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Injured dancer feels like she's lost her identity

DEAR CAROLYN: Until last year, I was a professional ballet dancer. Dancing is all I ever wanted to do and I trained nonstop since I was 6. I got into a great program and as soon as I graduated, I was one of the lucky few who got a job onstage. Last year, I fell — not while dancing — and badly fractured my leg. There were complications and it was a long, slow battle. I'm finally better and it looks like I'll dance again, but doctors have said I will not have the stamina to dance professionally, not now, probably not ever. I'm devastated. I don't know who I am, if I'm not a dancer. People keep suggesting I can teach, but I don't have the temperament and don't really like children and don't have the experience or reputation to draw older students. I need to figure out what to do with my life but I just want to curl up and cry. My savings are gone due to medical bills, and my boyfriend and friends are all dancers. Everyone kept telling me things would get better, but they've gotten worse. I can't tell my family since they all just want so much for me to be OK that I pretend I am. But I'm not. What do I do?

Lost

LOST: This sounds devastating, I'm sorry.

But not hopeless. "Doctors have said" is not the same thing as a certainty. If you want this, then Plan A is to go get it.

You'll need a Plan B only if Plan A proves impossible.

But work on one anyway, because there was always going to be an "after" for your dance career to some degree — and you can think through one even as you train.

I also urge you not to reject so many possible Plan B's out of hand. Can't teach, don't like kids, can't get adult students ... these are the "nopes" of someone who hasn't yet tried. As I say to my kids (who I am sure never want to hear this again): Don't cut yourself before you even try out.

You are also an artist, from the inside out. That inside hasn't changed.

And when the business of dance returns to stages, it will be the end product of multiple career paths, not just dancing — from choreography to philanthropy to physical therapy. Widen your scope. Again, just in case.

You also say your people aren't available to you as support, but withdrawing from them (preemptively?) is not the answer. The answer is to do the extra work to engage. To isolate yourself in your negative feelings is potentially dangerous to your mental health. What your family wants is for you to be well, not to get sicker from pretending you're well.

On this medical journey, were you ever evaluated for depression? It could explain your sense of hopelessness.

Even if what you're feeling isn't depression, there's still a cloud around your thinking. You have life left, you have spirit, you have value. You just don't know yet where you'll take them. That's scary but also normal; it takes time to see all the ways to take who you still are and put this person — who is injured, not erased — on a rewarding new path.

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