How the Starling Got Her Wings Back

Finding out that I was still in there somewhere beneath the blanket of fatigue remains one of the turning points in my recovery, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it was being reunited with choir buddies that brought that out.

“The Starling Arts community” is an oft-repeated phrase which features in the choirs' concert programmes, TEDx talks and frequently on Facebook, but what does it actually mean?

I joined Forte in 2011 and quickly found a sense of belonging in this diverse group of lovely and inspiring people. I believe that singing and performing together bonds you like few other activities, I think the requirement to behave as a unit and blend many voices into a cohesive sound must just bring you closer. This connection exists outside of singing together as well though; people I now count among my closest friends I met through choir, and some of my favourite and most hilarious nights out in London have been with members of Starling Arts.

A memorable Forte social in the park!

Many of my friends will tell you how important choir has been to me since the beginning, however it wasn’t until late 2015 that I truly understood the power of this community.

Since August 2015 I have been battling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome**, a condition which came on very suddenly with a bout of tonsillitis. One minute I was behaving like a normal person on an 18-30 boat trip around Croatia (I understand there are varying interpretations of ‘normal’), and the next I was so exhausted and weak I could barely move. Quite literally, at the beginning it took me three whole days to psych myself up to get to the kitchen and make a cup of tea. And as anyone who knows me will tell you, tea is my most important daily ritual.

Three weeks after my tonsillitis I was struggling to get showered and dressed each day, let alone shop for food and be upright long enough to cook it, so I decided to go to my parents’ house in Norfolk for a bit. At least there vegetables would magically appear on my plate. Soon enough the beginning of the new Forte term rolled around in September, six weeks after I got ill, and I was still in Norfolk, slowly getting better at showering. It felt like my busy, sociable London life, which I had enjoyed very much, had been snatched away overnight; suddenly I had been relegated to this isolated, rustic existence, unable to work, socialise or exercise, and was essentially teaching myself to walk again (I started on three minutes a day round the garden, increasing by 30 seconds every two to three days). There was nothing I wanted, or indeed needed, more than to be back at choir. It has always been a fabulous form of escapism and a guaranteed source of laughter. I don’t think I have been to a single Starling rehearsal where I haven’t laughed.

Forte's altos rocking a Bon Jovi number.  Photo © Richard davenport

After news of my illness spread, I was inundated with lovely messages from many members of Forte, many of which made me laugh out loud. I was sent a get well video of everybody doing the Time Warp (as anyone who knows me will tell you, the Time Warp is my second most important daily ritual, although this has been on hiatus for obvious reasons) which I watched on repeat, grinning from ear to ear and unable to stop myself from playing it ‘just one more time’. It made me realise that I hadn’t actually laughed properly in 6 weeks, so I then prescribed myself regular viewings of Forte’s Be Our Guest video amongst other Starling classics. I received a bouquet of flowers from everyone, a box of books from a fellow alto, a weekly photo from rehearsal, and regular e-mail updates from Anna and Emily.

And it wasn’t just Forte buddies either, friends in the other Starling choirs also got in touch to cheer me up and help me through. I cannot articulate how much this community supported me at one of the most challenging times of my life, and how much this meant to me. They lifted my spirits, made me feel so loved, and gave me something to focus my recovery on. When I visualised being better I imagined myself singing with everyone again.

Without a doubt one of the most supportive things that the Starling community has done is stay in touch. The road to recovery has not been a smooth one, as I’m sure is the case with any serious illness. You have good weeks and bad weeks, but no matter how many bad weeks you’ve survived before it doesn’t seem to make the next one any easier.

One of my worst setbacks happened in October when I suddenly stopped sleeping; I have struggled with insomnia throughout the course of the illness but this was something else. I literally lay awake for four nights, and as a result my fatigue became significantly worse. Determined to stick to my routine, I would drag myself out of bed, attempt to toast some bread, and then pretty much collapse on the sofa and spend the day lying there in tears because I was so excruciatingly exhausted and frustrated. Even reading was too much. Not sleeping made everything so much harder to cope with, and my anxiety started to spiral as questions flew around in my mind: what if I don’t sleep again tonight? Why am I suddenly not sleeping? Am I getting worse? How much is this setting me back? Am I ever going to actually recover? I found that week very distressing, and I remember at one point just dissolving into tears whilst trying to eat a bowl of tomato soup because even lifting my arm required a concerted effort. I felt like I had lost control of my body and my life (although at least my soup was properly seasoned). 

But the Starlings were there for me, as well as having people get in touch to say hello or making me laugh on Facebook and Twitter, I also had an unimaginable amount of support from a couple of friends in particular. Between them they messaged me every day, offering advice on everything from sleeping tablets to antidepressants (I was prescribed these as a sleep aid but spent a long time deliberating over whether to go down that road), to ways of thinking about my anxiety in order to stand a better chance of sleeping that night. I couldn’t have coped without the Starlings.

Starling Arts choir members unite onstage  PHOTO © RICHARD DAVENPORT

Four months later I made a triumphant return to London (now able to walk for 25 minutes without stopping) and went to the Starling Arts Winter Concert. Afterwards I went to the pub with everyone, and for the first time since becoming ill I actually felt like myself again, it was incredible. Finding out that I was still in there somewhere beneath the blanket of fatigue remains one of the turning points in my recovery, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it was being reunited with choir buddies that brought that out.

I returned to Forte in January. I still don’t manage to get there every week and am building up to lasting for the whole two hour rehearsal, but words cannot describe how good it feels to be back, surrounded by happy faces, laughter, music and an abundance of delicious cake. Having a chronic condition has taught me a lot about how to support someone in a similar situation, but so have the Starling community. My illness has lasted longer than I expected but I have never once felt alone, an array of Starlings have been by my side throughout the whole journey. I have been overwhelmed by kindness and the many ways people have shown it, be it offering to post magazine subscriptions on to me in Norfolk, being told ‘well done’ for managing an hour at rehearsal, or just being astonishingly empathetic.

They say "you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone", but I would say that sometimes you don’t know what you got until times get tough. And I am so grateful that what I have is a Starling community to call home.

Joey

** Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS / ME), as the name suggests, involves being unbelievably exhausted alongside various other symptoms (more info here). It inhibits your activity in every sense: physically, mentally (it can be very hard to think clearly and concentrate), socially, etc. Pushing through the fatigue actually makes things worse as you run up an ‘energy debt’ which your body then needs to repay, often over the course of several days. For this reason in order to recover it’s really important to identify a level of activity that you can sustain safely, and then practise this routine every day, very slowly building it up as you get stronger. It is not known what exactly causes CFS, there is no test for it (it is diagnosed by ruling out other illnesses), and no cure.