I was diagnosed with MS in July of 2013, shortly after my 29th birthday. While doctors told me that it likely manifested years earlier, when weekend-long bouts of vertigo were brushed off as a possible symptom of a sinus infection, I don’t see those as my first attacks.
Much like your first kiss, you never forget your first attack — the one that really counts.
I remember what I was wearing. I remember the cheesy pickup line that was tried out on me just minutes prior. I was watching my former Greek dance troupe perform at the Greek Fest in Milwaukee. I had recently retired after dancing with them for nearly 25 years and this was the first Greek Fest that I wasn’t performing in since I was four years old. For their finale, they invited former troupe members to join them for their final number — Zorba’s Dance.
It was just about the end of the song. We were all moving our feet so quickly to the fast music and then, with only a brief warning, my entire left half went into painful spasms. My nerves were on fire. For about a minute and a half — though it seemed much longer — electricity shot down my left arm and leg. For a minute and a half, they were not mine.
In the confusing months following diagnosis, I was told I needed to manage stress (easier said than done) and stay active (also easier said than done). In the middle of a bout with dueling depression and denial, I decided to start dancing again, this time in the form of American Tribal Style (ATS®) belly dance. I was a little apprehensive about getting back into dance (and eventually performing) after having such a violent introduction to my disease while doing something I loved in front of an audience, but I figured belly dance would be a healthy direction to explore. After all, what better way is there to feel in control and in tune with your body than to make it move in ways no human body should? And incidentally, the mother of ATS®, Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, also lives with MS. If she can do it, why shouldn’t I?
It’s been nearly three years since I began studying ATS® and it, along with its overwhelmingly amazing sisterhood, has become such an incredible source of joy and strength and purpose.
I get fatigued. My balance is sometimes off. I have to work a little harder to make my body create the beautiful lines and movements, which results in additional strain and fatigue. I have to conceal it. My stamina isn’t what it once was. My body isn’t what is once was. The day following long workshops or performances is usually rough. For some, that may be enough to give up. Despite all of that, when I dance, I no longer feel broken.
In having multiple sclerosis and understanding its complexity, its range, and, most of all, its relentless unpredictability, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Every step I’m able to take each day brings me joy. Every step, every movement, every shimmy, every cue that I’m able to read from my fellow dancers is joy, is hope, is strength, is beauty, is trust.
And I have a better appreciation for those things now than I probably could have prior to my diagnosis.
Find something new to love. Make yourself uncomfortable. Push forward.
Find your shimmy.
This article was authored by Cat Stappas and originally published on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s blog, MSConnection.org, on February 26, 2016.