I Transcend Pain through Dancing and Writing

By: Jillian Ardrey, Assistant Editor, Dancing with Pain

June 29th, 2008 • Dance for Natural Pain ReliefPrint Print

My friends and family always told me that I’d find my calling, my one passion in life, and that I’d only have to wait for the right time to find it. They told me that there is a point in everyone’s life, one defining moment, when we find out who we truly are – what we’re meant to do in life; what really makes us happy; our true passion.

Growing up, I liked everything I tried (cycling, gymnastics, musical theater, choir, international debate, cheerleading, soccer, even football), but I never gave much credence to what my friends and family held onto so dearly – hope that there was something out there for me, something that could make me the happiest person in the world.

I was always good at everything I did, but never great. I loved everything I tried, and I was a happy person; but nothing made me flare up with a passion so strong that I couldn’t contain it inside me — the kind of passion that emits from a person in waves of energy, that makes everyone around excited and instills in them the desire to find a passion of their own.

Throughout my life, gymnastics was my main activity. I was better at it than anything else I had ever tried, and my instinctually fearless nature made me willing to try even the most dangerous tricks. I was in the gym 25-40 hours a week and dedicated myself fully to the sport, ignoring social and academic areas of my life.

It became an obsession for me: I had to have the top score in every competition and had to have that gleaming gold metal cold against my neck, reminding me of my success. Every week, I’d force myself to learn new tricks, harder and harder tricks, challenging myself all the more.

My competitive nature made gymnastics an ideal sport for me. My fearless nature, however, ultimately did not.

When I was thirteen years old and finishing off eighth grade, I landed wrong coming off the vault during a state competition. I felt my back crack. I felt a grinding reverberate throughout my body, as the discs in my spine slid too far apart, then crashed back together — squeezing my nerve endings tightly in a clamp and causing a fiery ring of pain to lash throughout my back.

I tried to ignore the pain and stick my landing but found that my body no longer listened to my commands. My toes wouldn’t press into the mat to root my landing into the ground, and I went tumbling backwards into the mat. I tried to speak, as my coach ran up to me, but all I could manage were hiccupping tears, leaking out of the corners of my eyes and winding their way down my cheeks.

When I could finally make myself talk through the agonizing pain, all I could say is, “I can’t move;” for it was true, and it scared me more than anything in the world.

I’m still not quite sure what went wrong in my back, only that it took back surgery, numerous chiropractic appointments, and endless physical therapy to get it even remotely near healed. I was out of commission for months and, even though I didn’t have to use a wheelchair for long, I had always been an active person. Being unable to go back to gymnastics, other sports, or even activity in general felt unbearable.

After my recovery period, I went back to gymnastics without even questioning it. After all, I liked it, enjoying both the challenge and the thrill of danger. Also, it was all I knew. So I showed up at practice every day, both ankles and wrists heavily taped, knee braces on both legs, my body in pain.

One foot and knee surgery later, however, I was seriously beginning to doubt my love for the sport. Tricks suddenly felt harder, even frightening, and I was not progressing at the same rate I used to. I began making up excuses not to go to practice and began to dread the time I spent in the gym.

Eight months after my knee surgery, I hurt my back again. My doctor warned me that if I returned to gymnastics and hurt my back one more time, I might end up paralyzed. His words hit home, and hit home hard. I quit.

Gymnastics had been my whole life, had become so instrumental to my being that it was like breathing or eating. So I went through an extensive period of depression, where I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would sit in bed and try to do homework, all the while distracted by the throbbing pain in my knee and back.

By the age of 15, I had just about given up on happiness at all, especially on the type of passion, or life-meaning, that my friends and family had always promised me. It was pure chance that I came across the two loves of my life: dancing and creative writing.

My high school had a strong dance program, which sounded far more attractive than a regular PE class; so I took it. I’d had very little dance training — a ballet class or two when I was five or six years old — so I was completely new. The lack of familiarity intimidated me, and I was very nervous on my first day of class.

But the minute warm-up started, and I dipped into a plie, all worries flew out of my head. I learned the movements quickly — a trick I could carry over from my years of gymnastics — and this made it possible for me to really engage in the discipline.

While I focused on my form and improved over the semester, dancing meant more to me than outward accomplishment. There were no 10.0s I had to achieve, no perfect scores for which I had to compete. I was allowed to just be me, to give myself to the music, to flow away with its rhythm and beat.

At the end of my first class, modern dance, I realized that I’d smiled more than I’d ever smiled in one day in my life. The class was an hour-and-a-half long, but it had seemed no longer than five minutes to me. I couldn’t help wishing it had lasted ten hours.

I began taking dance classes all the time. This period, my last three years of high school, was the happiest time of my life. I’d wake up early every morning before school, so that I could stretch. My feet would dance and review steps, as I listened to all my teachers drone on in my academic classes.

At the end of the school day, I’d rush to the dance studio — where I could relax, float away from everything happening in my life and just be, just exist in the space between spaces, a dimension separate from everything I knew. The music carried me away in the peaceful familiarity of movement, leaving me happy.

One day in physics, when I was bored by taking down lecture notes, I decided to write my first short story. It turned into a ritual: I’d write one story; my friend Deidre would write another; then we’d compare them and laugh. Deidre’s stories were a joke, but slowly I began to take mine seriously, to engage deeply in my plots and explore the unknown territories of my characters.

What had started out as a mere solution to boredom quickly became a huge part of my life, another way to escape both the pressures and the pain that had become routine. Through writing about other times, places, and people, I could forget my life and everything going on in it, if only for a short time.

From then on, if I wasn’t dancing, I was either writing or reading – immersing myself in foreign lands, future times, or unattainable romances. They were fantasies, yes, but fantasies that made me happy, made me forget my real life for a moment.

To this day, dancing and creative writing are the two things that truly make me happy, the two passions of which I will never let go.

My knee and back have never truly healed; they still haunt me daily, discomfort and pain lacing through my body nonstop, an impediment to my work. It is often agony to have to sit through an hour-and-a-half to three hour class at school. Similarly,at the desk job I had the last two summers, I had to take breaks at least every half-hour, to get up and walk around. In fact, my knee and back both hurt now, as I write this article.

This pain, however, doesn’t bother me so much anymore. Yes, it is always there, and often it is so bad that it is hard to concentrate on anything. But there are two things that I can always concentrate on, two ways to escape the pain that haunts my life on a daily basis: I can dance or write my way out of my troubles.

I never would have thought I could find anything so magical, but I have. I have been through some tough stuff physically and emotionally in my life, especially for someone less than twenty years of age, but I have also had many, many good times. I have found not one, but two passions around which to center my life, and I make the most of them every day.

My discovery of dancing and creative writing happened by chance, but I can’t help but believe that some higher power destined me to find them, that it was preordained long ago. It certainly feels that way. And, in spite of everything, the love and peace that I get from and give to my dancing and writing offer me hope that in the end, everything will be okay.

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