On Happiness

By Jana Meerman

I’m Jana, a fourth year undergraduate student in Vancouver, majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies with focuses in Political Science and German. Or, at least that’s what I tell people when they ask who I am.

What I would say if I had the chance - and the self-confidence - to divulge my story to anyone I meet would look a little different.

I am half-Dutch, half-German, born and raised in the UK, spent a couple years living in the States and moved to Canada with my parents – and all this before the age of ten. I learnt four languages along the way and I can list all 50 American states. I’ve got a mind that works in weird, quirky, and sometimes exhausting ways. And somehow moving between seven schools I also managed to skip two grades. I graduated high school when I was sixteen and moved out that year into a co-ed dorm at my university. This graduation and move-out process happened to coincide with other massive changes in my life.

Since before I have coherent memories, I had been training to become a professional dancer with the intent of making it my career. I was dancing in every range of style my studio offered and at my peak was in a pre-professional program of upwards of 35 hours of training every week. As high school graduation was appearing on the horizon, I was already recovering from a dislocated hip, a major ankle sprain which saw me in a cast and on crutches for six weeks and tendinitis injuries in both ankles.

The day before my 16th birthday I was in a master class with Ballet Cuba, for whom I had tickets to watch their performance of Don Quixote on Valentine’s Day, two days later. The master class was thrilling, intense and fast-paced; just how I liked it. Near the end of the class I went in for a large jump that caused my lower back to wince. I thought nothing of it as pain was just another part of the equation in the world of dance.

Unfortunately, the days following saw me in more and more pain, eventually unable to walk without a constant ache. So I went for physio appointments, X-rays, CT scans, sports med specialist appointments, chiro and acupuncture to try and sort out my body. Three months had passed and I was hardly dancing; my life was falling apart. I finally managed to secure a spot at a nuclear radiology clinic where I was injected with something to ‘light up’ my insides and it was finally revealed that I had fractures in two of my lower lumbar vertebrae. My body was broken. I was broken.

Determined to return to the art I so loved, I spent three mornings a week at physio and all summer in the gym, trying to figure myself out. Imagine you’re running on a treadmill and suddenly the treadmill is going too fast and you start to trip and stumble and can’t keep up and you feel your feet falling off the edges and you’re flailing and trying to grab onto the handrails but there aren’t any handrails there and you’re crying with frustration. That’s what trying to get back into dance felt like.

At the same time, I was also a stubborn teenager and I was determined to jump right into a four-year Bachelor’s program while trying to figure out my physical health situation. In hindsight, this was a massive miscalculation on my part because I simply wasn’t mentally prepared to take on the challenges of everyday life as a university student. I could never have anticipated the complete life change that I was about to face and the tug and pull on the essence of who I am.

I began inching my way back into the dance world, when after only three weeks of training I crunched over my left foot in a rehearsal, resulting in a chipped bone, a torn ligament and a dislocated ankle which put me in a cast and crutches, again. Somehow, and for some aggravating reason, dance was just not meant to be.

I threw myself heavily into the university life and felt the distance to dance grow day by day. I tried taking classes in December and January again, but by then I had been off and on for a year and I just didn’t love it or myself anymore. So I quit.

Losing dance left me in a state that I can only compare to grief. I wasn’t just a dancer; dance was me. I identified with it wholly and having not only my present self but everything I envisioned for my future be literally broken into bits was heart-wrenching.

Sometimes in the middle of my day, a wave of uncontrollable sadness will hit me. I have a terrible habit of making myself look through old photos and watch old videos and pushing myself further into a feeling that I will never know ‘what if’ and what could have been. It leaves me with a guilt inside of wasting my talent, of letting my parents down, of letting my teachers down, and most importantly of letting myself down.

So add my young self and my inexperienced brain to this physical situation and you could say the first year of university wasn’t the overwhelmingly positive experience I’d come to understand from Hollywood. I had successfully applied for the Faculty of Science because I, along with my peers, had been indoctrinated with the fact that an Arts degree was simply an expensive way of preparing myself to ask ‘would you like fries with that?’

I took courses working towards a degree in Computer Science but managed to end off that first year with three failed classes. This is coming from the little perfectionist who had never failed anything in her life. My fear of never being good enough was coming to light. I had nothing. I didn’t have dance and I didn’t seem to have any smarts left either. Flash forward to the winter break of my second year and I had five failed courses under my belt and had declared a major in something I felt zero passion about.

I unofficially switched my focus towards something I thought I would find more interesting and registered for classes in history and political science and languages in the hope that I could find a way to get through the shambles of my degree just before the beginning of my third year. I applied to transfer into the Faculty of Arts but was not accepted due to my low average. How could I possibly be the same person who had been accepted into university at age fifteen but now couldn’t even secure a spot in a general arts program?

The following year saw me taking the long route to class to avoid the main walking path of a university of 50,000+ students. I spent the majority of my time alone in my bedroom trying to conceal the anxiety that I was struggling with. I had panic attacks frequently, the worst of which resulted in me lying on the bathroom floor of the arts department unable to breathe properly.

At the end of my third year, I applied again for a transfer in a last desperate attempt to retain some sense of a future potential. I had worked harder than I had ever worked in my life in all those hours spent alone in my room and managed to raise my average up by 12%. I was instructed to withdraw from the Faculty of Sciences, and should I not have a successful place in any other faculty, subsequent withdrawal from the university was also expected. Lucky me: two days earlier I had received my acceptance into the Faculty of Arts for my fourth and final year. I was actually going to graduate.

I spent first semester of my senior year trying to find my balance as I worked my way through this new faculty with a tangible goal of graduation. Three and a half years of not dancing had taken its toll on me though. I seriously disliked the way I looked and felt and struggled with depression in relation to how I felt about myself. The panic attacks lessened as I felt more secure in my future, but the anxiety and depression returned when I began to realize that I didn’t like my life.

Yes, I had managed to save my spot in school, but I am still studying a degree I do not love, and don’t have much intent on working in. Yes, I had brought up my GPA by a shocking amount, but I had forgone time to work on myself as a person.

I needed to accept the fact that dance was a part of my life, and I needed to learn how to forgive myself in order to move on. I was beginning to forget details that had once been so integral to me and this terrified me. I was forgetting what it was like to wait backstage, or the smells of the wings, or the heat of the lights on stage in front of a live audience. I forgot the brand of pointe shoes I wore, which is so irrelevant to anyone but myself, but was a symbol of the whole world I felt so distant from.

I need to allow myself to not be perfect. I don’t look the way I used to, I struggle with public speaking because I grew up with using my body as my canvas, not my voice. I work every day to find peace with my life and to fill my days with things worth waking up for. I love to hike and to watch the sunset and to wake up at 6am to go to the gym and to practice yoga daily and to eat delicious foods and to organize my entire life into lists and to take photos and to share these photos on my carefully curated social media and to write and turn the muddle in my head into a coherent stream of words on the page and to swim in lakes on the tops of mountains and to travel the world. These are the things that make me happy and although it’s never going to be quite the same, I reckon it’s a good start.

By Jana Meerman

Jana Meerman is a 4th year undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia studying political science and German with a passion for all things to do with photography, writing and media. When she's not on Instagram (@janameerman), she likes to spend her spare time swimming in lakes on mountains and watching sunsets and she one day wants to visit every country in the world.

Check her out on Instagram (she's famous) at @janameerman or at janameerman.com.