I used to be a classic workaholic, and after seeing how little work and career really mean when you reach the end of your life, I put on a new emphasis on things I believe count more. These things include: family, friends, being part of a community, and appreciating the little joys of the average day.

Mitch Albom

Arianna Huffington’s Instagram post with the above quote prompted this narrative. Her post was for the #NationalWorkaholicsDay. I wouldn’t have imagined that my experience would merit sharing but an acknowledgment and prompt from Arianna to write more changed that — so here it is.

Workaholic and alcoholic: adjectives that my well-meaning colleague used to describe me. I was extremely ambitious. A perfectionist and an overachiever, I wanted to be the best with everything that I do. I aimed for the highest recognition, whatever that may be. I refused to acknowledge that I was exhausted. Despite symptoms of burnout, I managed my restlessness for change with alcohol. Until one day, that proverbial cliche of “everything was taken away” happened to me.

It was one misfortune after another: My 9-year romantic relationship came to an end, a discovery that a family member whose education I was helping to fund was truant for two years, a massive fight with my parents about finances and support, the rental flat that I’ve called home for six years was prematurely sold by my landlord, and I lost my job. Keeping my head above water was a real struggle, to say the least, with one event hitting whilst recovering from the last. To make it worse, my doctor was unable to prescribe effective medication for my chronic tension headaches. We managed with constantly increasing the dose of my painkiller, plus Amitriptyline… though he didn’t tell me that I was depressed.

Oh, in retrospect, I was wrong. Everything wasn’t taken away from me. Family ties were quickly repaired and true friendships remained. It would be of significance to mention that I was an expat, and at the time of writing this, I am sort of a nomad. The latter is a story for later in this text. The point that I was trying to make — it was another expat friend, who took me salsa dancing, that gave me a lease of new life.

The break up with my ex-partner happened around the same time when there was a messy management transition at work. I took counseling sessions to help myself cope with the overwhelming changes. For six years of being overseas away from family, my life was defined by career ambitions and building a life together with my significant other. Losing proper sense of both, I struggled for meaning.

At the onset, the counseling sessions were helpful. In solitude, my mind played extremely unpleasant tricks with me. An introvert, it was a victory when I finally decided to get out of my head and attend my first salsa class with my friend. In addition to salsa classes, I eventually also went for bachata and kizomba classes. Dance became an almost daily habit.

Noticing the significant impact on my well-being, dance became a priority. I refused to stay glued with work until the late hours of the day, or give into my previous tendency of holing up at home and babying negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In less than a year, I started recovering my self-esteem and was able to navigate through the rest of the big misfortunes which kept on coming with positivity and optimism. Much credit to the kind people whose genuine friendships I discovered through dance.

A lot of literature talks extensively about the mental and physical health benefits of dance. More than the science and the statistics, dance gave me a sense of family overseas and belonging to an international community of mostly joyful people. Interactions in and out of the dance floor gave me a whole new meaning and understanding of the new person I am becoming.

Going back into Mitch Albom’s quote above, I’m yet to be at the end of my life but I’m at the end of a chapter. Albeit a nomad at the moment, I am certain about where, what, and how I want the next chapter to be. Admittedly, getting there isn’t easy as one, two, and three. But as I gain progress with each step and the new chapter takes shape and clarity, I’ll continue on appreciating the little joys of each passing moment and simply just dance it out whenever the blues and fears creep in.

Should you wish to continue reading, here are my mental notes about the more explicit reasons why dance kept me away from ending prematurely in a tombstone:

1. Grounding at the moment, sans the unrealistic expectation of perfection. One of my dance teachers told me, “No one could perfect dance.” Dance would naturally keep on evolving. Acknowledging this fact helped in dealing with my lethal perfectionism. I at least train with the goal of dancing safely, with grace and ease.

2. Gratitude for the experience, regardless if it’s good or bad. Especially after leaving the dance floor on a bad note, introspections have taught me to respect what my body is capable of at a given time. Related to note 1., progress, not perfection. Whenever I’m disappointed that I didn’t execute a pattern properly, I literally would place a hand over my chest, thank my body for the ones I performed well and identify the ones that need improvement. It’s amazing how gratitude could lead to so much compassion.

3. You’re seen, supported, and loved. An extremely warm and powerful statement — my usual takeaway after spending time with my dance crew. Sharing an intense focus and concentration during a three- to five-minute dance addresses our basic human need for connection. Extending that connection beyond the dance floor into proper friendships leads to more meaningful relationships. People sharing a common passion; people being there and supporting one another.