Live On Pointe

Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Story

My name is Clarissa May, and I am a dancer, dreamer, and survivor of a severe concussion and Anorexia Nervosa.  This is my story...

I began dancing in 2005 at the age of four.  My mom put me in my first ballet class because I wouldn't stop pirouetting around the house.  I loved it, and kept dancing from that moment onwards.  As the years passed by, my schedule's intensity increased, until I was dancing 20 hours a week at the studio, when I was only 8.  I soon became my Russian teachers' favorite, which was a blessing and a curse.  The other girls in my level, who were mostly at least a year older, became jealous, and started to bully me outside of the classroom.  I hid in the bathroom at breaks, and started to get chronic stomachaches from the stress.  My schoolwork began to slip by the wayside, along with everything else outside of dance.  The car rides to and from dance began to fill with lectures on my unfinished schoolwork, and our family life began to deteriorate.  I was cast in the lead roll of Dorothy in the spring recital of 2009, but as the rehearsals progressed, the situation at home worsened.  

Age 8, stretching at PCAD

After the show, my mom pulled me out of ballet. She felt the environment at my studio was not emotionally healthy for me, and that I needed to explore other options and interests before continuing my then-current level of commitment to dance. Additionally, I would have been en pointe at age 9, which was not something my parents felt good about. So my mom gave me 6 months to see if I could be happy without dance. 

Eight months later, in February of 2010, I was still terribly missing dance.  I discovered fencing, which I greatly enjoyed. Unfortunately, in March I had a series of blows to the head (2 to the chin in fencing warm up, and one very hard hit to the top of the head getting in to the car - so hard my mom thought we’d had an earthquake as she was loading up the car). These knocks to the head occurred 2 weeks apart, and the morning after the last one I woke up with flu like symptoms. Two days later I had a seizure. Over the next 2 weeks it became apparent that I was suffering from a massive concussion with gradual onset - similar to “boxer syndrome” or a football player’s cumulative injuries. The CT scan showed no bleeding, and I could still spell 3 letter words backwards, so the doctors all said I was fine - despite the fact that I could not so much as look at a book or travel in the car or make a choice between 2 different bathing suits without dizziness, headache, and anxiety attacks. I spent the next few months visiting doctors and natural healers, and lying on the couch with my eyes closed, listening to books on tape while my mom surfed the Internet, trying to figure out what was wrong with me….

Ultimately, my mom was able to piece together that I had injured my hypothalamus, which is located just above the sinus cavity and acts as command central for a myriad of brain functions, ranging from hunger and thirst signals to stress response, body temperature control, blood pressure, heart rate, and hormonal function.

The hypothalamus helps control the pituitary gland, particularly in response to stress. The pituitary, in turn, controls the:

  • Adrenal glands 
  • hormonal production 
  • Thyroid gland
  • The hypothalamus also helps regulate:
  • Body temperature
  • Emotions
  • Growth
  • Salt and water balance
  • Sleep
  • Weight and appetite

    In addition, there are some areas immediately surrounding the hypothalamus which appeared to be impacted as well. These areas control decision making and vision, so I had chronic dizziness and full blown anxiety attacks (including uncontrollable trembling in the legs, racing heart rate, and fear of dying in my sleep) every time I had to make a simple decision between 2 things such as what I wanted for dinner or which bathing suit to wear; and I could not look at a book, a television screen or a computer without developing dizziness and headaches. I was unable to control my body temperature, and reacted to being in a slightly overheated environment for more than a minute by having a full blown anxiety attack (with all the physical symptoms including fear I was dying) and then sleeping for several days at a stretch.
    After several weeks my mom started her own rehabilitation program for me, which consisted in part of looking at picture books for brief periods of time, and going for walks when the weather was cool. After a few months I was able to participate in "normal" activities so long as I did not over exert myself (no running, no jumping, no balls flying through the air) and did not stay in the sun or in a space warmer than 72*. The most alarming latent symptom was the inability to control my temperature - my mom did not yet realize the severity of the problem with my hunger signals. I took up swimming until it became apparent that I had also developed multiple chemical sensitivities and could not tolerate chlorine.
A year passed, with gradual improvement in overall symptoms, but it still was very apparent that my brain had not fully recovered, and my family often wondered if I would ever be my old self again. In the summer of 2011 I became alarmingly thin and refused to increase her caloric intake accordingly. In September I had gastro-paralysis from an upset stomach, and developed full blown Anorexia Nervosa almost overnight. I lost a lb a day for a week, until I was 70 lbs with a BMI of 13, and for several days I was eating less than 500 calories a day.  I am a girl who needs 3-4,000 calories a day to maintain my current weight, and at the time required over 4,000 calories a day. Looking back, we think what happened is that my caloric needs were sky-rocketing in anticipation of 11-year-old growth spurts, but without hunger signals I just kept eating what looked to me like a normal amount of food. 
Anyway, we were back to daily visits to the doctor, acupuncturist, chiropractor and masseuse, and by Christmas I was "out of the woods," which meant I was only seeing the doctor once a week instead of once a day, my family had to spend only 3 hours a day supervising my eating (instead of 6), and I was no longer living one meal away from a feeding tube. At this point I was at 75 lbs (yes, it took me 3 months to gain 5 lbs; every 2 oz was a victory!) and had grown another 4 inches since I started eating again (which meant my BMI was still dangerously low, but at least I was eating and growing). Fortunately my family (and God!) were able to get me well without ever admitting me to a hospital or ED clinic.
At my lowest weight, BMI 13

Here is the crazy, God part of the anorexia.... my mom learned later, after she noticed that the symptoms of my brain injury were finally improving, that a high fat diet causes growth specifically in the hypothalamus! My mom had spent the past 9 months pouring coconut oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil and grape seed oil on my food by the tablespoon, so ultimately, while the head injury lead to the anorexia, the anorexia cured the head injury!!! We are still convinced this was a miracle.

In August of 2012, my mom finally realized I was waking up crying several times a week after a recurrent dream that I was dancing on stage, only to wake up and realize it would never happen. Although she was very hesitant to have dance take over our family and our lives again, she saw that I would never be happy until I could dance again. With the brain injury healed, it was finally an option. 

In late August 2012 we chose a low-key dance studio to get me back on my feet and see how I felt about it. Foolishly, my mom thought perhaps I would just take it up as a minor hobby, but it quickly became apparent that was naive of her! After 2 months, my teachers said I was ready for pointe work, and less than a month later it became obvious to all of us that PBC had little more to offer me, training-wise.

I felt very strongly about returning to my old Russian teachers from when I was younger, who had separated from the studio and formed their own studio.  Although my mom was not overly excited about the prospect, she could see that I felt a need to complete something with them. My teachers were, from the beginning, very excited and supportive of me, and the speed with which I was catching up to the other dancers was exciting. My greatest challenge was that I had lost all of my muscle due to the eating disorder.  I spent my first 9 months back at dance rebuilding all my muscles.

Above, some jumps at the beach after a day at my first Summer Intensive

Me as a princess in Swan Lake, my first show

After dancing with my studio for a little over a year, some unfortunate interactions with one of the teachers began making things uncomfortable.  Holes in their teaching style and technique began to reveal themselves, and it soon became apparent that it was time to move on.

I am now dancing at another Russian Ballet School, one year and four months after returning to dance, and four and a half years after I first left dance. During the ensuing years I took up piano, sculpting, painting, and writing. While I have enjoyed all of the other forms of art, and they have broadened my outlook on life, nothing has been able to replace my passion for dance.

At a rehearsal for Youth America Grand Prix

I recognize the challenging path I have chosen, but after all I have been through, my friends and family can fully stand behind my dreams to become a professional dancer. None of us is under any misconceptions about the challenges such a goal entails; I plan to teach piano to pay my bills while I follow my dream, and I am working diligently with an excellent piano teacher with this goal in mind.

Currently, my dance goal (based on my research and preferences), is to attend American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and eventually dance with American Ballet Theatre. 

Two weekends ago, I performed at my first competition, Youth America Grand Prix, in Denver Colorado.  My teachers and I were very happy with my performances, however, my score didn't qualify me for the semi-finals in New York.  I can't wait for Youth America Grand Prix next year!

I am very grateful to have found a studio with superior technique and an ear to students’ hearts. I would like to thank my teachers for this.  I would also like to thank my family for standing behind me in my hopes and dreams, and my friends for believing in my craziness.  I would like to thank those of you who are following my dance journey, for joining me on this fabulous ride!

I love you all to bits and pieces!


Clarissa May

Find me on Social Media:
Youtube: Live On Pointe & Clarissa May
Instagram: @clarissamay
Facebook: Live On Pointe
Twitter: @clarissamay09

Clarissa May

Clarissa May
Clarissa May

Clarissa May
Clarissa May
Clarissa May