by Michele Rosenthal
When I first stepped into a ballroom dance class I was pushing forty years old, depressed to the point of despair, delirious with insomnia and feeling insane from symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know a soul in the class or a pattern in the dance and I didn’t have the right shoes. What I did have was a burning desire to escape the suffering of my mind.
Almost thirty years earlier a horrific childhood trauma hijacked my life, causing me to feel unrelenting anxiety, overwhelmed by memories and intense emotions, and fearful in every moment. Controlled by PTSD symptoms my life had withered like an unwatered plant. I was without a profession, relationship or meaningful purpose. I only left the house when necessary and rarely socialized. Recovery efforts had brought more fear and anguish than healing. I was quickly losing hope that I could survive the constant psychological pain when some small inner voice softly spoke: “You need to feel the opposite of all this pain.” Joy, the voice suggested. You need to feel joy.
In response I launched a quest to experience joy (no matter how briefly) at least once a day. I knew that I felt joyful when I danced, so I signed up for dance classes every night of the week. When I took a deep breath, straightened my slumping posture and walked into my first salsa class I had no idea that I was about to find exactly what I needed to deliver me out of the pain of the past and into a present and future that I love.
Learning To Be Present, Connect And Trust
From dissociation to isolation I’d perfected the art of living a life apart. The necessities of dance, however, immediately demanded that I release these PTSD coping mechanisms. Face to face, partnered with a stranger, I quickly learned that if I had any hope of coordinating how I heard the beat, correctly interpreted my partner’s lead and skillfully executed a move I had to stay present, plus connect to and trust myself, my partner, the music and the dance. In a jumble of missteps, apologies and the sinking sensation that I was irretrievably clumsy I miserably failed at all of this in my first class.
There was, however, a positive outcome: Despite the many embarrassing moments some part of me was having fun. Some part I had long ago forgotten existed actually loved and yearned and wanted more of the training to focus, the challenge to achieve and the glorious, joyful freedom that dance promised. This long-forgotten self wanted to transcend the herky-jerky PTSD lifestyle. She wanted to be wrapped in the flow of notes, instruments and creative patterns—and I loved her for it. By the end of class I was hooked.
At home I practiced patterns in the living room and on the pavement outside at night. I listened to salsa music incessantly trying to hear the beat and match it to steps. At last, I’d found a passion that lured my mind away from the past by promising something that felt wonderful in the present.
The Healing Power of Courage
Slowly, through hours of classes and practice my dancing improved. I learned from repetitive experience that I could trust my body to follow my mind and that my mind could stay present and create an organic flow of movement. I found a consistent dance partner with whom I felt comfortable to be myself. He was kind, accomplished and encouraging, which let me develop a safe space of experimentation. More than anything, I started allowing myself to get used to having a good time. I started sleeping more, crying less and waking up each morning looking forward to something for the first time in almost three decades. Soon, I heard myself laugh at mistakes in class and whoop at flawlessly executed patterns. The icy terrain of PTSD began to thaw and inside myself I found a verdant landscape of hope, belief and possibility that made me feel courageous. I returned to PTSD recovery with increased energy, engagement and determination. This time I succeeded.
By the time my fortieth birthday rolled around I was 100% free of PTSD symptoms. Throughout the final, difficult process of making peace with the past dance sustained me with a life-affirming connection to joy in the present. That connection—to life, myself, purpose and passion—helped me renegotiate a vision of myself. I transformed my survivor identity into a woman who is happy, healthy and giving back. Years have passed. Though I continue to change and grow one thing remains the same: Dancing continues to set my soul free. That life-affirming part of me now sits at the center of who I am. What a glorious guide she turned out to be.
Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, bestselling and award-nominated author, host of the radio program, Changing Direction, and founder of HealMyPTSD.com. The Washington Post calls her most recent book, Heal Your PTSD: Dynamic Strategies that Work “a cheerleading, you-can-do-it kind of book, with step-by-step lifestyle modifications.”
A former faculty member of the Clinical Development Institute for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, Michele is also a trauma survivor who struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for over twenty-five years before launching a successful “healing rampage.” Happily, Michele has been 100% free of PTSD symptoms for a very long time. When she’s not trying to help heal the world Michele can be found walking on the beach or dancing salsa.