Cynthia Toussaint is the co-founder of For Grace—an organization devoted to promoting better care and wellness for women in pain. She occasionally writes on her experiences for The National Pain Report.
In the midst of Vegas glitz, this woman in pain came “full circle” by wowing the crowd. This time with a cause.
When I was invited to panel at a pain advocacy event this month, I felt only dread. You see, the speaking engagement was in Las Vegas. Now, most people would click their heels and yelp a “yahoo!” for this gig, but the Strip has haunted me for 30 years as that was the last place I was truly happy and in my element.
When I was 23, the head-lining illusion act I performed in moved to the Las Vegas Flamingo – and I was living my dream. Twice a night, I danced before 2000 people and worked with fire, tigers, showgirls, skaters and exotic performers who were in the Guinness Book of World Records. If you love the stage—and I do–it doesn’t get better than that!
Problem was I was dealing with first stage CRPS (it would be 13 years before I’d get that diagnosis) and deep down I knew I was on borrowed time. No one could understand or explain my non-stop, burning leg pain sparked by a minor ballet injury. With time I was certain I had gangrene and my leg would be amputated.
Despite this, I lived and breathed to perform – and NOTHING was going to keep me off of that stage. Nothing that is till the pain mysteriously spread into my “good” leg and I could barely walk, let alone dance.
Leaving Vegas to return to my mother’s Bay Area home in 1984 broke my heart and soul. Indeed, I lost my life. Career, marriage and children were out. As the CRPS spread like wildfire, everyone, save my life partner John, ran for the hills and all the doctors said I was crazy. I became depressed, isolated, suicidal.
But a flicker of flame still burned in my belly. I was determined to help others avoid my fate by finding a new stage where I could tell my story. That’s why I re-invented myself and started For Grace where I continue to find metaphorical stages most everywhere. But Vegas wasn’t a stage I wanted to get back onto. Not from my wheelchair. Too many ghosts…
But I faced my fear because the work is too important. As soon as I stepped off the plane at McCarran, Vegas oddly felt like home. The familiar desert heat and jangling slot machines. As I was driven to the MGM Grand, the giant marquees trumpeting the headliners seemed to welcome me. Ironically, a 50-foot image of an old friend, David Copperfield, graced my hotel’s side.
After a tech rehearsal and dinner got me back to the room late evening, I never went to sleep. I stared at the pulsating lights of the Strip all night as memories came flooding in. What I had then and everything I’d lost. But as the sun peeked in from the East filling the desert vista with glorious pinks and oranges, something new came to mind. I thought about what I have now, what I’ve survived. Even what I’ve gained.
That morning, I was pumped and ready to take the stage. 2000 people were there to hear how folk survive the un-survivable: life-altering chronic pain. Speaking raw and real with two other pain advocates, we bravely delivered the experience without smoke and mirrors. No sleight-of-hand to candy coat the hardship and heartbreak. I heard more than a few gasps from the audience. Our cautionary tale connected powerfully, and when we finished, they gifted us with a standing ovation.
Afterward, John and I took a stroll in my wheelchair down memory lane – actually, the Vegas Strip – to the Flamingo. There, in front of the showroom where Olivia Newton-John was headlining, I called my mom. I called her most every night between shows back in the day. Through my tears I shared feelings of my return. She paused, then beamed, “Cynthia, you’ve come full circle.”
Women in pain, we all have a comeback story. My advice: face your worst fear and reclaim your stage. Take back those things that give you joy and stir passion. Make you feel alive.
For everything you’ve been through, for everything you’ve survived. I applaud you. You are a star.
To learn more about For Grace, visit their website For Grace
Follow Cynthia on Twitter @forgrace
Follow Ed Coghlan on Twitter @edcoghlan
Follow the National Pain Report @natpainreport.