This is the third and final part. To read Part 1 click here. For part 2 click here

It was a suggestion by my partner that I try a chiropractor. I didn’t really have a lot to lose by this point so I made appointment at my local chiropractors. My first appointment consisted of x-rays which showed both my spine and pelvis were out of alignment. On top of this, because I’d had trouble walking for so long, that the muscles in my legs had atrophied. That was pretty upsetting to hear. When I say upsetting, I mean I absolutely sobbed all night. Nevertheless, after only three sessions I was able to sleep through the night and after three weeks (or three sessions a week) the pain disappeared completely. I was able to start walking again, though I couldn’t even manage five minutes at first. I still had limited flexibility, particularly on the left side, and some stiffness in my lower back, but gradually over the next 6 months this improved considerably, and I managed to start singing again. Initially, I still struggled with support and breathing, to the point that I would get light-headed on sustained phrases, and boy was it knackering. Regardless I continued, doing seven productions over a twelve-month period, went back to work, and managed to finish college with a distinction no less.

My problems weren’t entirely over, I still suffer from terrible cramp in my left leg, I think as a result of the muscle wastage, though it’s getting less problematic as my fitness improves and I rebuild the muscle. I also had to deal with anxiety over leaving the house and even dealing with my workload. As much as it sucked being stuck in the house there was also a sense of relief of not having any responsibility. After years of working six or even seven days a week, not having to worry about anything except my heath was a little liberating, even as the pain and the lack of surety of my future brought me back down. Suddenly dealing with a lot of singing work was a bit of a shock, not to mention finishing college, and two part-time jobs and I definitely struggled with my mental health.

I’m pleased to say though, a little over a year later and things are looking a lot better. To say this has been a tough would be like saying Brexit isn’t quite running smoothly, and while I still have to look after myself (and don’t we all), I’ve danced, been pushed around, thrown to the floor, behaved like a drunken harlot and even done the can-can (ok I know I’ve already mentioned dancing but I feel this particular one deserves a special mention) with no problem. I couldn’t have imagined that last year and seeing what I have manage to achieve in that period is incredible and I’m incredibly grateful to the family, friends and health professionals who helped me deal with it, and ultimately recover.

It hasn’t been easy writing about this, but as I said at the beginning of this endeavor, hearing about obstacles, problems, illness and injury other singers have gone through and overcome really gives you hope. It’s truly inspiring, and whilst I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to have an ending like I have, I hope that by being open about my struggles will help someone else overcome there’s. Or at the very least feel less alone.

Evolution of man showing my recovery (two legs good four leg bad!)
Evolution of Lisa

 

If you are struggling here are some links to organisations that can give you support:

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine

Help Musicians UK

Mind, the mental health charity

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.

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….

A little over a two weeks ago marked the end of Opéra de Baugé, an annual opera festival in the Loire Valley of France. Over a period of three weeks (an incredibly intense period rehearsing and performing in 38°C plus heat!) a group of professional singers, dancers, instrumentalists, conductors and technical crew put together and performed three different operas, aptly aided by a band of volunteers. Locals could come and watch the performances, enjoying a picnic in the beautiful grounds of Les Capucins, the Chateau where the opera is held. Heaven, right?

While all of this was going on a group of children, French and English combined, aged from around 7 to 11 were working on a performance of their own. These wonderful kids managed to rehearse and perform, from memory no less, children’s choruses from operas such as Carmen, La Bohème, Werther, Cavelleria Rusticana, Albert Herring and Hënsel und Gretel (just to name a few), in Italian, French, English and German, aided occasionally by some of the professional singers (including yours truly). This wonderful concert was rounded off by four of the boys singing “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse, in a beautiful finish to the performance.

Some of these kids in particular are little stars in the making, giving brilliant and even hilarious performances, but perhaps more heart-warming was seeing some of them with their parents attending the opera productions. They came to see all three: Idomeneo, Orfée aux enfers and Rigoletto, and let’s face it if you were thinking about child-friendly opera, Rigoletto certainly wouldn’t be at the top of the list. Yet there they were, sporting matching grins and clutching their programmes as they then approached the artists for their autographs. The level of joy and excitement was absolutely genuine and for a genre I’ve often heard described as elitist by the adult world, and boring by the adolescent world.

It makes me recall the wonderful film Hip Hop to Opera made by Opera Holland Park, released earlier this year. The moment that springs to mind is when this group of inner-city teens see and hear bass Simon Shibambu sing the coat aria from Puccini’s La Boheme. The sheer astonishment on their faces is something to behold and they describe is as “sublime” and say they’re “flabbergasted”. Opera might not be “pop music” any more, but it still has the power to thrill, and it can still find relevancy for upcoming generations. Not every child is going to love opera, but there are plenty who do and there is a whole spate of operas now written specifically for younger ages, or aimed at families including Jonathan Dove’s Swanhunter, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are based on the popular book, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter by David Bruce inspired by the Philip Pullman novel and the ever popular Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten to name just a few. So much can be gained from either seeing or partaking in these operas and from the performing arts in general and I say the more the merrier!

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Hip Hop to Opera you can watch it here.