Accepting an Uninvited Guest in My Body: Parkinson's

By: Shannon McGuire

I have lived with Parkinson’s Disease for over 10 years, yet I am living proof that there are multiple benefits from dancing for those suffering from neurodegenerative disorders. Nia, in my experience, is particularly beneficial because it combines multiple disciplines to challenge many aspects of our physical selves; not only adding relief to the symptoms of disease, but actually fighting the disease itself. Nia also provides a foundation for gaining acceptance of our bodies in their own uniqueness and a format to apply these acceptance skills to life in general.

I will soon be “celebrating” my 10th anniversary of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At the same time of the diagnosis, I was also diagnosed with two herniated discs in my neck which required surgery.  My son was preparing for his first deployment and I was an emotional, as well as a physical, mess. I didn’t want my son to worry about me, and I wanted to enjoy my four young grandchildren who live near me. I remember thinking I would do whatever I could to maintain my independence for 10 years. I loved to walk, and my partner was determined to help keep me hiking, no matter how slowly I went, or if I had to crawl to get up a hill.

My situation grew worse over the next few years. I began to get anxiety attacks; I suffered with pain and anemia from fibroids, which ultimately required two surgeries. The surgery on my neck helped the pain and I had some movement in my left arm, but my back muscles were so weak I could barely lift myself from a kneeling to a standing position. I left my job because I could no longer function well enough to do it. I remember trying a dance video and having to support myself between two chairs to move my hips. It was a very low point.

Upon retirement, I dedicated myself to rebuilding my strength. When I was working, I needed to save my energy to show up every day. For a year or more my neurologist and I experimented with medications and I pushed myself to be active. I started to look for more activities I could do besides walk. I hesitantly began looking for a dance class I might be able to handle. I remembered an introductory Nia class I went to with a friend years earlier. Almost three years ago I signed up for classes, and my life began to change in ways I could have not foreseen.

My teacher, Kathryn Kelley, was very encouraging. The classes gave immediate benefit to my FAMSS (flexibility, agility, mobility, strength and stability). She would notice improvements in my balance and movement. I stayed at the back of the class, because I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way, but each class my spirit soared a little more. Soon, I began to notice hiking was beginning to get easier; I had more energy and could keep up easier. Over time, I noticed my balance issues on uneven surfaces and stepping over things had improved. At class I occasionally surprised myself, accomplishing movements I hadn’t been able to do in years. All this time, my spirit was growing as well.

My first healing breakthrough came in the early months of doing Nia. During FloorPlay, Kathryn guided us to say “thank you” to our bodies. For the first time, I realized the extent that I had been fighting my body, fighting myself for having Parkinson’s. It opened a floodgate for me. I finally had a tool to begin my journey of acceptance, to understand Parkinson’s was not a weakness in me, but more of an uninvited guest that had moved into my body. As such, I felt empowered. I could set parameters to protect my body, even if I had to live with this guest in my house. I was on the journey of healing; I was learning how to dance through life.

All those years I had rarely spoken about my disease. Secretly I was ashamed of it. With Kathryn’s encouragement, I went to a Parkinson’s support group meeting she was speaking at and spoke publicly about my experiences. I was encouraged to attend a White Belt training and did in August 2014. I was so proud to complete the training! I now offer a Nia class specifically for people with different movement needs.

The journey I have travelled with Nia allows me to say I am “celebrating” 10 years of Parkinson’s. I look forward to many more years of independence. My Parkinson’s continues, but my physical activity keeps it manageable, and my Nia practice deepens my ability to thrive, not just survive. I am grateful.

Shannon McGuire is a retired banker. She is the mother of two and a grandmother of six. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's February 2006. She has been a student of Nia for three years. You can find her on Facebook at Nia Pathways with Shannon