DANCERVIVAL // PART I: PLIE
Welcome back to Dancervival! This 5 part series is aimed at helping dancers with mental illnesses and cognitive differences live well, cope well, and achieve their dance dreams. If you missed the intro, check it out here!
PART I: PLIE
I’ve spoken candidly about what it’s like to navigate the dance world as a neurodiverse person: isolating, disconcerting, shame-filled and profoundly painful. In 2015 I stopped dancing for the better part of a year - the burnout caught up with me - my depression and anxiety were both at an all time high, and I felt like I was drowning. It wasn’t until after I had resurfaced from hitting rock bottom and begun to speak out about my experience that other dancers started to reach out to me.
I was floored to learn that I was not alone - all along I’d felt like a failure for having a mental illness, but dancers literally emerged from the wings of every corner of the world to share their stories with me. It bolstered me. As I struggled to ascertain what I needed and how I was ever going to attain that, I made myself a promise: When I get my shit together, I swear I’m giving this back however I can.
So this series is my attempt to give back what I wish I’d had. Some semblance of assistance, guidance, practical tips - but also the baseline knowledge that you are not alone.
Let's get started!
A favorite teacher of mine once referred to plies as taking inventory, or information gathering, for the rest of class and for the day - what hurts, what doesn’t? Is anything strained, sore or tight? Appropriately, the word plie is a conjugation of the French verb plier, meaning “to bend”.
This is the beginning of class, when you bend, stretch and prepare yourself for the technical and choreographic needs of the day - dancers everywhere start their day with plies, gently easing their bodies and minds into the proper headspace to accomplish all that awaits them on any given day. We’re doing the same. We’re gathering information about exactly what we’re going through, identifying trouble spots and maybe getting diagnosed, and making mental notes of how to take care of them throughout the rest of the day. We’re gaining skills for living well in our own unique situations. We’re bending, but not breaking, to accommodate our circumstances.
Below, I’ve listed some life hacks, general rules of thumb, by-no-means expert advice and general tips and tricks I’ve developed for myself along the way as I’ve found my footing again. These are not meant to be comprehensive or all encompassing - but I do hope that they can be useful as you start out on the path to wellness, self-acceptance, and wholeness.
Step 1: Identify, Record, and Track your symptoms
Here’s where the literal inventory comes in. Write down how you feel each day. It seems simple, but the longer you do it, the more you start to notice if there are any trends. If you’ve been struggling for a long time, it will still be helpful just to articulate exactly what it is you’re feeling, so that when you get to Step 3, you can tell whomever your support person is exactly what you’re going through.
When you’re recording your feeling, symptoms and/or emotions, look out for persistent, consistent negative trends in your emotional well-being. Are you constantly depressed? Do you worry non-stop? Are you sleeping too much or not sleeping enough? Keep track of it and record the severity, the frequency, and the duration of that particular feeling. You can go old school and use a journal, or you can use your phone. No matter which medium you choose, what’s most crucial here is to be totally honest with yourself. If you’re not honest with yourself, whomever you reach out to for support won’t be able to adequately assist you.
It can be scary to realize that you’re suffering from something that can have so much stigma attached, but don’t let the stigma get to you - you’re not broken. You’re hurting, and that’s okay. You can still live well with a mental illness, and you don’t have to be ashamed.
Step 2: Get educated.
Instead of buying into the hurtful, harmful things that society says about mental illnesses and people with mental illnesses, educate yourself.
Ableism is the normalization of abled bodies and neurotypical minds coupled with the stigmatization or demonization of disabled bodies and neurodiverse minds. It runs RAMPANT in our society and in mainstream media. The first thing to arise when there’s a national tragedy is speculation about whether or not the perpetrator was mentally ill - almost ALWAYS. Mentally ill people are not inherently dangerous or predisposed to criminal behavior.
WIth this in mind, it’s helpful to make use of resources and materials that uplift and amplify the voices of actual people with mental illnesses and not scientists, doctors, or caregivers. Mainstream organizations like Autism Speaks are actually terrible, and here’s why. My resource page has a bunch of great links, but some of my favorites are relevant here and now, including the Anti-Ableism Primer, the widely used Spoon Theory, Anxiety is an Invalid Excuse, Doing What You Must (mostly about physical disabilities, but is applicable to us as well), and my personal favorite, Musings of An Aspie.
Step 3. Seek professional help.
I know this isn’t an option for everyone, and some people simply may not want to. Self diagnosis is valid, but some folks may feel more comfortable being evaluated by a professional.
Types of people that can help you include an Social Worker (usually an LMSW or an MSW), a Psychologist/Clinical Psychologist (usually has a PhD or a PsyD), and/or a Psychiatrist (usually an MD). While Social Workers and Psychologists can assist you in talking through your symptoms, identifying triggers, and establishing coping mechanisms, only a Psychiatrist or a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (or anyone else with a medical degree and a license) can prescribe medication.
Seek out a practitioner who maybe shares your identity(ies), and who is well versed in caring for and treating patients with your same diagnoses. Because God has been gracious enough to gift us with the Internet, resources for locating help are easily found. Some resources that have been helpful to me can be found here, here, here, and here. I’ll be continually adding to my Resources page on this website, as well. When you’re deciding on a care provider, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s an audition for them to work with you. Some questions you can ask include:
How experienced are you in treating my particular symptoms or conditions?
How often do you refer patients to psychiatrists for medication therapy?
Have you ever worked with dancers. artists or athletes before?
If so, can you share a little about what your methodology is?
Are you available to talk via text, in case I am too anxious to make an in-person appointment or talk on the phone?
Step 4: Learn about your diagnosis
Outside of seeking out academic and/or medical resources, one of the things that has helped me most in this entire process is finding and building a community with other people who share my experiences. Learning to live with mental illness is difficult on its own. It can feel twice as difficult as a dancer, when you feel like telling one of your company-mates or classmates might create awkwardness, fear, stigma or worse: pity. Nine-and-a-half times out of ten, we don’t want pity. We want kindness, empathy, compassion, support and encouragement. We want a safe space to articulate what we’re going through, and one of the best ways to do that is to talk to and engage with other people who may share your diagnosis(es). We've launched a group on Facebook for dancers with mental illnesses, which you can check out and join here!
Step 5: Articulate your large scale goals - all of them.
We dancers are famous for having lofty goals: dancing for American Ballet Theatre, becoming a Radio City Rockette, starting your own company, the possibilities feel endless! But when you have trouble getting out of bed, it’s hard to have faith in those goals or in your own ability to achieve them.
Wipe the slate clean and start small. Invest in and employ a method of organization that you feel able to accommodate, like a note or alarms on your phone, a bullet journal, a planner, or a little dry-erase board. Create goals for yourself that encompass both your goals as a dancer and your goals for improving your mental health or your approach to your mental health. Start small - “I want to take a walk around my block today”, “I want to brush my teeth”, “I want to make myself dinner” - things that neurotypical people take for granted or think is easy can feel like moving a mountain when you have mental illness. Gradually work your way up - “I’m going to go for a jog twice a week”, “I’m going to call my friend who I’ve been avoiding because I’m afraid of what she’ll think of me”, “I am going to look online for a therapist today”.
The more small goals you set for yourself, the more doable they feel in comparison to the giant, lofty ones that, when unfulfilled, can often induce guilt. Keep stepping up - “I want to go to 10am ballet class 3 times this week”, “I want to look for a new job”, “I want to share what I’ve been going through”. Eventually, you’ll be setting goals to go to auditions, take new headshots, live your life on your terms again. We’ll talk more about mini-goals in Part II!
We're on this journey together. You can always reach out to me here or on Instagram if you need me!
only + always love,