Dancing with Courage

I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. I danced at Cal, and in my college years, I spent a lot of time at Zellerbach, watching performances and the rehearsals and master classes of the touring companies. My classes were held down the street, in an old wooden church at the edge of campus that had been converted into the most gorgeous dance space I have ever been in.
Alvin Ailey dancers are, of course, masters of the art. Bad ass masters of dance and they do what all good artists do with their art: move people. Sitting in the audience, the choreography split me open and I became, from my seat, courageous from the company pushing back at what I have seen as limits on my own ability.
There was a time that I danced so intensively that I had thought going professional was something I would try for but I began to falter in dance as I faltered in so many other parts of my life because of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. I was in so much pain at the time that it felt that any use of my joints was destroying them. It felt, in moving, that I was wearing them down with sandpaper. Of course, it was an infection of Lyme Disease, but when I was twenty I could hardly walk and had no answers. I’d been working with a physical therapist for months and was only getting worse. My physical therapist was stumped and told me that I needed to never bend forward again (seriously. To never bend forward again. As if a person could even promise such a thing. As if asking a dancer to permanently remove such a basic movement as forward spinal flexion was nothing). At the time, I acquiesced only because all I worried that I wouldn’t even be able to walk by the time that I was thirty if I kept doing what I was doing.
Movement is the purest form of joy to me. It is how I know myself; it is how I have always known myself the best. I started swim lessons before I could walk and gymnastics soon after. I took dance classes and springboard diving and soccer and I ran everywhere. I ran after my brother and his friends, I ran to the market for my mom, I ran with my dog. I danced nearly as much as I ran and I poured my babysitting and then lifeguarding money into dance lessons when my parents refused to pay for more than two a week. During the summers, I was at a dance studio every day. I organized my life around classes, practices and competitions and began to work with physical therapists when pain started creeping into my body. We all brushed it off as something that comes with dance, with contact sports and I had had some traumatic injuries, falls and sprains. Only I never really healed from them. I danced, though, until I wasn’t able to walk or stand for long periods of time, until it felt like bending my knees and spine was ruining my joints. Until my joints felt on fire from just being. I gave it all up before I was twenty.
About ten years ago, when I was hooking up to an IV morning and night yet was only marginally better from when I had moved back home with my parents, I also stopped going to dance shows because I was eaten through with envy at all the things I could no longer and perhaps, would never do again. At the time, I was barely functional and was filled with rage as I sat in the theater watching dance.
This time, sitting in the theater at the first dance show I’ve been to in nearly a decade, I was moved. In watching the dances, it felt like my limits were expanded. As if my understanding of humanity and of what I can ask of my body were opened up, tenfold. I felt courageous.
Instead of becoming immobile after that one physical therapist’s directive, I became a pilates instructor instead and, though going through the certification program flared up every single one of my aching joints, I became a more efficient mover and developed better alignment. In a blessed coincidence, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease towards the end of my pilates certification and jumped right into treatment. I soon learned how much of my pain was illness complicating injury. I had injuries, many of them: ankle, jaw, nose, knees, spinal injuries. What Lyme did, though, was to complicate them. It slowed down the healing and added layers and intensity of pain to the injuries. Over the years, I have spent so much time learning about creating a balanced, fluid body and now have healthy, stable and completely pain-free joints. Still, I’ve resisted going back to many of the things that once grounded me and fed my soul. After last week, though, I think it’s time to go back to dance.

Recovering Sleep

 

I slept so well last night that I woke early and charged for my day. I generally sleep really well–although for about a decade in the worst years of being sick, I couldn’t sleep. All day, I’d be exhausted and nearly delirious and when it was finally time to go to bed, I’d suddenly be awake. At the time, I didn’t even know that there was adrenal fatigue or that my disturbed sleep was indicative of it.

What shifted my sleep from being a very few hours of tossing and turning into deep, refreshing sleep was Reiki–and then mediation. For years, my doctors had tried to give me things to begin sleeping well again, because (as I wrote about here) you can’t heal without sleep, but nothing–not the adrenal support or herbals that were supposed to make me sleepy, cutting out caffeine and chocolate or taking sleeping pills–helped. And then, following my first Reiki session, I went straight home and fell (at four in the afternoon) into a deep, deep sleep. I slept that day straight through the afternoon and the night and woke up the next morning feeling, for the first time in well over a decade, refreshed and ready for my day.

Without sleep, it’s really hard to function well (and the detrimental effects have been well documented. you can go here, here, here or here, just for starters), to recover from sports or illness and depression creeps in. After that first Reiki session, I continued sleeping well but after each session, I’d sleep incredibly deeply for a few days. The same thing yesterday. I had a Reiki session, cleared a bunch things that have been holding me back, came home and slept like pro. I feel fantastic today.

 

Gratitude

There was a time that, when I thought of myself, the image that came to mind was of an old clay pot, dropped and shattered and badly put back together again. At that time, I was in so much pain, I hobbled when I walked and was so tired that I became anxious at the thought of leaving my apartment. I was 22.

These days, I write posts on healing, on compassion for the body—your body and how to train when dealing with a chronic illness. As I write, I always return to the time that I was sick for understanding, for a way in, for compassion on what my clients and readers are dealing with in their bodies.

Yesterday, I wrote on pain and when I did, I remembered when the pain and the fatigue were hardly indecipherable from each other. I was so tired that it hurt to be awake; I was in so much pain that it exhausted me. I remembered, as I wrote, how weak I used to be, as if a strong breeze could take me down. As I wrote, I recognized how strong and resilient I’ve become and how the sick person I used to be is no longer true.

When I think of myself now, I have an image of a giant trampoline, of its ability to bend deeply to the blows of people landing and regaining its shape so rapidly that it throws them in the air again.

I remember how it used to be, when there was no end in sight of Lyme Disease for me, just an endless slog of days marred by illness. The end of Lyme finally came but it seems that I was so busy living my life that I hardly noticed it until it had passed.

Pain is your body in conversation with you

Pain can be scary. It’s uncomfortable and also indicative of something not right in the body but when it has no obvious source—not a burn nor a fall nor an accident, but just shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, and lingers, it can trigger fear and anxiety, interrupt sleep and make it harder to cope with let alone heal. Especially if you don’t know what to do to fix it.

 PJ-BB600_HEALTH_G_20110704185119I am no stranger to the downward spiral of pain creating fear and anxiety and disrupting my sleep. It begins with pain, becomes more pain and then fear that my body is disintegrating shows up followed by anxiety: am I injuring my body more? The fear and anxiety, I’ve noticed, usually cause the pain to intensify and spread. Lyme is a really painful disease. There were weeks when I couldn’t even walk for the pain in my knees and days when I couldn’t do anything but lay on my back for the spinal pain. At the time, I never knew what set the pain off and, until I was diagnosed with Lyme, no doc or PT I saw could figure out its cause either. The joint pain was so rough that it felt like, just by using my joints, I was contributing to their deterioration. For a dancer and athlete, this was a heartbreaking thought. I gave up so many activities I loved by the time I was twenty and just hoped that I would still be able to walk when I was thirty.

These days, my joints are stable, move fluidly and never even ache but I fully understand what so many of my clients are going through when they come to me because of pain and fear or with anxiety about “What is happening to my body?!”

When pain comes from a straight forward injury, it’s easy to understand and, as tough as it is to deal with it, you have a pretty good sense that the body will heal and the pain will pass. When pain comes from layers of muscular imbalance, skeletal misalignment, compensatory patterns, and inflammation, it can be hard to get to understand the root of it and hard to see an end in sight.

I try to disarm people first. By which I mean, to get them to unload the emotions around pain. We immediately jump to evaluating whatever state we are in: if we’re happy, that’s good. If we’re sad, that’s bad. If we’re in pain, that’s bad. What if, I ask my clients, you could just experience the pain? It is simply a sensation and assigning a negative judgment to it makes it worse. Uncomfortable, yes. Scary, possibly. But bad? No.

In fact, pain is an incredibly useful tool. It is your body in conversation with you. This hurts, it is saying, stop what you are doing because it’s not good for your health and survival. Pain if you touch your hand to a fire–you can see the immediate need to pull your hand away so you don’t burn it off, but pain in the low back from a lifetime of sitting isn’t necessarily as clear a direction. Pain will get you to stop and take a look around and see what isn’t working in your life, where you’re forcing yourself through situations that are hurting your body and make changes. The real trick is, do you stop and listen when your body speaks up? Are you learning how to listen to your body? It is yours, and you’ll be with it your whole life. If you listen now, you’ll be in better shape in the long run.