When Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Alternatively, step out of the lemon grove and put some fresh ground under your feet…
While some artists come straight out and tell the truth about what ails them, it seems most people still think it best to keep up appearances. As everyone who knows me is well aware, I am of the former persuasion. I simply don’t see the point of living a life behind masks of propriety, nor do I think it serves the artist, the art, or the artform to keep lying about prevalent problems that affect so many artists.
The music business, and certainly the opera business, is fuelled in part by a myth of unattainable perfection possessed by a very few through divine providence, but not earned by mere mortals. And while there are some such freaks of nature, from whom the most beautiful sounds of the Universe naturally flow (at least sometimes!), most of the musicians who populate the worlds’ stages live with the consequences of an almost intolerable amount of physical and psychological stressors, which, when not properly understood and respected, can derail even the strongest of constitutions.
I have always considered myself a “stronger than most” type. Strong-willed. Strong-bodied. Strong-voiced. And certainly, clear sighted and resilient as to the nature of my Self in relation to the world at large. But the past couple of years have revealed a whole other dynamic, which rendered me quite literally flat on my back with the proverbial rug pulled out from under my feet.
Sadly, I join Lady Gaga in disclosing that I have lived with the effects of severe fibromyalgia over the past almost five years. I just didn’t understand it at the time.
After having kept a far too full schedule of travel and performances for about ten years, I almost imperceptibly started feeling increasingly challenged to manage even the most basic tasks of daily life; incrementally growing less and less confident in my body, less and less able to sustain balance and support of my voice, and struggling to concentrate or maintain even the most basic levels of enthusiasm.
Bluntly put, nothing made sense, everything hurt, and having fun doing my dream job was no longer possible.
So, back in October, after my body quite literally buckled under a 17kg costume, and finding myself choking back tears of panic seconds before stepping onstage to do something rather challenging at the best of times, I pulled the plug on everything and went home. I have always invested greatly in the quality and relevance of my work, so finding myself physically unable to meet its demands was in all ways heartbreaking and frightening.
It never occurred to me that what I was experiencing had to do with anything other than my own failure, weakness, incompetence, or age…. I never considered something medical might be going on. The music business does not look kindly on women over the age of fifty, even under the best of circumstances. So it was with a complex set of feelings I was left reassessing not only my health, but my career as a whole.
Safely home in the dark of Swedish winter, however, I miraculously found a German doctor (!), who in her empathy toward my tears and devastation saw past the superficial complaints, and continued digging. I thought I had some injuries to deal with, maybe some hormonal issues to look at, but what she really heard me say was, “it all hurts”…
Fibromyalgia is an inflammation in the brain that causes it to misfire on a neuro-chemical level and misinterpret even the slightest touch or imbalance in the body as painful. Pain leads to exhaustion, which leads to weakness, which leads to a host of real problems… among them, loss of confidence, energy, balance, coordination, and an ability to participate with consistency. Simply put, joy and energy left the building.
Putting a name on what I was experiencing, however grim the prognosis professed by the medical establishment, was actually a great relief. Amid apologetic recommendations of physiotherapy and pain management courses, or a lifetime of heavy pain medication, all I could hear was, “YOU’RE NOT CRAZY! YOU’RE NOT IMAGINING THIS!”…
Research tells us it is caused by extreme stress, trauma, grief, burnout, or genetics, but reveals almost nothing about cures. But I think that has something to do with the reluctance to recommend anything at all that hasn’t gone through exhaustive clinical trials. And statistics tell us that diseases that affect mostly women simply don’t get funding for exhaustive clinical trials. The Swedish medical community is willing to recommend physiotherapy, CBT, and very tentatively, acupuncture. But only as an anecdotal, possible relief, in some people… maybe…
Incurable or not, at least there was a real diagnosis for what I had perceived as personal failure. Truly, I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my all too human shoulders. Looking back, I wish I had known to take a break from work earlier. But, tenacity has always been my middle name, and “breaks” in the opera world almost always go hand-in-hand with speculation of vocal decline. Ironically, taking a long break is what has given my voice new life.
After spending a solid month resting (Netflix and my sofa becoming very familiar!), I slowly started coming back to life. Several close friends have struggled with very serious health problems lately – the life threatening kind – and a new perspective became an integral part of moving forward. I had been so blinded by the heartbreak of maybe losing my career over this, that I hadn’t gotten close enough to the basics – namely, a will to have a good life in the company of those I love most. Knowing where you want to end up is a good start to taking a first step in the right direction…
While doctors advised on pain management, I decided to take every bit of traditional and non-traditional piece of advice offered. I started meditating twice a day, invested in intense acupuncture treatments and EMDR-therapy (a revelation!), took on a rather clean diet and lifestyle, and continued to build strength and balance through physiotherapy. I also completely released myself from any and all pressures of achievement or scheduling. I guess the upside of having been a workaholic is that I had a little financial buffer, at least temporarily, to finance my new project… finding a new path for my body and my spirit to tread.
And lo, and behold, fingers crossed, it seems to be working. I am starting to feel like saying hello to the world again. (Hello!). I even managed a couple of small recitals in February and a charity concert in March. All three of which gave me joy beyond measure and felt like I was singing with “my” voice again. A feeling I will not compromise again…
I love singing and acting opera, and I hope to keep doing that, albeit in more healthy measure, for a few more years to come. I am at peace with retiring most of my more dramatic roles, as they have served my career beautifully, and I know I have given them my very respectable best. With regained transparency in my heart and voice, I wish to take on some new repertoire to channel and challenge myself moving forward. And for those who might give me an opportunity to realise this desire, I will be ever grateful.
In the meanwhile, there is a pretty full season coming up, beginning with Spring in Florence, Italy. Two fun and crazy (!!!) characters will accompany me this year, while wonderful colleagues will warm my heart, and five beautiful cities await my newfound curiosity. June delivers the opportunity to sing a mostly French program at the Umeå Chamber Music Festival. And I have also decided to finally launch my own training programs for aspiring and developing artists, called Wilderness Workshops and Mentorship – Because life is impish and surprising in its changeability, the territory can be treacherous and sometimes painful, and there is nothing more useful than an experienced and caring sherpa.
Illness is different things to different people. Awakening, ending, beginning, softening, strengthening, deepening, withdrawing… but perhaps most profoundly, it is an opportunity for self-determination in disguise…
Self as potentially misguided, Self as breakable, Self as a wholly foreign object.
But also Self as insuppressible – inspired, supported, and loved.
And maybe even acceptable.
As always, Grace is where I land.