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She's A Phoenix: Dancing Without My Pain

Author: Alyssa Osiecki

The illness burns inside me, silent— my tissues crinkling like parchment paper as they dissolve in the flames. From the outside, I am normal, vibrant even.

I am standing on a crowded bus, balancing yogi style in stop-and-go traffic and I am burning.

I am lifting a pint with friends in the pub and I am burning.

I am onstage, bright earrings trembling in my earlobes, smiling into blinding klieg lights and I am burning—shattering—dissolving into dust.

Pain is my most loyal partner. I can never slip out without her.

Nobody ever bothered to tell me why or how. I was given a diagnosis, a photocopied leaflet, a prescription, and told not to worry too much.

I applied the medicine behind closed doors and cried about it. I tried to talk to my loved ones but there weren’t any words, at least not any that people wanted to hear in polite conversation. None that I wanted to say aloud.

I travelled the world with this tiny, red hot poker pressing into me. Saw the wonders of Petra while her claws tore at my flesh, wore graduation robes, taught yoga and reminded my students at the end of each class to embrace their imperfect selves while inside, I struggled to sit with the pieces of myself that felt irrevocably broken.

Through all of this—I am dancing.

Not out of desperation or delusion but out of defiance.

Not simply out of a need to feel something other than pain but out of a belief, deeper than marrow, that I am entitled to joy.

This is chronic illness.

A place where two truths exist simultaneously: it is both nothing about who you are and everything about who you are.

I have always been a dancer. Not the kind you see on TV. I am the kind of dancer who thrives on living room rugs and dusty community center floorboards — inflexible, trending toward clumsiness.

Yet when music pumps from a set of crackling wireless speakers, my body connects to an alternate frequency, one where I am for a moment, a conduit to something other than pain.

The only time the burning fades into the background — the only time I feel whole, invincible, brimming with life — is when I’m moving, busting out yoga poses with audacious imperfection, pirouetting to Bowie in my stocking feet on kitchen floors.

Movement and breath are my lifelines, the only proof I have that some part of my nervous system hasn’t completely rebelled against me.

For a while, I was certain the pandemic had taken that from me too.

Instead of granting me grace, lockdown turned up the heat. I became the proverbial frog in the pot of water as it slowly rose to a boil. In the past, this was where I started to panic, scream at the universe, blame myself, despair. I’d throw myself into anything — work, travel, yoga, even the wrong relationship to distract myself from the pain. I’d seek wisdom from psychologists who told me to have a glass of wine, specialists who’d say, “that’s strange” and refer me to somebody else, and teachers who told me the answer was inside me. I avoided, I outran. I pulled the covers over my head and waited for it to all to go away.

Only this time, I couldn’t.

All I had was silence and empty space, stretching out into oblivion. Instead of reaching outside myself to quell the pain, I created space within me to heal. For the first time in my life, I made a decision to prioritize my own healing, even if it meant everyone else’s expectations of me came second.

I learned strategies to cope with the grief that an all-engulfing illness can bring. I filled my body with nourishment. I analyzed every last thing that came into my life and if it didn’t contribute to my healing, even if I loved it, I got rid of it.

Goodbye booze, our affair is over. Here’s lookin at you, kid.

I went to bed early because it was all very tiring.

The days inched by slowly, noted in my journal:

today, I felt less burning

slept through the night

was able to walk without pain

scarring remains (there will always be scars) but I feel healthy today

It took a while to realize that this was real. The constant burning and clawing inside was subsiding.

A word I’d never heard before in connection to my illness, remission.

It meant that it wasn’t a childish dream to imagine a world without pain every day. It meant the possibility of feeling on the inside how I looked on the outside— joyful, vibrant, alive. It meant I could stand in the sunshine and feel it’s warmth for a moment without the rough edges of chronic illness cutting at me from the inside.

What did I do to mark the occasion?

Simply writing in my journal,


Didn’t seem quite right.

Outside in the late spring sunshine, flakes of snow swirl. Buds push forth from trees. The city I love surrounds me, glistening, waking up from winter. No guilty pleasure could possibly improve it. All that’s left is to feel my joy that for now, the winter inside me has ended.

The colors of the world feel turned up, oversaturated. Everything around me is in on the celebration, every garish streak of graffiti on a gray wall, every dog running off its leash, tongue out, all here to celebrate with me.

I pull my headphones on, crank up my music and pick a direction to swirl off into the brightness of the day, deliciously defiant, unworried about who will see me reclaiming my body, moving with joy. I continue on my path all the way to the sea and for a moment I am simply a woman, dancing without her pain.

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