When I first stepped into a ballroom dance class, I was pushing 40 years old, depressed to the point of despair, delirious with insomnia, and feeling insane from symptoms of post-traumatic 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 30 years earlier, a horrific childhood trauma hijacked my life. An allergic reaction to a medication turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. By the time I was released from my hospital room, I’d lost 100 percent of the first two layers of my skin. The terror, pain, and fear I’d experienced left me with unrelenting anxiety and memories and intense emotions I just couldn’t shake.
Controlled by PTSD symptoms, my life had withered. I was without a profession, relationship, or meaningful purpose. I left the house only 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 spoke: You need to feel the opposite of all this pain. 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 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 from the pain of the past and into a present and future that I love.
Learning to Be Present, Connect, and Trust
Thanks to PTSD, I’d perfected the art of living a life apart. Dance, however, demanded that I release these coping mechanisms.
Face to face, partnered with a stranger, I learned that if I had any hope of coordinating how I heard the beat, interpreted my partner’s lead, and skillfully executed a move, I had to stay present. I had to connect to and trust myself and my partner.
In a jumble of missteps, apologies, and clumsiness, 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.
This long-forgotten self wanted to transcend my herky-jerky PTSD-influenced life. 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.
Slowly, through hours of classes and practice, my dancing improved. I learned from repeated 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 enough 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 40th birthday rolled around I was 100 percent 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 sets 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.