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Commentary: Dancing Away the Chronic Pain

The author in a school picture with a fat bruised lip from a schoolyard fight that her poor mother desperately tried to conceal with makeup

DAVID NEWTOWN, HOST: Some days Uptown Radio reporter Linnea Arden resembles a toddler. She’s cranky, has a strong desire to sob and wishes someone would just carry her. But as we hear in the next installment of our commentary series, there's a good reason for that.

LINNEA ARDEN, BYLINE: Recently I found myself trying out a new sport. On a Monday night I climbed a set of creaky stairs in the West Village to a bright studio. Its large windows revealing the blushing evening sky outside. The floor to ceiling mirrors reflected my black leggings and nine inch nails hoodie at a soft palette of graceful women as I struggled to find a corner to hide in. It’s a sport best mastered as a cute kid in tights and a sparkly tutu. But here I was at 27, in ballet class for the first time.

Growing up my colors were browns not pinks. I refused to wear any shoe that wasn’t a dirty sneaker. The likelihood of finding a photo of me at 5 where I’m not giving the camera the finger is slim to none. As an adult I kept the streak of rebellion. I summited the highest mountain in Africa on a night where the wind howled so loud I could barely hear the helicopter making its rescues, just because a few friends in my hometown of Copenhagen said I couldn’t do it. I was such a tomboy that the closest I came to ballet was the first syllable “ball” as in tennis. But now here I was, clutching onto a ballet bar for dear life.

It was something my surgeon convinced me to do. Three years after a freak kickboxing accident derailed my life. In a split second I had gone from being in the best shape of my life. To being unable to lift my arms high enough above my head to wash my hair. You see, the first bone I ever broke was my 12th vertebrae, right there, smack in the middle of my back.

Fracture your spine and most people’s minds skip straight to a wheelchair. But believe it or not, there is such a thing as a ‘lucky back break.’ I can still walk. I’m part bionic now. But these days the scar is the biggest give away to anyone else that I spent years in recovery. I might look the way I used to. But I certainly don’t feel the way I used to. Ever since my accident I’ve had this undesired friend. This little nagging mosquito in my head that I can’t slap to non-existence – pain.

Unlike the back brace I sported for months, chronic pain can’t be seen unless you decide to make yourself a sign to carry around. But it’s the reason I rarely play tennis, stopped riding horses, and avoid mountain tops. Pain is like a tiny, secret, leaky faucet in your head that keeps dripping. Drip. Drip. Drip. Into a metal sink. Until you think you might explode.

It makes all the little things I never used to think about an ordeal. I count the blocks I carry my groceries now. I look up the chairs in restaurants the way other people look up menus. So I know whether I need to bring a sweater to discreetly sit on to prevent a wooden chair from turning into a torture device. I zone out in conversations and struggle to remember things. Not because I’m bored or an airhead. But because it's hard to pay attention when there’s a constant dripping of tiny knife-points in your head.

The chronic pain has been the worst part of my accident. Not because it hurts more than breaking my spine, but because it never goes away. I still feel it every single time I sit down. But, the more time that passes I’ve started joking that breaking my back, might have been what the doctor said.. A lucky break.

Because it took my accident to learn how to cut myself a break. The old me would have blamed myself for every ball I missed on a tennis court. Now whenever I am able to play, I focus on the joy of the racket in my hand, the sunshine on my face, and the sight of that yellow ball skimming right over the net. I used to be strong physically, now I can’t lift my own suitcase when I travel. But mentally I feel like Hercules. There’s a certain power in knowing I can go to the worst place I have ever been, and come back better - even if it means I’m now a tomboy in ballet slippers.

NEWTOWN: Linnea says she’s still going to ballet on Mondays, dancing away from the pain.

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