It’s May 28th 2004 and I’m warming up behind the curtains of the main stage of the Lille Opera House. The thousand-seater auditorium is filling up rapidly. I’m twenty-two years old and I’m about to dance professionally for the first time. I’m totally inexperienced but somehow I’ve managed to land this job working with this world-renowned company, and I’ve been entrusted with a solo. My body is vibrating with excitement, and fear. And then before I know it the curtains rise and the show unfolds; then the audience is clapping and exhausted, we are bowing. I’ve come out unscathed – I’ve pulled it off. This marks the beginning of a thrilling ten years: profound and transformative learning, exhilarating successes followed by some deep disappointments, travels far and wide. At times I get trapped in jobs that don’t challenge me; but mostly I am soaring, inspired, at home.
A decade on and I’m lying flat out on the front room rug of my Bristol flat, gently rocking from side to side as I attempt to relieve the terrifying, breath-stopping pain tearing across my back. The annular tears detected on the MRI scan have had ample time to heal and yet there I remain, in baffling pain, unable to move on or function in the world; trapped in a debilitating somatic straight jacket. Increasingly, my pain is adhering to a mysterious logic of her own: a crushing burn deep inside my spine one day, stabbing knives across my hips the next, then a deafening sting, or a raging hum…surprisingly absent one day, terrifyingly present the next.
As I lie there passing the days, in hiding from the world, its trashed dreams and disappointments, I chance upon David Rakoff’s Stiff as a Board, Light as a Feather. Filmed three months before his death in August 2012, the nerves that once linked his arm to his torso have been severed to stop the excruciating pain caused by a tenacious sarcoma lodged behind his collar bone, and his limp arm is kept in place by his hand tucked deep inside his trouser pocket. Alone on stage, he talks about illness, and pain, the challenges of grating cheese, and taking dance class as a young man in New York. And then as he makes to exit the stage, he stops in his tracks and he dances. An exquisite, deeply moving dance. A dance full of joy and sadness, and possibility. And as I watch him I tell myself: you can do this. You can still dance. Perhaps not in the gravity-defying, risk-taking way you once had the privilege to. But still, you can try.
So with great care – and fear – I began – barely noticeably – to dance – again. I danced lying on the floor, and I danced with words on the page, allowing the language to do the dancing I couldn’t – or didn’t dare to – and then bits of my body danced: my hands, my ankles, my eyes. I danced what I could. I leapt in my daydreams and I soared magnificently in my dreams, running freer and faster than I ever had in my waking life. And then the morning light gushing through the blinds would brutally remind me of what I had lost. The enormity of it.
Most of us will live long enough to experience a decline in our ability. We will have time to prepare, to accept and adapt. My decline was violent and sudden and I experienced the loss of a huge part of my abilities as a biographical disruption* of tremendous proportions: it’s not only my physical abilities that have dramatically diminished but also my ability to participate, to be in and with. To go from enjoying great physical freedom to needing help with the simplest of tasks in the space of a few months, for no apparent reason, and with no sign of improvement, has been a deeply terrifying, isolating and destabilising shift.
So my attempt at dancing again – hesitant, stiff, unassured – started to allow me to begin to accept and surrender to this new body in order to make meaning of this baffling and debilitating condition. And to begin to grieve. To grieve a body that was once, not so long ago, so fluid, so graceful, so remarkable and exquisite in its abilities.
As I go through this journey of discovery and improvements, setbacks and further improvements, I am discovering that I am far from alone: the British Pain Society estimates that almost ten million Britons suffer pain almost daily. That’s almost one in every seven of us. Despite significant advances in the field of pain research over the past twenty years, my experience has shown me that the complexities of pain mechanisms remain poorly understood and treatments inadequate, leaving me and an invisible army of patients at a complete loss as to how to move on from the pain state we find ourselves trapped in.
As I reconfigure myself anew, I am finding solace in the idea that I am perhaps inhabiting a sort of dual or split body**: an archival body that is full of my experience and the somatic knowledge I acquired over the years, and a biological body I inhabit in the present, with its varying and complex pain symptoms. When I was pain-free and well, I felt that both of these bodies made one, or at least operated in harmony with each other. However when my biological body entered a negative loop of persistent pain and prematurely lost much of its ability, my rich archival body was not destroyed instantaneously: the neurological pathways that made being a dancer possible survived the disruption. So despite my biological body’s inability to execute feats of times past, another part of me still knows – really knows – what it feels like to dance fearlessly and to throw myself blindly into the air not too sure where or how I might land. As such, my internal daily experience is that of inhabiting two bodies that must now co-exist in screeching discord.
I am a few years into my chronic pain existence. I’ve gone through crashing lows, and come out the other side with renewed hope. My diagnosis stands at ‘non-specific low back pain’. After a recent intensely painful episode, I am renewing my commitment to practicing techniques that I feel might help reduce what I now understand to be a hypersensitivity to pain, or at least dampen the dread and anguish my itinerant pain symptoms can still provoke. Perhaps I am naïve but through trial and error, commitment and dedication, I believe that I can get better
Hardy Animal is part of that process: it is a space for me to dance and stay alive despite the body’s shout to be still. It emerged as I began to realise that my archival body still haunted my present biological body and that the chasm between these bodies afforded me a great creative potential. Hardy Animal is an attempt to make meaning from staring into this abyss
Here’s to hoping…
* term coined by sociologist Michael Bury.
** proposed by philosopher Havi Carel in her book Illness.
Hardy Animal fine-print bookwork is available for purchase and contains the full script of the show, two specially commissioned texts by Nick Walker and James Stenhouse, and contains designs aplenty. Visit Laura’s website for more information about the bookwork, the show, and Laura.