Leal

I chose to share my personal story, because I felt ready to take my own difficult  experiences and try to initiate change with the knowledge I’ve gained. I hope to help normalize the conversation on mental health, and suggest that this is a much more common problem than many might realize. We’re dance artists, but before we became that, we were people, with vulnerabilities like anyone else. Shocking, I know.

For a number of years I struggled with severe anorexia and depression. I still live with depression, and some eating disordered thoughts come back to haunt me at times. It initially hit me in my late teens, with the force of a Mack truck - significantly changing the course of my life. In high school it was mild enough for me to get by. I mean many people have a bit of a rough time in high school. Or so I explained it to myself. At 19 though, my freshman year of college, things got serious enough, that I was forced to drop out of the Codarts Rotterdam Dance Academy in the Netherlands, and move back home to Poland, to begin what became a wildly tumultuous few years of recovery attempts. A lot of it is blurry now, between the memories impaired by malnutrition, and the repetitiveness of my days just focused on surviving. All aspects of my life were halted and disappeared as I disappeared into an abyss of therapy, counseling, medication etc. During the most challenging times, this meant extended psychiatric hospital stays and enduring periods of suicidal thoughts. Somewhere around that time I hit what I now think of as rock bottom. My BMI became low enough that I had lost the right to decide about my treatment and was forcibly admitted to a hospital. I wore a heart monitor for two weeks because the doctors feared my heart would just stop beating at any point, as a result of the malnutrition. I remember one day my doctor came into the room and yelled at me, saying if I kept going like this I would die very soon. It was all horrifying, and I despise the way eating disorders are regarded in Poland, but I have to say I had enough will to live, that the incident scared me to the point where something slightly switched in my brain. 

It took a few years to learn to accept what it takes to get to and remain in remission. Initially it was very difficult for me to accept that mental health was a part of me, and just like any physical body part, it’s vulnerable to illness. But it is, and accepting that was crucial. Recovery was an incredible rollercoaster of a challenge, not linear, not fun, painful and wildly scary most of the time. So many periods of relapse. So much physical pain, doctors visits, emerging back into social settings that I had isolated myself from, trying to figure out what I want to do with my life when I do have the stability to go back to school etc. I came out alive in the end though, with so much more knowledge than I could ever learn in theory. It was the worst of times, but wow am I grateful that I had put in the work and endured it.  

Over more time, I regained the curiosity to see what was still out there in the world for me. After cluelessly poking in some directions (which included a semester as a math major, as well as another one as an arts management major) I ended up moving to New York to find a fresh start. At that point I had a therapist who did Skype sessions, and I was pretty stable and off my medication. I didn’t move here to pursue dance. I don’t quite know how or why I managed to get back into training. Nowadays a week off from physical activity seems like an eternity when you have to go back into the studio. However something drew me back into the studio. Over the few years of illness, my body had endured so much trauma and damage, that when I slowly started taking open class, initially I lasted only through a short ballet barre. A while later I worked up to one full class a day, and eventually, a few frustrating and unforgiving, months later, built back enough strength to take a step forward. I was accepted into the independent study program at The Ailey School. The following year I accepted an apprentice position with Sidra Bell. Fast forward a few more years and I’ve been lucky enough to complete three seasons with SBDNY, be represented in the commercial scene by blocNYC, and now in my fourth professional year, I’m an artistic associate with Gibney Dance Company. Things really skyrocketed from what for the longest time felt like a bunch of nothing. There were times in my darkest months where I didn’t know how I could get through a single day of misery. I do acknowledge that now, and often take a step back to put all that I’ve worked for and have now into perspective. I’m really, really lucky.

The thing with mental health is that it’s often not curable. I’m now in remission, most of the time at least. I still struggle with smaller slips and relapses from time to time, and some days are much more difficult than others. I’m currently in therapy again, because the last year has been a little tumultuous for me. I have become much better equipped to recognize my own early warning signs and triggers. I have learned how to take care of myself in a way that hopefully will prevent me from dangerously relapsing ever again. I do hope that’s true. I find conversations and bringing things out into open with close friends and or speaking to supervisors at work helpful. Having to deal with mental illness on your own is much more difficult than when you build a strong support system. My experiences have been so defining to who I am today, that I would never have any of it any other way, however difficult it may had been at times.

photo by  Amy Gardner

photo by Amy Gardner

What have you experienced/are you experiencing?

I endured a serious case of anorexia that took over my life for a few years, and clinical depression, which I’m still currently, very actively and for the most part successfully, managing. 

How has this impacted your life? How about your career?

My mental health has had a huge impact on my life, at times dangerous and destructive, yet also has been an incredible strength and character building journey. It may be a cliche, but I have come out stronger from some of the challenges I’ve overcome. It has shaped my career in a way that I could have never predicted. I had to let go of many assumptions, the path I had in mind for myself, and instead work forward with opportunities life has presented me with. At this point I wouldn’t have had it any other way, because it has shaped who I am today, in life and as a dancer. 

How have you managed it/are you managing it?

It took years of therapy, hitting rock bottom, being scared to death, scared of death, a great deal of support from family and friends, an unimaginable deal of the hardest work I’ve ever had to take on, a lot of education on mental health, accepting it not as a weakness but an illness, and learning about things I can do to help myself, then maintaining those practices regularly to stay healthy. I think information and conversation have been essential.

If you sought out help at any point, where did you look and find it?

It was a hugely hit and miss experience in the beginning, all over the place, not knowing where to even search. However over time I managed to find and remain with the therapists and doctors who I felt best understood my needs and goals. Honestly, it’s a bit like dating. 

What would you tell your past self considering the experiences you’ve gained? 

Have patience and do not ignore warning signs, even if they seem mild. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help, and don’t assume something could, for whatever reason, never happen to you. Better precautious than sorry. 

What would you like to share with fellow dancers who might relate to your situation/story?

Mental health is an issue more common than you might realize, and recognizing early warning signs can prevent many serious cases. You are not alone. 

Have you always been open about speaking out on this issue? What has kept you from opening up about it in the past?

I have only recently opened up about my experiences. It took me realizing that this is not something to be ashamed of, but rather a common difficulty within our modern communities. The more we speak about it and the more stigma is debunked, the less toxic and tabu the subject of mental health can become. During my events I would have loved to learn about peers or professional dancers who have had similar experiences and how they sought out help. It would have been so helpful to know I was not alone when I was experiencing difficulties myself. I grew up in Poland, and attended a conservatory in the Netherlands, however in this day and age information can be available so widely, there is really no excuse for us not to change the informational status quo. 

How did the dance community respond to you, when you decided to address your concerns?

I was in college, and the general consensus was that I needed time off from school to recover. When I came back two years later to see if I could rejoin, even if I had to repeat classes etc., they said maybe dance wasn’t for me and that I should find something else to do. I know they were concerned for my health and safety, however I would have preferred to be at least considered in the conversation, and given a chance to try. I think there should be better systems for support in rejoining training or the profession after an injury or mental illness that require time off from dance. 

Why do you think there is still stigma surrounding the issue in our society/dance community?

I really don’t understand and don’t know why we are so reluctant to discuss mental health. It’s not going to make any of the issues go away, it just makes them brew under a blanket of denial and criticism. In my opinion, the best way forward is by broadening the conversation.

What have you learned throughout your journey?

I’m stronger than I think, but also much more fragile than I could have ever imagined. 

photo by mom

photo by mom