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Life Stories

Dancing With Joy

Finding faith, I open the way to health and joy.

Photo by Dave Goodman.

by Rebecca Butler
Pennsauken, N.J.

We were in a huddle, warming up for field hockey, when my friend asked, startled, “What is that?” My shorts had ridden up above the knee and she was looking there, at the scars. I tugged them down and forced a laugh. 

“That’s nothing.”

She held my eyes a long moment, and I knew which scar she’d seen, the one that spelled HELP. 

“Really, I’m stressed is all.”

By age 17, I’d learned to keep my pain to myself. Telling my loving parents about just some of the abuse I’d experienced growing up in our neighborhood, one of the rougher parts of Pennsauken, had resulted early on in the understandable but isolating policy of keeping me home when not in school. Telling a therapist, too, had been a disaster—she’d all but insisted I’d dreamed the abuse. Though nobody’s intention, I came to expect pleas for help to be punished or ignored, an expectation that seemed to bear itself out my junior year, in 2005, when I opened up to a guidance counselor, was put on suicide watch and tagged with a mental health record that ended my dreams of a military career. I watched my friends leave, one after the other, to college, trade school or the military, while I was left behind, wondering, Why in the world did I open my big mouth? 

I might have carried this question to the grave had it not been for the development, in July 2013, six months after the birth of my first child, Victoria, of bizarre spasms—fits of involuntary muscle contractions that contorted my body in harmful positions. The slightest wrong motion could trigger a fit, and I was suddenly in need of help for everything—be it taking stairs, a bath or a drive. Everywhere I went, I went with a cane and otherwise lay stock still on my side. As for the doctors, they couldn’t diagnose it, not with MRIs, bloodwork or spinal taps. It wasn’t until over a year later, just after the birth of my second daughter, Adriana, that a neurologist pinpointed the cause. Dystonia, she said, was a rare neurological disorder without a cure. What I was already doing—taking strong muscle relaxants three times a day—was all there was to be done. In all likelihood, this was my permanent reality. 

One thing was clear—some internal limit had been crossed; bottling up my pain was no longer an option. I might as well have nailed a sign to my cane that read, “Help.”

 In 2017, someone noticed—the crossing guard at Adriana’s school. We got to talking, and he asked if I’d ever heard of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, a Buddhist mantra he chanted to become absolutely happy. Was I interested in joining a meeting? 

By this time, my jean size was a double zero; the stress of tending to my own needs on top of Adriana’s (she was born with special needs), had led to dangerous weight loss. I’d been taking strong antidepressants just to curb the worst of the stress—becoming absolutely happy sounded both wonderful and impossible. Still, I was no longer one to turn away help.

All the pills I was on made a blur of my days, but I remember my first Buddhist meeting, in February 2018, for the warmth of the people there, a warmth I’d never known. Day-to-day, my life was hard—had been hard for years—and here I felt this plain fact fully acknowledged for the first time. I remember the firm assurance of a voice by my elbow: “You deserve to be happy!” and me, just howling through tears: “I knoooww!”

I wouldn’t forget the feeling of that room, of the resonant chanting and what it stirred inside me. I began looking forward to every Buddhist meeting and soon received the Gohonzon. 

It was strange, but chanting, I found I could sit, at first for short periods of time, but then gradually longer. People would stack their coats on my chair to support my back and, if a spasm started, would shift the coats around to adjust the support. Soon I was sitting for long periods, chanting to my heart’s content, and I began to wonder what else might be possible. My women’s leader, right from the jump, had wondered the same. 

Triumph—Rebecca Butler and her daughters (l-r), Adriana and Victoria, and partner, Scott. Photo by Dave Goodman.

She sat me down and asked me what were my hopes and dreams. 

“To be happy,” I said. 

“Wonderful, what else?”

Pondering this, I realized I didn’t have other hopes—I didn’t think I could and said as much. 

“But, if you could?”

“Well, it would be nice to find a home in a better part of town for the kids.” 

“What else?” 

“I’d like to get Adriana into a great, full-day school program.” 

“What else?”

“I’d get off of all these pills.”

“What else?” 

I thought hard about what had once made me happiest—afterschool programs like soccer, field hockey and dance. “Well, if I could really do anything—anything?


“I’d dance.”

Day after day, the women’s division members called me up, heard me out and told me their stories of overcoming hardships. They were stories about how they’d drawn on their faith for the strength not only to survive but to emerge from their struggles stronger, wiser and more compassionate. I thought to myself, If such a thing was possible for her, then maybe it’s possible for me. I made a list of goals and, one by one, checked them off. Within the year, I’d found a new home and secured the best schooling for Adriana. With my doctor’s permission, I began to wean myself off the antidepressants, something I completed in 2019. Following this (again under doctor’s supervision), I weaned myself off the muscle relaxants. This I completed in March 2021, spasm-free, to the shock and joy of my neurologist. By this time, I had a strong desire to give to others what I’d found through faith—that same March, I took on leadership. Having accomplished so much, I decided (again, under doctor’s supervision!) to begin coming off all medications—for blood pressure, allergies, migraines and reflux—some of which I’d taken since childhood. A year has passed since I stopped taking all medications, and I’m in great health. 

Lastly, I’ve taken up dance once again. Around this time last year, Victoria and I danced in the Merchantville Holiday Parade, while Adriana, who was once unable to handle events of this kind, took in the whole spectacle in awe: the lights, the music, and her sister and mother bringing up the rear in a line of Rockettes, kicking our legs in time, dancing with joy.

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