On the first morning of 2018 I opened my eyes already in tears.
I had not yet meaningfully reshaped my professional life after losing opportunities to do work I loved almost 4 years prior. The alternative goals I adopted—a house, a dog, and a garden—proved consistently elusive due to factors beyond my control. I’d passed another birthday without attaining conventional hallmarks of “successful adulthood.” And I was heartbroken—unexpectedly in love with little hope of reciprocated affections.
Loss, measurable or ambiguous, is real loss. Cumulative loss takes a toll.
I felt sad and lonely. I experienced a constant undercurrent of anxiety, and I felt so ashamed for it all.
We all have narratives that we repeat to ourselves in the face of shame—some that help, some that hinder. Our own words take root. Our families, communities, colleagues, friends, and intimate partners play a real role in crafting those stories, too. Whatever the source, once they’re spun into our interiors they re-frame every encounter. However untrue or incomprehensible to an outside observer, those stories rule. My inner jackal had grown vicious, and I began believing its fictions:
I was convinced that people actually thought those things about me. Comments made in passing burrowed into already tender wounds. Slights spoken about other people in my hearing became measures I applied to myself. Rebuffed bids for connection became referendums on my unworthiness. Anticipating rejection, I stopped making invitations.
Social media weaponized happiness: news feeds served up an onslaught of articles and memes demanding relentless positivity, while simultaneously providing a front row seat to curated happy stories, from which I was conspicuously absent, and to which I felt I had no mirror offering. It all reinforced the idea that doing anything less than “living my best life” was a failure of character, and a deep sense that—even if I wished it to be different—I really didn’t matter.
So, for several months, I’d contemplated plans for how I could not matter permanently.
I do not describe this to raise alarm, or to glean sympathy or reassurance. Instead, I invite us to consider that people thinking about ending their own life is more common than we’re comfortable talking about. That silence keeps people from asking for help when it really matters! I was terrified that if I admitted what was going on, even close friends would avoid me so as not to become infected by my negative energy, or become exhausted and withdraw. In a few cases, that did happen, and it hurt like hell. For the most part, when I voiced the fictions in safe spaces, it deflated their power.
On the first day of that new year, I made resolutions: a choice not to boycott life.
Considering options that promised a 100% rate of success, only two things came to mind that didn’t depend on a ballooning housing market, a more lenient lease agreement, job candidacy, or another person’s affections.
1. Listen to more live music. (I really enjoy it.)
2. Dance more. (I wanted to be braver.)
By July, my live music intake increased by 500%. Dancing, on the other hand, had increased exactly 0%. I knew that if I didn’t go, and soon, I’d only give my inner critic more ammunition. I timidly attended my first lesson at a small studio downtown, and was hooked.
The instructor there is like a good bartender—hospitable to everyone, intuitively knowing what people need in order to keep coming back. He offered warm welcome. He and his partner made introductions, crafting an environment where no one is as stranger, where nobody is left out.
These dances required close proximity to another person, required touch. As a child I learned that touch was unpredictable: tender or violent without warning. As a young woman steeped in religious communities with rigid perspectives about friendship, love, and sexuality, I learned that touch—even platonic affection—was taboo. After decades of being accustomed to so little, I experienced touch as disruptive, unfamiliar, vulnerable, and difficult to navigate. The instructor described Tango as getting a hug for three minutes to music. I was surprised by how much I really needed those—streams in a parched desert.
There were mirrors in the studio, and I couldn’t escape catching glimpses of myself. I am tall, and have been described as variants of “big boned” since around age 7. I was keenly aware that I did not dip and twist with the ease many others displayed, and it was easy to judge myself as lesser because of it. The instructor once invited me to the floor, saying, “You are like Christmas for anyone who loves curves.” When I deflected, he suggested that I embrace this attitude: I do someone a favor when I accept their invitations. I wasn’t convinced, but it was helpful to hear the words spoken aloud—a point of reference to contradict less charitable narratives, to help me see a different reflection.
The community at this studio embraced me without hesitation. During a season when I needed help wanting to be alive, they lent their contagious vitality. By the fall of 2018, I described dance as medicine—that exposes what needs to be healed, and offers a balm to aid the healing.
This is not a good Sunday testimony in which my life was unbearable until I was saved (by dance), and now, like a fairy tale, all is well. Grief, anxiety, depression, and heartache have not evaporated from my life, but I manage them differently. I am still sometimes afraid and hesitate to connect deeply with others (as do most humans), but I actively work to re-frame narratives to keep my inner chatter in check.
In Tango, each movement requires partners to shift their weight from one position to another. The process of re-framing narratives feels like those shifts and pivots. That process, on the dance floor and off, has changed me. As Elaine Scarry wrote in On Beauty and Being Just, "How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things."
I heard once that the word liturgy translates into the phrase, “the work of the people.” For me, dancing has offered insights about that work—the work of living–especially through seasons of loss. I offer them as a responsory:
We need not apologize for taking up space.
May we be fully present.
It is inevitable that we will careen into one another in small or spectacular ways.
May we be gentle.
There’s a glorious challenge in dancing with another person, respecting and enjoying the process of moving with someone who moves differently than we do.
May we find common ground.
There is profound grace in helping one another not fall when our steps become out of sync and we falter.
May we be help.
There is such delight in paying attention and so much room for spontaneity and play.
May we be free.
Everyone may come as they are. There’s equal room for poise and inelegance in honest spaces.
May we be welcoming.
We are never, ever obligated to politely remain in situations that feel disrespectful or dehumanizing. We get to find exit, even if not immediate.
May we be safe.
An embrace can be an antidote to isolation.
May we not be alone.
Honor the distance others choose in relation to us; they are choosing what they need.
May we cherish all depths of connection.
If no one invites us to dance, and we feel the sting of being un-chosen, may we find our way to the dance floor and enjoy our own good company.
May we choose ourselves.
It is not only okay, but it is in fact human to want connection, help, safety, and love. Wanting is inherently risky, vulnerable, and sometimes results in disappointment. That’s okay. It won’t always.
May we honor our humanness.
Perhaps my favorite lesson from dance is that there are no winners or losers. It’s not a competition; might is not inherently right. Instead, dance is a collaboration, connection, and nuanced communication. It’s a practice of being present with another person, relaxing into a shared moment, and learning to let it be enjoyable for both. This helps me re-imagine my life, my community, and the world in terms other than the binary of conventional success or failure. It helps me have patience for being human.
It helps me to see myself and others through a lens of grace.
This is good work of the people.
May it be blessed.
 I imagine we are uncomfortable, in part, because it requires confronting how a community’s relative health or dysfunction impacts individual mental health and well-being. We know at a deep level that mental health doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it’s a shared venture.
 If you or someone you care about is struggling, speak up. Risk sharing the stories that have latched onto you. Risk asking what’s happening for them. Break the silence. It could save a life.
 I’d be remiss not to mention that close friends also lent their vitality: following me home to ensure my safety, checking in when I traveled, being aware of anxiety-triggering situations, braving discomfort to ask if I was in danger of hurting myself, helping me find effective counseling, remaining with me when I couldn’t stop crying, speaking alternative narratives, and no small amount of prayer. If you are connected to someone who is struggling, these are examples of possible actions that may help. Your engagement with someone doesn’t need to be perfect; small gestures can break barriers of isolation and interrupt downward spirals.
Today is the last day of September, National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. And we can all benefit from honest conversations about mental health conditions and suicide.
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