At the end of a long recovery road, a victory dance

Posted by on Aug 17, 2017 in Personal | No Comments
At the end of a long recovery road, a victory dance

I’d lived in Bradenton for about a month. And I was itching to dance.

Freshly transplanted to the Gulf Coast by my job, Florida and I fell in love with each other; enter the honeymoon period. Right as I realized how much I loved my new home, I also realized I needed something more. An outlet. Something fun. A release for years of tension built up in my body.

So I joined Kelly’s Zumba class at the Bridge church. I went because I needed to work out, but I stayed because of what dancing gives me.

At that point, I’d moved cross-country three times in one year. After I graduated college in May 2014, I interned in Naples, Florida. I loved living and working in Florida, but couldn’t find a job at the time my internship ended. So at the end of the summer, I closed out living in Florida with a trip to Disney and tearfully crossed the Florida-Georgia line days later.

I moved out to Colorado for a job at a small newspaper. Because who doesn’t also love Colorado, right? The Centennial State and its landscape took my breath away, but I was unable to adapt to the remoteness of Craig, the town I moved to. It’s located in the throes of northwestern Colorado. I always describe it to people as basically the last town you hit before you go to Wyoming or Utah.

I grew up in a small midwestern town, similar to Craig in terms of population size. So it’s not like I wasn’t used to small-town life. But Mahomet, my home town, is also right next to the University of Illinois. I recognize the privilege I have when I say I grew up living the small-town American life while enjoying the amenities and culture of a university town.

I needed something a little more fast-paced than small-town life in Craig, and somewhere that made it easier to get back home if I needed to. From Bradenton, I can be back in Illinois in a few hours if something happens to my family. In Craig, to catch a flight, I had to drive four hours, and that’s when the mountain snow isn’t falling, to get to Denver. (There are smaller airports in between, but flights aren’t always guaranteed there)

Plus, if we’re talking strictly career, taking an opportunity at a paper with larger circulation and reach only made sense. I didn’t plan to spend only six months at my first job. I didn’t plan to get another opportunity less than a year into it, either. I felt conflicted and a little upset about leaving Craig. I built good sources there and I learned a lot. I liked the people and they liked me. But I did miss Florida. It felt a little risky, and I feared I would be labeled a short-timer. But I went with my gut and came back to the Sunshine State.

During the year before I walked into Kelly’s class that night, things were just rough. I think it’s a stage a lot of fresh college grads go through. I was searching for a place and a purpose. Everything in my life began to turn around almost as soon as I arrived back in Florida. But something was still missing.

While writing, I’d drift off when I needed a minute between paragraphs in stories. Oddly, and seemingly randomly, I would daydream about starting up hip hop dancing again. Although I guess it’s not so odd. In professional life, I didn’t get to take long walks across the quad between classes anymore. Office life is pretty sedentary if you don’t fight it. I can’t remember how, but I fell into watching hip hop dance videos on YouTube. Specifically, actually, I saw this one, and it especially lit the hip hop dance fire back up in my belly:

(ps, that’s Taylor Hatala, and she’s 11)

Everything at the new job was going well. Things just sort of started to come together for me, finally. Beyond the ease of falling into step in the newsroom and making friends pretty easily, I discovered a Zumba class located basically right next door to my apartment. And best of all, it was free. It looked like the most challenging out of all of the options I looked at on the Zumba app, and I wanted something challenging.

I knew I wanted to dance, but there weren’t adult hip hop classes within reach that could accommodate my schedule. And even if there were, I would have embarrassed myself. I wasn’t in shape at the time, and at first I wondered if I could even handle the Zumba class. But Kelly, the instructor, sounded cool on the app description and it fit my schedule. It was free. I could see the church from my third floor apartment’s lanai. I had no excuse not to go.

I can’t put my finger on what about seeing Hatala’s video made me want to start dancing again. I didn’t dance in high school or college. I danced ballet when I was young; under age 10, and then again in grade school and junior high. That’s when I took jazz and hip hop classes. I liked jazz okay, but I really loved hip hop. I took it at Art in Motion in Champaign, and I remember wishing for a short time that I could dance hip hop for my life’s work.

After that, I cheered for two years, joined the drama club for a year and eventually found my calling at the student newspaper. Dance, and physical activity in general, just sort of fell out of my life after that, which is so strange to say now.

The rest of the story is impossible to tell without first telling another significant part of my story. At the end of 2008, over my high school senior year winter break, I got into a car with a drunk driver. I learned my lesson by way of a collision with a telephone pole, resulting in a broken left hip (the acetabulum, to be specific; the socket of the hipbone), a broken vertebrae and a moderate traumatic brain injury. To give you an idea of what a moderate TBI means, I don’t remember the ten days after the wreck.

In the months following, I learned how to walk again as an adult (it’s terrible, btw; do not recommend) and slowly became accustomed to what became my new life. Four months post-wreck, I looked basically the same as just before it happened. I credit my Irish roots for the incredible luck. But I did not feel at all the same.

It took a long time and a lot of work to grow my life to what it is now, and looking back on it all, my eyes brim with tears. After the wreck, I felt weak, depressed, unsure, traumatized, alone and most of all, scared. I felt because of the TBI, I lost the best thing about me; my intelligence, and on top of that, my body would never really feel like my body again.

The despair started to turn when I went to Lollapalooza about six months after I’d started walking again. I was captivated by watching a woman hula hoop at the back of a show crowd. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I’d never seen anyone do what she was doing with a hula hoop.

If you’re wondering what the hell hula hooping looks like, here’s a good example:

(here’s one with a couple of hoopers, Nick Guzzardo and Tiana Zoumer, that I was lucky enough to meet in Colorado a few years back. mesmerizing, right?)

Hooping was the strangest and most wonderful thing to come into my life at that time. It made more sense to me than anything had since before the wreck happened. Hula hooping: Spinning a lightweight plastic circle around my body by using the power of my hips and core. What better way to finish healing a broken hip and back?

After Lolla, I went home and started researching. There were tutorials and people and groups and hoops across the globe, all accessible from my shy and unsure fingertips. While finishing my Associate’s, I taught myself how to twirl and trick using YouTube videos. There was a lot of hoop-dropping involved.

I was pretty good (I’m told I still am) and I could have joined plenty of hoop groups in the C-U area. I’m regretful now about my choice to just hoop alone in my backyard or living room, but at the time I was in such a fragile state. I was just too unsure about my moves, and my head still felt blurry from the TBI, coupled with a decent dose of PTSD, on top of grieving from what I’d lost.

After the wreck, I had to say goodbye to pretty much the entire group of “friends” I knew in high school.

A car accident like the one I was in will take everything from you: Your ability to walk, your sanity, who you think your friends are. Three of the people in the car that night were able to get out of it after we crashed. One of them had been a close friend since third grade.

Between the three of them, they had a working phone. There was an inhabited home nearby. But those three people chose not to call an ambulance. Instead, they called the party and asked someone to come and pick them up, which is what happened. One of the guys who was in the car that picked them up later told me that he looked at me in the smashed-up car and thought, “Shit, she’s dead.” I also later heard that I was audibly struggling to breathe properly. Still, they all chose to drive away without calling for help.

That’s the part of this story I’m usually the most afraid to tell people. It’s shocking, and nobody ever knows how to react. I sure as hell didn’t. As soon as my brother’s best friend got word that I’d been left in the wrecked car, he called an ambulance and came to the scene of the wreck to wait with me until paramedics arrived and cut me out with the Jaws of Life.

To this day I remain in touch with my brother’s best friend, and I hope I will forever. He later told me he was just doing what anyone would do in that situation, but clearly not. For whatever reason, he was the only one who could think clearly enough that night to do the right thing. I don’t think he’d been drinking yet, so I guess that’s telling of how alcohol can change people.

So, all of this is to say I didn’t just sustain and have to heal from the physical injuries. Their decision to leave and the circumstances surrounding the wreck left me with virtually no choice but to ditch my high school friends. I was, at 18 years old, seemingly starting over, with literally everything in my life except my family.

I felt robbed of my capabilities and my personality for a long time. Without friends to laugh at my jokes, what was the use in knowing them? Anger and obsession about what happened took up so much head space that I didn’t have room for much else. (Enter Phoebe, my sweet, soft, beautiful tabby cat, who I held on to when the pain got to be too much, and who likely kept me alive through my darkest hours)

Still, despite the thousand negative thoughts running through my head on loop, a spoke of determination stuck out, poked me to get up, and get my mind and my body back.

Hooping helped me remember that my body can still learn, even after severe trauma. The heavier hoops used by beginners left bruises around my waist and hands; battle scars that I became intensely proud of. Eventually bruises appeared on my upper arms, knees and ankles as I learned how to move it up and down my body, hands-free. It was a challenge and one that nobody had to watch me struggle with. It tough, but I overcame. It was exactly what I needed at the time.

(wHooping it up in my living room, circa 2011 – click to enlarge)

People still do the jaw-drop when I tell them that I taught myself how to hula hoop and do tricks using YouTube videos. For months, even after I mastered it and learned how to dance with my own “flow,” as it’s called in the hooping community, I hooped solo in my roomy one-bedroom apartment in West Champaign. I desperately needed time alone to figure things out.

With hooping, I discovered that dance was something I still wanted, and at that point, needed, in my life. Hooping is still great for me. Occasionally, I still turn my stereo up and go nuts when no one’s around. It’s also my favorite party trick to pull out at gatherings and festivals. But if you’re not in just the right location for it, frankly, the community’s just not there.

After I finished my Associate’s, and during the two years that I spent finishing my degree at Illinois, I saw a personal trainer for a little more than a year so I could learn how to properly work out. I think it’s obvious that going for a walk (or hula hooping! hey-o!) is good exercise. It’s not that I didn’t know how to move. But the injuries and subsequent required rest killed any muscle tone I had, and I wanted to learn what it takes to be sculpted.

My personal trainer (who now works in the Chicago-area and runs a health and fitness blog, check him out!) taught me everything I needed to know about how to strength train properly. A lot of what he taught me about proper form is also important in dance fitness. And he made me appreciate running, which he should probably get a medal for.

By the time I graduated college at Illinois, I’d mostly put my hoops down. Getting degrees is a lot of work. Plus, I got busy working hard with Jake during my junior year. I got down to a pretty low weight, though I wasn’t eating very well or in a sustainable manner to keep the weight off. And then senior year came.

Because I was a transfer student, my senior year was, well, intense. I remember telling professors and fellow students of my class loads and vehemently agreeing with their shell-shocked reactions, all the while knowing that graduating on time and with a really cool and useful minor would be worth it. There were many late-night Chinese and pizza dinners. I guzzled coffee and pounded sugar. The weight sucked, but looking back and looking at where I am now, I regret nothing. I’m in Bradenton now because of a lot of the decisions I made then, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

(None of those pizza or sugar-charged decisions led to Bradenton, I know. I’m talking about the choice to get a minor and the extra class load that came with it, and the extra work I did on top of that to build my portfolio. A lot of that led to stress eating at the time.)

TLDR, Jake taught me a lot and helped me realize what kind of physical activity I should be getting each day. It’s not that I didn’t feel accomplished after I clopped out my first 5k on a treadmill or after a 60-minute elliptical session, but I didn’t really like either one of them. Still, the power I felt from using my body again after being knocked down kept me a loyal gym rat for a few years. A good playlist makes cardio machines bearable, but now I know better. It’s no where near the fun of a group dance fitness class.

I always assumed I would be uncomfortable in group fitness classes because I wasn’t in good shape and I hadn’t danced in so long. And I wasn’t terribly confident in my college or first post-college year, either. There were Zumba classes free to Illinois students, but I was still stuck in a pocket of physical and mental insecurity from the wreck. I’m sure growing up in a world that constantly tells women we don’t look good enough contributed, too.

On the first Tuesday that I actually talked myself into going to a Zumba class in Bradenton, I timidly walked up to Kelly a few minutes before it started. I likely rushed through my introduction and told her I had no idea what I was doing as far as Zumba goes, but I wanted to try. I don’t remember what she told me but I remember feeling welcome and not judged, which was what I hoped for and what I needed.

I kept going to her classes and soon enough I was a loyal attendee. I started in the back rows, timidly dancing and catching on the best I could. I slowly moved up, row by row, and hoped no one cared. They didn’t. I remember the first time I let out a “WOO!” during a Rihanna song. It felt a little awkward, but more than that, it felt great. It was nice to let go and see others around me letting go. I embraced the collective not-giving-a-shit for an hour. 

I feel blessed to say memorizing and performing choreography has always come pretty naturally to me. I enjoy something about being in the spotlight. Shocking, I know, considering I am in a profession where my name is splashed publicly all over my work. At Zumba, I quickly became what Kelly calls a “front row diva.” I am still very much a front row diva.

(one of probably a million photos of the dance crew, post-Zumba – photo cred: our fearless leader, Kelly)

I liked Zumba because I sit, think and write about stuff all day, which is physically unsatisfying and mentally exhausting. Even though a lot of my job is a lot of fun, it gets serious at times, too. Making news judgment decisions means making decisions about how other people’s stories are told. If you think about it too, too much, you’ll realize just how much pressure you’re under and collapse. It’s important to take the job seriously, but not to take myself too seriously–great advice from j-school professors.

And, most importantly, dancing again made me forget for one hour on every Tuesday and on every Thursday that I was ever injured or disabled. Something about dancing gave me my groove back (pun intended) and made me feel sexy again. Dance fitness is a workout, yes, but it’s also something I very much look forward to.

I’ll always remember the lucid moment of clarity I had when I “woke up” in the hospital from the ten-day memory lapse. After my injuries were explained to me by nurses, I was left alone in my room for a bit. I shifted uncomfortably in the scratchy hospital sheets. I was so shocked. I couldn’t even cry about it yet.

“That’s it. My couch potato days are over. I have no choice but to take care of my body and treat it right,” I thought. “The one good thing about these injuries is they will force me to stay active. I’ll be in shape forever now. I will finally have what I want, which is a good figure.” Now, the last part of the thought feels shallow, but at that moment, I saw it as an opportunity. I was desperate for even the faintest silver lining.

I’m proud of the strange intuition that told me the only way to feel good and not be in pain is to be fit, make investments in staying strong and flexible, and be committed. It also scared me, because I never really liked any particular sport except dance. At the same time, I wasn’t one of those girls who was in it since I was 4 and had a perfect pointe by the time I was 10. And after sustaining a broken hip and back, I wasn’t even sure if I could still dance.

Post-wreck, perhaps the worst of all, I didn’t feel at home in my own body anymore. I lost a dramatic amount of weight during the three weeks I spent in the hospital, though I gained it back (and then some) during my college years, when my weight yo-yo’d quite a bit. It all left stretch marks on both of my hips. I used to feel shame about them; they signified my decision to get in the car that night. But now I wear them, carefree; they’re just a part of my story.

Like lots of women, I always struggled with weight and body image growing up. I could go more into the body type I have and why it’s tough, because of the “ideal” images pushed on women and girls every day, but I’m going to assume you, reader, are aware of this issue. I’m going to assume you, my smart reader, understand that it’s rare for any of us to look like the women who appear on glossy magazine covers.

People now approach me and ask me how much weight I’ve lost. I’m flattered and I think staying humble is important, but I won’t deny I work hard. I figured out how to eat for my body and my metabolism. I found an exercise routine that I enjoy, I’m committed to and I look forward to going to.

(gettin’ down during Suzanne’s taping class, bordered on the left by the fabulous Dria and sassy Sheila – photo cred: Kelly)

Tracking food and calories isn’t a picnic, either, though I will say that it helped me figure out a lot of things about my diet, like proper measuring and portion sizes. Perhaps most importantly, though, it taught me about the value of real food. You can eat so much broccoli for so few calories! And it does so much good stuff for you!

(This also relates back to the time I spend volunteering at Geraldson Community Farm, which has given me a whole new respect for food. Growing that one stalk of broccoli ain’t necessarily easy, let me tell you)

All told, I’m 18 to 20 pounds, depending on the day and depending on what I ate, lighter now than I was when I arrived in Florida. I don’t really like to put a number on it, though, because it doesn’t fucking matter. One of my good friends said she thinks I’ve lost more than that. I think it’s just that my body composition has changed a lot. I have calf muscles that I like now. My arms and legs have definition. Lifting big grocery bags or picking up overflowing laundry baskets isn’t as difficult anymore.

To be honest, I didn’t even really notice that I was losing weight until my clothes started to loosen. I decided sometime last year that I had to quit drinking as much if I wanted to achieve my fitness goals. I’d been doing Zumba for more than a year and saw subtle changes, but nothing like what I’d hoped to see. It wasn’t that I got super wasted all the time, but I had a beer with dinner most nights. On weekends, the plan always involved getting drinks. I just started to say no. That’s when it really started to come off.

When I started doing Zumba, the weight loss really was secondary to everything else. When I trained with Jake in college, losing weight was my main focus. Life has a funny way of teaching me things, like if I really want something, I shouldn’t obsess. It doesn’t mean stop working for it, but worrying constantly about weight loss and counting every little calorie just made me crazy.

It was only when I started to have fun with my workouts and when I started working so hard (at work and at dance fitness) that I only had time to eat what I needed, that I found success with weight loss. It requires a lifestyle change, to sound like literally every other person on earth who has done this.

If you’re reading this to find out how I decided to become a BANG Power Dance instructor, you must be thinking, “damn, when is she gonna get to the point?” But every single thing I’ve mentioned so far: needing a release from work, the wreck, the injuries, the trauma, the resulting insecurity, the dance background, the hooping, the time I spent with a personal trainer, the weight issues, learning how to eat right and the desire to live a healthier lifestyle; they all play a part. Every single time I dance in class, whether teaching or participating; it’s a victory dance. 

Almost two years after I started going to Kelly’s classes, she stepped up her game (and, ours) and brought in BANG Power Dance. It was something she had her eye on for quite a while. The dance parts of it are more hip hop-y than Zumba. The format incorporates hi-lo movement and plyometrics into routines. We wear weighted gloves and there’s boxing, which is a welcome release. Every class is structured in an interval format. Needless to say, it’s quite the workout.

Right before she got certified to teach BANG last fall, Kelly’s classes got moved out of the church and to GT Bray, the county’s recreation center. It’s the kind of place with shiny wood floors and a wall of mirrors in the group fitness room. Soon after we migrated there, I became one of those people with an actual gym bag (not a drawstring sack from my college bookstore, which I did use as a gym bag for quite a while) and found myself looking forward to classes after work. I especially loved BANG, which left me feeling strong, powerful and confident.

In May, Kelly announced that Amanda Strand, the creator of the BANG Power Dance format, would come to Bradenton to train any potential instructors. When she first announced it, I thought about it and decided against it. “I just like attending,” I told myself, and Kelly, when she asked if I was interested in becoming an instructor. “But I don’t know that I could teach.” I said this even after I helped Kelly, countless times, lead my favorite songs in her Zumba classes, when she would ask me to. I always had fun with it but couldn’t imagine being up there by myself. 

Then one night I was in Kelly’s class and I realized if I ever leave Bradenton, I won’t have BANG anymore. My heart dropped and I remember wracking my brain for what other kind of workout I would want to do. I’ve made so much progress, I thought. I’m not ready to go back. I won’t go back. I can’t go back.

“I could go back to lifting more often and doing cardio on the machines,” I thought weakly. “It’s doable, and it would help me maintain what I’ve achieved.” But I want more than doable. I want fun, dancing, excitement, accountability and some down-ass beats. I thought about how much I would miss the class atmosphere and the accountability. I realized if I didn’t train to be an instructor this time, I might never do it. So I jumped in.

It was scary because it meant putting myself out there. It still is, to be quite honest with you, and I’ve still got a lot of growing to do as an instructor. But it gives me something to put my energy toward besides work. It helps me refuel, so I can go back to work tomorrow, recharged and ready to tell stories and find the truth. Journalism is my calling, and at this point, I can’t see myself ever doing anything else. But I think if I want to keep loving it and answering the call, I can’t be a complete workaholic.

I never imagined dance fitness would be the final layer in my recovery from the wreck, especially eight years gone. For the last two years, I’ve spent time building a life in Bradenton made of things I love: Journalism and writing, dance fitness, good people, great food and the beach. Doing so has healed my soul.

I waited a long time to go totally public with this story; of my struggle dealing with the wreck and the injuries. I think a part of that is because it’s so personal to me, and a part of it is because it didn’t really have an ending yet. Eight years ago, lying in those scratchy hospital sheets, I surely didn’t expect the ending to be this. 

I also waited this long because of my career. Try as I might, I’ll never completely stop worrying about what my audience thinks of me. Not to mention the opinions of other journalists, many of whom I admire. But some of the most successful people I know or know of bared their secrets and past to the world, and are even more successful because of it.

So, now you know. If you knew me in high school or college and you can’t imagine me leading a dance fitness class, now you know how trauma can change a person, and for the better. If you work with me, now you know why I make it a priority to get my stuff done and get to class on time. If you come to my classes in the future, now you know why I look like a damn maniac up there leading you through the routines.

There’s that Winston Churchill quote: “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” Well, I disagree. I think if you’re going through hell, go somewhere else. My recommendation?

Find your paradise.