Sie war doch sonst ein wildes Blut, nun geht sie tief in Sinnen. So begins the second stanza of Theodor Storm’s poem, “Die Nachtigall,” set to music in 1907 by composer Alban Berg. In Berg’s setting, “She was once of wild blood, now she wanders deep in thought” starts an assured, lilting phrase but dives to a low, brooding murmur. Years ago, this piece became a personal anthem, but this B section phrase reflects how I felt as I left graduate school. After devoting myself to music—what I felt to be my life purpose—and with a growing resume of victories in hand, how and why did I come to leave my Master’s with a broken soul?
The daughter of two classical musicians, I was a familiar specter in their frequented concert halls as a child and fell in love with opera at an early age. To me, opera was the pinnacle of human expression and I yearned to replicate those divine tones. By the time I earned my Bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and confidently marched up to the heavy wooden doors of my Master’s program, I was sailing on years of successful performances including two recitals, multiple leading operatic roles, concerts in Austria, a production in Hawaii, incalculable gigs and academic convocations, and of course, one very strong graduate audition. Therefore, I was shocked and ashamed when I immediately began to deteriorate.
You may be familiar with legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”: the template of folkloric figures which traces their movement from the known into the unknown via a call to adventure, and their eventual return to the known through revelation, transformation, and atonement. Campbell’s oeuvre demonstrates the value of examining our own lives through these tales and patterns, and quite often, our exploits neatly fit into this diagram. However, there is a groundwork I prefer when considering the larger context of my life, especially as a woman—one in which I am not relegated to the role of a temptation along the way or reward at the end of someone else’s story. Contemporary mythologist (and all-around enchanted woman) Dr. Sharon Blackie gives us “The Heroine’s Journey,” something she refers to as “the progress of an imperfect pilgrim.” Rooted in Celtic lore, her “Journey” is one of authenticity, knowledge, belonging, and healing, and it begins in The Wasteland.
“The first stage asks us to sweep aside the veil which prevents us from seeing the world as it is: to understand what is broken, and what needs to change. Flinch, but don’t look away.”
During my first graduate performance, I choked. My throat spasmed and my voice withered multiple times in the middle of complex Baroque melismas in front of 400 people. Afterward, I bolted from the theater humiliated and confused. A month later, opera scenes rendered me breathless, gasping for air between each phrase onstage. I began to dread the public performances that increasingly filled me with panic and dreamt up many hypotheses of self-blame to explain my affliction. I must be rusty and losing my edge; I must be a terrible singer with improper technique; I must be sabotaging myself with insecurity. The terror I felt about performing was made much worse by a tic exacerbated by nerves—a tic devastating to a singer—compulsive swallowing. I started researching performance anxiety and swallowing disorders (to no avail) while I hid mine in shame. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me when just a few months prior, I proudly took the final bow in a main stage opera.
My graduate work became a burden beyond the normal grind of academia. Soon, I began to dread practicing too, haunted by imminent performances yet besieged by the moral implications of productivity. If I didn’t practice and study for hours each day and spend every spare second poring over relevant material—in other words, commit every modicum of my life to music—I felt like a fraud. I stopped reading beloved non-musical literature, stopped spending time with friends, and spent most of my free time locked away in my bedroom, often mindlessly scrolling on my phone, paralyzed by imagined responsibilities. I hid my feelings from everyone: the terrible anxiety, my daily despair and loss of passion, the immense pressure I felt to perform at each moment, and the many ways I condemned and berated myself for it all.
My fears were reinforced by a malignant program and an abusive romantic relationship. The School of Music cast a judgmental gloom that soured my artistic desire and blanketed me and my classmates in despondent misery. It was clear that the school did not wish to best serve our education, but that we were paying to serve the egos and careers of the faculty and administration, save for a handful of truly genuine educators, including my own voice teacher. Our abilities and concerns were relentlessly dismissed and censured, and I learned to view my own voice as worthless. I lost the belief that my voice had anything to offer, and was consumed with the urge to apologize to the audience with each performance. My obvious imposter syndrome was validated by the disparaging bygone partner who, motivated by his own lack-thereof, systematically annihilated what remained of my self-worth. He criticized my appearance, the credibility of my passions, and constantly compared me to what he felt he didn’t have, once stating he had to “mourn” what he lost by being with me. He invalidated all of my best qualities, and declared that he “deserved” to be with a fantasy partner he deemed legitimate. With my mounting insecurity and deep fear he spoke some form of truth, I endured months of emotional abuse despite attempts to fight back and defend myself, and while I extricated myself at the end of my first year, the damage was lasting.
A couple of months into my second year, I almost passed out on my way to the bus stop. In a flash I was overwhelmed with lightheadedness and stepped back in the wet leaves to collect myself. In another flicker it was gone, leaving me to wonder if I drank too much coffee that morning. That’s how it began, in waves of lightheadedness so brief I thought I imagined them, but it quickly progressed to a constant state of near unconsciousness, extreme fatigue, blackout vision, and a racing heart. I first noticed it consistently in both my academic and professional choir rehearsals. Standing in my section, I shifted incessantly from foot to foot, trying to bend my knees and catch my breath. It became increasingly difficult to stand still and my singing got quieter and quieter until I could do little more than mouth the words, feeling like my body was collapsing in on itself. I was generally able to keep it at bay during my voice lessons and small class performances by constantly moving and clinging to pianos and music stands as gracefully and nonchalantly as possible. I told myself I was deplorably weak and that my performance anxiety must have become so horrid it was no longer solely reserved for performance.
Now, every imminent rehearsal filled me with dread. I spent each hour fighting for consciousness and my eyes stopped being able to transition between my music and the conductor, so I had to pick one. Switching my focus resulted in long moments of blackout vision that left me reeling in panic. My position as a church section leader and cantor soon consisted of haggling with myself for energy, collapsing in my chair for a few seconds of respite between pieces and rudely sitting through the Episcopalian services. Often, I had to wait in my car before I could go home, feeling like a corpse and unable to coordinate my movements to drive. I wavered in line at the grocery store and wobbled to and from campus like a toddler, my legs heavy like they were filled with Jell-O. I dissociated from life and my awareness withdrew into myself, leaving in its place a grey fog. Despite the deluge of warning signs, I was still utterly convinced these symptoms were all in my head and due to my own faults as a human being and musician.
Finally, I experienced a day of symptoms so severe I realized in horror they were “real”. A full day of classes, rehearsals, a critical graduate language proficiency exam, and an evening choir concert were on the docket. By the time I finished the exam, I was melted over the table hovering inches from the paper, feeling my shallow breath on the white-knuckled hand gripping my pencil. I made it down to the theater and attempted to join the choir for a final warm-up. I felt like I was dying; like my skin was going to slide off my skeleton; like my organs were dissolving; like my body was disintegrating from the inside out. I knew there was no way I would make it to the end of a performance without falling off the riser unconscious. I “feigned” illness, as I was unable to articulate what was happening to me (and am forever grateful to my director for letting me go), and headed for home. I staggered up the hill with my Jell-O legs, half-conscious in the dark with my eyes rolling back in my head, certain I would pass out cold in the street. Somehow, I made it home, and had to rest in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk before I managed to get upstairs. As I collapsed into bed unable to move, feeling like I had weights piled on my chest, heavy thoughts settled in my mind. I accepted that this was not just in my head. This was not performance anxiety taken to an extreme, nor was it a punishment for a personal shortcoming. There was something seriously wrong—maybe even dangerous—and I was no longer able to live with it. The veil had been raised and there were broken pieces everywhere.
“Realizing we have lost our skin, we recognize that ‘to stay is to die.’”
The first doctor I saw believed me. While my blood panel came back normal, five minutes standing still in the exam room made my heart rate skyrocket to over 90 bpm, confirming his suspicion. He tentatively diagnosed me with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or “POTS”: a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. In a healthy person, the body adjusts blood flow when one sits, stands, hangs upside down, etc. POTS causes most of one’s blood to stay in the lower part of the body when standing, which makes the heart race in a desperate attempt to pump blood to the brain. This causes a drop in blood pressure and in turn, lightheadedness, blurred vision, brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, digestive issues, and a host of other symptoms. This explained why hours of standing in rehearsal was so torturous to me, and why the longer I stood, the more I deteriorated. It explained why it felt like singing was killing me.
Accepting that these deficiencies were beyond my control, the first step was to cut my losses. I withdrew from all non-essential commitments, knowing I was incapable of enduring the rehearsals, let alone performances. My wonderful church music director gave me clearance to sit and rest as needed and I started taking beta blockers—a drug that conveniently alleviated symptoms of both my condition and performance anxiety. I couldn’t distinguish my POTS symptoms from performance anxiety (the reason POTS is often misdiagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder), so my few remaining performances still made me want to melt through the floor. Despite my discomfort, I was determined to finish my degree, which included a final recital. I sang in boots and pleather motorcycle pants, partly because I wanted the performance to be authentically “me,” but mostly so I could be balanced and comfortable on my feet. I managed to make it through the hour with the help of the beta blockers, the only evidence of my illness being my constant swaying and shifting which I tried to make look as expressive and purposeful as possible. I sang a very difficult program well—including the cycle containing “Die Nachtigall,” Sieben frühe Lieder—and earned my Master’s degree.
The Cauldron of Transformation
“Step off the edge…let yourself fall…feel the grief and the loss…feel the rage.”
I took the summer off from music, believing that a couple of months in a new place would solve my problems. I moved near family in the Rockies, landed an administrative position with a symphony, and was quickly cast in a spring production with a local opera company. In the fall, I saw a new voice teacher and set about continuing my musical education, selecting new arias and scheduling performances, but could hardly bring myself to practice. I forced myself to engage with my repertoire and critiqued every note. Each session only brought disappointment and frustration at any inklings of imperfection, anxiety, and my illness, which hadn’t yet faded so much as morphed. Now, my stomach betrayed me too, and every meal felt like sluggish poison in my digestive tract. Waves of that “melting organs” sensation washed over me in my new office. Once again, I dreaded practicing, my lessons, and the impending opera. I executed my small performances with varying success, feeling utter defeat after a less-successful performance during which I struggled to remain conscious. I slowly sunk into a deep depression of utter worthlessness. By Christmas, I spent most free moments in bed wondering what I was good for if I could no longer practice my craft or use my expensive new degree—a source of intense guilt all its own. Engulfed in self-loathing, shame, and hopelessness, I didn’t know how to move forward in a life I thought I had nothing to offer.
I did not yet understand that my body’s howling was a beacon in the dark. In this Dark Night of the Soul, I could not see that my path was lit, and it led away from the high-pressure, distorted life I was convinced I should be leading. All I could feel was the weight of my perceived failings and shortcomings, believing my years of hard work had been for nothing. My disillusionment was only enhanced by the dismay of those closest to me, for even from them I had been able to conceal the depth of my despair. I wallowed in mourning and sorrow, helpless and clueless as to how to find myself in the murk.
The Pilgrim’s Way
“Stay for a while in the dark…then pick yourself up and find your way to the path…a pilgrimage begins with one small step.”
While I was ruminating, mired in despondency, a trusted friend was not-so-quietly overhauling her life with heart and science. She and her family moved to the country, started reevaluating priorities, workloads, expectations, connection, faith, and purpose, and sharing their findings. She used social media as a tool to propose new ideas and methods for living, open discourse, and recommend resources. One book recommendation caught my eye and steered me off the tired, broken trail I kept insisting on weathering. Instead, that book led me down a path of public health experts, psychologists, happiness researchers, and positive social media. I consumed these new ideas every day, feeding my soul morsels of external affirmations when I found none within myself, and slowly, I started to feel better.
One day, my stomach stopped churning. The lightheadedness that still plagued me during activities like running or rock climbing finally, finally subsided. Once again, I withdrew from the performances I had planned on forcing myself through, and learned to prioritize rest. I allowed myself to guiltlessly pursue the things I enjoy. I started reading again and discovered my overwhelming fear of perceived laziness was unfounded, and more importantly, didn’t matter. I gave myself permission to be “unproductive.” I learned how to eat, sleep, and exercise intuitively. I learned how to view my life from new perspectives of gratitude, depth, and fluidity. I tried to let go of who I thought I should be, and embrace who I am. I started patching together the fragments of my skin.
Retrieving the Buried Feminine
“Creativity is an authentic approach to life: an openness, a spontaneity; a determination to nurture rather than destroy.”
My cyclic journey is imperfect and incomplete, just like life itself. The path of life is not composed of straight, manicured pavement, but of many spiraling coils, sometimes so overgrown we can’t see them but must learn to trust that they’re there. While I’ve made large strides in restoring my health, there are days I still feel ill. While I’ve managed to regain a sense of self-worth without performing, having traded my intended path for another, there are days I still feel intense shame, embarrassment, and heartache. I have not yet found a way to meaningfully return to classical singing without associating the craft with the sensations of terror and illness, but I no longer feel that loss invalidates my life as a whole. This painful pilgrimage has unveiled to me some of the fetid scripts we believe to be legitimate and mandatory measures of our worth and accomplishments. I came to see that the world in which I thought I belonged was not healthy or fulfilling for me, and that even art can be destructive when a virulent vision reigns supreme. The pursuit of an elusive perfection regulated by a cast of infinite judges is not, in my opinion, a valuable way to spend one’s precious time and effort, nor is it an ideal environment in which to create and share something sincerely meaningful. This is where I stand in my unfinished Heroine’s Journey: learning how to reconnect with my stolen creativity and engage creatively with others in a more genuine way.
Soon, I will embark on my new adventure as an educator, and aim to transform these difficult lessons into a positive example for my future students in the hope that they will go forth free from all edicts but their own. I do not believe any part of my experience is unique, and through sharing my journey, I hope I can help others feel less alone. In that light, this space will no longer function as a traditional professional singer’s website, but will evolve as a realm in which to share my findings, writing, and other creative pursuits. Perhaps, someday, there will even be music.
Oh, and as for our brooding heroine from “Die Nachtigall,” who traipses under the heat of the summer sun with her protective hat ineffectually hanging from her hand, well, sie weiß nicht was beginnen—she knows not what’s beginning—just before the nightingale starts to sing to her again, and the roses spring up in bloom. For, as Blackie reminds us, “all mourning may be transformed into joy if you have endurance enough to make the journey.”