ABT Corps Member Matthew Murphy on Dealing with Illness

November 9, 2008

Last April, I was at the end of a two-month world tour with American Ballet Theatre. I had two weeks off and I’d booked a job performing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet with Boca Ballet Theatre. Exhaustion is something that dancers are used to, but when I arrived in Florida I knew I was getting sick. Figuring I just had a cold, I took some vitamins and rehearsed eight hours a day for the next week.

After the shows ended, I returned to NYC for a solid week of rest. But time flew by and before I knew it I was back at ABT preparing for our annual season at the Metropolitan Opera House. Although my body hadn’t completely shaken the nagging illness, I was rehearsing full out and even preparing to work on pointe for the role of Bottom in The Dream.

Two days into rehearsal everything changed. When my alarm went off at 9 am for class, my body felt like it was being pressed under a piano. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with “the kissing disease,” a.k.a. mononucleosis, even before getting my test results back. I soon learned that I’m the perfect candidate for contracting this illness: I’m 21 (mono most frequently hits between 16-23) and due to an extremely physically demanding career, I was a little burned out.

The lab confirmed my diagnosis: I had Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), the virus responsible for mono. I was told to go on complete bed rest. For someone who’s so active, having to stay in bed is like being buried alive.

Viruses have a tendency to hit when you’re at the top of your game and working harder than your body can handle. I started dancing at 13, and like most dancers, pushed myself. I spent my weeks off conditioning in class and alternating between weight lifting and cardio at the gym. I never fully rested. From my strenuous schooling at North Carolina School of the Arts, to joining ABT Studio Company in 2003 and entering the corps in 2004, I had taken everything in stride. This craziness had never caught up with me—until that day in the doctor’s office.

After the positive diagnosis came in, I consulted with my doctors and the artistic staff at ABT. We thought that within a month I should be able to resume barre and perhaps rejoin the company midway through the Met season. During that month, I could stay on full salary—but once the month was over, I’d have to go on disability.

I gathered a huge pile of books and DVDs and headed to bed, hoping for the best. But a month later, I was just as gaunt and ten pounds lighter. I stayed in constant contact with the company, but was in an ongoing state of anxiety as my return date kept getting postponed.

During that first month, I left my apartment for a total of 24 hours—it was all I could do to muster the energy to walk around the block. Then in July I turned a corner. I felt tired, but not as sick. I started taking floor barre and then progressed to a class, where I got as far as small jumps. Then one day I woke up and couldn’t do it. The sickness had wrapped its tight grip around me again. I had pushed a little too hard too fast.

EBV feels like living with a constant and horrible flu. My body aches, my brain feels like it’s covered in moss and my stomach feels like there’s a boxing match inside. But EBV is about more than just extreme physical fatigue and discomfort; it also wears you down mentally. Even a task as simple as reading can become difficult because my brain can’t always focus well enough to string more than a few sentences together.

Doctors don’t yet have a grasp on EBV, which makes it hard for me to understand. Each person’s symptoms vary widely, so a diagnosis often emerges by ruling other things out. Even when blood tests are normal, the patient may still be experiencing fatigue, a sore throat, nausea and body aches. (Other than my weight loss, I’ve always looked somewhat like my normal self.)

Viruses can’t be treated with conventional medicine so a large part of my treatment is waiting. It’s a lonely existence. Telling professional dancers that you’re tired is redundant because a dancer is always tired. I’m often met with looks of utter confusion when I tell people I’m not better. Dancing an entire ballet used to leave me feeling fatigued, but now laughing with my friends can exhaust me to the point of nausea and headaches. When sickness becomes normal, and you can’t remember what healthy feels like, it’s surreal. I never used to value walking to the park and sitting on a bench to read. Now if I make it to the bench without wanting to go straight home, it’s a success. I miss the rigors of dancing professionally. I miss spontaneity—staying up late or throwing in an extra turn in class. My life is now a regimented series of pills, television schedules and phone dates. But patience is a virtue, and I’ve never understood that as fully as I do now.

Even though this sickness has, in many ways, sucked the life out of me, it’s made me look at things in a more positive light. It’s taught me to value small things like laughing in a movie theater or spending time with friends.

The two most important elements in my life have become a solid support group and faith. Most of the stress I’ve felt has come from my own insecurities about being sidelined for several seasons with ABT. But my family, friends and the company have all stood by me. Sometimes all I have to look forward to is an unexpected visit from a friend. Whenever I go to ABT, there’s inevitable disappointment when I hear myself say, “I’m not better yet.” But when I look at my employers’ faces, all I see is empathy and compassion.

I grew up with little in the way of religion, but lately I’ve learned to accept that there is something larger than me at play here. This is the universe’s way of telling me to slow down, take a breath and trust that things will turn out okay. Each day I wake up unsure of whether I will make it to 3 pm without wanting to crawl back into bed. Often I can’t even stay out to celebrate my friends’ birthdays or make it to the end of an evening show.

Like others in difficult situations, I can’t help but ask, “Why me?” It’s a question that no one can answer. The bright side is that my downtime is giving me a chance to search out new music to choreograph to, build on my love of writing and read some long novels (when I have the energy). I’m even starting college courses. But I’m hungrier than ever to be back in a studio. Perhaps it took something like this to remind me of how passionate I am about dancing.

Ballet is a world of exact control. I’m used to knowing my steps, my blocking, even the order in which I put on my costume; but with this illness, I’ve lost that control. When you perform there are always unknowns—that’s part of what draws me to it—but unknowns with one’s health are frightening, and hard to tackle.

I panic that things will never be the same. Faith. I panic that things might get worse. Faith. I’ve learned to go with the flow, but understand that I might not like where it takes me. Faith. Life is inconsistent even when you’re healthy; you can’t predict how the next day—or moment—will play out. The only thing I have in abundance is faith. I have to believe that one day, I will once again feel the incredible rush of jumping through the air.