Thursday, October 23, 2008

Feeling Free From Trauma & PTSD

Yesterday I was thinking about that October 1998 Depeche Mode concert in Manhattan because this week I've been thinking about how far I've come because this past October weekend I went to another concert and right from the very beginning I danced and sang (what few choruses and phrases of Spanish I actually know) for over three hours in the heat of the Floridian fall afternoon and into the sweet breeze of a yellow-mooned evening.

My dance partner, John, and I are big Latin fans. We love anything Spanish. It begins with the music and the dances and extends to the language, the food, the culture, the people. We are slowly (very slowly, in the few minutes of free time we can capture off the dance floor) teaching ourselves Spanish. We can now say, I want to dance (Yo quiero baillar), which is a huge improvement over our first Rosetta Stone sentence that explained the fish is blue. At least now we can say things that actually pertain to us.

Our favorite dance is salsa. I won't go off on a riff here about why, although I probably won't be able to stop myself on another day. But it wasn't salsa that brought us to downtown Lake Worth last Saturday night; it was bachata, another Latin dance that is, hands down, the most romantic, sexy, fun Latin dance possibly ever. When I first began partner dancing a little over a year ago, salsa's complicated jazz-like rhythm was too difficult for me to be proficient right away, but bachata -- well, I took to it like the blue fish into water. The music has a slow, dependable beat that just gets into my soul and takes over. (Here's a great clip if you're curious to see what bachata looks like. The couple are not professional dancers, but you'll get the basic idea:

Anyway, after Aventura, Monchy y Alexandra ( is our favorite bachata band and they were playing a farewell concert in an amphitheatre in a park on the Intracoastal. It was a concert not to be missed. This duo is legendary and after many years are finally splitting up. Their performance would be the peak of Hispanic Fest de Lake Worth, which is a big party in Bryant Park that lasts all day and deep into the night. In addition to booths selling Spanish goods and foods, the amphitheatre has a full list of hourly bands. John and I went early in the afternoon so that we could salsa (because I am now, finally, really good at it!) before the bachata concert.

The salsa band was large, about 10 musicians and a great singer. In front of the amphitheatre a concrete area serves as a dance floor, behind which are about 30 rows of benches and then the park beyond that. It was so crowded that for a little while John and I kicked off our shoes and salsa'd in the grass. But then we moved up into the dance area. We wove through the crowd of young and old, fat and thin, proficient and learning dancers and found a small space for ourselves. And there, with the sun beating down, the crowd moving close and the music blaring we danced and danced and danced. That familiar joy high came over me, I rode it, I looked around and saw how many other people seemed to be feeling the same thing. There is not a single unsmiling face on the floor. There is not a frown or unhappy, sad-eyed look. There are only smiles and laughter and this is partly what I love about dance: that everyone is so joyous when they are doing it.

By the time the salsa band ended we were drenched with sweat and thoroughly warmed up for the concert. Here's the funny thing about Florida -- or maybe many places are like this, but as a New Yorker I'm not used to it. If this $5 concert with one of the top bachata bands ever had been in NYC the crowd would have begun assembling early in the morning, if not the night before. In FL, however, the crowd for the concert showed up only about 20 minutes before the band took the stage. I'm always surprised by this. No one in FL seems stressed by time. In NYC if I wanted to see the free, celebrity-studded Shakespeare in the Park I would have had to sleep in the park the night before to get a ticket. In FL, when I wanted to see Shakespeare by the Sea I went 2 hours early to get a seat and --- I was there all alone, until 30 minutes before curtain, and even then the crowd, which did eventually pack the park, didn't really arrive until 15 minutes before curtain. It's such a much different life here.

So, the salsa band had a crowd, but the bachata frenzy didn't begin until about 15 minutes before Monchy y Alexandra took the stage and then the crowd flowed in and pressed forward and John and I, who had been dancing right in front of the stage, suddenly found ourselves surrounded and cluttered by a mass of people. Everyone jostled for position, but in a polite way. This was not a crowd that would yell or push or shove. Everyone silently and with a smile snaked their way around and through to where they wanted to be.

John and I decided to remain standing by the stage instead of seeking seats. When Monchy y Alexandra took the stage we cheered and clapped. They spoke mostly in Spanish, welcoming everyone from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Mexico, Dominican Republic... the list of Latin countries went on and on and its representatives roared their heritage. Eventually the concert began and in the now very tiny space we had, John and I danced an abbreviated bachata for an hour and a half.

Every now and then, I still dissociate. I still split off from the scene and recede far back into my own head. Having so long ago developed the habit, maybe this will always be the case. In the throes of trauma and then PTSD, this was the state in which I perpetually lived. It was safer, easier -- and above all, not really a choice I made so much as a sort of survival mechanism that kicked into place and I didn't have either the strength or the desire to grope back toward the surface of life. It felt so much better to split off, in which case I only had to hold myself together, rather than attempt to hold myself together and also participate in the world.

Now, though, when I split off it is for a different reason. Since my PTSD has been cured, the habit still remains, but its use is changed. I split off for a moment of thankful appreciation, for a few seconds of gratitude. And then I come back. My selves are whole, so they don't splinter and then it's just impossible to regather them. I split off, the whole Michele, for a second or minute of reflection, and then I pick up time right as it is continuing along. This happened to me a lot during the concert. John's and my bodies are moving in rhythm, the music sounds wonderful, Alexandra's voice is crisp and clear and so beautiful, the breeze off the Intracoastal is a warm caress, the smell of the not-too-distant Atlantic Ocean wafts over us from time to time, the palm trees reach their fronds up and wave them toward the sky, the moon hangs low against an indigo background, this crowd around me pulses with joy and life and I split off for a moment and transcend it all to realize that life has become good; very, very good. That I am well, that I have suffered and endured and wandered through a Sahara of trauma and pain and I have finally found an oasis where the joy of life freely flows and it is my right to drink it. Here I am, finally, able to dance for over 3 hours without a single pain, without thinking about my body at all except in terms of pleasure. Here I am, wholly connected to myself, my partner, this crowd and this evening without any little bits of trauma creeping in to ruin the party.

I come back into the present moment where John's hand is on my hip leading me into a tiny turn in this little space and I think, It is really over. I am free.

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