Dancing with chronic illness

It took a long time for me to decide to write this post. For one thing, I'd just as well not talk about the subject at all. While I love my sweetly concerned family and friends, I hate the "how are you feeling? questions in my everyday life. I'd like to be known for more than this shadow always just hovering over my shoulder. And I'd prefer to pretend I was still the person I was five years ago.

Then I was reminded that I can't possibly be the only person dealing with these things and emotions. That maybe my experiences could be a help and encouragement to others. I sincerely hope that is the case.

Some of my fellow dancers characterize their talent and passion for the art as an addiction. It is something you love to do, yes, but also something you have to do. A silent rhythm is always thrumming through your veins and you must put your body in motion. It is joy that you can't possibly keep contained. For me it is no different pairing this need to dance with a sense of near-invincibility. When you can push your body to do such incredible things and for hours on end, it's hard to imagine any alternative. Which is why not being able to keep up that level of activity can be so devastating.

In the Fall of 2010 I began to notice some odd things going on with my body. One of the first instances took place while teaching a ballet class. I was demonstrating an exercise at the barre and when I came up from the port de bras, I blacked out for a second. Not your typical "head rush" but a full-on blackout where I thought I was going to actually faint in front of my students. And I had never fainted in my life! Only by the grace of God did I make it through that class and drive myself home afterward, gulping Gatorade and blasting the AC in order to stay alert because I was so afraid it would happen again. It didn't, of course, and I brushed the incident off as a fluke.

Soon, though, I noticed that standing still for any length of time (like waiting in line at the grocery store) would produce the same effect. As a result I had severe anxiety and several panic attacks where I thought I was going to die. At the time I had thought they were asthma attacks but later realized that the heart pounding, chest tightening and outright terror were anxiety. I had seen a couple of doctors who couldn't tell me anything and finally my body was giving into the fear I didn't want to admit to myself.

That year I pulled out of Nutcracker rehearsals. By the time I figured out that something was very wrong I was only the rehearsal assistant but somehow couldn't even manage to watch my fellow dancers without some bizarre symptoms and anxiety. I also stopped teaching classes and retreated further and further from even social events.

Two and half years, a battery of (often torturous) medical tests and even a holistic practitioner later, I had a slightly helpful diagnosis: Part the issue being that my thyroid had gone drastically south. That lowered the function of a lot of things as a result.The other symptoms took longer to diagnose and correct. A syndrome called "POTS" (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Sydrome) was the culprit. Fortunately, doctors says I'm "young" enough that I should "grow out of it" eventually. And for the most part, I have been improving since getting the right treatment.

I also had some wonderful advice from a doctor who wasn't even my primary physician. He said: "You need to keep dancing. Do what you can but keep dancing." And he was absolutely right. The moment I quit "cold turkey," I was miserable. Not only were my clothes not fitting the right way anymore but I just didn't have the energy or the will to do much of anything because I had become so much more sedentary than I'd ever been. I took his advice that very afternoon with a gentle ballet barre in my living room.

A wonderful thing happened as I (slowly) began to dance, again. My mood lifted, the anxiety waned and my energy level began to creep back up. I still struggle with the dizzies and a few other, weird symptoms/limitations but at least I'm able to do what I love. What I have to do. Even if that means a ballet barre followed by a nap some days.

So, my fellow, chronically ill dancers: Make sure you keep dancing because it's what you have to do to maintain your health and your sanity. Dial back the intensity if you have to (like I have to) but never stop dancing. Even the simplicity of a favorite stretch or a port de bras is just as good a treatment for a dancer as anything you can buy in a pharmacy.

I wish you all the best!


Nichelle said...

Hi Jenn! Just happened across your post and I'm sorry to hear that you've been struggling. Thank you for sharing it, though. You are definitely in my thoughts! Stay well, friend!

Relatedly, this was written by a fellow teacher who manages chronic illness herself. Thought you might find it interesting: http://www.danceadvantage.net/student-illness-injury/

Jenn said...

Thank you, Nichelle! I did find the article interesting. :)


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