Mental Health and the Musician: Dealing with injury as a working opera singer in London: Part 2

This is part 2 of 3. If you missed part 1 read it here.


I’m not entirely sure what caused it to flare up again. I went into the start of my second year feeling incredibly optimistic, but I suspect that once again stress played a part. I unexpectedly lost three friends in the space of four months, and it hit hard. The pain started up again after the second friend lost his battle with cancer. Once more, it started in my lower back, gradually radiating out down my left leg, which now occasional pain in my right. I spent a second Christmas in pain, struggling to move, and it only continued to deteriorate in the new year. Only now I was starting to experience terrible pins and needles in my left leg. Like the previous year, I tried to battle on with singing, only my injury was affecting my support, and I was seriously struggling. I had one incredibly humiliating audition where I had stop part-way though. I just couldn’t continue, the combination of finding it difficult to stand and get deep enough breaths just made it impossible. I cried all the way home after that one. I did another set of rehearsals and concert with a tens machine, turned on full, strapped to my leg. I went to another physio, this time through the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM). I was literally too weak and in too much pain to be able to do any exercises, so we devised another route, that would hopefully relieve the pressure on my discs. I dutifully took two weeks off work and had to spend about 40 minutes of each hour laid flat on my back.

It might not sound like much, but it was horrifically painful. The area around the disc was so inflamed that I couldn’t lie on it, even in bed. Even the slightest pressure was too much. The physios and doctors would often apply pressure to the area in order to see how bad the inflammation was and it would bring immediate tears to my eyes, enough to leave a small puddle on the floor.

The physio didn’t work, and I was referred to a surgeon.

I was also not sleeping through the night anymore. I get maybe four hours if I was lucky, but normally less, because I could no longer sleep through the pain. You’re not supposed to sleep in a tens machine, which uses electric impulses to override pain. I would have it turned up full and on almost constant use in order to try and get some relief. Coughing or laughing made me feel like my spine was about to break, and one morning I woke up at 4am, crying out in the most blinding pain I have ever experience. It felt like it had taken over my entire body and I felt like I desperately need to move, but ever tiny movement aggravated the pain. My partner had to try and get me up and take me to A&E where I spent three hours waiting to be seen. I could stand, I couldn’t sit, I’d had to lay down in the taxi to try and relieve the pressure on my lower spine. Of course, the seats in Chelsea and Westminster were designed so you can’t lay down. So, I spent most of that, rather humiliating, three hours laid on the floor, and I think it’s safe to say I sobbed the entire time. They could only offer me an aspirin whilst I waited and when I finally managed to see the wonderful doctor, the only thing they could do was test for nerve damage (basically by sticking a finger up my bum, which was just the icing on the cake), and prescribe me even more painkillers.

2018-23-09-20-41-42I was now taking so many painkillers that I was practically a cartel, plus tablets to counteract the effects of some of the painkillers. I could no longer make it through work, so agreed with my boss that they would get someone else to cover my classes for the rest of the half term, giving my time to try and focus on getting better. I also had to pull out of L’incoronazione di Poppea, which was the college summer opera, and opera scenes, which I was supposed to be assessed on. I also had to postpone both my minor and major recitals, and a written assessment, partially because I couldn’t sit at the computer for long enough to write it, and because I couldn’t physically do the recordings I needed to complete it. In fact, I finished my second, and final year of college with a mere 10 credits.

But it had to be done, as I could no longer leave the flat. I spent the next two months more or less house bound and most of that was spent in bed. I became seriously depressed and managed to simultaneously get anxiety over not leaving the flat, and anxiety over leaving the flat. Which is kind of impressive. As it was I only left to go to doctors’ appointments and even then, I had to take a taxi. My parents had come to visit and took myself and my partner out to dinner. The restaurant was only five minutes walk, but I couldn’t do it. Sitting couldn’t relieve the pressure on my back, so I ended up having to get on all fours on the pavement. That was pretty humiliating. We got a taxi on the way home.

I also put on a lot of weight in this time. Not only could I not exercise, but I couldn’t stand long enough to cook, nor could I sit up long enough to eat a meal. As I discovered, you can’t eat soup sideways. And I spent a lot of time eating my feelings i.e. chocolate.

At this point I was waiting for an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, who told me that not only would there be a three to six-month recovery period (this is for total recovery, not just getting back on my feet), but while it would improve the leg pain it wouldn’t do anything for the back pain. I did actually get to the point that I didn’t know if I would ever get better. It had been eighteenth months at this point and I had to deal with the fact that I might not have a singing career, hell, I might not be able to work full-stop. Maybe that was over-dramatic, but a year and a half of near constant pain will do that to a girl.

Concluded in part 3.


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