Photography by Lukasz Wierzbowski

How Dancing Saved Me From A Life Of Narcotics Addiction

For a decade, a sense of shame about her body kept writer Melissa Febos off the dancefloor, and only when high on drugs did she give herself to the music. But would getting clean mean giving up the heart-thumping, hip-swiveling joy of dancing that had become her lifeline?

It's a Thursday night, balmy for December, and the DJ is playing my song. She's actually been on a streak of my favourite songs and, as a result, my face is slick with sweat, stray hair from my ponytail stuck to my cheeks, and the back of my T-shirt drenched. My coat is in a pile in the corner and I lost an earring earlier, but I don't care about either.

When the last beats of Drake's One Dance blur into the opening ones of Beenie Man's King of the Dancehall, I fling both arms into the air and swivel my hips, looking for Tara, my friend and fellow dancehall enthusiast. She's my partner tonight, along with the other 50 people crammed into a small, 
dark West Village club in Manhattan. Tara is grinning, too, face flushed and damp, arms raised as she works her way towards me through the crush of jubilant bodies.

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We're into our third hour of dancing and my thighs are on fire. It's about four hours past my regular bedtime and, when I drop it low, nearly sweeping the floor with my 36-year-old, college professor ass, I wonder for a moment if I'll make it back up. But I do and, side by side, we bounce to the insistent bass, shoulders rolling, booties popping, eyes closed, hearts pumping.

I didn't always love to dance. Dancing is such a constant source of joy in my life now that it would be difficult to believe were my former inhibition not so painfully vivid. The comfort in one's body that dancing requires has been hard-earned.

As a girl growing up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I was a baseball player, 
not a ballet dancer. I was a tree climber, a pond swimmer, an avid reader, with perpetually skinned knees and a tangled ponytail.

My body was strong and resilient, and I felt confident inside it. For the first decade of my life, my feminist mother – a clinical psychotherapist – protected me from our culture's darker lessons in what it means to have a female body, and I knew mine only as a source of strength.

Then, my body changed. By 12 years old, I was a C cup. Suddenly, my body became a liability. Grown men whistled at me from passing cars. Boys leered at me in the school hallways. Girls whispered. My precocious body earned me a reputation for promiscuity before I'd even had my first kiss. To suddenly transform from a kid into something both desired and reviled was confounding. There is no instruction manual for how to navigate this unscathed (and I suspect there is no way, either).

For the first decade of my life, my feminist mother – a clinical psychotherapist – protected me from our culture's darker lessons in what it means to have a female body, and I knew mine only as a source of strength.

My brand-new body had depreciated all my strengths and replaced them with 
a single power: to attract men. It was a fickle power, though. A false power. They were compelled, yes. But if I said no to them, I became worthless and risked humiliation. So I said yes, let older boys burrow their hands under my clothes, and found the same result. Before most of my peers had bought their first bra, I had rounded third base a few times. The punishment for this acquiescence was a year of relentless harassment that included prank phone calls to my family's home, crude gestures, and strangers sometimes grabbing my body in the school hallways. It was a clear lesson: for a thousand different reasons, and despite relentless encouragement from every kind of media, giving my body away was disastrous.

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The single time I remember dancing as an adolescent was at a school dance, aged about 12. One moment, I was dancing freely with a friend, and the next, I was surrounded by a crowd of boys with hungry eyes, moving insistently closer. It filled me with shame. What had I done? I stopped dancing, pushed my way through, and spent the rest of the night sitting on the gym bleachers. I didn't dance again for 10 years.

Dancing, it seemed to me then, was another way of giving your body away. 
I needed to be in control of my body. So I learned to cultivate a stoic persona, though inside I was conflicted. By nature, I was a person who naturally delighted in physicality – I was strong and spirited, sexual and extroverted. But experience had taught me a different story about my body: it was vulnerable, oversized, humiliating.

In the years that followed, I developed a love of watching other people dance. Name a dance movie from the past 30 years, and I promise you I've seen it. From Dirty Dancing, Flashdance and Footloose to their Noughties counterparts like Stomp the Yard, Honey, the Step Up franchise and David LaChapelle's documentary, Rize, these films fall into distinctly gendered camps: either allegories of female sexual awakening through dance, or of street-gang rivalry and athletic triumph of good over evil. It's no wonder that I loved them all. All the way through my teen and college years, the body in motion mesmerised me.

It didn't occur to me that if I'd inhabited my body – loosened my controlled grip so I could finally enjoy it again – then it might have been the revelation I needed. It might have freed me. After all, I wasn't a vulnerable adolescent any more; I was a successful college student who'd been living on my own since 17. But my body insecurity was so deeply ingrained, I didn't even consider it.

Instead, I continued to distance myself from my physical form as much as possible, and drugs proved the most effective tool to do this. Sure, they risk your life and ruin your health, but they also allow you to control exactly how you feel at any moment. And, amazingly, they let me dance.

One moment, I was dancing freely with a friend, and the next, I was surrounded by a crowd of boys with hungry eyes, moving insistently closer

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In the clubs of New York City in the early Noughties, I danced for the first time, with strangers and friends, and with pin-prick pupils. It was the closest thing to happiness I knew back then. Narcotics insulate you from pain, but they don't make you happy. I could control how I felt, mostly by feeling nothing.

Science has long shown that substance abuse is often preceded by, and reinforces, low levels of serotonin and dopamine – the brain's chemicals that promote 'happy' feelings*. During dancing, as with all prolonged forms of physical exertion, the brain releases those mood-lifting neurotransmitters, as well as endorphins (the brain's chemicals connected to feelings of euphoria and satisfaction). 


This combination is what we call 'runner's high'. But, unlike some other forms of exercise, dancing bonds people, and MRI scans have shown that watching others dance activates the same neurons in the observer's brain**. That is, the social aspect of dancing promotes empathy and helps 
us to connect to each other while dancing.

Dancing helped me feel better during that dark time, but it couldn't fix me. Eventually, I had to surrender my stoic persona and ask for the help of other people. And those people often said, 'You can't save your ass and your face at the same time.' They meant I'd have to swallow my pride, tell my secrets and accept help. Luckily, I was desperate enough to do just that, though I suspected I wouldn't be able to save my ass and shake it at the same time.

Three months into my new sober life, I went to a dry dance. 'Isn't this an oxymoron?' I asked my friend as we paid the door fee. But as I wandered through the balloon-strewn room and felt the bass thumping through the soles of my feet, something happened. I realised I was alive. The upside of life-threatening experiences, such as drug addiction, is that surviving them changes your perspective. My body was my own. I wanted to dance to everything, so I did: from David Bowie, Abba and Michael Jackson to musicians who reminded me of being young. It felt like a redemption and, once I started, I didn't ever want to stop.

When I collapsed into bed that night, exhausted and stone-cold sober, 
I understood that dancing wasn't about giving myself to someone else – it was 
about giving something to myself. It wasn't about abandoning my body, but finding it. It was a better high than I'd ever found on drugs. There aren't a lot of true behavioural changes that we can make overnight. Wilful change is a slow, arduous process that requires courage, commitment and the help of other people. I can count the overnight changes I've made on one hand. One is kicking my heroin addiction. I stopped one day and haven't picked it up again for 13 years. Another is starting to dance again. I just did it.

It is my medicine and my hobby, the thing I do for love, not mastery. I have 
decent rhythm, but I don't dance to look good. I dance because it's fun. I don't twerk for men, I twerk for my friends, because it makes me laugh and gives me joy. I can inhabit my sexuality and still keep it for myself. Dancing makes me feel how I did as a kid: powerful and unselfconscious. It has brought me back to my body, which turns out to be even stronger and more resilient than I knew.

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos is out on 20 April (Bloomsbury Hardback, £16.99)


This feature originally appeared in the April issue of ELLE UK

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