Thank you for the music

On Saturday morning I heard that my old singing teacher Joanne had died the night before. It’s been over ten years since I last saw her, so I didn’t think I was particularly affected beyond a vague sadness to begin with. What’s more, the last time I saw her I screamed at her in public, so I didn’t really want to relive that bit of behaviour again. On Monday I couldn’t concentrate on my college assignment (due in today! Finished it eventually) and started writing a post about Jo instead. About half way through I realised that writing about it wasn’t going to make it better, so I gave up and cried on Audrey instead. I’ve always been the poster girl for delayed reaction grief, but there seems to be a much shorter lag between the fact and the consequence these days, which I suppose is good.

I still want to write a bit about Jo here. I met her when I started getting  involved in some of the amateur dramatics societies local to my home town when I was ten. She was a retired opera singer who coached anyone with a singing part in the productions, and also organised and led rehearsals for concerts in between the seasonal plays and pantomimes. When she broke away from the main group about eighteen months later I followed her, becoming one of the original members of her new youth choir. We were actually pretty good – I think the biggest and best thing we ever took part in was performing at Disneyland Paris two years running, but we always had lovely feedback from our concerts, whether in Salisbury cathedral or the little town hall in the coastal village where she lived. I was a member of the choir for five or six years, from the age of eleven until I was nearly seventeen.

I loved being on stage when I was younger, which is weird given how pathologically self conscious I was – I mean, this is the same girl who often couldn’t bring herself to buy things from the shops in town because she was convinced the person behind the till was laughing at how ugly she was. On stage, singing in front of hundreds of people. I was a conundrum, certainly. But I didn’t just belong to the choir because I loved performing so much. That choir was my lifeline throughout most of my membership. When I joined I was a badly bullied and suicidal eleven year old, and over the next few years my eating disorder and self harm gradually crept in and stole away any remaining quality of life. I held on to that choir until the last possible minute before everything really fell apart in 2001.

To begin with it was just a safe, welcoming, inclusive place to go on a Thursday evening. I felt shy around the others and of course there was some obligatory teenage cliquey behaviour, but they were kind to me – something I had no experience of at school. The lower my mood dropped and the more desperation I felt in the rest of my life, the more I clung to the two hours a week when I was surrounded by people who seemed to like and respect me. There were times when choir felt like therapy did later on – there were a few girls and an ex-teacher of mine who helped out there that I could talk to, and sometimes the noise in my head would get so loud and overpowering that I’d have to get the attention of one of them and chat for a bit. I was very aware that these people were not mental health professionals and were there to have fun, not to counsel my batty, frightened self, but I had no other outlet at the time. I knew my mum wanted me to talk to her about what was going on but for some reason it felt overwhelmingly threatening to do so, like I would be exposing some terrible, selfish weakness which would cause her to hate me. Somehow it felt safer to talk to people who weren’t so emotionally involved. Before long, I was virtually living week to week for choir, and counting down the hours in between Thursdays.

When I was about fourteen Jo started giving me private singing lessons. My craziness managed to interfere with this too. My dad would pick me up from the school concert band rehearsal at 5pm on a Wednesday and get me to Jo’s house for 5.30. Because I hadn’t had time to breathe in between school, band and singing, Jo would make my sister and I dinner before we got there. I would eat in her dining room while my sister sang for the first half an hour, then she would have dinner while I sang, and then we’d switch over again for another half hour each. This would have been a wonderful arrangement if not for my eating disorder. Jo was thin as a rake but made the most highly calorific meals known to mankind because she had malabsorption problems from a digestive disorder. I was torn by guilt in either direction: whether I ate Jo’s food and accepted the full wrath of the eating disorder or gave in to the latter and felt awful for throwing away what Jo had obviously gone to some trouble to prepare. The outcome differed from week to week. Sometimes I would eat my dinner with a minimum of anxiety and be pleasantly surprised by how much better my voice was with some calories behind it. Other weeks I would put it in plastic bags in my school rucksack and later Jo would ask me if I was tired or under stress from school exams because I was “lacking some oomph, darling!”. On one memorable occasion I forgot my plastic sandwich bags and ended up having to store pasta with cheese sauce and peas in my pencil case, which I then forgot to empty out and had to dash to the school toilets the next morning to do so. Opening that in front of the class would not have been my greatest moment ever…

Despite my inconsistent nutrition and precarious mental state I still managed to improve slowly, and I took part both years we sang at Disneyland, age fourteen and fifteen. The first year requires Dickens’ (those of you who get these posts emailed will have spotted the deliberate mistake in the first draft 😛 ) line about the best and worst of times to adequately describe it. One of my good friends had just died and I was utterly grief-stricken, but unable to cry. Jo had just poached a boy from the school’s production of West Side Story to join the choir and he reminded me so much of my poor dead friend that I fell instantly and hopelessly in love with him. This was a bit of a shock since I had previously only had crushes on women, so I was simultaneously confused about this, devastated about my friend and overjoyed that I apparently wasn’t as gay as I’d thought I was, without really linking the three in my head. Plus I was barely eating, rarely sleeping and absolutely petrified about wearing a short-sleeved costume on stage, in front of my parents, who didn’t yet know about my self harm. I was trying and failing to deal with all of this on my own, and feeling as if I was a hair’s breadth from losing my mind. I tried to talk to the nice ex-teacher who still helped out, and she was a great listener but I felt so guilty about taking up her time and so terrified that she would call me attention seeking or melodramatic, as the teachers at school had the year before when I had finally broken down over being bullied. I was jealous when she paid the other girls attention, and hated myself for what I saw as being so dependent and weird. I know it sounds like the choir was the source of half my problems at that point, but really I think it just gave me a context. Even without the choir my friend would still have been dead, I would still have been alone and desperate for help. All the choir provided me with was hope that things could change – that I might fall in love, have friends, be listened to and understood. That made me feel almost worse than being utterly alone and having no hope, but I wouldn’t have let go of it for the world.

I'm on the floor, second to the left. Jo is next to the girl holding the enormous Pooh. You know what I mean.

I was ready and raring to go the next summer, now with my younger sister and brother joining in with the Disneyland preparations, but this is where things started going a bit awry, as if my general craziness hadn’t been the source of enough awry-ness already. Two of the most popular girls in the choir fell out, and the majority of the choir sided with one of them. Remembering how awful being bullied had been, I made an effort to be nice to the other girl, and found myself being ostracised for it. My own best friend at choir had just found herself a boyfriend, and spent ninety-nine percent of the summer kissing him. We were young teenage girls (the boys wisely didn’t get involved), so of course there was going to be drama and catfights, but I couldn’t see the bigger picture back then and I couldn’t trust that it was going to blow over. In my head this was the ruin of my one safe place, and now everyone hated me just like they had done at school, and I KNEW something was wrong with me, I knew I was incapable of keeping friends, I knew I was a worthless piece of crap, why had I ever believed otherwise? I carried on through the summer, utterly miserable, reluctant to let go of the faint hope that things might improve. Finally, while we were away in France, the two fighting girls made up under the influence of cheap French supermarket vodka, my (good, Catholic) best friend got wasted and lay on the hotel corridor shouting for her boyfriend to come and f*ck her, which led to much hilarity and female bonding, my mum (who had come along to accompany my little brother) laughed at my hangover the next morning and my brother set fire to his thumb while trying to light a candle for my grandfather at Notre Dame. All in all it was a pretty good trip, and certainly a memorable one, but the damage had been done.

The next year – 2001 – we were supposed to be going to Spain rather than Disneyland. I, at sixteen years old, had been put on antidepressants for the first time a couple of months previously, and was completely mental in a way which very much surpassed all prior mentalness. I was hypomanic and self destructive and self harming badly enough to be attending accident and emergency for stitches every now and again. I decided that I needed stability this summer so shouldn’t go to Spain. I think really I was just terrified of the previous summer’s drama being repeated, and no longer felt like my beloved choir was a safe haven. One day early in the summer holidays I was walking along the seafront and found them setting up for a pre-Spain concert. I was devastated at being left out, although quite aware that it was all my own fault, as I hadn’t given Jo a straight answer about what the hell I was up to and why. She tried to make “show must go on” noises at me and I got upset. She told me in frustration that I was lucky, that there was a long waiting list of young people who wanted to have singing lessons with her and come on our foreign summer concerts, and I screamed at her that if this was the case, she should give my place to someone else, because I really wasn’t feeling very lucky.

At that time in June 2001 I had finished my GCSEs, getting all A and A* grades apart from my “shameful” B in maths. I swept the local music festival, winning every one of the nine classes I entered and getting a special award for being the most promising young recorder player – which I know sounds a little unexciting, but for some reason Swanage was a hive of young recorder players, some of whom were really fantastic. I was the understudy to the lead in the musical my ballet company was producing, which was a massive deal to me since I had always felt inadequate and clumsy at ballet. I had the chance to go to Spain with the choir, and my singing voice was the best it had ever been. My parents noticed the difference, Jo noticed the difference and the judges at the music festival certainly noticed. By the end of July I had left my recorder group, abandoned my ballet company after a minor spat with the director (who, to put this into context, was the most extreme and demanding perfectionist I’ve ever met and fought with most members of her cast on a daily basis – I was just too vulnerable to cope with her any more) and shouted at Joanne on the promenade of Swanage bay.

My recorder tutor had taught me since I was nine, and I feel a bit bad about suddenly disappearing on him, but at least I didn’t have a huge tantrum in the process – I just stopped turned up to group rehearsals. I’d been doing ballet since I was three, but the head of the company had a reputation for being overly critical, I had been on the receiving end of this many times before and I was far from the first person to storm out on her. I feel worse about Jo. She was a really lovely person. She greeted everyone with “hello, darling!”, had no time for her own physical ailments, and got involved with charities left right and centre, once hosting a concert for a group of children affected by Chernobyl who had come for a respite holiday to the UK for a month. She carefully brought out the potential of every child she came into contact with, and she so clearly enjoyed working with us. There was no indication that she felt it was a cut below her previous career as an opera star, which had been shortened by illness and relocations. She loved all of us quite openly. And yes, she was completely clueless about mental illness, believed in mind over matter for everything from low moods to travel sickness and quite possibly didn’t handle my breakdown in the most tactful manner. But she’d been dealing with my increasing craziness for six years at that point, and she just didn’t understand what I had to be depressed about, as – in her eyes – a talented, attractive and intelligent young woman with a every hope in the world for her future. With antidepressants turning my brain chemistry into a toxic cocktail I lost the ability to tolerate any further stress or pain, so when I found them on the seafront I just exploded without thinking, and was too ashamed and full of hurt pride to go back again afterwards. Instead, I abandoned all my extra-curricular activities, my friends from each of these and the few I had kept from school, and I hid away online for the rest of the summer, talking on a message board for people with eating disorders.

I’ve been hiding away online rather than making contact with the people around me for most of the last decade. So after I heard about Jo, I decided that was it, no more excessive internet usage, more socialising. In the past I’ve needed the internet as a crutch, particularly when I’ve been so unwell that I’ve not been able to leave the house for long periods of time. Even through last year I used my laptop for company, living in that house in Jarrow on my own. I can’t get my sixteen year old self back now, I can’t tell her to flush the medication, get some proper therapy (which I did shortly after, but too late to salvage any of this) and try to understand that people cannot read her mind. If I had believed that I deserved that place in my choir rather than being eternally apologetic for existing and overly grateful for any attention, I wouldn’t have felt as if it was all so tenuous, and could be snatched away in an instant. If I hadn’t felt it all slipping away I wouldn’t have reacted so defensively. There are far too many ifs in this paragraph. My original point was that I can’t go back a decade and do things differently, and to a certain extent I wouldn’t want to. Somehow, going through everything I did, I’ve ended up in this place where I like myself, I’m proud of who I am and what I’ve accomplished and I have a future I’m looking forward to. This is okay.

I just wish I could have apologised, explained and introduced Jo to the person I am today before she died last week. If not for her, I might not have survived long enough to get help.


3 responses to “Thank you for the music

  1. I’m really sorry to hear of your friend’s death, Katie 😦 There are always things we wish we had said or done when someone close or important to us dies. And it also reminds us of our own mortality, which is scary… I know how much my Dad’s death has affected me in various ways..

    But you write: “Somehow, going through everything I did, I’ve ended up in this place where I like myself, I’m proud of who I am and what I’ve accomplished and I have a future I’m looking forward to. This is okay.”

    I think that’s great; really fabulous! I wish I could say that I have reached a place where I like myself too, but a lot of the time I am so filled with self doubt. xxx

  2. I think an awful lot of people spend time filled with self-doubt ELT. Probably a lot of us spend too much time on the Internet too 😉
    I too am sorry to hear of your teacher’s death. Another friend is dealing with the death of someone in her family at the moment and I guess from the conversation I had with her this morning, I’m really NOT dealing with death at the moment but trying to gloss over it which doesn’t work.
    I don’t believe in heaven as a “pie in the sky when you die” place. Sometimes I don’t believe in it at all. But when I do I am SURE that there will be music there and that Jo will be singing along with John who taught my daughter music and who let her down so badly when she was a vulnerable teenager not be being gay and fairly misogynous but by being mortal.
    I’m glad you had the experience of the choir and all that music can give a child Katie and hope that more children can be given it. Keep up your good work of living in the world as the lovely person you are.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about Jo’s death – she sounds like such a kind-hearted and warm person.

    There are so many things, so many ‘ifs’ that come into the equation when a person we feel affection for dies. I think that, sorry if this sounds trite, Jo would be immensely proud and happy that you have grown into the strong and confident person that you are today.


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