Thursday, 4 February 2016

Singing is winning

Singing is winning #singingiswinning

Helen Kewell's story moved me. Positive, active and ambitious before illness, she has continued to try and keep these traits through it also. Not only has she taken a proactive approach to her recovery, through diet and therapy, and experienced improvements, but what touched me was her passion for singing. A hobby she took up just before her diagnosis and found she could continue at her pace. Even when it got hard physically she didn't give up and now she performs in public and has written two of her own songs. I find her courage inspiring and her recovery motivating. I have watched all of Helen's youtube videos and continue to feel inspired by her singing and here she shares her story for us. A big thanks to Helen:

I was diagnosed with ME in July 2012, coincidentally only 2 months after I started singing. The two were not connected at all, but singing has helped me through my recovery in a way that I couldn’t have predicted…
I’ve been active all my life, through my childhood I was a dancer and I swam competitively for local clubs, in adulthood I’ve skied, snowboarded, played team sports, ran regularly and practiced yoga. I sought out physical challenges, enjoying both the adrenalin and the sense of achievement and competition. In the 6 months leading up to becoming ill and eventually being diagnosed with ME, I competed in 2 half marathons, completed the National 3 Peaks Challenge (climbing the 3 highest mountains in the UK in 24 hrs) and participated in a 5km charityswim. To my mind this was a normal amount of activity. My body knew differently.
So back to singing: I missed the rush of performing from when I used to dance and I’d always fancied singing. I was fairly musical, having played piano up to a decent grade, and knew I could hold a tune so when searching around for ideas for a Christmas present for my husband, Nick, to buy me I asked for some singing lessons. I also figured I was approaching the end of my thirties, what better way of proving to myself that you are never too old to take up something new?!

The vocal coach Nick found for me locally was a God-send,quite literally. Encouraging, warm, energetic and ambitious for her singers – from the third lesson we started talking about performing solo at her open mic evening in October. I laughed hysterically when she suggested it but, as you can imagine, I’m always up for a challenge. A month into our lessons together I was fairly poorly with the third round of a nasty ‘virus’ I’d had since the start of the year, one month after that I could barelyeven get out of bed. After prolonged tests my GP decided I was suffering with ME. Everything stopped; no exercise, no socialising, no work - I couldn’t string a thought together let alone plan my day.
Apart from a period of about six weeks, however, I kept up my singing. I could do it alone and at my pace and without leaving the house. And it made me happy. In those very bad months of 2012 not a lot made me happy. I was reconsidering what it meant to be ‘Helen’, I had to change so much of who I was and singing helped that. Through the cognitive therapy I eventually sought to help with my recovery, I found a lot out about myself and to be able to sing authentically you have to connect with what you are singing about, you have to dig deep into who you are so the timing was perfect. I had found a way of continuing to‘achieve’ with something that didn’t jeopardise my recovery but complimented it. As I said; what started being unconnected pretty soon became intertwined – my recovery process and my singing journey each feeding off each other and growing as the months passed by.
It wasn’t plain sailing. Singing is physical if done properly. Some days when I went to a singing lesson I was exhausted simply from walking up the stairs up to the studio, so breathing exercises and technique practice was tough. My vocal coach, Sarah Benton, always took it at my pace and was always able to read my energy levels. Some days I just had to cancel. But I never gave it up. In October, after just 9 lessons and only 3 and a half months after diagnosis, I stood up in front of a cafĂ©/bar full of people one evening and sang two songs solo. Two things happened in that moment: 1) I realised I could get on with life, enjoy and even move forward (those people with ME will tell you that one of your worst fears is that life is reduced to what you can and can’t do, it’s always one step forward and two steps back whilst others seem to move forward and on with their lives around you) and 2) I realised I loved singing!
Not long after that first performance I tried my hand at writing a song. I did it mostly by instinct, I’d love to say there was thisstructured process that I followed but the song I wrote, called Pick up the Pieces, just kind of flowed out of me (I’m not sure it’s a very good example of how to write a song!) I was talking to Sarah one day about how to access more emotion in my singing and she told me it’s always easier to sing something you have written yourself as you respond to it in a way you can’t when singing the words someone else has written. It’s like giving a speech you’ve had no hand in writing! So I thought of something that meant a lot to me and took to the piano and ‘Pick up the Pieces’ was born. When I performed that with acoustic guitar at the next open mic night I realised Sarah was right; singing your own words and feelings is like snuggling down in your favourite chair – everything just fits. Since then I have written two more songs, one in particular called ‘So Long’ about how I feel about ME on this side of my recovery.

So why has singing helped my ME?
Singing releases endorphins (and performing live multiplies this by 100!)
Singing releases oxytocin which is a natural stress reliever and can help sleep patterns
Singing teaches you how to breathe deeply and naturally which has a whole heap of benefits including boosting immunity
Learning songs and music improves mental concentration and memory (helps to fight the dreaded ‘brain fog’)
And for me learning to sing has made me realise there is life and fun beyond ME – it no longer defines me
Obviously my recovery has been down to many things: eating clean (I removed wheat, gluten, refined sugar and dairy from my diet and focused on protein, nuts/seeds and vegetables); supplements such as chlorella and spirilina for energy; cognitive therapy; and a very gradual return to both work and exercise over the last 12 months. Singing went alongside all of this but it definitely helped in ways I would not have foreseen. When I tweet about singing I do it under the hashtag #singingiswinningbecause for me it is and I am.

I have friends who don’t really understand why I sing. A few who are undoubtedly embarrassed about it and some are very uncomfortable with it. That’s OK, it’s not for everyone and I don’t need them to get it. I do it for me.