10 July 2015

[forgiveness friday] the power of letting go

The other day, I had lunch with a lady in my networking group. She asked me all about that fateful day, 7 July, 2003, when life changed forever for me and wanted to know exactly what had happened.

At a certain point, I explained to her how the stroke had actually become both a blessing and a curse. If I had the chance to live my 19th year over again, with or without the stroke, I find myself always saying, “I would love to not have ever had the experience -- but, only if I could retain the lessons I learned from it.”

The caveat is this interesting thing about human nature. I’m not sure if such a thing is possible, to live as though it never happened, yet fully keep the wisdom gleaned from that experience with us. I told her that after each strokiversary, I find myself farther from the pain of being in the hospital or of being almost completely dependent on others for basic needs.

Today I forget, as I buckle myself into my trendy brown-and-gold sandals, what it was like having to secure my leg into a custom-made AFO every day, which meant I had to wear gym shoes every single damn day of my life. (As cute as sneakers can be, they are still ultimately more utilitarian  than they are fashionable/stylistically congruent with my everyday look.)

Or more seriously, each day I spend without the alarming experience of suddenly having to surrender all power and personal agency to a full-body (or even partial) seizure, I forget. I take for granted a seizure-less day, since this is now what’s “normal” for me.

What the lady said in response was lovely. She replied, “I think that’s by design. If every mother in the world remembered every day the pain of childbirth she could never focus on the all-encompassing love she has for her children.”

Bam. There it was.

There is a grand design to our tendency to let go. We all shed the layers of who we once were in order to become who we will be -- let go of the stories of the past in order to transform. Because as long as we carry that baggage with us, we can’t move forward as lightly, as gracefully as we could without it.

Would you be able to focus on the all-encompassing love for who you are today if you kept remembering the stories of your past pain?

To our healing,

07 July 2015

12 years + counting

Every year, my “strokiversary” rolls around as though it were a ninja -- swiftly, quietly. Behind the scenes.

The one exception to this is a couple of years ago when I anticipated the big one-oh and signed up for The Color Run: I was happy to hear that the event was open to walkers as well as runners, and I rented a GoPro and strapped it onto Anthony’s forehead so I could document the experience.

The good news is I’ve recently succeeded in reaching a self-imposed consistency challenge goal: releasing weekly Style Tip Tuesday videos for my jewelry biz -- which means I’ve somewhat undergone a crash course in video editing. So I’m working on a video for you in honor of my strokiversary, and I would love to complete it within seven days (seven days within 7/7!). [Note: I managed to hunt down the footage, but editing together so much will be a huge undertaking, so it will take quite a bit longer. Stay tuned.]

I have a confession to make. In 2008, I started my memoir. When I began this blog two years later, I really wanted to offer a resource for survivor-thrivers where they could look for ideas and therapies, and most importantly, find community to lift each other’s spirits up in a way only other survivors can.

But in order to do so, I had to make myself more visible. So that the Rehab Revolution movement could truly take off and reach the people who needed it most, I had to become seen. (I’m going to explore the concept of “being seen” in more detail within the next week.) I’m sure any stroke survivor reading my words right now can relate to the fears that often accompany physically being seen by the world -- as well as emotionally -- and it’s important not to forget that I’m right there beside you.

Some of you reading these words right now may have just had a stroke a month ago, or a year ago, or perhaps more time ago, or less. I simultaneously want you to know that a) you’re not alone in your experience, and b) now that it’s been 12 years, I’ve had a lot of time and opportunity to give me the “street cred” to guide you along the way. I’m living the reality of surviving from a debilitating stroke that ground my life to a screeching halt at the age of 19, and because I know I’m bigger than some brain injury, and because I’m blessed with an expressive voice, I’m willing to hold myself up to a new standard, and to help advocate for those who come after me.

This new standard means I’d like to step up in a greater way so I can serve you. I want to inspire those who experience the total upheaval and intensity of a stroke so that they know that life doesn’t end there. Those who came before me (like Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor) have given me the same gift, and I want to provide that for those who came beside me, and those of you who will come after me.

Here’s a surprise for you. I’ve hinted at this on my Facebook page -- so if you were anxious to find out what’s coming, here’s the Official Announcement:

I’m not super techy, so I don’t know how long it will take me to transfer everything over to the new address, but I’m hiring some people who know what they’re doing.

The new website should be under construction for a little bit, but in the meantime, you can still contact me on the Facebook page (I’m changing the name on there, but the address will stay the same) or e-mail me at revolution.rehab@gmail.com. (That address will remain dedicated to my oldest, loyalest readers.) I’m not super certain whether my original content will remain at this URL, though. (I’ll make sure to get the right team of people to get the answers to any of your questions.)

I’m working diligently to come up with a plan for how I can better serve you in the near, near future -- there are a lot of ideas, and I’m bubbling over in excitement. You can expect a multimedia experience, from a stronger social media presence, to regular blog content, to videos, to podcasts, livestreams, and more!

Tomorrow I begin a six-week blog challenge, so you’ll definitely see much more of me very, very soon. Looks like year 12 is a pivotal one for me! I’m declaring a #StrokiversaryWeek, so we can explore the mixed emotions, feelings, memories, and experiences that often come together on this date.

What do you usually do on your strokiversary? Leave it in a comment!

To our healing,

05 June 2015

forgiveness friday: are you playing the victim?

I remember one day after I’d been discharged from the hospital, back when AIM was still widely popular, a girl I’d known from far away started chatting with me again after a longish hiatus.

When asked how she was, she launched into a story about how she’d recently been to the hospital. I no longer remember why, but it was for something like a broken arm. She told me about how she had been sent to the hospital and had to see some doctors.

Since it had not been long since my stroke, and we hadn’t spoken since beforehand, it was difficult for me to respond.

Now, in retrospect, I completely believe in the value of validating people’s feelings and never comparing people’s pain, but when I was 19, I was 19, and a completely different person to who I am today.

It was difficult for me to validate what felt to me like a sob story. “I even had to get an MRI!” she exclaimed. It felt to me the same way it felt when I sensed people fishing for compliments.

I didn’t respond with the shock and horror I imagined she wanted me to. It felt to me like I had the ultimate Trump card in my pocket, a shiny one with a brain on it that said “STROKE” across it in big red letters. Quit your whining, I thought. I was annoyed at the conversation. It actually pissed me off a little that this girl -- who did she think she was? -- had stepped up to the podium first to cry victim. One day in the hospital with one MRI scan did not an impressive anecdote make, at least for me on that day.

It wasn’t that I was shouting from the rooftops about my brain injury; it was that I wasn’t a fan of people complaining about things I only wished I could have traded the stroke for. (To this day, I’ve never broken a bone -- unless having the bone flap in my skull removed for a month counts, but I don’t think it does -- but given the choice, I’d happily deal with a once-broken arm over a stroke any day.)

Too much homework? Difficult exams next week? Sign me up. Anything to entertain my freshly healing mind as I spent days at home with my father, filling them with numbing occupational therapy exercises and Disney movies I’d seen millions of times before. I would have given almost anything to see my friends at school again rather than spending all my days with other people with neurological trauma.

Anyway, let’s fast forward to today. I told that backstory so you know where I came from. If you were, or are currently, in that place, I encourage you to stop.

I don’t mean stop it forever. I’ll explain.
Every feeling we experience is an emotion. Emotions, by virtue of what they are, are meant to be in motion -- which means they can be inspired by something, experienced, and then they leave.

At least, they’re supposed to leave.

You do have to process them, first. Not every single emotion needs to be expressed in its raw form -- if they were, none of us would ever evolve from temper tantrums or crying fits. Something that took me a long time to learn was how to control my emotions, rather than let them control me, in order to operate in a society with other human beings.

While emotions don’t need to be expressed in their purest form (think, loudly screaming at every person you’re mad at), they do need to be expressed in a healthy way. (Perhaps when you feel that anger you go into a room and scream into a pillow.) When they’re not healthfully expressed, they find sneaky ways to do so: manifesting in passive-aggressive behaviors, turning an otherwise pleasant relationship into a strained one that no longer feels good, or creation of illness or general unease in the body.

That said, we all feel like victims sometimes:

Yes, it was shitty what that coworker/customer said to you in front of your boss. 

NO WAY. Your girlfriend should not have said that to you right then. How dare she not notice all your efforts?

OMG, I can’t believe your family member stole from you. What a betrayal!

On and on it goes. Here’s one that sucks a lot:

Why me? Why did I have a stroke at 19 years old? I don’t deserve this; it’s so unfair.

You could go infinitely, listing all the reasons why something this traumatic should not have happened to you.

I’m not going to suggest spiritual bypass and say something lame like, “Just turn it around. The stroke happened for you, not to you.” (We can talk about this another time.) There are few things more annoying than spiritual snobbery.

What I will suggest is, when you’re feeling like the stroke sucks, that you wish your damn left hand would just work already, or like your family simply doesn’t understand you, feel it. Give yourself permission to wallow in victimhood, for the moment.

Sometimes it can feel refreshing -- because I spend so much time every day pretending like I’m as physically capable as anyone else. For just this moment, I can take off that mask and breathe what is the truth for me right now. It stinks that I can’t wear the shoes I want to wear today because they’ll make me walk too slow, or it’s too much strain on my right knee, which overcompensates for the weakness on my left side.

It does suck.

But who promised us a fair lot in life, anyway? Isn’t the nature of, well, nature, survival of the fittest? Why is it that if you’re reading these words right now, chances are high you’re living in the privileged 1% of the entire world? Warren Buffet refers to this as “winning the ovarian lottery.” 

The fact is, there is always something to complain about -- but there are always, always things to be thankful for to keep things in perspective.

This isn’t a call for spiritual bypass. This is a reminder that victimhood is a pitiful emotion that doesn’t feel very fun -- it’s completely disempowering and unattractive even to those who want to moan with you -- so it needs to pass. Don’t let it become the story that defines you.

Process it. Then let it go.

And please, for the love of all things good, be responsible for your own energy. Don’t dump it on anyone who’s willing to listen. (I speak from experience.) It gets old, really, really fast.

(Would you rather be the person who happened to have a stroke at 19 -- gosh, that’s unbelievable! Look at her now! -- or would you rather be that poor girl who had a stroke at 19 and it followed her wherever she went?)

That’s what I thought.

To our healing,

24 February 2015

what happened to my book?

fleur de lisConfession: I rarely ever do this, but I am reposting this article from my other blog because it took me forever to produce. I started writing this post today originally with a completely different intention. I'm familiar with the practice of letting my words carry me somewhere I never thought I'd go in the moment -- welcome to writing and the art of conversation -- so I surrendered to it. I promise this post has a point, so please be patient and let it unfold. 

After my junior year in Florence, I decided to change my major to Italian (that way, the culture classes I’d taken wouldn’t have been for nothing -- this was an attempt to speed my degree along, though we obviously know that didn’t work). And then I declared myself pre-med, which was ironic considering the fact that my dad had been trying to coerce me into becoming an MD since I was six and I was always all, “I wanna be an artist! An author! A teacher!” 

No. This time, I wanted to become a doctor because I’d been overcome with gratitude for the doctors I’d had at the University of Chicago Hospitals, who had saved my life and my spirit when I’d been hospitalized for the stroke. The staff I met there was so genuinely heart-centered, so beautiful in their service that I loved them all and thought of them often. I felt that if I could touch a single person in my life in the way they had touched mine, it would make my time on Earth worthwhile.

Anyway, I toiled about being an Italian major and pre-med, not knowing if that was going to be okay. So naturally, I added creative writing to the mix.

I’d been writing since I was 10. The first “book” I ever wrote (and I’d do nearly anything to find my one and only first edition copy!) was, for lack of a better term, fan fiction. My favorite book growing up was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, to which I wrote my own sequel . . . illustrated -- wait for it -- in the style of original Matilda illustrator Quentin Blake. (Seriously, if I ever find it, I will have it coated in something to preserve it forever.)

from http://www.the-platform.org.uk
from http://www.the-platform.org.uk -- man, this makes me nostalgic!
 And ever since, I’d written story after story. It was a self-imposed discipline. My first completed original work was a novel called All That and A Cup of Milk, which I wrote at 16 and “self-published” in a binder covered in magazine cutouts of models I’d used as representations of my characters. (I was 16. ’Nuff said.) 

This was my bliss. I used to come home every day after school, and like clockwork, would type away at the computer (you think I type fast now with my one superhand! I believe I even have video footage of me writing at the giant box that was my old-school desktop back in the day) working away at my stories. But . . . 

To this day, I haven’t completed another book. Something anti-magical occurred during undergrad. My writing degree required what I fondly call half an English major’s worth of literature classes. (Ironically, I’d spent a few years as a kid believing I wanted to become an English teacher. HA!) When I first learned how to read as a child, all I did was read. I used to go to the bathroom reading. I recently dragged myself to the eye doctor -- one of my least favorite things to do -- because I carry a hefty -10.5 contact lens prescription. This was the first year the eye doc had ever told me one of my eyes had stabilized and not gotten worse since my last visit. 

 Anyway. I’ve been nearsighted since I was six, and I’m sure all the 100,000s of hours I’ve spent with my little nose in a book was a heavy contributor. 

 When I was a creative writing major, I pretty much quit reading for pleasure. (The U of I might revoke my hard-earned degree for this.) I would come home from the school bookstores at the beginning of each semester with a stack of books as tall and thick as I was.

Meanwhile, all my scientist and numbersy friends/roommates would be all, “Why don’t you ever study?” Italian came easy to me. After a year of forcing Florentine shopkeepers and residents to talk to my Eastern face in Italian, I had done the impossible: I’d returned to the States not only proficient, but fluent, in the language. Because of this, I had pretty much placed out of any language courses U of I could have offered for my major, and all that was left was cultural courses. I may have been a wizard at rolling my Rs and conjugating verbs in any tense, but history is a different beast to me.
This is Dante.
This is Dante.

And then there was Dante. I spent a semester reading and studying his entire Divine Comedy (that’s three canticas -- not just Inferno, but also Purgatorio and Paradiso). Let’s not forget that as a writing major I also had to dive deep into Shakespeare . . . If you escaped the education system with only an overview of Romeo & Juliet, know that for a writing or literature major, that sounds like graduating from high school with only a proficient knowledge of basic arithmetic. 

And then there was Nabokov. Who to this day I still can’t say I fully understand, other than appreciate his genius. 

 So pretty much, “studying” for me was reading. All the time. And besides the stories I had to write for my actual writing classes, I quit writing for fun as well, after a terrible blowout that had gotten me in trouble with a roommate I had as a sophomore. 

The period of pre-med lasted only a couple years at most. Physics took over my life so much that I even found references to Newtonian laws in my writing(!), and I had no social life. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am naturally an extravert, despite the fact that I have consciously chosen a very solitary pastime as my favorite vessel for carrying my voice to the masses. 

Pre-med made a total nerd out of me, and it soon became apparent that I’d been trying to mold myself around subjects that I merely found interesting, but wasn’t passionate enough about to shape a career out of. (Is anyone surprised that the Italian-CW major wasn’t dedicated enough to chemistry and molecular biology to pass the MCATs?) 

 I think what really drove that home was the semester I was lucky enough to get kicked out of a writing class (more on that later too) and then into an independent study in the creative writing department with one of its chairs. Prof. Madonick (or “Mike,” as he insisted I call him) inspired me to start my memoir. 

 When I wrote the first several pages of this memoir, I found five years’ worth of pent-up emotions release for the first time. Things I didn’t even know I’d been processing came out of my fingertips and onto my screen. I could barely see the words as the vision of my words blurred through the tears. There were so many tears. They created a waterfall. 

I was 19 years old when the stroke happened -- so I was pretty much just a punk kid in the world believing I was invincible and capable of anything I could dream up. (Heck, I’m 31 today and still believe I’m capable of anything I can dream up.) But when I was 19, I both knew a lot and nothing about myself. Any self-exploration had been only at the surface level, and it wouldn’t be until I graduated that I really leapt into the vortex of personal development and self-study, because that was when I decided to give entrepreneurship a shot.
So the memoir really helped me process a lot of what I’d been feeling and experiencing underneath the façade of “everything’s just fine, and I’m just like everyone else, just a bit more gimpy.”
It had been precisely that façade that had kept me denying a lot of my own feelings. Things weren’t “just fine,” and I certainly wasn’t just like everyone else. “A bit more gimpy” looked like regular accidents and spills, anger and resentment, and an inability to do what I wanted to do how I wanted to do it. 

 (Hey -- wearing heels is as worthy a desire as it is to not want to drool on someone while kissing them.)
The memoir had become so game-changing for me that I decided the world needed it.
I’ll say this again: The world needed it. And I believe this is why my memoir has been incomplete since I began it in 2008. Who was I to dare provide the world with something it needed? Two years later, I created Rehab Revolution, so that I could get a head start on creating a community of people who needed my voice. Since then, a small number of young stroke survivors have indeed reached out to me to thank me for what I’ve done for them. They truly warm my heart -- and if any of them are reading this today, please know that you guys are why I write. 

 Four years ago, I sent myself to the UW-Madison’s Writers’ Institute conference for the first time, and I experienced a misplaced sense of shame. Shame that I was willing to put money on the line, invest the dollars into myself as a writer, but not willing to finish my manuscript before I came. There were what felt like hundreds of writers there, of all kinds, backgrounds, and genres, most of them there preparing to pitch their manuscripts to agents and editors who had traveled there to pick up new authors, and there I was, reeling. 

What? There were people there who could potentially propel my little 34-page-and-counting Word document into an actual, tangible book? I -- the twentysomething stylish girl with a limp -- could actually launch this dream of becoming a full-fledged author at this conference?! “Next year,” I told myself. “Next year I’ll have it ready.” 

“Next year” came around and I said the same thing. And again, and again. 

In retrospect, I don’t blame myself for freezing. I had no idea what I was getting into going to this conference in the first place, so that first year was a learning experience. I discovered that the conference, rather than focusing solely on the craft, taught the side of writing I’d never learned as a writing major -- it taught the business side of writing.

How to pitch. Practice your pitching. Writing a query letter. Networking. 

I wrote a couple networking posts from 2013; that was my first year learning to network. And the first Writers’ Institute I attended was in 2012. #forshame 

 I remember finding myself seated next to an agent (who was looking for memoirs to sign! *facepalm*) at the (ahem) networking lunch and spiraling out of control in my head.


I told myself that this was the Universe’s way of handing me what I wanted on a silver platter, and that if I passed it up, it would not happen again. I forced myself to start a conversation with him . . . right as the lunch started wrapping. He was gracious enough to indulge me for several minutes, and he even gave me a little feedback and advice before he had to run off for someone’s pitch. I remember something he said was along the lines of not rushing my memoir, that it would take as long as it had to take. This encouraged me. I kept repeating the “Next year I’ll have it ready” and even signing myself up for non-traditional participation in NaNoWriMo a couple of times, but I found myself somehow blocked.

Next month, I’ll be going to my fourth Writers’ Institute conference. My manuscript still sits at 34 measly pages (though to be fair, they are single-spaced). I honestly thought I’d written more. But the truth is, that’s only because of my blog. To this day, I’ve published 209 (210 if you count this one) articles -- most of them completely original content by me or by my guest writers -- and while I am so happy to know that my posts are helping a small number of readers, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it fools me into believing I’ve made more progress on my book than I actually have, but it’s a blessing also because it’s deepened my resource of exploration into what my memoir could include. 

On a slight aside, I totally believe in Divine Messages. What these are are repetitive whispers from the Universe, gently guiding me to what I need to embrace right now. These whispers often crescendo into outright declarations spoken by actual people I see in my day-to-day existence, and then if I’m not receptive (I’ve grown to become very receptive -- the Divine always knows what I need), I have to learn the hard way why I should’ve listened in the first place. I’ve been consistently reading Mastin Kipp’s Growing Into Grace and religiously following author Danielle LaPorte online these days, and both of these leaders (who run majorly successful businesses in spiritual and personal development work) have been through and come out on top of some major upheaval that makes my current “I’m starting my life over at 31! What to do?!” sound like major #firstworldwhining. 

 Mastin started out his brand, The Daily Love, with nothing but a Twitter account and an e-mail list of friends and family. Danielle got out of a humbling, bad business deal with nothing but her blog and 60 followers. That the two of them now are spiritually fulfilled and serving the world in the ways they know best is so inspiring to me. They’re both graduates of Marie Forleo’s famous B-School, which I FINALLY signed up for this year after standing at the sidelines like a wannabe for five years. 

 (I did enter the scholarship contest again for the last time -- once you’re a B-Schooler, you’re forever a B-schooler. Here’s my video entry.) 

When I first began rebooting myself and my business, I started networking again like it was my job. (I mean . . . it totally is.) A virtual assistant that I’d met a year or two ago at a different networking group, Mary, started talking to me about my book and began supporting me in a significant way. I told her that if I didn't finish my book now, I was never going to do it. Rather than just “being excited” or giving me verbal encouragement and then forgetting about me, she’s been nudging me and keeping me accountable to my commitment to get my memoir out there. 

 Have I written anything yet? Well . . . this counts, doesn’t it? 

Seriously. I’ve learned that sometimes pushing through resistance just makes the resistance stronger. The fact that I’ve had my memoir actively on my mind this month and that it is sitting open on my laptop right now are already big steps if you consider my manuscript’s distinct absence from my radar for the past few years. Here’s a screenshot of a Facebook status I posted two weeks ago. (Mary suggested I post it.) 

Facebook accountability status

 I also promised Anthony that I’d make a super honest effort this week to work on my memoir. He kind of thinks I should save the time, energy, and money this year, sit out the conference, and buy myself another year. 

 But I know better. Enter more Divine Messages: Yesterday, I came across a blog post by one of my favorite friends and leaders, success coach Kris Britton. It’s about having the courage to go “all in.” (Funny sidenote . . . she actually featured me in this post!!)

(I think the whispers are getting louder.) 

 B-School starts on 9 March, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to start. (The conference is on the 27th.) The year 2015 may have begun nearly three months ago, but I can feel it in my soul -- this is the best year yet. I feel the culmination of everything I’ve ever done and everything that’s ever happened for me bubbling up in this moment. I’ll be posting on my progress and anything else that comes up as I go. March will be a busy month of more reinvention, more exploration, more leaps and dives into the unknown.
The Universe will give you everything you want -- and more -- as long as you show that you are committed.
Thank you for reading this and allowing me to speak to you the way I know best. I love each and every one of you -- even if you disagree with me and/or think I’m off my rocker. :) 

If you have anything to say, please leave a comment!

To our healing,

15 June 2014

body love

Today’s post is a little different from the usual. In honor of this year’s “Spirit Season,” Get On the Floor Dance Co. (where Anthony and I take ballroom lessons) has challenged its students to write their most creative and inspiring essays on how ballroom has changed their lives. I’m sitting at an airport in Denver after an intensive women’s retreat, and I felt it appropriate to post my entry on the blog. (Warning -- it is lengthy.) The idea is to make my story as “interactive” as possible through multimedia through the Web. Enjoy!

#NoApologies: My Journey into the Feminine Through Loving My Body & Getting On the Floor

When I was 19, I had a stroke.

I was helicoptered in to the hospital, where a neurosurgery team would open up my skull to relieve the pressure building up on my brain. The stroke had been caused by a massive bleed from an arteriovenous malformation, a tangled mass of artery and veins -- something I’d never known I’d had until it nearly killed me that day.

When I awoke from the coma after surgery, perhaps two weeks later, half of my body was completely paralyzed. It was as though someone had drawn a perfect line down from head to toe, declaring the right side normal and the left side utterly useless. It was just dead weight for about a month, when I started getting movement back.

This story could go on for pages, so for brevity’s sake (and levity’s), we’ll skip to the part where I was able to finally go home after two and a half months of living in the bubble of the hospital, where everyone understood what I’d gone through and would do anything to help me.

After two brain surgeries and tons of physical rehab, I was able to go home with a quad cane, a custom-made ankle brace, and a pair of gym shoes. Recovery was slow, and I felt isolated -- thanks to the loving care of my parents, I wasn’t completely alone, but suddenly, I found myself at not even 20 and having to learn how to do everything -- and I really mean everything, because so much of what we do involves both sides of the body -- and accepting that my relationship to my body was forever changed.

Had you asked me at age 18 how it might feel to suddenly lose function of half my body, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. I’d have said, “I donno, it would kind of suck to have to use a wheelchair.”

I would later find myself envying a girl I met who used a wheelchair because she was able to wear heels.

But it wasn’t just that it “kind of sucked” to go from bedridden to sitting in a wheelchair with a helmet because I was missing a part of my skull, and then upgrade to using a quad cane, then a normal cane. It was that my body, the one I had used all my life to run, climb the walls, and dance, had betrayed me.
When I was 23, I had the most devastating heartbreak of my life -- a betrayal of the faith I had had in my relationship with a guy who I realized only years later was emotionally abusive to me because I had not set the right boundaries that would tell him a) it was not okay to make me feel inconvenient because of my disability and b) that he was not entitled to try to change who I was.

To better illustrate the extent of the latter issue, there was a day that I had a seizure in his arms because he had made me stop taking my medication due to it “giving me bad breath.”

Setting the right boundaries is a skill mastered only by those who love themselves enough to do so. My self-image by this time was not recovered enough -- plus, I had the immature, needy quality many young girls approach boys with -- and together, this created a poison that would erode the relationship. We were only together for a little over six months, but the story continued for another two and a half years. It never would have lasted so long if I hadn’t insisted that he was my soulmate, that he was all I needed to be happy. (The lesson here was that as long as I tried to pull him towards me, the farther he would run away.)

I finally made the life-saving choice to let him go on a fateful day where I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life toiling over someone who didn’t appreciate or honor me and forced me to apologize for my conditions. (Not only the physical one, but the fundamental condition of being myself, as well.) It was a completely one-sided abomination of a “relationship,” and after three years of thinking of nothing but him, I made the shift.

I was free.

The Universe, in its perfect wisdom, had handed me on a silver plate another person, the one you all know as Anthony, not too long before I liberated myself . . . It whispered to me gently, “When you’re ready.”

We were friends first because I had been so entangled in my ex’s energy, but soon after I made the shift, our love story began -- slowly but surely, as I opened up to the possibility of letting another man into my heart.
When I was five, all I wanted to do was take ballet. My father wouldn’t let me, claiming that if I did, I would build “muscular thighs.” (Joke’s on him!)

Instead, my mom signed me up for Chinese cultural dance, which I did for several years. I relished being on stage and in my body.

In later years, I made the spirit squad at school, which was a combination of cheerleading and dance. My favorite part was always the halftime dances.

In high school, I was also involved in our drama club, where I was invariably cast as a dancer for the musicals I was in: a tornado and Jitterbug dancer in The Wizard of Oz and an Indian dancer for Peter Pan

As a freshman at U of I, I took my friends dancing at the High Dive virtually every week, as I loved to dance, even if I had barely had any formal training. When music played, it moved me, and I was confident in my body. I was never sick growing up, and I had tons of energy -- my body was something I could always trust.
Before I worked at Art of Seduction, I was a client there first. I’d won the door prize at one of her open houses and scored a free boudoir session out of it!

I was nervous about whether I’d be able to pose properly for my photoshoot because I knew the posing was difficult for everyone. Let alone me, with half a weakened body -- and throwing in a pair of stilettos? Fuggedaboudit!

Thanks to Argentina’s patience and help, though, the shoot was a success. I felt so excited about the experience and what it did for me, a young stroke survivor, that she pretty much hired me on the spot. Together, we created the concept of the Women of Strength series for her blog, and I of course featured myself as the first story.

So I had experienced firsthand the empowerment that was celebrating my body in a feminine way. At the beginning of 2014, I decided to explore this concept deeper and started my journey into the “Red Tent,” a revolutionary movement into understanding and implementing femininity, which involves channeling all the energy we cultivate every day in a hypermasculine world down into our body and making it a celebration of our birthright as women.

Feminine movement is about curves and undulations, about the senses. It’s about being, about surrender -- things many women today have forgotten or lost touch with.
Without going into too much detail, the Red Tent and its partner program, the Pleasure Tribe, deeply explores the nuances of reclaiming feminine energy and self-love. Rather than concentrate on getting things done, staying in our heads, or stagnation, feminine energy is about movement and just “being.” It’s also about connecting to the masculine in a synergistic way, partnering with it so that the doing masculine can lead -- and the feminine can surrender, and follow.

It’s also about reclaiming an ancient lost power -- well explained by Sheila Kelley (who is incidentally one of the Pleasure Tribe teachers):

If her claim that the new wave of feminism can be found on a stripper pole shocks and disturbs you, that is exactly the point. In ancient times, fertility dances performed by groups of only women were a celebration of what fed the community -- and it eventually evolved into what is striptease today.

It is only in an energetically imbalanced society that the celebration of the nurturing force that gives life to the people themselves is warped into a highly stigmatized, condemned thing. It’s a damn shame, and leaders like Sheila Kelley, who brings the art of sensual dance and femininity into everyday women, piss a lot of people off. Because what they don’t get is that the feminine is as important as the masculine, and because they think if it seems a bit sexy, it can’t possibly be empowering.

This is SO far from the truth.
Remember when I said my body was something I could always trust? After the stroke, I shut it down and told it I couldn’t dance in public.

Because my left side was always still so weak, I was rarely ever moved by music anymore. Dance disappeared from my life because I was filled with a sense of shame. Though the stroke had not been my fault, I responded to my body’s betrayal by disconnecting from it. My mind was still intact and sharp as it once was, which only gave me more reason to stay safe inside of it. Like, all the time.

I didn’t realize at the time that anything was missing, but my life without dance is an inauthentic one. It was a lifestyle of fear and self-judgment, as though I had snatched back a gift I’d had to offer the world and buried it deep for none to see. It was an apology for something I could not have been to blame for.

I disconnected from dance for about eight years. Finally, a friend of mine who’s also a dancer invited me to go to a Zumba class with her.

Resistance flared. I couldn’t go to a dance class -- in public! What if I couldn’t keep up? What if my ankle gave out?

But then these questions which stemmed from fear gave way to slightly more empowering ones: What if I simply let the instructor know that I had special needs and asked her to modify?

I felt a little excited, yet nervous, to go to class with her. But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that the little steps just outside my comfort zone are the only ones that will grow me, so I sucked it up, put on my dance pants and my old jazz sneakers and went to Zumba.

It liberated me.

I’d locked up a sleeping goddess inside me for eight years and she’d finally woken up! I realized quickly that no one in the class was watching me; they were too busy worrying about themselves. And, in a slightly self-satisfied way, I also noticed I still had a better sense of rhythm than a lot of the other students.

It was a challenge, to be sure. I really had to work to keep up, and in the end I never spoke a word to the instructor. Even though my dancing was no doubt strange, I still did it as though no one was watching -- because it wasn’t about external feedback. It was about what I felt in my body. About not apologizing for it not being pretty, but enjoying the experience regardless.

I became quickly addicted, and then added hip hop classes, which greatly reminded me of old spirit squad days (without the pom-pons.)
At 18, my friend Kevin and I decided to take some group salsa classes. We started out in Grant Park in a massive, sweaty Chicago SummerDance setting. We then upgraded to group lessons at a restaurant every week for the rest of the season -- but we never became actually good, because we merely learned steps, and not the actual nuances of ballroom. I didn’t take anything away from the lessons besides the basic step, and I only ever would use it today in Zumba where a partner doesn’t exist.
Now that it’s been over 10 years since the stroke, I’m pretty functional. I still can’t run or do many things with both hands, but on a good day, I can usually fool the layman into thinking I’m a perfectly able-bodied woman. But I work with a personal trainer, do yoga, and gym it up often to build up strength in my body (Zumba and hip hop included). It’s continual rehab because the brain needs constant stimulation in order to rewire itself, and as certain movements get easier, I have to challenge myself some more.

Since that summer with Kevin, I hadn’t given ballroom dance another thought -- until fate moved its hand yet again and I won another door prize: an intro lesson with Get On the Floor!
“It’s weird staring into your eyes,” I told Anthony at the intro lesson. It was the first time I’d held eye contact with him for such a loooong time. It felt awkward. And since Anthony had had zero experience with ballroom dance prior to this point, and I’d had virtually none in the realm of partnering with someone in dance, our movements were stiff and contrived. I also found it impossible to dance and talk at the same time -- it required too much concentration.

Anthony and I had been together for three years at that point, and I was eager to create a “thing.” Something that was uniquely ours that we could practice together and maybe even become known for among our friends and family. He was a little less excited about it than I was, but that was typical. (He is the pragmatic one of the two of us, anyway.)

Not to mention, I had learned that ballroom dance could be a really effective way to train the brain in a physical therapy aspect -- because it requires responding to a lead or anticipating your partner’s next move, it stimulates those neuro-pathways in a way unlike much else. Not surprisingly, months of lessons later, I found my ability to walk backwards to be drastically improved -- all that backward reaching in the follow had trained me!

We opted to sign on for a bronze program of lessons; we’d chosen to learn the art of swing, tango, foxtrot (Anthony’s favorite), salsa, and rhumba. I’d particularly wanted to try rhumba because I had learned about the flirtatious “conversation” in the dance from Chen Lizra:

As we journeyed on with our ballroom practice, Anthony and I really jumped in headfirst.  Our goal, besides deepening our connection and trying something new, was to become proficient at social dancing. We began setting out on nights on the town with the sole purpose of dancing. These events began with shy, clumsy series of basic steps and a lot of lurking around the refreshment table, but now, we “get on the floor” with eagerness -- even if we don’t remember some of our latest moves. 

I hadn’t gone out in the pursuit of dancing the night away since my freshman year of university, back in 2002!

Slowly, slowly, I began to feel what it meant to follow Anthony’s lead. On occasion, I would be invited to dance with Get On the Floor’s Steve and find that he could somewhat smoothly lead me to do steps I hadn’t yet learned!

This, my friends, is feminine energy. I am finally able to surrender enough and allow my masculine lead to guide, protect (against others, poles, walls, etc.), and inspire movement in me.

Not to mention, I have an extensive collection of high heels I still can’t wear -- my ankle strength is still questionable at best, and I really felt like that extension of my feminine style expression had been cut off from me. The moment I found out there was a pair of (ugly, but functional) Latin heeled practice shoes that I could actually dance in was a proud one. Seriously! I even considered buying a second pair just for the everyday.

Our lessons really hit a turning point when Anthony and I decided to move in together in March of this year. Our relationship had truly become one based in trust, safety, and growth together, much the opposite of any other romance I’ve ever had, and it was a huge milestone for both of us. 

I really felt compelled to share the experience of dance with our loved ones, and I proposed that Get On the Floor lead a group lesson at our housewarming. As a little treat and challenge for ourselves, I also suggested we put together a short, intermediate salsa routine to perform for our guests. (I will post the recording of us from the party as soon as his mother gives us the file.)

As Anthony held me in frame the day of our party, I could sense that he was really nervous.

Rather than letting the pressure of all the attention affect my energy, though, I was surprisingly able to just look straight into his eyes and anchor myself there. I remained present as I followed his lead -- which, due to nerves, wasn’t completely true to the choreographed routine we’d practiced. But it was okay.

Do you know what this meant? I had grounded into my own body, surrendered control, and allowed my man to take me on a little journey. It was such a unique and symbolic way for us to start our new life together in our new home; at the moment of our performance, as far as I was concerned, it was just Anthony and me. I had grown into the surrender, too, of holding eye contact without discomfort. I was home in more ways than one.

I gave in to the moment and set an example for our friends and family. If I, with my broken body, could use ballroom dance to channel my energy from headspace to core and feet, and connect through eye contact and touch, then so could they. It didn’t have to be pretty, and I’m sure it was far from it, but the fact that we did it was a huge thing in itself. Remember when I wouldn’t even dance for myself? Let alone in public? What a long way I’d come.

The next step -- quite the challenge -- will be for me to learn to style the way we dance and give our dance partnership (and probably also our real life one) the juiciness that draws all the attention to what I’m doing. The female half of the ballroom is meant to sparkle, to command the attention in the same way that the male counterpart commands the direction of the dance.

Draw attention?! The idea terrifies me. But bring it on.