Steven Phillips – Mental Health

Sharing an old school friends strength and determination

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Speaking out about my experience with mental illness is something I have been toing and froing about for a while weather or not to write this blog. After dialogue with my family, close friends, and my mental health team I want to share my story to raise awareness and lessen the stigma associated with mental illness.

I used to be a very confident person and enjoyed life. I was very career driven and had a list of personal goals the length of a football field, leading a very structured life.

In December 2012 I lost my wife Brenda to breast cancer. She had been diagnosed while pregnant in March earlier that year and my little boy Oliver was only 4 months old when she passed away.  I felt that I had grieved ok – I would have the odd panic attack here and there but my health has since been…

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Revisiting the past

Way back in November my most wonderful dance teacher put a shout out for ex pupils to come join in his dance schools 30th year celebrations. I’ve struggled with my body image ever since being plagued by the spd during my 6th pregnancy. I’ve been left overweight and really unable to exercise to the high impact I so wish to.

But I look back at my dancing years with upmost fondness. Precious memories of Saturday morning rituals of ballet, tap and jazz, changing room gossip, dance school friend banter and the love and belief that was ingrained into us by our teacher and his glamorous mother. So I couldn’t really say no. 

The first rehearsal was approaching and I was full of self doubt. I think when you spend your entire life caring for others and ensuring their needs are met you forget your own strengths and skills. How could the me now go back and dance being the size I am? Fortunately the rehearsal was on a Sunday and my hubby would be on kids duty whilst I went dancing! I pulled up my big girl pants and got on with it. 

I packed my best mum black leggings, comfy tshirt and trainers in a bag and headed off. A few of us arranged to meet up for coffee first- catch up about each other’s lives, discuss what the show would be like and most of all laugh. We shared various memories of dances, costumes and events- it was heart warming that all that time had passed and we had all grown older but underneath the guise of adulthood lay the same young girls who loved dance so passionately and fiercely. 

Coffees finished we all walked up to the same old church hall that was our hang out during most weekends, some weekdays and many a summer for Summer school for various workshops. A collection of adults nervous with excitement of what the next few hours would entail and what past students would be there to join us on the wonderful ride. 

Immediately we were all met with love, kindness and welcome hugs from friends who who featured so prominately in our childhoods. There was a buzz when in the dance hall. Our teacher absolutely blown away by the amount of past students who had given up their Sunday to dance for him. 

A quick change in the oh so familiar bathroom. I came out and looked into the same mirror I had watched my teenage self grow up in each Saturday class. Gone was my little waist, lithe arms and dancer shape. The lady looking back in the mirror didn’t resemble – a dancer but a mother, a care giver. The lines of my body which used to be taught and disciplined had vanished in favour of a softer me. 

Big deep breath, walk through two sets of swing doors and let’s begin.

On our dance teachers  instruction we all lined up uniformly with beating hearts and dry mouths. All from different year groups, different ages and even some professionals amongst us.  Bizarrely once we’d run through the routine a few times and  ironed out timing glitches the fear vanished. My cumbersome body was working overtime to ensure I was moving in time and doing the correct moves but I was smiling. It didn’t matter that I stood before my teacher in civvies clothes and not Lycra and dance shoes. The skills and techniques which had been engrained in my brain a life time ago were still there. The love of music, Rythmn and movement which I craved so badly as a youngster hadn’t left me even if my fit dancer shaped body had. 

I left the practice with friends and felt a strange shift in my confidence. The happy serotonin produced from dance had made me feel better about myself. I had not lost my skill it had just lay dormant for a great number of years. Armed with a video to practice with and thoughts of an impending costume this wee Mother was filled with happiness. 

   

 Months flew in and the show was approaching. Could I dance again on a stage to a paying audience? Mother me is very much a watcher , not a participator. I watch my beautiful kids school shows with pride and my talented husband singing and playing regularly in his band. Inside I’m itching to join in but my lacking confidence doesn’t allow. But this show I’m representative of my two sisters, who sadly couldn’t participate, I couldn’t let anyone down. 

Dress rehearsal was fun , to OK my chosen outfit and get to grips with dancing with a sequin encrusted hat. I’d bought a comfortable black lace dress and had leggings underneath with some ‘easy to dance in’dressy shoes. My friend remarked I should have my legs on show. I hate full length photos of myself and I wasn’t sure that this was something in which I felt comfortable with. But I took her comment on board. It was delightful to sit in amongst the other present students rehearsal and share in their experience. Beautiful dancers en pointe so graceful and a true pleasure to watch. I loved being able to witness on the faces of others the exact feelings I had so many years ago of enjoyment , confidence and a real sense of pride in their movement.

Preparation  for the show -ensuring my wee show bag was packed, albeit in a very mummy fashion , Baby wipes for every eventuality and enough make up for the stage. I went in early to practice with more past student from further afield. Home life and juggling of children, dinner and the penultimate arrival of the husband to let me away unfortunately made me later than I’d wanted . I arrived half way through our sequence, I was dancing on stage in jeans and hiking boots! I’d forgotten about the immense heat of the stage lights shining down upon you. After the run through more hugs welcoming each other. For some almost 20 years had past but the friendships were still as clear. 

I was nervous. I’d had an early tea before coming out and my stomach was nervous knots. I rested and watched a video montage of past photos, shows and a few heartfelt messages of thanks from professionals whom had passed through the school. There was an underlying theme of genuine affection for one another ‘The Dance Family’ . I felt complete gratitude being able to be part of the amazing establishment responsible for bringing so much joy to families , so many families over the years. Generations of dance crazed, musical theatre loving disciplined dancers all down to one man. An amazing teacher, mentor and latterly good friend. 

My wonderful Mum brought my two beautiful daughters along to watch the show. I was fortunate to be able to watch the first half. Beautiful costumes on energetic dancers with beaming smiles and happy hearts. Carefully choreographed routines dances with such precision from the elder students and little young ones who’s performances always steal the show. It was then I thought back to the effort that my parents made to allow us to dance, the number of dance shows my granny and Mum must have watched us in, the number of shoes we all must have been purchased. Truly blessed. 

The interval came and that point I said good bye to being a watcher and hello again to being a performer. My dance sisters all readying ourselves to shine. Outfits selected make up applied for the stage and enough glitter spray applied to resemble a glitter ball. Practises being ran through……..a 5, 6, 7, 8. Nerves playing on my mind. My supportive Mum and encouraging girls there to watch. Travelling down the back stairwell nervous excitement – adrenalin pumping. A mixture of sheer terror and the anticipation of something wonderful about to happen.

The talented Tracey leading us all on our journey to the past. Music starts,  off she goes – curtains open. Exposed for being me. Little round me transforms into the most smiley performer. Steps remembered I’m at the front of the stage and I see my Mums eyes upon me and she is beaming with pride.The tiny wee faces I’ve created staring up at their Mum smiling, not the Mum who is always cooking, washing and looking after them -their Mum the dancer. The routine goes well we are all in time, no major mistakes and everyone is loving it’s! Adults who thought their dancing days were gone up there delivering the choreographed steps like pros. The main man joins us on the stage, all our feet tapping out the same beats and hats carried in arms stretched above our heads in glorious lines. I’m dancing for me. 

Arms up take a bow and the applause erupt. My wee body which I doubt and don’t give enough respect to had performed it’s wee heart out. Quick dash for finale. We are all giddy with excitement. Doors open and I’m standing this shape  I’m not to keen on vulnerable. I clock my beaming family – this old bird did good. We sing as a whole school collective a hit from the musical ‘grease’ . Audience members are up jigging and the atmosphere is electric. After dancing with a friend I’ve got my eldest girl in my hand and my little girl in my arms. Priceless to let them share in my joy and participate in something which has been such a big part of my life. 

We stand a trio as the show ends. I’m buzzing and so are all around me. My girls and mum are praising me and the show. We travel home late and after my tired girls travel off to dreamland my post show excitement takes a time to subside. 

A slow day with my children followed taking stock of last nights happenings and the thrill of it all. No rehearsals were necessary for the second nights performance so arrival to the venue would be much later. Donning my dancers mask of stage make up and easing myself into my costume. I think I was more nervous this time, the last nights show is always a sell out. Time ticked on and with red lipstick applied, glittered all over and legs on show this lady was ready. 

Cars lined the very long street outside the venue – a testament to its popularity with the town. My fellow ‘old timers’ were around, some as mothers dealing with the backstage madness in dressing rooms passing their love of dance on to their children, some watching the show and others helping out behind the scenes. 

We gathered in a side room and the kinship between each other was apparent. All sharing ourexperience sof last night creating new memories to hold in our hearts forever. The show was a celebration of our love of dance, razzamatazz and the respect and admiration we all have for our mentor, teacher and friend. 

Once able we travelled through to the main dressing area. Our collective were comfortable with each other, new friendships were formed. Mingling, small rehearsals took place and a few prosecco bottles were popped open. Sharing a small glass of fizz mentally preparing our dance smiles and posture. Abundant use of smart phones ensued documenting a’selfie’ or two of many smiling dancers. 

The second half went by in a flash as groups of dancers filtered in and out of their dressing rooms to perform. Before we knew it our group was called. The level of excitement was unreal. Any performance comes with excitement and nerves but the atmosphere of the last night of a show just somehow can’t be matched. For me also I knew our dancing school ‘auntie’ who was actually more of grandparent to us all would be in attendance. This lady had a never ending supply of heartfelt hugs for us all, a gentle voice, dressed glamorously and had a penchant for novelty brooches the more sparkly and bling the better. 

Dancers before us exited the stage. It was time to take our place,  sparkly hat in hand and dance our socks off on stage for one last time. The beat of the music filtered through the sound system I took a big deep breath and executed my older body to meet the routines steps. My energy levels were high and the smile on my face so very wide. The atmosphere was electric as we ‘whooped’ and ‘cheered’ ourselves through the final steps synchronised in harmony with one another. 

As we reached for the stars with our fabulous hats before taking a bow I thought to myself. My tired semi worn out body has gone the distance. Although larger than my group members I’d kept up, performed just like them. I thought I should believe in myself more. For performing you very much need to believe in your self and have faith that you ‘can’. Happiness radiated all around me. High fives, hugs and congratulations were passed around. 

The finale was to follow. Our spirits were high as we all filtered into the main auditorium. The whole school sang collectively in unison celebrating a marvellous show to mark our teachers 30th year. All highly emotive. A grand decadent building packed to the rafters for our one special man. 

A past student Jennifer who has gained major success within musical industry addressed the audience giving thanks for the foundations of working hard, being the best that we could be, meeting our potential and having belief in ourselves that attending the school had instilled upon us.  She touched on our most precious ‘auntie’ unable to express the love and care this lady radiated and was saddened that present day students wouldn’t have the privilege of knowing her like we had. 

These individuals helped to shape us as adults. At that point tears began to well in all our eyes. The beaming smiles turned to thoughtful faces. My friend touched upon how cherished our mentor is in all our lives. He had stated in a past show that even though we don’t belong to him whilst we perform he felt part of us would be always be his. Reiterating this fact she agreed that part of us would always belong to him/ the school. 

 Well at that point everyone was teary, dancers comforted each other. He was presented with thoughtful tokens from past and present students. We were the result of 30 years hard graft from humble beginnings to the established , flourishing well respected school he has today. I’m eternally grateful to be part of it all. 

Upon exiting the hall I made a pit stop to say hello to everyone’s special auntie still as beautiful and glamorous as she was during our attendance at the school. A sparkly brooch upon her jacket . I held her familiar hand, embraced her and placed  a soft kiss upon her cheek. A small affectionate return for the many years of love I had received. 

A colossal after party followed, drinks flowed, the dance floor was never empty. Smile filled faces shared jokes and laughter. Assistant teachers presented him with a cake. More memories were made. It’s been a pleasure and meeting up with friends from the past has been extremely important. Friends whom played a large part in your past. They get your jokes , know you well and even though a large amount of time had passed things were just the same. Dancing family for life. 

Personally I thank you Ian R McLeod for this coming together of like minded souls for reminding me of my own self worth. It’s been liberating finding comfort in my plus sized self. Learning to appreciate my capabilities and celebrate myself, realising my potential and embracing life again X