Singing, emotion, and an irritating irony.

Sundays are all about singing for me. They revolve around singing and the choir. Actually, to be fair, my entire week revolves around the choir. Generally, my first thought on a Friday or a Sunday morning (other than, “Really? It’s that time already?”) is “Ooh, choir today!”. I realise, of course, how nerdy that makes me. And how blessed.

The choir kept me alive. Quite literally. It kept me going, through the bleakest time in my life. It remained the only point of light in darkness; there was a long time when the choristers’ vestry was the only safe place for me in a very unsafe world. And, with a very few exceptions, the choir is the one thing I never compromised. On so many occasions, I chose to sing knowing what would happen to me. Knowing that I would pay for the choice. Everything else I compromised: friends, my writing, jobs, my own integrity. Not the choir. Some things are worth taking a beating for.

There is some irony in the fact that while I (almost) never compromised the choir, it is now the thing that is most compromised by my mental health. I think the most difficult thing about living with PTSD is that it hugely impacts on my capacity to contribute to the choir. Anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, dissociation – I’m so much more likely to experience all of those things when I’m singing – the thing that kept me alive in the first place. If I didn’t know that God’s not a bastard, I’d think that He was having a laugh.

It makes sense, of course. I took more punishment over the choir than over anything else; it’s linked in my inner mind, the part of my mind that’s not connected to rationality and logic (thanks, brain), with fear. Also, the Cathedral’s the place where I can be myself. I don’t have to be on my guard, pretending, being upbeat and friendly and engaged. The Cathedral’s the place where I am safe to be who I am, to be quiet when I need to be – even to sit in silent Presence and weep. And it’s when I let my guard down that the emotions come up.

Also, singing itself is emotional. Sometimes the beauty of the music means that I can barely breathe. And although I’m using my brain constantly, thinking analytically about the music I’m reading, concentrating on the quality of the sound I’m making and how it blends with the other voices, singing is also the only activity where my rational, logical, language-focused mind has to take a step back. Has to let my emotion, my fear, my memories, come to the fore.

And (bad language alert), I hate it. I absolutely fucking hate it. I wish I could just show up and sing. I wish I didn’t have to battle the anxiety writing behind my sternum, screaming at me that everything from a touch on the shoulder to my own bad note is a threat. I wish I didn’t have to put as much of my focus on preventing dissociation or a panic attack as I do on singing. I wish I could be confident that my past would stay in my past and that I could keep from being assaulted by memories when I’m trying to do something that I value. I wish that my mental health didn’t prevent me from repaying with my contribution a group of people who were light and strength to me when I had none for myself.

And I’ve no idea what to do with it all. It would be nice to have a quick-fix, some technique I could learn or pill I could take (beta-blockers, anyone?), some task I could complete with my usual competence. All I can think of is to keep persevering and just hope that with time, like everything else, it gets better.

It’s as good a plan as any.


6 thoughts on “Singing, emotion, and an irritating irony.

  1. It’s a good plan … I’m sure it will get better … It’s hard … But persevere … Give it time … And your friends don’t need “repaying” – they were there just because they ARE your friends, just as you are a friend to them

  2. There is so much of paradox in what you write here and what you experience when you sing and when you are in the Cathedral. It seems that the insidious nature of fear infiltrates what you most love doing – singing. Perhaps it’s because singing involves so much of who you are – emotions (how you feel), rationality (i.e. reading the words, reading the notes), breathing (life-force). I wonder if there is a ritual that might help you – something you do when you enter the Cathedral?

  3. Perhaps your capacity to contribute to the choir is much greater than you assess it to be. What do your fellow choristers think?

    Be gentle on yourself and allow the love of your friends and God drive away the fear that you are not good enough.

    PS. I thought my first comments on this blog were very profound!

  4. Pingback: A fight I’ll choose. | naomijjohnson

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