By Cynthia Toussaint.
After 35 years of high-impact chronic pain and fatigue, I’m still often convinced I’ll never come to terms with the havoc it’s wrought on my life. But last week I had a major glimpse into the possibility of acceptance and healing.
On Friday, I was in the middle of my heavenly morning swim when I noticed a refined, sophisticated gentleman in the “walking” lane. From his body placement and movement, I immediately knew he was a high-level dancer.
I moseyed on over and introduced myself, telling Shane that I was a dancer who wanted to meet a kindred spirit. He lit up, and we got into a lengthy conversation about the dance world. Shane was intrigued and saddened by my story. He told me I looked great (this means a lot from another dancer!) and he was duly impressed that I swim so much.
We talked about Shane’s long career as a dancer and how much he now loves teaching the art at a nearby prestigious school. With tears welling, he shared that his wife recently suggested he retire, but that would mean “I’d lose my identity.” This forged an immediate connection, and I advised him to never retire. I shared that when I was forced to quit dancing that huge hole left me utterly lost.
After twenty more laps, Shane quietly commented that he’d also taught dance at UC Irvine, the school I’d told him I sustained the ballet injury that triggered my CRPS in 1982. Both stunned and excited I immediately asked him if he knew Raymond Jackson, the teacher whose class I was injured in. Shane knew Ray and everyone from my Irvine dance days. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. You see, Ray was my favorite ballet teacher (an actor, too, just like me!) - and he had great hopes for my career. I never got in touch with Ray after CRPS took hold because I thought it would be too painful for me and I was concerned that even though it was an accident, the guilt might greatly burden him.
A lot of healing happened for me Friday morning at the pool. Thinking back, it’s because I’ve never truly considered my life valid since losing my greatest passions and identity. I don’t want to just be a tragedy in other people’s eyes. I don’t want people I’ve worked with and respected in my pre-illness life to pity me.
Meeting Shane opened a window of self-discovery. I now see that just because I had to stop performing and appropriately moved on to a different path, my life is no less valid than it would have been. I’m even beginning to see that I’m not just a too-sad-for-words story. Triumph has a few chapters too.
When we got out of the pool and headed toward the dressing rooms, I was alarmed by Shane’s movement. I commented, “your neck is really stiff and hurting.” This kind, gorgeous man confided with a sad laugh, “I fell off of a cliff and broke my neck five years ago.” With an I-get-it expression, we embraced – and only let go when I could no longer stand.
We carry on – or we don’t. The first path is unspeakably painful and takes super-human strength. There are a million reasons to give up, to quit outright. Ultimately we choose the hero’s journey. We wish our lives were easy, but they never will be now. We wish we could have happiness, but accept moments of joy and meaning instead.
Chance meetings, like the one I had, give me new insight and hope. Let’s keep ourselves open to the possibility of small miracles that forge us on.
Cynthia Toussaint is founder of For Grace, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that works on issues facing women in pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.