My name is Dana Stephensen and welcome to The Balance Point(e).
Some people may know me as a Soloist with The Australian Ballet. Being a ballerina is a huge part of my identity and always has been, but really that’s just the middle part of this story.
I have danced for as long as I can physically remember being aware of walking. Aged 3, at the back of my elder sister’s Jazz class, I began my journey to a life enriched with dance by cartwheeling across the room to Kylie Minogue. I never looked back. I grew up in Brisbane, dancing almost every day of the week and never wanting anything different. I enjoyed school, I was a high-achiever and demanded excellence in myself in any arena. It seemed only natural to have a positive outlook on life and I really believed I could do anything.
I moved to Melbourne aged 16 to attend The Australian Ballet School which was an intensive 3 year training course to prepare you the professional ballet world. In my final year in the School, I was seconded to The Australian Ballet Company to dance in most of their seasons while still studying during the day. It was a dream come true, I was definitely on the right path and I threw myself into it with full enthusiasm. I was dancing 8.30am until 10.30pm with a short hour break somewhere in there. I remember none of the tiredness just how awesome it was to be dancing.
It was a huge year of growth, improvement and inspiration but also a huge amount of stress both physically and emotionally. I prided myself that I could actually achieve all of this at once and not falter. Like most 18 year olds, I felt invincible. I graduated at the end of the year with my first full time professional ballet contract. All the hard work had really paid off and that was a great feeling.
Soon after joining the Company, I contracted Viral Meningitis. Not long after, I struggled through repeated bouts of tonsillitis requiring antibiotics and I caught every cold, flu and stomach bug going around. I had chronic reflux which had me sleeping upright some nights. My guts were in turmoil, I wasn’t digesting food very well and obviously not gaining any nutrition from whatever was going in. My stomach was mostly in distress and I had all the accompanying bloating, cramping and all sorts of pain that came with it.
This high performance career and I was not about to slow down. Our discipline and work ethic is engraved in our very bones and we just grit out teeth and keep going. It was only when I began fainting while on holiday, five times in a week that something seemed really amiss. I also had numbness and tingling in my extremities which our physiotherapists could not find a reason to explain despite thorough investigation and testing. Then the anxiety crept in. Something really wasn’t right.
My body, the very thing that allowed me to dance was slowly breaking down and I was not in control.
I pulled myself out of bed solely through habit and the thought that one day it might just get better. It’s just a rough patch you have to get though, I thought. Onwards and upwards. Just keep turning up. The Australian Ballet performs up to 200 shows a year and I was wading through the haze in every one of them, 6 days a week.
The fainting spells began on a mid-season break. I had never been ‘a fainter,’ but it kept happening and it became a real concern. I had a very slow resting heart rate, 48 beats per minute which is extremely slow. Although this can be the sign of an extremely fit person, when combined with the dizziness and weakness that came alongside, it was not to be admired. Standing still on stage was a prime time for fainting and being extra exhausted made the problem worse.
My body was completely slowing down and grinding to a halt. I was sad, petrified, anxious and lost.
Within the year I had gained 11kg, a significant amount of weight for anyone but especially someone so active. I was in a leotard everyday, in front of mirrors and I had huge issues with embarrassment and shame even though my body was trying its best just to keep going. My confidence, already teetering with my declining health, completely waned. I was embarrassed to dance in front of people which made performing in front of 1000’s of people extremely difficult.
Being on stage has always been a home for me, somewhere that brings me happiness and relief in the art of self expression. It has always been a welcoming space and yet now it was filled with fear. I was used to being seen as strong and dependable, filling in last minute for people and ever the optimistic one. I no longer felt any of those feelings. I felt lost and the body I knew was nowhere to be found. I started to think that it was time to give up, to stop dancing. This wasn’t the career that I had worked so hard for. Was this the end of the road for me?
And so my immune system continued to falter, I was cold all the time, legitimately depressed and foggy in the brain. The best way to describe the overwhelming sensation was tired but wired. I had troubles sleeping because I was buzzing on the inside but yet so desperate for proper restorative sleep.
Dancing no longer brought me joy because I felt so low. I had lost my spark, the very thing that lit me up from the inside. The very sense of ‘me’ that makes me ‘me.’ Most people didn’t know what to do with me, some people tried to help in their own way and some people gave up on me. That was pretty brutal knowing that I did have some talent and spark hiding deep inside and yet all the lights had gone out to the world. No one was home apparently.
In my second year dancing professionally, I remember standing as a Bridesmaid at the back of Act III Don Quixote, with tears streaming down my face and nothing making them stop. Not my best friend beside me, nor an entire audience watching. I was crying for feeling so lost, for not being able to dance well, for lost opportunity, for being afraid, for getting to this point and for failing to control the free fall. It felt like it was all my fault. That was one of the lowest of the low points.
I look back at that young girl, barely 20 years old, so obviously burning with questions but equally burnt out and still have tears for her now. I have so much empathy, compassion and love for that girl who was so lost and yet kept going any way she knew how. I cry for how tenacious she was even when she felt like she was drowning. I wish I could answer some of those questions and tell her that one day someone will help her and things will get better.
I wish I could have known then that this was all part of the journey. That I would end up learning so much more about my body and life through being unwell in these moments, than through being strong and healthy every day. It will help form me as a person, as someone who could help others, as someone who knows what it’s like to overcome obstacles when it’s not all going your way. It will make me grateful for dancing and what it can bring me now. It will build a sense of self and a sense of pride in my body that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Not long after, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an auto-immune thyroid disease and the full picture started to make sense. The cause of the immune system attack against the thyroid gland is unknown but there a few key factors: genetic predisposition (a strong indicator in my case) the hormonal fluctuations in a woman that increase the risk; some type of microbe such as a virus or bacteria that prompts the immune system to switch over to attack mode; or a period of chronic stress.
Hashimoto’s is the most common cause of hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid. The thyroid gland is the captain of the ship that is your hormonal system. When it’s not on board, the rest falls apart in a quick cascade. The thyroid releases hormones that regulate your metabolism (how your cells make and use energy), body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, how you handle stress, how well you sleep.
Having an auto-immune thyroid condition is like a game of snakes and ladders – when your thyroid is in an ‘attack stage’ or a flare up, everything is moving very quickly and you can feel amazing, like flying. The alternative is the big low when it’s dragging itself along the ground, struggling to produce enough hormone to function. I had come to see the ups and downs as just how I was, not knowing there was a cellular reason why I would swing up and down and lack consistency.
My body was attacking itself, and it chose my thyroid to do so. It was putting up all the signals and I had to stop and listen. Interestingly enough, the thyroid is located in our throat and from here we communicate. I needed to listen to what my body was telling me.
So begun the journey to discover what all this meant and what steps I would take moving forward. I began to see that what my body was really craving was a sense of balance. I was quite literally fluctuating between highs and lows but my body had lost the ability to see the middle ground. I was used to flying really high in an up phase or scraping along in a down phase. What was triggering this? What could I look at and change? How could I take the edge off both the highs and lows and come a bit closer to average?
It has been step by step process, a few steps forward and a couple back. Overall though, it’s been a fairly dynamic journey towards feeling more balanced, lowering my thyroid antibodies, optimising my thyroid function through diet and looking at how certain foods play their role. Ultimately, my looking inwards and questioning has allowed me to continue dancing professionally. I had to put in the time, do the work, collate and be totally honest with myself about what was needed. I worked out that adopting a gluten free diet, dropping cow’s milk and steering well clear of soy gave me the best possible blueprint to digest food well and thrive. I learned how to cook properly for myself with these so called ‘limitations,’ much more so than before. I learned that striving and pushing all the time is not the best path for me. I learned that I had to be gentler to myself and that instead of being strong, I could be flexible. I could make choices, I could choose what I needed each day. I could be self-reliant rather than reliable.
When I was pregnant with my son, after years of my campaigning I was finally given Thyroxine to take each morning, supplemental thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone is incredibly important for a growing baby’s brain development and it was not even a question that I was to be taking an appropriate dose immediately from 7 weeks pregnant. After years of pleading to try this medication, it was like someone turned on the main power switch. Even with the fluctuating hormones during pregnancy, breastfeeding and the wobbly postpartum thyroid phase that affects a lot of women, I still came through okay and my levels have been stable for a couple of years now. My thyroid antibodies are the lowest they have been since I was diagnosed.
I’m technically in active prevention mode and I do my very best each day to remain that way. Naturally, there are ups and downs but the waves don’t seem quite as crushing and I can usually ride them out with a few little wobbles here and there. I pick up on the warning signs early now. I enjoy the feeling of hyperactivity when I’ve been pushing too hard for too long, but there is a quiet voice in my mind that whispers, “Okay, that’s enough now.”
I’m a Soloist in one of the world’s major ballet companies and it is not lost on me that I almost gave up on that just because I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Because I had a puzzle that needed working out, a condition that needed support. I have gathered a trusted inner circle of Health Practitioners in My Wellbeing Circle who support me on my journey and have encouraged me to really listen in.
Nutrition has played a huge role in my recovery to good health; it’s the first point of call for feeding our cells each day with the building blocks they need for growth and healing. I have learned what works for me, how to navigate an unusual schedule that sees dinner at 11.30pm after a show, how to eat well when on tour, what not to eat before a show, the role of nervous energy on digestion and so much more.
The more I learn, the more passion I feel for nutrition not only from the food we eat but the other aspects of our lives as well. Finding some kind of self-belief, self-kindness and self-love in a career that is stereotypically about being perfect and invincible has been the hardest seed to nurture.
What we feed, love and nurture, grows.
I would like to inspire others to listen to their bodies, listen to when something doesn’t feel right, source the help they need, get well and feel vibrant to be able to achieve their dreams. I want to inspire people that health is a daily lifestyle choice and that it’s the everyday part that counts. A healthy lifestyle is not a fad, is not a detox diet, is not a juice fast and is not about deprivation. Being healthy is a privilege and I think we owe it to ourselves to honour that privilege by making choices that enhance our livelihood and wellbeing rather than detract from enjoyment in our lives.
Nutrition is much more than what goes on your plate – it’s how we nourish ourselves every day through much more than food: the relationships we share, the work we do, how we spend our leisure time, the thoughts we think about ourselves, feeling valued in a community, how we connect with nature, how we manage stress in our lives and ultimately, our we go about fulfilling our individual purpose in this world. This goes for everyone, both dancers and non-dancers alike. I am no expert, and I would never claim to be, I only have my own experience.
For me, my auto-immune disease was a major wake up call, a minor one in the grand scheme of things perhaps, but for me it was a roadblock to being healthy and a career I loved. Each piece of the puzzle plays its role, and the puzzle is always being slightly tweaked, it’s an ongoing creative work in progress. The adjustments are what I call my balance points.
I’m a ballerina, a mum and a qualified Holistic Health Coach from my time studying at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. It all comes together here at The Balance Point(e).