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Singing and Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are now epidemic. Singers and others in the entertainment business with its requisite media exposure are, I believe, especially vulnerable to these debilitating secret illnesses.
No one can approach their full vocal potential while chained to an eating disorder. Why? Because the voice will have problems in these areas:
- Breathing (Power)
- Tone (Path through an open throat)
- Communication (Performance)
That’s right; with an eating disorder, everything I teach in Power, Path & Performance vocal training … everything necessary to the workings of your voice … is compromised and plagued with problems; some very pesky to diagnose and correct.
From denial to her long-term recovery from anorexia/bulimia, I have been Jenni Schaefer’s voice teacher and friend. Jenni recovered using a unique therapeutic approach that involved treating her eating disorder as a relationship, rather than an illness or condition. Jenni actually named her anorexia/bulimia, “Ed,” an acronym for “eating disorder.” She and I co-wrote the song “Life Without Ed” which is also the title of her McGraw-Hill book endorsed by Dr. Phil and many others.
Testimonials tell us her story is powerful, so here it is from both our points of reference:
What I noticed the first time I met Jenni was her strange numbness. She couldn’t move out of the guarded stance– slumped shoulders, head hung forward, eyebrows frozen, jaw clenched, spine and hips frozen, arms limp and legs locked. She was like a stick figure. Her voice was thin, colorless. She complained that her throat hurt when she sang. Her range was limited, and she had several breaks in her voice. I tried to help her loosen up, but I could barely get her to lift her arms from her sides to allow ribcage expansion. She inhaled from the upper chest in short gasps.
Jenni speaks… “With Ed, I was disconnected from my body… felt like a floating head. I was rigid and had difficulty moving. In therapy sessions, I was encouraged to ‘just move’ — anything.”
I also had a lot of trouble helping Jenni connect to her songs. When I asked her to visualize singing “Valentines Day” to someone she loved, she couldn’t think of anyone! Finally she began to connect by imagining singing to children in a cancer ward where she had worked. An odd thing… She didn’t want me to look at her when she sang.
Jenni… “I was disconnected from feelings. I lived in my head. A big purpose of my eating disorder was to starve and stuff feelings — to keep me out of my emotions. So when I was supposed to connect with feelings in a song, it was not only completely foreign to me, it was also terrifying.”
Jenni was easily deflated and crushed. I had to be very careful not to push her too far with exercises. She somehow needed to sing, but music didn’t seem to move her. Because she didn’t have the energy to keep her posture erect and flexible, she usually just stood still and lifeless. Or walked like a zombie.
Jenni…”I had no energy — restricting, bingeing and purging requires a lot of energy (physical and emotional) and leaves little left for anything else.”
Jenni couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel something. She would watch me express feelings she couldn’t experience, and I think that was a big part of why she reached out for help. She asked me to pray for her. She thought since she didn’t feel something, she couldn’t pray herself.
Jenni… “Singing is spiritual. An eating disorder kills all spiritual connection. This was a huge hurdle.”
Little by little, as Jenni got help, she got stronger. However, voice lessons became even harder. She developed a diaphragmatic spasm of some kind and a kind of fatalism took hold, making her expect the strange uncontrolled vibrato weirdness to happen at a certain place in her range. I sent her to Vanderbilt Voice Clinic. Only when they couldn’t find anything organically wrong did Jenni start to believe she could beat this strange vocal problem. Soon after, I was able to coach her into the flexible rib stretch necessary to allow the issue to completely disappear.
Jenni… “Anorexia is characterized by intense perfectionism. While singing, I would concentrate more on being perfect than on getting a greater message across.”
Jenni kept improving, but it was two-steps forward, one-step back. It was hard for her to picture singing to someone. She was stuck in self-consciousness. She began to experience feelings, but with the feelings came anger at being critiqued, which made her feel judged. At one point, I suggested she practice differently and she flew into a rage. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t read the signs that said I was pushing too far, and the lesson ended in disaster.
Jenni… “All eating disorders are characterized by constant self-criticism. It is difficult to sing when a negative voice is constantly screaming in your ear.”
The trust and friendship Jenni and I had developed made the misunderstanding short-lived. We got back to the business of vocal training and then another challenge set in. It was a long season of intense sadness. I was afraid for her; she would cry, literally for days, and then go numb. She pushed people away, saying she had no friends. For a while, she stopped singing and cancelled voice lessons.
Jenni… “Depression is often an underlying symptom of an eating disorder. When lost in despair and hopelessness, singing can seem too vulnerable because emotions might leak out. So Ed would often build yet another ‘protective’ wall.”
Jenni and I began working together again, and this time every lesson seemed to break new ground. Her recovery was solid, her physical and emotional health much more stable. I watched her persevere with great courage through those monumental battles of recovery. And then I listened to her find her voice at last.
One of the last pieces in the puzzle was put in place by the brilliant performance coach Diane Kimbrough (615-297-1524). Diane told Jenni to stop worrying about ‘going there’ every time she sang. She said this is way too much pressure for an artist to have to re-experience the emotional scene during every performance. Instead, Diane suggested, forget yourself and make THEM (the audience) feel something! It was a miracle.
Jenni stopped focusing inward and made the connection, through the song, to someone else. Her voice is now strong, controlled, confident and beautiful. She FEELS joy, frustration, anger, and love. All of this is giving her a voice with which to rock the world. She speaks and sings all over the country to entertain, teach and prove that recovery from an eating disorder is indeed possible. And oh, I so love to hear her laugh!
For those struggling with an eating disorder, we hope you read in our story that it’s never too late to reach out for help, start healing- and start singing your heart out!
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