A Dancer’s Journey with TBI

Four years ago my life changed immeasurably when I bumped my head getting into the car. Pleasures I’d taken for granted — spending an afternoon curled up with a good book, listening to music while at work, driving alone to visit friends a few hours away — became difficult if not impossible most days. Things I never noticed before — loud music in stores and restaurants, fluorescent lights flickering overhead in public buildings, people chattering on the sidelines at a dance — are now so intrusive I often have to leave rather than endure the discomfort they create.

I‘ve been a dancer since the late ’80s when I was invited to an evening of Scottish Country dancing. I fell in love with the music, especially the strathspeys, and was soon spending my weekends at dance events, my weeknights at nearby classes, and my summer vacations at week-long schools where I honed my skills and built solid friendships with dancers from around the globe. My life was filled with the joy of moving efficiently to that glorious music. I had discovered a welcoming community that instilled in me an abiding confidence and encouraged me to expand my boundaries and release my fears.

Within a few years I was teaching a weekly class in my home city and driving hundreds of miles to attend courses and obtain my teaching certification. Not content with one form of dance, I became equally involved in English Country, Irish Set, Vintage Ballroom, and occasionally, American Contra Dance. Life was busy and fulfilling.

Most of that came to a screeching halt the night I bumped my head. I remember saying to a colleague, “Don’t worry, it’s just a concussion,” and thinking that within a few weeks my life would return to normal. It did not. Every head injury or TBI (traumatic brain injury) is unique. One neurologist described it as if I’d bumped my electrical panel slightly askew and now every circuit had to find a new connection.

In the early days I slept deeply and dreamlessly. My inner voice was silent. I couldn’t walk without feeling like the floor was roiling beneath my feet. If I turned my head to look at something, I’d be engulfed in waves of nausea. Having literally lost my sense of where my body was in space, I grew fearful of re-injuring myself and was constantly off balance. Perpetual dizziness and migraines filled my days.

All sound — the babble of voices in the office, the car radio, the dance music I loved — was amplified into physical blows. My head felt full of cotton wool. Emotions raced and, constantly stressed, I responded angrily to situations that would not have bothered me before. Despite these changes, I appeared the same on the outside. Friends and family couldn’t understand why it was taking me so long to get better.

I returned to work within a few days. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have taken a medical leave of absence. The stress and responsibility of my job likely compounded the ongoing vestibular issues and slowed my recovery. I also quickly returned to teaching dance, if not dancing.

Some nights the sounds and visuals of a dance class were difficult. Other nights I seemed well on the road to full recovery and could even participate by partnering a new dancer. That’s the funny thing about recovering from a head injury — you can’t predict healing and you can’t rush it either. Just when you feel great, you push yourself a little too far and then suffer through with a day, a week, a month of setback.

Having any injury can feel very isolating. A head trauma, however, is unlike any other injury I’ve experienced. When you pop a calf muscle or tear a knee meniscus, there are therapists and surgeons who can put you right again and even, with your willing cooperation, make you better than before. I’ve been blessed to have a wonderful sports physician as my primary doctor. He’s sent me to practitioners on the cutting edge of treatment, and they’ve given me a better understanding of life before and after such traumas.

With my head injury, it’s been more complicated. Time is the great healer, I guess, and I’ve learned that you can’t always force recovery with action. Sometimes you have to relax, meditate, be calm, breathe.

It’s hard, too, to remain a part of your dance community when attending a dance means a return to dizziness and headache. You have the pleasure of seeing friends, but they don’t understand why you’re not better. You look the same to them although you may have added a few pounds due to forced inactivity.

Often it’s easier to stay at home than to beg a ride because you can’t drive without double vision or a headache. Sometimes it’s not worth watching when you’d rather be dancing. Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t give the same sense of connection as twirling down the line with a partner and flying through space on a wave of music. Because of all this, I’ve stopped attending most dance workshops and weekends unless I’m an organizer or teacher.

Gradually, I’ve been able to return to English dancing with real pleasure. I’ve done a limited amount of Scottish Country Dance and Irish Sets, as well. I still can’t tolerate the pivots and swings of Vintage and Contra Dance.

My optimistic soul hopes for the day when I can dance with abandon once again. My darker side worries that I may have to choose to put that dream away. Just last Sunday, I had a night when the lights and sounds and chatter and motion were more than I could handle. Rather than smiling so that my partners would think everything was fine, I chose to leave early. It was a difficult decision.

Sometimes, in the business of living daily life, I forget to honor my head injury. I pay for such forgetfulness with ringing ears, overwhelming exhaustion, and a disconnected dizziness that lasts for weeks. My doctors tell me I am progressing and to simply do what I can to return to my former activity levels. They encourage me but do not feel the loss as I do. At the moment, I’m able to dance a few dances and enjoy the music from the sidelines and that keeps me coming back. I fear that sometime in the future that might not be true.

Dancing Well Director and dance leader Deborah Denenfeld has done so much good bringing the world of dance to men and women who have experienced injuries far worse than mine. Surely, having taken the leap of faith to come to one of the dance sessions, these men and women find the confidence and acceptance I did as a novice dancer. An hour’s respite from their pain and fear and isolation is true balm. Dancing Well gives them a safe place to be who they are now without judgment about who they used to be. While there’s no magic pill to cure a head trauma, this gift of joy is no small thing.

I don’t often talk to people about my journey — my struggle — with TBI. But I approached Deborah after a blissful session of advanced English Country Dancing at Berea’s Christmas Country Dance School. It was a day I was feeling great and able to dance without problem. There were changes in the room and class, however, that would have made me more comfortable. Subtle things to do with lighting and noise.

Deborah had just spoken the night before about her work, and I thought perhaps she would be interested in the suggestions of an experienced dancer living with a head injury. We ended up having several such conversations that year and subsequently have kept in touch about her work and my progress. There are few dance leaders who comprehend the challenges of TBI.

My father phones regularly to ask, “How is your head, are you better now?” He asks as if I was recovering from a cold — convinced that his only daughter will soon be back to normal. How do I answer? I could be angry and bitter and depressed for I’ve lost much that I love in life. The reality is I will never be as I was before the moment I hit my head. On bad days that can be overwhelming, but most days I dance, cherishing the pleasures of it. Generally, when I hear my dad’s “Are you better now?” once again, I smile and say, “Well... I’m better than this time last year.”

—Laura Russell