How Old Are You?

When I was 14, I moved to Washington D.C. to attend the first school in the United States that offered ballet and academic subjects
under the same roof. My parents drove me there from Massachusetts, moved me in, bought me a goldfish for company and left the same afternoon. I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, I sprinkled some flakes of food into the fishbowl and
started my day with an hour and a half ballet class. Then I changed into my school uniform, gray wool culottes and a white blouse, and I went to math and English class. After lunch, I took another ballet class followed by science and history. It became a familiar routine – dance, school, dance, school, homework, wash out leotards and tights, sew ribbons on pointe shoes, eat and sleep.

I had my own room in a dormitory type place called McLean
Gardens. Other girls from out of town lived there, too and we had what they called “a house mother,” but she didn’t live on site and we barely saw her. When I was in dance class or the school room, I was immersed in what I was doing and I was fine. Some remarkable things happened there, like Jackie Kennedy bringing her daughter Caroline there to take ballet classes once a week. We spied on her in an atmosphere charged with learning and creativity, but when I got back to my room, the loneliness was staggering. I had no one to help me with my homework, no one to hear about my day, no one to laugh with me and no one to hold me when I cried.

I called my parents sobbing a few times and they reminded me that I could move back home any time I wanted. They would come and get me, but I didn’t want that. My mother had found the school but I was the one who had decided to go. I just wanted to cry and follow my dream to be a professional ballet dancer since there were no schools for that in my small town in Massachusetts. I steeled myself to cope with the loneliness and I worked as hard as any
athlete to become the best.  

I continued to train when I moved to New York two years later and I got what I wanted. At 16 years old, I became the youngest member of the Harkness company. I felt accomplished even after I left the ballet, but the depth of loneliness from my youth had been so profound and ingrained, I never really got over it. It still creeps, undetected, into my psyche when I’m not looking and I’m fourteen all over again, alone, isolated and abandoned.

The subconscious mind doesn’t know what year it is. Brain loops
that were set in place in adolescence keep looping with no awareness that they aren’t relevant any more. I work with them. When my mind spins out of control, I remember that I’m an adult now and I have close people who love me and want to help me when I need it. I remind myself what year it is. I remind myself how old I am and I draw on the inner strength I cultivated as an athlete.

My personal experiences belong solely to me but my wounding is not unique. No matter how dedicated we are to moving on, we all have scars that stay with us, painful memories that cause us suffering after they’re long gone. It’s part of being human, but so is healing. Our physical bodies are built to heal and so are our minds. If we have compassion and patience and take the time to listen to ourselves, if we gentle ourselves along and stop beating ourselves up, we can heal the most difficult and destructive wounds.

Covering up scars doesn’t make them go away. Rather it turns them into tyrants that hide in the shadows and strike without warning. I’ve
discovered that the more awareness I bring to my memories, the less potent they become. The sharp edges of my past pain dissolve when I face them head on and the more I treat my myself with kindness, the sooner I find hope and healing.

Have you ever asked yourself, how old are you?