it all: an extensive circle of friends, boundless creativity, and a keen sense of adventure.

She did, of course, possess all those traits, as so many who gravitate to Whistler do, but there was another side to Tori, as she was known, that she was sometimes less willing to share. She didn't want to be a bother. She didn't want to bring her friends down, concerned first and foremost with the well being of those around her.

"She had so much love to give everyone. She was so concerned about the happiness of other people," recalled Tori's older sister, Meaghan O'Brien. "She always encouraged others to let things roll off her back, but sadly she didn't know how to do that for herself."

Tori took her own life in a Windsor, Ont. apartment on Dec. 2, 2018 after struggling with mental illness and substance use. She was 34.

The news sent shockwaves through the Whistler community, with an outpouring of supportive messages flooding her Facebook page. Now her friends are reaching out to share her story and to remind others that help is out there.

Originally from Ontario, Tori spent years off and on in Whistler before moving to Victoria in 2015. That's where she was first diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and also where, according to friends and family, her mental health began to spiral. People with borderline personality disorder, roughly one to two per cent of the population, have difficulty regulating their impulses and emotions and can react intensely to small changes in their environment.

"She would have what we could call these manic episodes," friend Kerry Batt said, adding that Tori would sometimes drink on her medication as "an escape," which would worsen her mental condition. "Tori's this amazing, outgoing person but she would have these high highs and low lows. Once in a very depressed state, I recall her saying, 'I don't deserve to live.' From someone who has only known her in such a great way, you hear that and it's like, 'What are you talking about?'"

Even in her lowest moments, though, Tori still found time to help others through their struggles. She was involved in the Whistler and Windsor arts communities, and even donated her time to speak to a group of first responders about how to properly deal with the mentally ill after she suffered broken ribs when Victoria police arrested her during one of her manic episodes.

"If you were having issues with something, she was always there to talk to," said Christopher Jones, who met Tori at a rehab facility in Thamesville, Ont. last year.

"If it wasn't for Victoria coming into my life and being such a supportive, amazing person that looked out for people around her ... I would not be here today. I would've been back and I would've used and I would've overdosed again and I would've been gone. We had a special connection. She saved my life."

Tori always considered Whistler a second home, but in hindsight, Batt acknowledged that the resort might have also served as a means to deflect from her deeper struggles.

"There are so many amazing things here, and it's so much more than that, but I know that for some people in a bad situation, it's a hedonistic environment that, for many, is escapism at its finest," she said.

Friends and loved ones of those with mental-health challenges may feel ill qualified to lend their support, but Jackie Dickinson, head of the Whistler Community Services Society, said often, just being there to listen can make a world of difference.

"This is a town where we love to do, we love to be out doing stuff. But some of the most meaningful connections we can have with people is just by being with them. And being with someone doesn't mean we have to fill it with a great deal of conversation," she explained. "It isn't until they're able to talk or perhaps just being with other people that they realize there's community in what they're feeling."

After leaving Whistler, Tori's sister said seeking the proper treatment was like "an awful rollercoaster." In her more desperate states, Tori would check herself into the ER, only to be prescribed more medication or be discharged after hours in a waiting room. O'Brien believes Tori was a textbook example of the system failing its most vulnerable.

"It's a lot for someone in an agitated crisis state to be able to essentially put together an action plan for their own treatment," she said.

"For anyone in that agitated state, there should have been more advocacy for a holistic treatment program."

Up to 80 per cent of those with borderline personality disorder will make at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime.

Whistler's Olivia Rey, who would sometimes share her own story of recovery with Tori after a devastating 2015 car accident that left her with two broken vertebrae, has organized a fundraiser to buy a tribute bench in her honour.

So far, $1,800 of the $3,150 target has been raised. Donate at gogetfunding.com/bench-tribute-to-remember-tori-victoria-hiller.

There is also a celebration of life scheduled for Feb. 11 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Maury Young Arts Centre that is open to the public.

As difficult as it must be to discuss her sister's death, O'Brien knows that Tori would want this conversation to happen—warts and all—even if it helped lift just one other person out of the shadows.

"She would want her story to help others be happy and strive for who they are and who they deserve to be. She wouldn't want anyone to be in pain because that's the way she was, and she would encourage people to get help," said O'Brien.

"She would want people to talk about it—don't ever stop talking about it."

Tori's family is encouraging donations to be made to the LifeLine Canada Foundation, a Kelowna-based non-profit committed to suicide prevention that offers one-touch dialling and text-based support for those suffering in crisis. Learn more at thelifelinecanada.ca.

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