shifting trauma

This is a photo of me at about 16. I have no memory of it being taken, and no idea for what it was taken. One of my children found it in my high school yearbook. It was taken, it seems, to highlight my dance. There’s an article that goes with it. My memory loss from abuse is indiscriminate: I have forgotten a number of ‘good’ things as well as a number of ‘bad’ things. I have holes in my memory all over the place. In my memoir I call them ’empty rooms’. So I have an empty room around this photo.

I am, though, a die-hard dancer, and an accomplished one, it seems. I danced from age seven or eight until my late 40’s, with never more than a few months’ break. I pitched up at dance schools in London and Norwich UK, danced all the way through university in the US, through having children, and working. Indeed, I often performed yearly, with other adult dancers. And WHAT a blast we had!

I have always known that dance was somehow vital for me. I knew I was happy doing it. I knew that its lyricism and rhythm informed my writing over decades.

What I didn’t know — until literally October 2021, practically yesterday — was that dance shifts my trauma, and always has done.

I am now 57 years old. I haven’t been able to dance in nearly a decade. There are physical reasons for this: namely, dodgy joints from hypermobility, and early onset arthritis. I have, however, remained fit. And for the last 10 years, I pretty much thought it was FITNESS that dance provided for me. Fitness and moving to music. I really never thought much beyond that.

Fast forward to summer ’21. Like a lot of people, I’ve had a tough, tough 18 months. Two close bereavements, a second hip replacement, one of my children having a serious accident and then a major operation. My writing stalled. And three lockdowns. I remained fit by walking (after recovery from my op), but I felt trapped. I was static in some fundamental way. And I spiralled down, really for the first time in my life. I landed in a mild — but frightening — depression. The more paralysed I felt, the more debilitated I became.

I am fortunate to have a brilliant therapist ‘on tap’. I have turned to her numerous times over the last few years, and so this time, at my husband’s insistent urging (I was all ‘no one can do anything; I’m going to feel like this forever’) — I contacted her again.

One of her first questions was ‘what has made you the happiest in the last two weeks?’. I had one answer, that I was rather embarrassed about: watching Strictly Come Dancing.

The unsettling thing is — she didn’t even know I had been such a dancer. She didn’t know that I danced all the way through the abuse. That I never felt threatened while dancing, I never felt watched. I always but always felt inside my body. It was my space. It was my thing. Time and again, I found myself gushing to her, dance has been transcendent for me. It takes me entirely into my body, and entirely elsewhere, at once. But I had never articulated this to her; indeed, I didn’t really know it myself.

It turns out that dance, over and over, has re-centred me, locating my ‘core self’ again and again. Because one thing I do know: I have preserved my core self. In that I have been extremely, extremely lucky. I just didn’t know that dance harboured and protected it.

First, I agreed with my therapist to watch as much dance as I wanted, to let that happen and indulge in that, instead of — as I was feeling — thinking of it as kind of a fun waste of time. I needed to let my body experience it.

Second, my best bae Nancy suggested we go line dancing (this video is a dance I actually do in class). We went to the first one together. And, as those of you who follow me on FB know: I WAS INSTANTLY HOOKED. Line dancing is not high impact, doesn’t involve grasping a barre (thumb arthritis, ugh), or going up on half point much (toe arthritis, double ugh!). What it does involve is my brain and focus (32 or 64 steps in sequence, repeated to each side of the room in various combinations, for five minutes at a time) and my intense, now realised, love of being inside my body and moving through music.

Along with talking therapy, line dancing has proved transformative — and yes transcendent — these last two months. I now do it twice a week, and my biggest fear over this new Covid wave is that line dancing will stop. I feel almost like I could give up everything but that. Here’s hoping.

I’m writing about this now for several reasons. First: it’s the holiday season, and we all need to pay attention, if we can, to what supports us rather than depletes us. Holidays are not fun for everyone.

Second, I saw a genius video about how The Body Keeps the Score when it comes to trauma. Yes, there is a brilliant book about this. And here’s the video that brought it home to me: The Body Keeps the Score by Knowledge is Power

Illustrated like this, I now see so clearly that dance shifts trauma for me. It moves it to a place where it doesn’t haunt me or stay in the present. It shifts the trauma. The last two years in particular have seen my body in an unfamiliar and unhealthy stasis. And the old and new trauma stacked up. It had nowhere to go, and I didn’t even know how to begin to shift it.

Third, I read this brilliant blog yesterday on the Epione page, Co-Regulation in Times of Covid by Felicity Douglas (twitter @felicitydougie). About how trauma sticks around, and about the kind of unabashed deep care you need to do to shift it around to something you can live with. How it may circle back, the same or differently, and how we as survivors can’t really be ‘fixed’. How the nervous system — the body — is something we can’t always know or take account of. It does what it does. Indeed, my therapist really feels that everything unravelled for me this last summer as much due to past stresses as to more present ones. I had been living with high cortisol and adrenaline levels for years. YEARS. Like the author of this blog: my nervous system just gave up the ghost.

So. As we go into this time of year — so difficult and strange for so many — I just want to say: your body keeps the score. Find, if you can, what nourishes you. What brings you pure joy, however fleeting. And do more of it. Do it mindfully. Make space for it. Cherish it. And your ever-shifting body will return the favour.

***

This is the first mention of dance in my memoir, Learning to Survive: an ABC of Abuse:

Ballet

Soon after arriving in Virginia [aged six], I begin to dance. Has someone mentioned my adventures with the Pink Panther theme dance class back when I was living with my mother? Does my father recall that my mother loves to dance?

            I do not know when or how I realise I am good at it. And I never realise, while living in my father’s house anyway, the purpose it comes to serve. It provides rhythm, shape to my days. I do it away from the family. It is mine. It is my body.

            I inhabit that room. I make another house. And I live there, in one form or another, for as long as I dance, for 40 years.

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