Dreams And Denial

Dreams And Denial

Around this time last year, I wrote a post about how my health has got in the way of having dreams and being ambitious, and how I’m more aware of my limitations than of my aspirations. My goal was to try and make 2017 a year of remembering how to dream again, how to be ambitious even when it seems unlikely.

It’s hard to assess the extent to which I’ve succeeded at that goal.

Right now, I am painfully aware of my limitations. I injured my knee earlier in December, and so my plan to do lots of dance practice during the holiday has been completely scuppered — I can’t even walk far without it hurting. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve also been thinking about the necessity of coming to terms with the fact that chronic pain is chronic. I’ve tried to maintain some optimism in recent years, but it’s come in the form of denial, the this too shall pass mantra. Accepting that it won’t pass and it might never get any better makes it a lot harder to be optimistic, but that’s what I have to do, realistically.

It’s hard to have dreams, because my body might not let me pursue them. You can be as motivated and hardworking as you want: it’s meaningless if you’re physically incapable of doing something.

Working out is admirable, but sometimes it’s just not an option.

I don’t know how people get past the rage and despair stage of chronic illness and disability. I don’t know how to make peace with it so that I’m not constantly aware of everything I feel has been taken from me: how to accept what I can do, instead of dwell on all the dreams that I’ll never be able to fulfil. Nor do I know how to shake the feeling that I deserve the chance to fulfil them, because truth be told, there are thousands of people who might dream of being a dancer who can’t because of money, or circumstance, or — like me — health and physical limitations. No one’s entitled to a shot at their dreams. It sucks, but it’s not inherently unfair not to get one.

So I’m still working on being optimistic without being in denial. I’ve got myself into a toxic, ableist mindset of believing I can overcome this if I just try hard enough — that if I fail, it must be because of some inherent personal flaw, and not because it’s just not possible. I want to believe I can ‘overcome’ my health problems in the sense of not letting them stop me living my best life, but that doesn’t mean I can live the same life that an able-bodied person could in my place, and finding that balance is tricky.

So in some ways, I’m no further on than I was last year.

But at the same time, the only reason this is necessary is because I remembered how to be ambitious again, and with it came a whole lot of stubborn denial. Taking up Irish dance again was a reminder of what it’s like to dream. Mere weeks after resuming classes I was dreaming about where it could take me. Imposssible, ridiculous dreams about studying it professionally, or going to Worlds, or taking part in intensive summer schools that would probably destroy my knees completely — they all kept sneaking up on me. Reminding me what it was like to still believe I could do anything.

Action shot from December 2017 (photo by Sophie Bell)

I fixated on Irish dance as a way of dreaming because it was something that could be measured, I guess. Unlike writing, where progress can be a lot more nebulous (although, hey, it would be great if I could eventually force myself to query and try and find an agent), it had tangible goals: learn this dance; master that step; compete at that feis; get to that level.

And… it helped. I did more exercise this summer than I’ve done in, well, years. I was voluntarily doing cardio. I lost weight, I gained muscle, I felt better about myself. Then I went back to uni and some of that went down the pan, but I was still doing something, and I was teaching dance — which honestly was one of the most rewarding parts of this term, even when the rest felt endless and pointless.

The best part was that every physio I’ve seen in years has told me I need to do exercise to help my hypermobility, so I could believe that this was not denial of my health problems, it was actually treatment. I was making myself better, and achieving something.

And then I injured my knee again. And pulled a muscle. The muscle’s mostly healed, but the knee’s still painful and swells up every time I do any exercise, and I have no idea what’s wrong with it except that this knee has been a problem since I was ten years old so it’s probably always going to have issues.

These are not insurmountable problems. Dancers injure themselves all the time, even if they don’t have chronic joint problems. I shouldn’t let an injury convince me this is pointless.

But… it’s a reminder that I’ll never be in control of my body. And no matter how lofty my dreams might be, how detailed the plans I make, a simple thing like a subluxed kneecap can undermine the whole thing and bring it crashing down. I planned to learn three dances while home for Christmas. I made it through one and a half before being forced to stop completely. There is absolutely nothing I can do about that except wait for the knee to get better and then pick up the pieces.

And I’d literally JUST bought new shoes.

I guess it was just a shock to realise that, just when I thought I could rely on my body again… I can’t. I probably never will be able to. For the first time in years, I’d begun to feel physically strong again, and then my leg gave way beneath me and reminded me that it doesn’t work out like that. Because of how my joints are, I’m prone to injury, even when doing simple things that wouldn’t hurt others. That’s just how it is, and how it always has been, and most likely how it always will be. Somehow I forgot that.

I let motivation turn into denial. I met optimism turn into stubbornness. I probably ignored the warning signs (though it’s really hard to tell if you’re injured when your joints literally always hurt).

So I end 2017 the way I ended 2016: not really sure how to make plans, when I have no idea what my body will be doing in a week, a month, a year. Whether I’ll be better or worse. Whether I’ll be dancing or stuck in bed. Trying to find a balance between accepting my lot and giving up, because they’re not the same thing. Perhaps I should come up with a mantra: dreams without denial.

And I still haven’t made any progress towards a writing career. Maybe the one plan and promise I will make for 2018 is that this year, I’m finally going to query, and I’m going to stick with it until I find an agent, instead of giving up after sending out one or two emails to go back to editing again. But I’m going to need you all to hold me to that.

What plans are you making for 2018, and what dreams have you had to let go of in 2017?

4 thoughts on “Dreams And Denial

  1. When I look back to a year ago it feels like I am saying the right words, but with less understanding to now. My depression and anxiety in the summer took me by surprise. I didn’t see it coming, yet as soon as the darkness arrived I recognised it immediately. Since then I do feel better, but I also feel a lot more tentative and careful about looking too far ahead. It’s difficult to explain, but I don’t want to miss the warning signs again, so am trying to train myself to live in the present more and go with the flow. I am getting better at this, but am no-where near where I want to be, so my 2018 intentions start with opportunities to be creative and take time out. I have no answers or advice about your disability, but as an observer to my mum who has always had bad sight, but became blind later in life, I think the fact that she remembers what it was like before, when she had some sight, makes it incredibly difficult to deal with. Yes she lives day to day independently and has adapted to aids etc to help her, but there are times like this morning, when describing the view at he park left her saying, ‘I wish I could see.’ I wish you every luck in 2018 with your writing and hope you still spend time dreaming, even if the focus shifts a little. Best of wishes, Lorraine

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes — I think remembering and comparing to the ‘before’ is the hardest part. I find myself failing to live up to my own expectations, not because I’m comparing myself to people around me, but because I’m comparing myself to who I used to be and what I used to be capable of. (And I was a massive overachiever when I was like fifteen, so it’s hard to live up to that.)

      I can relate to struggling with living in the present / going with the flow. I always used to be an extensive planner because if I don’t plan everything, I’m chronically disorganised and get anxious, but it’s impossible to plan when you have no idea what’s coming. Sigh. I hope you manage to find a balance between achieving things you’d like to achieve, and knowing how to relax and look after yourself!

  2. I’m in my 60s now, but I knew at a very young age there were many things I’d be unable to do, though at the time I did not understand the reasons (due to lack of decent medical care at that time and place.) I have “structural” problems – one leg crooked, one leg turned to the side to compensate; scoliosis; misaligned vertebrae. I’ve had a headache since 1971 which never went away. By the time I was 50 I had end stage arthritis in both feet and my left ankle. My podiatrist told me because of my bone structure I should never have done any high impact exercise ever in my life.

    I’ve avoided high impact exercise as much as possible my entire life as I understood that it was dangerous to do – without knowing the exact reasons until I was much older.

    I came to an understanding in my early 20s as to what I was able to do and what I was not able to do. I made a vow to “collect experiences” at a young age; to do the things I could without injuring myself; to visit places; to travel; to write and make art. I made a vow to do all of these things as soon as I could, so that when I reached a point in my life where walking would be difficult, as it is now, I would have a lot to look back on and remember. I made a vow to cultivate as many creative activities as I could that I would be able to continue doing despite lack of mobility.

    I get depressed a lot, but that’s part of my heritage, and it’s not primarily associated with my disability. My mother was physically abled but very depressed. I’m still doing some of the things I want to do, and I don’t have much regret for the dreams I had to give up.

    So my advice is, do all the things you love to the best of your ability and avoid the things that will harm you, that will take away your physical abilities sooner than is necessary. Decide what you most want to spend your physical abilities on; the things you can see yourself doing 10, 20, 30+ years from now and concentrate on avoiding physical activities that will damage you and get in the way of that goal.

    All my best!

    1. Oh gods, a headache since 1971? And I thought my month-long headaches were bad. I have no idea how you’ve stayed sane, tbh.

      But thanks for your comment. It sounds like good advice. Of course, actually following it is easier said than done, especially as it sometimes difficult to tell what will cause harm and what’s merely a bit challenging, but I’ll do my best!

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