Mental Health and the Musician: Dealing with injury as a working opera singer in London. Part 1

One thing I have found, when I relate my experience of injury to other singers, is that many of them have their own stories. Different physical problems, but the emotional effects seem universal. It takes a lot of time, money and effort to train as an opera singer and to have your body fail you is a very difficult thing to deal with. Sometimes it isn’t even a physical problem, but these are things we need to talk about. Hearing that you are not alone, and that other people have overcome problems like yours and are now enjoying success in their careers once again is both inspiring and reassuring. But it is never easy and is subsequent posts I plan to look at some of the ways we can focus on our mental health, a topic which is becoming increasingly less taboo.

As it should.

So this is what happened to me:

I realise the word “injury” conjures up certain images, like an accident on some sort. This wasn’t the case for me. It was more a case of “wear and tear” and stress. I use the word injury because of the massive impact it had on my life, and the time it took me to recover: two years.

My first term at college started well, but I had waited a long time to get there, my financial situation more or less prohibiting me from even applying. I got as a far as gaining a place for 2014, only to have to pull out two weeks prior to enrolment due to lack of funds. Simultaneously I ended up with no where to live, and I’d given up work in order to attend classes. Three months of traveling back and forth between my parent’s house over two hundred miles away and sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors, I was kindly helped by the charity Help Musicians to get myself a new place to live and managed to find some work. Unfortunately, four months after moving in I was assaulted by my flatmate and was forced to move yet again. So, there you go: stress.

Needless to say, when I finally got to go to college the following year, I wanted to make the most of it. So, I literally went for everything I could. But of course, I still had to not only pay for my fees but living expenses as well. And anyone who has been a student in London can tell you that’s no easy feat. So, between college and work I was doing seven days a week. Let’s just say it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Towards the end of the first term I woke up with a stiff lower back. I thought little of it, took some ibuprofen and carried on, business as usual. After all it had happened a couple of times before and cleared up after a couple of days. This time though it didn’t. By Christmas two weeks later, the pain had spread from my lower back, down into my left thigh. I could barely walk or stand. I kept trying to “walk” through the pain, but it didn’t help. By early February I was in so much pain, the only respite came from lying down, but trying to roll over or get up again was agony. I managed to (literally) drag myself to the doctors, who told me that bed rest would sort it out, subsequently signing me off work for two weeks. Not a great thing for a freelancer to here, but during this time my partner had to physically hold me up in order to get me around the flat, because my back muscles wouldn’t support me. Unfortunately, two weeks in bed did very little for me except make me a little sick of Netflix. By this point I was on multiple painkillers, which did little to ease the pain, but I managed to get out of the flat again and tried to get on with college and work. I would get some days which were easier, and some days which were impossible, but I carried on regardless.

"Banished" by Stephen McNeff
“Banished” July 2015 at Blackheath Halls. Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

I’d been cast in the college opera that year, a new commission called Banished by Stephen McNeff (which was fabulous by the way). I’m still surprised that I managed to get through all the rehearsals and performances, because not only was the pain incredibly bad, but whatever was wrong was massively limiting my movement. Not only was I having trouble walking, I couldn’t lift my left leg more than an inch or so off the floor, bending was difficult and of course moving around the stage was incredibly tricky. I was frequently late because travel was so difficult, and I admit to crying A LOT in rehearsals. I can’t thank the cast and production team for being so incredibly supportive to me at this time. It was around this time though, after multiple trips to the doctors and a couple of misdiagnoses I was eventually referred for an MRI scan which showed I had a prolapsed or “bulging” L5 disc (the lowest one) which was pressing on my S1 nerve (the sciatic nerve, which happens to be the largest single nerve in the human body) that runs right from your lower back all the way to your feet). Miraculously though, as we moved nearer to the performances the pain mysteriously disappeared and a lot of my flexibility returned, allowing me to get through the performances with little difficulty (even, very carefully, scrambling up and down ladders).

I was cured! Nope, not so. Almost as soon as the production finished the pain and stiffness returned, though thankfully to a more manageable level. It was mostly sitting for too long, which made it difficult and painful to stand again, or being on my feet too long. I still had difficulty in getting dressed some days, but it was a manageable level. I had been referred to physio which I started toward the end of the summer, which helped immensely, and I thought it was over.

I was so very wrong….

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