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My story: singing the blues away at my local pub choir

Two years of tragic events, trauma and illness in her family took away Gillian’s love for life and eroded her confidence. But when she worked up the courage to join a local pub choir, she began to feel her old self slowly returning.

My story: singing the blues away at my local pub choir

If someone had told me that in my mid-fifties I would be singing in a choir, I would have laughed and said, ‘Yeah right!’ Yet here I am, finding my voice in a safe, warm, and friendly environment which is all about celebrating diversity and coming together to sing and enjoy!

My journey thus far into my fifties has been fraught with a series of sizeable curveballs which left me consumed with grief, depression and overwhelming anxiety. This series of curveballs began in 2018, when my beautiful sister-in-law of 30-plus years died very suddenly and unexpectedly while overseas. Five months later in 2019, my darling elderly Mum, for whom I was support person and advocate during her dying process, passed away on her 91st birthday, leaving a huge gaping hole in my life.

Then of course came the formidable time we all experienced – lockdown 2020. Then in early June of last year, I experienced what I now know to be a sudden ‘thunderclap’ headache (it literally felt like I’d been hit from behind with a blunt object). I was admitted to Gisborne Hospital and after a CT scan I was diagnosed as having suffered a Grade 1 subarachnoid brain haemorrhage.

Crazily and scarily, my sister-in-law died of the same type of haemorrhage. Sadly, hers had been Grade 5 and fatal. My mortality was up front, right in my face; I had the ringside seat and I didn’t want to be sitting there. I had to put my ‘big girl pants’ on, have the hard conversations with my four daughters (my life!) and accept this was out of my control and surrender to the process.

I was promptly flown to Waikato Hospital with a medical retrieval team. After an ongoing treatment plan I was eventually discharged back to Gisborne with the prognosis of making a good recovery.

Gillian with her four daughters

As I write this, I am a week or so out from having a one-year follow-up MRI. My brain still gets very easily tired, my short-term memory isn’t as it used to be and in the beginning it was difficult to concentrate and write (my long-time passion, which I am now building into my livelihood).

Heartbreakingly, also in June of last year, my younger brother, Scott lost his battle with renal disease and passed away at 51. I feel incredibly blessed that I was able to be by his side and hold his hand as he left his tired and disease-ridden body. These curveballs felt like meteors that were directly aimed at my close-knit, loving family.

Our normal life became a turmoil of events stacked upon each other, and it was definitely love, relying on each other’s strengths and support from extended family and friends that got us through this time. Amazingly, there were the timely births of my two precious grand- daughters; both born throughout this time of death and devastation.

This reinforced my belief that no matter how dark the days are, there is always a silver lining and there is always something to be grateful for.

Overwhelmed and bereft

However, grief and loss in its varying forms had left me feeling overwhelmed and bereft, with a sense of disconnect and isolation. I could not comprehend the concept of actually having any sort of ‘fun life’. I was normally a happy, bubbly, sociable person with community connections, but my self-esteem and energy levels were extremely low while my sense of general and social anxiety were extremely high and debilitating.

Even though I felt like a shell of the person that I had been before, I still had resilience living in my heart and soul. After months of friends and acquaintances issuing invitations to come along and experience Pub Choir, I was reluctant and would feign tiredness, or the weather wasn’t right or I couldn’t find the energy – I basically just made every excuse not to go.

In reality, I was stuck on my island of grief and anxiety. My journal writing and talking with a counsellor were and are safe places for me to ‘unpack’ my emotions, my fears, my goals and dreams. I resumed activities like walking, swimming, practising yoga regularly for body, mind and spirit. I began to meditate daily for deep rest; to keep connected in mindfulness and to combat any lurking anxiety.

I began to realise that although these activities were all healthy and beneficial, they were also very solitary. A sense of belonging and feeling connected to a community hub was missing.

Gillian with a photo of her and her brother, Scott

And so last October, I took the plunge and stepped into the world of the Smash Palace Pub Choir. Smash Palace is an iconic performance venue nestled away in the industrial subdivision of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa Gisborne, and every Tuesday night it is home to Gisborne’s only ‘Pub Choir’.

I recall walking in that first night, I was fraught with nervousness about what to expect yet I also felt quietly excited to be stepping out of my comfort zone on a Tuesday night! I knew the venue well, yet I had become so isolated by grief, self-doubt and insecurity that it felt like I was walking a tightrope.

My biggest fears were laid to rest that night, I recognised people I knew, the atmosphere was relaxed, welcoming and friendly. There were no restrictions about joining the choir, no solo auditions required (phew!), and no commitment to turning up each week. It’s just ‘come as you are able’ – you don’t even have to sing if you don’t wish to.

There is no judgement in choir; just a diverse assortment of people who are there to sing, have fun, make new connections and friendships. Each session begins with breathing and vocal warm-up exercises which bring mindfulness and focus to the group.

There is an impressive master songbook and copies are available for members to start up their own choir books. Each week we learn a new song to add to our repertoire – copies of which are made available on each table. The songs are as varied and diverse as the group; from NZ rock anthems to sultry ballads from the likes of Elvis Presley.

Darryl Monteith, co-owner of Smash Palace and founder of Pub Choir is at the helm with his guitar each week, accompanied by resident local bass player Moses Hiakita. Add in the voices of choir and it’s two hours of magic.

Darryl, a talented musician and vocalist, is supportive of community projects and each week he gives a rundown on upcoming events and any community-related fundraisers; it is also a chance for choir members to do the same. I recently found out about a songwriting course; I have told others about a Writers Hub that I belong to; and have taken part in a fundraising line dancing event for Life Education Trust. This is part of the magic of choir, keeping our community connected to new opportunities and experiences.

So many benefits

Through Pub Choir I have met new people, renewed and strengthened friendships, become socially adept once more and feel a real sense of belonging. I attend choir every week, as it is my go-to – even if I don’t feel like it, I know the benefits outweigh any niggling feelings of self-doubt or anxiety that might rear up from time to time – singing itself literally takes care of those.

Singing has been known to boost immunity, enhance memory and improve lung function. Psychologically, singing in groups gives you a ‘mini’ holiday from your working memory as it stimulates multisensory and neural pathways. You need to concentrate on your breathing, reading lyrics, listening to the rhythm, beat and tune, using your voice to create inner vibration as well as interpreting the group around you.

Research has shown that singing can release endorphins and the hormone oxytocin, which simultaneously brings pleasure and reduces stress and anxiety. I have tried and tested this and can confirm anxiety does not exist while singing – there is no room for it, yet if it does try to seep in, I just sing louder!

My anxiety has lessened substantially, I find myself singing a lot during the week at random times; at home, out walking, riding my bike, driving the car – my step is lighter and life has become more enjoyable.

Originally published in August 2021

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