What happens when your greatest passion physically hurts you? This question has been looming over me since 2011, the year of my first debilitating back injury. I was bending over to pick up a hat at a dress rehearsal for a burlesque show when something shifted and pain took over my lower back. Later that night and the next day, I could barely walk and my back was so swollen that its natural curvature was virtually nonexistent.
Though I’ve “recovered” from that injury—thanks to many MRIs, X-rays, cortisone injections, and rounds of physical therapy—my back has never really been the same. I’ve lost a decent amount of flexibility and mobility. There are days when I can literally feel the misalignment of my spine. Others, my muscles are just sore. Conversely, there are days when I feel like I could run off to LA and dance for six hours a day like I used to. Backs, as my spinal specialist was very quick to point out, are unpredictable.
So I’ve learned how to work through it. Sometimes I push through mild discomfort. Sometimes I make sure I have a pot of Tiger’s Balm in my bag. Sometimes I’ll pull back, knowing my limits. But hell, I’m a dancer. This is what we do. It’s who I am. My headspace has always been, I’m only 28. I’ll be damned if my back slows me down!
A couple weeks ago, the morning after a gig and a two-hour backup dancer rehearsal, a new kind of pain took over. My low back literally hurt to touch. That day, in a CVS parking lot where I went to buy a tens unit, I had an emotional breakdown. I was sick of feeling broken. Something had to give. I needed to start some new therapy.
And in the meantime, I needed to quit a number of things—like teaching pole dancing and dancing for my boyfriend’s band. I also needed to adjust some upcoming performances so they’d be vocal performances instead of dance performances.
These decisions hurt just as much as my back.
But here’s the silver lining.
Throughout those decisions, my mind started to shift. I started to feel strangely relieved. I started to wonder if pulling back was something I should’ve done awhile ago—not necessarily to preserve my back (albeit that is a factor) but because…was I really happy?
Anyone who knows me personally will attest that I’m one of the busiest people you’ll ever meet. I have a hard time saying “no” to opportunity, I love attention, and I’m a very carpe diem sort of chick. I used to think achieving and participating in so many things made me wildly successful. But where does happiness fit into that equation?
Was I really happy flitting from one engagement to the next? Was the exhaustion each night a sweet reminder of what I’d achieved that day—or was it an ominous indicator that I was doing too much?
That night, while the tens unit hummed and pumped electricity into my back, I realized that, in fact, I wasn’t happy. In truth, I was exhausted, spread too thin, a ball of stress, and trying way too hard to hold onto who I used to be.
The next day, I started crossing off commitments in my planner and the blank spaces created looked a lot like salvation. I started relishing the idea of watching horror films, cuddling with my dog, and bingeing on pickles on the weekends. I thought of all the extra time I’ll have to create memories with the important people in my life. I thought of all the new non-physical things I can start trying. I started realizing that slowing down isn’t a death sentence.
In fact, it might look a lot like happiness.