Pain is a constant of life, and teaching ourselves to be numb enough to ignore them will not do us any good. For those dealing with chronic pain, the only way to overcome it is by facing it head-on and choosing happiness above anything else. Adela Tomlinson shares how she did this with Susanne Puerschel, detailing how she pivoted her career a number of times due to her Mexican descent, as well as the severe consequences brought upon her spinal cord injury. She also explains how her childhood ballet lessons play a huge role in handling the most painful moments in her life, the true cost of happiness, and how she influences her kids to foster a mindset of gratitude in all aspects.
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Adela Tomlinson On Dealing With Chronic Pain And Choosing Happiness
Adela, thank you so much for being on the show. I want you to introduce yourself because nobody can tell our own story better than we as people. I don’t think I can make justice to this. We met through Facebook Messenger because you had the courage to reach out and say, “I have this product. Do you want to try it as a fellow ballerina?” Because of our level of maturity, neither of us is afraid to ask questions, and saying yes or no to anything or everything. That’s one way that I connected with you. As a fellow ex-ballerina, I wanted to have you here because you’re exhibiting many beautiful traits that we are given as dancers. I want to dive into this with you. If you don’t mind, tell us how you started dancing, which path did you take and how you ended up with what you’re doing now.
I got into dance pretty young as a way to have something to do. My mother got my sister and I to dancing as a way to keep us busy and out of trouble. I started dancing when I was 4 or 5 years old. I started with tap. It wasn’t my thing. My mom put us in ballet. She used to be a dancer as well so that’s why she chose ballet as an alternative to tap because I didn’t love tap. We showed up at California Ballet Company here in San Diego and I loved the ballet. My sister not so much, so she didn’t stick with it but I did. I danced with California Ballet for about ten years straight. I knew I didn’t want to be a dancer for a living.
I wanted to get into medicine. I wasn’t sure at the time what kind of medicine I wanted to do. I knew that I did not want to be a professional dancer for the rest of my life. That was not my calling. I loved dancing but it was taking up so much of my life at such a young age that it made me question where I was going with this. That was the first thing. The second thing was being Hispanic, I could see that there wasn’t a lot of roles that I “qualified for” because of my color. That was another thing that made me question if I was in the right thing for myself or not because of that and being told, “You will never get that role no matter how good you are because you’re too brown.”
That made me realize, “I think I can only do this for so long.” I danced until I was about 16, 17 years old. I broke my arm severely running to the neighbor’s house. It’s a silly story. I broke my arm in several places and had to be put in a cast all the way up to my underarm. That forced me to stop dancing for a couple of months. It was after I stopped dancing that I realized, “I’m good not having to spend 15 to 20 hours a week at the company and having my life evolve around ballet.” Young men are starting to ask me out on dates and my answer was always, “I can’t, I have ballet.” I thought, “Why am I devoting so much time to something that isn’t my calling?” That’s when I decided to stop dancing.
I ended up going to university to get my Master’s degree in Oriental Medicine. I became an acupuncturist and I practiced acupuncture for eighteen years. It wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to go to UC Davis and study Physical Therapy but a good Hispanic girl does not leave home to go away to college. I had to pick an alternative like, “What can I do here instead?” A choice was made for me that I didn’t want to do that and I had to make it work for me. It fell into my lap because I started seeing an acupuncturist for some health issues and it helped me. I thought, “I can see myself doing this. This is cool.” I started going to acupuncture university at night. In my senior year of high school, I was going to high school during the day and then I was doing college at night.
I needed to be enrolled because that November the laws were going to change. In order to get into that school, you needed to have an Associate’s degree, so a two-year college degree. I thought to myself, “I can save myself two years of schooling if I sign up right now.” I did that for a whole year and I worked 25-hour a week at a gym as a personal trainer. In hindsight, I have no idea how I did that, but as a dancer I do know how I did that. As dancers, all we are taught to do is to push and push and get it done. Keep pushing until you do what you’re supposed to do. There’s no, “I’m tired. My toes are bleeding.” There are no excuses in ballet and life. In a way, ballet set me up to push myself harder than I think I probably would have, had I not had that experience as a dancer. I’ve always pushed through and shoot forward. I retired from acupuncture because I had a car accident that resulted in me having my neck fused.There's no way you can live happily if you let pain levels live with you. Click To Tweet
I ended up having two spinal fusion surgeries that left me fused from C4 down to C7, and a lot of nerve damage. I suffered a spinal cord injury, which left me with my left arm useless. It took two surgeries and a lot of physical therapy to get my arm and everything working again. I’m in a lot of pain in the meantime. I’m still in pain because of all the permanent nerve damage that was left over from the accident. I have many people that tell me, “I don’t know how you do it and how you get up every day.” In a way, it’s a gift that getting into ballet at such a young age helped me with that mindset of, “Get it done, persevere, you don’t quit or whatever it is you need to do to meet your goal or to live the life you want.” I feel like it gave me a toolbox of things that I apply to my life now to help me live the best life I can being in chronic pain.
I’m going to divert a bit because there was one sentence you said that sparked my interest. You were told because of your ethnic background, you will never dance these roles. I remember in our first conversation it was, “You will never be Clara.”
One of my goals as a young ballerina was to get Clara in The Nutcracker.
With that statement, your goal was taken away from you and without having a goal, a vision, something to strive for, we as human beings float, and floating, you’re not getting anywhere. Was that the pivotal moment for you where you realized, “This isn’t for me. I cannot identify with this industry?”
Yes, because I had already started experiencing some racism at school and things like that. Having it reached to that part of my life in ballet was like, “What’s the point of being here, doing this, and working hard for something that I’m never going to attain?” I’m a very goal-driven person. I’m always looking three steps ahead because that’s the way I’m wired. I need to know what I’m doing and what my goals are. I’m always pushing and fighting for that goal. Knowing that I’m never going to get Clara, I’m sure as heck I’m never going to make prima ballerina because I’m too brown. What’s the point of wasting my time here if I’m always going to be in the background?
The only ballet where I got a good role upfront was Scheherazade because she was an Egyptian or whatever nationality she was, but brown was okay for that role. It worked but all the other roles, it was like, “What’s the point?” Once I feel that way then, “What am I doing here? I’m wasting my time.” Wasting my time is something I’m not wired to do. As hard as it was to make that decision, it helped me make it because in a way, the decision was made for me already.Everything we do in life is a choice. Click To Tweet
Could we say it was the catalyst because if you were set on that goal, there would have been nothing diverting it? It’s like, “You don’t like my skin color, then I go somewhere where my skin color is not an issue.”
Let’s go a little bit deeper into goal setting and having a clear vision of where you want to end up in life or what you want to accomplish, and how that has kept you on your path at every level that you have entered during your life so far. You ended up in acupuncture but that’s not where you wanted to go. Why did you settle?
Because I was a good Mexican daughter. I know that sounds crazy. That’s the Hispanic culture. I grew up in a house with a single mom. My dad and my mother divorced when I was one. We immigrated to the United States when I was an infant. As a good Mexican daughter, there are expectations put on you. One of the expectations of having a single mom is to take care of your mother. Since my mother didn’t have a companion, I was put into that role of, “I’m her companion too.” She flat out told me, “You cannot go away to college.” It was like, “I have amazing grades. I can get a scholarship to go here.” I was ready to open my wings and leave my home and live my life. It was like, “That’s not an option. You are not going to do that.”
Being the good little rule follower that I am, it was like, “What do I do?” Time for plan B, which I didn’t have one at the time and acupuncture fell on my lap since I started going to one. It helped me so much. I thought I do want to help people that’s why I wanted to get into medicine, to begin with. I thought, “This is different. I can see myself doing this.” I did it and I loved doing it for eighteen years, even though it wasn’t my first choice or my calling. I enjoyed it. I loved helping people. That was something I enjoy doing, changing people’s lives. I made the best of it. As crazy as it sounds, that’s not what a good Mexican daughter does. You stay home and you help your mom with whatever she needs. That what’s expected.
I can relate to that. I was fortunate that my parents were progressive for their time. I grew up in the ‘70s as well. The way they raised me was very ahead of time. However, the political situation that we were in was not something you do thinking for yourself or having any entrepreneurs’ spirits, breaking through that. Let’s say accepting it for what it was and finding your way not through it but around it to still have a happy life and to make a compromise. That’s what it is. I want to understand a little bit more about, what do you on a daily basis have to do in your mind and work on your mindset to live with chronic pain? Here’s the reason why. When I think of dancers and their resilience and their thinking of, “It has to hurt, otherwise I am not being good enough,” you showcase that there’s so much more to life than the pain that we encounter in life. Here is what you learned on how to live with it through strengthening your mindset.
It’s what I tell my kids and what I tell everybody who asks me this. It’s a choice. Everything is a choice. Happiness is a choice. I had my mom tell me this one day and it blew my mind. She told me, “There’s no way you can be happy living with the pain levels you live with.” I looked at her and I thought, “Are you kidding?” Happiness is a choice. If I had to wait for everything to perfectly align in my life in order for me to be happy, then I’d never be happy. I chose happiness because it’s a choice. I can sit here and focus on all the pain I’m experiencing, all the different therapies I need to do during the week to function, focus on all the negativity or I can focus on what I am able to do on a daily basis.
I can focus on the moments in life that I enjoy during the day and week. I can focus on the positive and that’s what I do. If I have to wait until my body felt perfect, and the weather was perfect, and the medication didn’t give me any side effects, whatever, then I’d be miserable my whole life. Everything we do in life is a choice. The mindset for me is finding the strength to start. This is something I tell my kids all the time because I hear the whining and complaining about, “I’m not in the mood,” or whatever. The hardest thing to do is to start.
Getting out of bed and choosing, “I’m in a lot of pain.” It was a tough day. I appreciated you reaching out and asking if I was okay. It was rough because we had a lot of rain. Rain and metal don’t go well together, so I can feel everything is swelling in my neck. I got out of bed. I had my coffee. I had to take a long hot shower to get rid of the aches and pains. I take my medication. It’s that act of starting that puts me in that mindset of what I need to do to live my life and living my life to the fullest. I don’t want to get through the day. That’s not living. I want to accomplish things and set goals for myself. That’s why I started doing that Savvi business that I’m doing because my kids are both in college.
Even though they’re doing college from home, they need mom a whole lot less than they used to when they were younger. I wanted something that was all to myself that I could do because I need goals. I need things that give me energy and passion in life. As much as I love being a wife and a mom, I’m also a woman who likes to feel accomplished because I’ve always been very accomplished my whole life. When I got my acupuncture license, I was the youngest licensed acupuncturist in the State of California. I thought, “What can I do next?” This opportunity fell in my lap and it was perfect for me because it’s something I can do working around my pain.
It’s also goal-driven trying to make sales or meet new people to introduce the business too. All of those things have to do with what mindset I’m putting myself into. What I like to say is I’m either a victim or a victor, which will it be? I refuse to be a victim. That’s not an option for me. Everybody has the ability to dig deep. We all have that fighting spirit and energy in us. That’s what we’re made to do. We’re not made to sit around, give up, and exist. We’re made to live life to the fullest and to experience life in all its glory. That’s the mindset I choose every day. What am I going to accomplish today? What do I need to do to get there? I admit there are some days where I can’t and that’s okay. On those days, I give myself grace. I know that the next day is a new day and I’ll be given that opportunity again.
It’s surviving versus thriving. I found myself as a dancer in training or as a professional dancer, I was surviving one day to another, doing the same thing, and living the same day over and over again. I only learned in my 40s what thriving looks like and that I have a choice. I get to make that decision whether or not my day looks a certain way or not. I found the mentality and the mindset in the industry is very much that you follow a certain path. If you are not on that path, you’re completely off and you’re nothing. When you say that you are goal-oriented and you didn’t want it to just survive, but thrive. Where is that coming from? We have that choice but it is not innate in us to reach for more and more unless we are shown or given the permission to do so.If we don't acknowledge that we're having pain, then we're taking the humanness out of us. Click To Tweet
My husband and I had a long conversation about this. On Saturday, we went for a long walk around the golf course, and we were talking about, what is it in some people that they have the ability to dig deep and fight through the pain and others don’t? It’s hard for me to know if I would be that way, if I didn’t have that young training in ballet because ballet teaches you to be tough. I remember our director teaching class and if my leg wasn’t turned out enough, she would smack me on my inner thigh with that wooden cane of hers. People think ballet is pretty and frilly. We’re athletes. We just do it in beautiful tutus. We’re not in tennis shoes but we are athletes.
We have the mindset of an athlete where you have to use your mental capacity to ignore all the pain you’re feeling because it’s not normal to be on your toes doing all those things. That’s not natural, not normal, and it’s painful. We’re taught from an early age, you don’t complain, you keep pushing through the pain, and keep trying harder because it’s never good enough. Your jump can always be higher. Your toes can always be pointed more. There’s always more you can do. I would like to think that that helped me with the mental strength that I have. It’s the whole nurture versus nature argument. I like to believe that it’s a little bit of both. I’m naturally a fighter and not someone who is a victim. At the same time, having that experience from such a young age to keep pushing harder, digging deep, and giving it more. It added to that mindset that I have now. I don’t think I would be as strong as it is had I not had that experience as a young dancer. I’ll never know but I like to think that it had played a huge role. I can’t imagine it didn’t.
I think you do know. From my own experience, all of this was stubborn, one-way thinking, and mindset direction to not let pain and suffering let stop you in your tracks.
Not let it define you.
There’s a very fine line where you do not acknowledge the pain and the suffering, that you will become immune to any feelings in order to endure because you don’t have the right tools. The only tool that you’ve been given is to ignore it. Don’t feel it and conceal. This is the fine line because then we could start. How it was in my case, I stopped to endure feeling anything or any pain because that was the message. I want to point this out, there are two perspectives to having enduring pain, accepting circumstances, and still being open to other avenues. Feeling it and being aware of it, but not pushing it way down with the plunger and not acknowledging it. There are two layers of getting through the pain. The second part that I mentioned is the dangerous part because if we don’t acknowledge that we’re having pain in any level, facet or color, then we’re taking that humanness out of us. We all struggle with something.
The struggle will always push us forward because we need to experience the struggle in order to grow. Some pain has been given to us. Most people that hit rock bottom and they get back up come out stronger because of the pain they endured. To understand that, it opens another door for them. You getting in a car accident was some sort of rock bottom for you because you had to completely renegotiate with yourself, relearn, and re-understand. We learned how to function through a day on a level that will give you the happiness that you are wanting out of your life.
Not only the car accident. The years of pain before my surgery because my surgeon was conservative and spinal surgeries are dangerous, they don’t want to do them unless necessary. I had almost a couple of years of living in agony of pain levels. There are 7, 8, and some days 9, where suicide popped into my brain a few times because the pain was unbearable. I had my first surgery but that didn’t fix the issue. I then had a second surgery. I like to teach my sons, “Anytime anything hard in life happens to you, instead of complaining about it and feeling sorry for yourself, look for the opportunity and the gift that situation created for you.”
Before the car accident, I was a total type A, neurotic, and plan everything out. I could not enjoy the moment because I was busy looking five days ahead or five months ahead. I could tell you in May what my December was going to look like because I was that goal-driven, neurotic, and always looking ahead. I always had a goal or I had this need in me that I have to accomplish all these things. If a girlfriend asked me on Friday, “Do you want to go to lunch on Monday?” I have no idea what Monday is going to be for me. I might not be able to get out of bed or I might be okay and feel great. I’m like, “Can I let you know on Monday morning?”
When you live your life and not having any idea what you’re going to wake up to or what you’re going to wake up with, it forces you to live life day by day. The gift that chronic pain has given me is that I now live life day by day. I have the ability to enjoy the day and the moments that I’m given, instead of thinking about, “What am I going to do in two weeks?” I’m in the moment. I’m experiencing my life right now as it’s happening. I’m not thinking about tomorrow because I have no idea what tomorrow is going to be like for me. It could be great and miserable. Instead of focusing on the bad aspect of, “This is horrible, I can’t go to lunch, I can’t do this, and I can’t do that.”
I’m focusing on the gift that this pain has given me. In a way, I enjoy life more because I’m aware of it. I’m not distracted by thinking about the future. I feel like I wasn’t enjoying my life as much because I was busy thinking about what I wanted to do next, that I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. Now, I live life to the fullest. I’m living life moment to moment. I’m in the moment. I’m present with my kids, husband, and everything we do. Life is so much more enjoyable that way, instead of constantly planning ahead and thinking of all the things that I may or may not do. That’s a wonderful gift that was given to me instead of feeling sorry for myself and thinking, “I can’t do this anymore because of my fusion, and I can’t do that.” There are a lot of things I can do. I choose to live life to the fullest with the things I can do, and I choose to focus on those moments instead of feeling sorry for myself. It’s a choice.
What relevance does gratitude have in your day?
Gratitude is huge and everything. Another thing my husband and I talk about a lot is gratitude. People with a mindset of gratitude tend to be more successful because they’re coming from a place of having enough and not a place of lack. I’m grateful for all the little things I can do. I started playing golf again after several years of not playing. That was something that I didn’t think I’d ever been able to do again. To be able to play even if it’s nine holes of golf with my kids and my husband, that is everything to me. I’m grateful for those moments and those opportunities. I’m grateful for how amazing my body is and the way it can heal and recover from all the things it’s been through. Gratitude plays a huge role in everything we do. It’s funny you ask me that because we talk about that all the time here.People with a mindset of gratitude tend to be more successful because they're not coming from a place of lack. Click To Tweet
You don’t get to the level where you’re at with what you’ve been given without it. I wanted to point that out. It is obvious to me that particularly in the industry, people expect that everything is going to be given to them because they show up in a studio and work for ten hours. Something that we have in our youth and in our younger years is that expectation of something to come towards us because we are here. That’s regardless of which generation label we grew up in. It’s not the Millennials, it’s not Gen Z, it’s not our generation. It was the same thing. What I’ve learned is that the less expectations you have and the more gratitude you practice, exhibit and voice, the more the things that you are yearning for are showing up in your life. That’s what I received from what you’ve said. I feel it is so important to point this out. I remember my first client reached out to me. We had a conversation around business and he couldn’t motivate his team. I’m like, “Are you grateful for them? Are you telling them how valuable they are to you?” He showed me all the examples and told me all the things that they’re not doing.
What you think about, you bring about.
He could not grasp the concept of practicing gratitude to the point where he hung up on me. I’m like, “Interesting.” I was hurt for a minute and I’m okay. He is not ready to hear that yet. It showed me that we’re not understanding how these small incremental mind shifts that we can practice every single day accumulate and truly change our lives.
Words are powerful and thoughts are even more powerful. Back to golf, this is something that playing golf with my kids and my husband on Sunday, one of my sons was not playing too well and every time he’d go up to hit the ball, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Here’s nothing or this is going to be a bad shot.” I had enough and I said, “What do you expect when that’s the first thing coming out of your mouth when you go up to the ball? Say something like, ‘This is going to be a great shot’ and watch what happens.” Everything that’s coming out of his mouth was negative. I thought, “Nothing good is going to happen right now because you’re prophesizing it not to.”
He walked up to the ball and he said, “This is going to be my best shot,” in a sarcastic tone. He hit the ball, it went straight and it went far. I thought, “I rest my case.” It’s the negative self-talk, thoughts, and noise in our heads all the time. I used to have so much noise in my head when I was in my 20s and 30s. It was loud in there all the time. Now, it’s beautiful to have it quiet. I don’t think I ever thought I’d get to the point where the noise in my head would be gone, but it’s amazing when you’re aligned with your intentions, words, and you’re being true to who you are and true to yourself. It’s amazing all the beautiful things that can happen.
What is the book that you are reading, or the last book that you have been reading?
I read four books at a time. I have major ADD.
I cannot sit and read one book. I have four books going on my Kindle at one time.
What are the four books you have?
I can’t even remember. I usually have a couple of mystery novels, one self-help type of book, and one autobiography. I honestly can’t remember what the names are. I’d have to look. I couldn’t recall it on top of my head because of my ADD.
I do three on the go. Barack Obama Biography came out and one of my sons gave it to me for Christmas. For me, his writing is easy to read and understand, and inspiring that I totally get lost in it. For somebody that never liked reading because I would fall asleep, that’s one of 2020’s gifts that I have received to slow down enough, to give myself the time to sit and take in.
A little gift of a quarantine life.
Last question, my dear. What is one thing you would tell your younger self, your 16, 17, 18-year-old self? If you could have the chance to have a conversation with her, what would you tell her?
I would probably tell her two things. One would be to chill out and take a breath because high school, college, and a job all at the same time are crazy. The second thing I would tell myself is you are enough. You don’t need to prove yourself and you don’t need to be the best at everything. Those are two things I would tell myself.
That’s sweet. Thank you, Adela. That was such a beautiful soulful conversation. I appreciate your time. Whenever those pans are back in stock, I need to have more pan.
I’m keeping my eyes open for you. I’ll restock. They’re yours.
Thank you, my darling.
About Adela Tomlinson
I danced at The California Ballet Company for 10 years. After retiring from dance I studied Oriental Medicine at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine where I got my Masters Degree. I was in private practice for 18 years and was forced into retirement after two spine surgeries.
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