“Ballroom Was My Defibrillator” – A Conversation with Elizabeth Thomson

When I first spoke with Nicholas Barkley and Elizabeth Thomson about doing an interview for the blog, I also proposed a second set of individual interviews. Their stories of how ballroom became the key to coping with their PTSD were incredible and deserved their own spaces, separate from their shared story of becoming an amateur couple.

Liz was kind enough to make time for me during one of her visits down to Orange County. We met at my studio after one of my dance lessons and talked for over an hour. While we sat stretched out on the floor of the teachers’ break room, Liz shared her journey, from enlisting in the Army to getting diagnosed with PTSD to finding relief in ballroom. Although she still struggles, ballroom has been Liz’s defibrillator. It brought her back to life and saved her from becoming “just another PTSD statistic.”

In the beginning

Liz always wanted to be a nurse. Stories of Florence Nightingale and her battlefield nursing had inspired her since she was a child. So naturally, when it came time for her to choose a path for a college degree, she entered a nursing program. One day in 2001, while in class, the instructor asked the students what kind of nursing specialty they were interested in. Liz said whatever was the closest to battlefield nursing. The instructor told her that there weren’t really any battlefields anymore and probably wouldn’t be, but suggested trauma would be the closest to what she was looking for. One month later was September 11.

Liz felt compelled to do something. She tried to volunteer at Ground Zero, but they were looking for fully-trained nurses and she was only halfway through her degree. She tried the Red Cross, but they already had enough volunteers. She considered finishing her degree and then getting involved, but she couldn’t wait. So she tried the military.

After the Air Force told her they couldn’t guarantee her the job she wanted, she turned to the Army. She had spoken with a recruiter in high school and returned to the office where he worked. She thought if he still worked there, she would take it as a sign that this was what she’s supposed to do. He wasn’t in the recruitment office when she walked in, but was just out running an errand. So she left a message for him, and he called her back right away. She couldn’t sign up as a nurse because she didn’t have her full degree yet, but she could sign up as a medic.

I said, “Ok, how can I get to the front lines as a medic?” He said, “well, have you thought about jumping out of planes?” I said, “Nooo, I don’t want to do that.” And he said, “Well, if you want to be out in the front lines, that’s the quickest way to get out there.” I said, “Ok, sign me up before I can say no.”

In the Army now

Liz officially signed up for the Army in October 2001. Starting in January 2002, she proceeded to go through basic, medic and airborne training over a course of seven months in three different states. After training, she was stationed in Fort Bragg briefly before being deployed to Afghanistan in January 2003. In barely a year, she went from being a young nursing student to an Army medic shipped overseas.

She worked in an army clinic set up in an airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Her duties included treating soldiers who came to the clinic with injuries from the front lines, actually going out with infantry on various missions like weapon searches, as well as weekly humanitarian missions with the locals. The contradictory nature of these missions was not lost on her. She was also part of the praise and worship group since she could sing and play guitar. While this was a way to provide a little joy and comfort through religious services, it also meant she participated in a lot of memorial services for her fallen brothers and sisters.

It didn’t take long for Liz to start having trouble sleeping. She didn’t want to sleep because she would only have nightmares. Not wanting to be alone in her barracks either, Liz would spend nights in a friend’s room, both of them falling asleep with the TV on.

I didn’t really think much of it. In the military, you’re taught to put all your emotions aside and suck it up, drive on. That’s what we had to do…I didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I thought I was just an Army soldier, I was just the Airborne. I was arrogant and I lacked emotion because that’s how we are, that’s how medics are. That’s what you needed to get by.

Coming home

After about eight months, Liz’s tour was over and she returned to the States. She finished up her time with the Army working in a recruiting office, after which she decided not to reenlist. She had lost a lot of the compassion and drive to help her fellow man after witnessing the darker side of humanity. Being confronted with how evil people could be to each other was shocking and disheartening. Her medical skills didn’t go to waste though; she used them to help animals as a veterinarian technician.

She also went back to school full-time, or at least tried. She had several romantic relationships, but none of them lasted. Work provided an escape in its specific tasks she could focus on, but outside of that, Liz was plagued by depression and anxiety.

The first person to suggest that Liz see someone about PTSD was her girlfriend at the time. But she was in denial.

I remember thinking, ‘You’re crazy. What are you talking about? This is normal. This is how I am.’

Liz wanted to get medical benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), so she went to a VA facility for a general medical exam. It was recommended that she see someone about PTSD. The liaison she spoke with insisted she go to get officially diagnosed so she would be able to claim PTSD benefits. She still didn’t believe anything was wrong with her, but went anyway.

After being diagnosed with PTSD, Liz felt a vague sense of comfort, though she remained in denial. It took another year or two before she finally started to accept her condition.

Hitting rock bottom

She found herself sleeping or wanting to sleep all the time. She couldn’t manage to sleep a full night though; she just always napped. When she woke up, she would be assaulted with awful thoughts about herself. Everything was just hard. Liz felt as if she didn’t have any control over anything anymore.

[Because of the depression] I would shut down and wouldn’t feel anything… I had a lot of social anxiety. I couldn’t go to the grocery store during the day. We had 24-hour grocery stores, so I would go at 3 or 4 A.M. when I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of people because I couldn’t stand someone walking behind me in the aisle.

Finally, Liz recognized that she needed to do something. She needed to change how she was living (or barely surviving) or she would become just another PTSD statistic. They’d have to find someone else to sing at her memorial service.

Crawling toward the light

At the time, the VA didn’t offer a whole lot of options. The standard treatment for conditions like PTSD, depression or anxiety was medicate and send them on their way. Liz didn’t want to just pop happy pills, but she also didn’t have the money to seek therapy on her own. All she knew was that she wasn’t happy and that needed to change. So she tried to think of things that made her happy. The depression made it impossible to recall anything at all in her adult life that brought her even a small amount of joy, or made her feel anything at all.

I had to go back to my childhood and think ‘ok, what made me happy when I was five years old?’ Watching cartoons, coloring, playing with Legos…So I started from square one. I got coloring books, I got Legos, I started watching cartoons.

Author’s note: I need everyone to stop for a moment and really think about this. Depression is not logical; therefore, forming logical thoughts (and following through on them!) on how to relieve your depression is nearly impossible. Just getting out of bed and putting clothes on can be a feat when you’re depressed. I don’t think Liz realizes how amazing she is to be able to come up with an idea like using activities that made her happy as a child as a way to start climbing out of her pit of despair and then actually act on that idea! I just needed to pause and make sure everyone was aware how incredible this was. Ok, continuing on…

Then came dance

Liz worked her way through her adolescence, recalling one thing after another that once brought her joy. When she reached her high school years, she remembered that swing dancing, particularly lindy hop, once brought her great happiness. She had even started a swing club at her school back in the day. So she looked for a local studio where she could take some lindy hop lessons.

Getting to the introductory private lesson she signed up for was a feat in itself. Not only was it a social activity, it was a NEW and UNKNOWN social activity. The anxiety kicked into high gear. But Liz still got herself to the studio. The studio didn’t actually have anyone available to teach lindy hop specifically, so Liz ended up with an introductory lesson in various ballroom dances. It didn’t take much to get her hooked; Liz walked out with a package of ballroom lessons that day.

She avoided group classes at first, and sometimes she would cancel her private lessons because the effort to get herself to the studio was just too much. But gradually, Liz started to feel some relief. The studio had practice parties on Fridays with a group class beforehand. She started going to the Friday night group classes and staying for some of the party. It was exhausting, but she did it and continued to make herself go.

Soon, she started showing up at ALL of the group classes. She made friends and even shared her condition with some of them. Those who knew were extremely encouraging and made her feel welcome and safe.

Finding her path

She continued this way, just social dancing at the studio, for a few years before she started to get serious about competitive dancing. She trained in Latin with one instructor and worked on Standard with another. You know from April’s interview with Liz and her partner Nick that they compete in American Smooth. Liz actually avoided the style at first! She had this idea that she was just too much of a tomboy and she wouldn’t be able to pull off the feminine grace and elegance that Smooth dancers exuded. The switch to Smooth actually happened by accident.

It was at a Friday night party at Sway [Ballroom Studio], and they played a waltz. Kyle [her instructor] was like ‘hey, you want to try your Standard routine to this?’ I said, ‘yeah sure, what the heck.’ He accidentally started leading me into some open stuff, and I followed it without flinching… As soon as we finished, he asked, ‘how come you’re not dancing Smooth?’

At their next lesson, Liz and her instructor did some work on Smooth. It took Liz only a few lessons with her instructor and another coach to seal the deal – Smooth was her dance! Her first competition in Smooth was the 2013 Holiday Dance Classic. Liz had only been working on the style for a couple months and Holiday is a big comp, so she didn’t have high expectations. But she took first place in bronze! After that, she continued to consistently place high in pro-am Smooth. Tomboy or not, this girl obviously had what it took to be a Smooth ballroom dancer.

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Liz finally felt like she was on the right path too; the things and people that she needed were suddenly appearing when she needed them. It took a little while for her to realize the incredible effect ballroom was having on her though. A couple events cemented the idea that she needed ballroom in her life.

Just before her switch to Smooth, Liz was in a car accident that left her with a bad back injury. She recovered, but the time she spent unable to dance and the fear of not dancing again made her realize how important dance was for her.

A difficult choice, or not so difficult

She was working for the government at this point and still going to school. She had finished an associate’s degree in criminology and was working on her bachelor’s in psychology, with a goal of going into federal law enforcement. She was in the selection process for the Secret Service and it was going well.

They were very excited about me, and I thought I was very excited about them. But for some reason, every time I would go to an interview, my stomach would hurt. Something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t figure out what it was.

It didn’t become clear until her last interview, when she was told that they wanted her to come on board. It was before she was supposed to compete at Ohio Star Ball. They wanted her to start at the academy as soon as possible; she could get into a class by November. Ohio Star Ball was in November. Liz’s heart sank. She had been working so hard, how could she not go to Ohio?!

Most people would have been excited about the opportunity, but Liz wasn’t. All these wonderful opportunities in ballroom were coming to her effortlessly, and now, in order to pursue a different opportunity, she would have to give all of it up. A job in the Secret Service was one that required complete commitment and would leave no room for private lessons or weekends off to go to competitions.

She talked to her friends and family about her dilemma. Liz’s mom was the one to put things in perspective for her.

She said, ‘Let me ask you one question: if you join the Secret Service, and you’re not able to dance anymore, would you regret it?’ I thought about it and said, ‘yeah I think I would.’ She said, ‘Ok, let me ask you this: if you don’t join the Secret Service and you continue dancing, would you regret it?’ And there was the answer. No, I wouldn’t. I would be sad, but it wouldn’t be devastating to me like losing dance.

As soon as Liz decided to choose dance, everything fell into place. She found her salvation and her path in ballroom.

Present day

After years of darkness and struggle, Liz is now happily married with a son.

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Happy family!

She continues to dance and compete in pro-am ballroom, and as part of a promising amateur partnership.

Ballroom wasn’t a cure. Liz still struggles with the symptoms of PTSD every day. Any little thing can feel like climbing a mountain. She still shuts down sometimes and has to pull herself out of her head and back into reality. But ballroom brought her out of a very dark place and gave her a reason to continue living.

Where she once had to turn to cartoons and Legos, Liz now finds her joy in ballroom dancing. She loves the movement of air that happens, especially in Smooth or Standard. Whether spectating at a competition and feeling that whoosh as the couples dance by, or dancing and being able to create that herself, to Liz, ballroom is almost like being half dancer, half sorcerer. She loves the escape that ballroom provides as she gets to become a different character in each dance. She gets to be someone she wouldn’t be anywhere else in her life. She also finds satisfaction in the physical factor. Ballroom, especially at the competitive level, makes you work, and Liz loves leaving a lesson or practice with a fresh layer of sweat.

It has also inspired her to find a way to bring dance to other veterans who suffer from PTSD or other injuries from war. She and her wife, a professional ballroom dancer, are working on starting a free workshop for veterans and their families that would incorporate dance, movement and talk therapy. I’ll be sure to do a follow-up interview with them when they’re ready to launch their project, which they have dubbed Operation: Rising Phoenix.

Liz has this final message for anyone else who might be struggling:

If anybody reading this article is having a hard time, know that I remember being that person. Whoever’s having a difficult time, you’re not alone. I know you have days when you just can’t do what you want to do. Get a supportive community. I was lucky enough to have some friends at my local ballroom studio who knew what was going on; they encouraged me to come out and that helped me so much. I get that sometimes it’s hard to look and ask for help. Try to get out, and if dance doesn’t speak to you, find something else…photography…art…Legos!

I want to thank Liz for sharing her story with me and my readers. We both hope that it will serve to inspire and help others out there.

As always, happy dancing!

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One thought on ““Ballroom Was My Defibrillator” – A Conversation with Elizabeth Thomson

  1. BCBallroomdancer says:

    Reblogged this on Breast Cancer Ballroom Dancer and commented:
    I was going to post my own post today, but I came across this from The Girl with the Tree Tattoo, and as someone who has recently struggled with debilitating depression, this struck a chord with me. Such an inspiring story and good to know that there are others who also found ballroom to be healing. Thanks to the Girl and Liz for sharing her story!

    Liked by 1 person

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