Tonight I will tick off a goal that has been 1144 days in the making.

If someone told me how hard it would be, or how many ups and downs, I would have felt devastated. 

1144 days go I had a vertebral artery dissection and a minor stroke, followed by another minor stroke, and heart surgery. 

As a trained positive psychology practitioner, I knew the science of mindset. I knew this would be key for my physical and mental rehabilitation.

Lying in the stroke ward at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane, I decided to set some non work-related goals. One goal was to do another half-Ironman triathon. More on THAT in another post – a true sign I was completely oblivious on the path ahead. Another goal was to be able to perform in a musical again. Music has always been part of my life. A violinist from 7 years old, I picked up the piano, french horn as a teenager, and started singing in my 20s. I’ve performed with a number of theatres and studied at NIDA in Sydney. Music is something that has brought me so much joy over the years.

With brain injuries, the number of specialists you need to see is phenominal. I share my work and non-work related goals with strole team who help me to make small steps towards my goals. They also wove in a healthy dose of reality to my optimistic nature. 

What I thought this goal would look like:

My plan was to walk and do yoga to get my balance and coordination. To do brain training activities to improve my goldfish-like memory. Then start singing when the permanent headache subsided. Then audition for a musical. Simple, right?

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Here’s what it actually looked like: 

  • 2018 – the first 12 months.
    • “Nothing”. Singing causes even more painful headaches. Turning my head or standing up gives me nauseating vertigo, so dancing is out of the question. Acting? My short term memory is so fried I would look at a menu, and then look up to order and forget what I read.
    • The tiny tiny steps – walk everyday. I start by walking 10 meters to the kitchen. I use a kick scooter to get around and can do a slow 5km walk at 12 months.
    • Everyday do the New York times mini crossword, and brain training app. I write in a diary my small goals and tick them off.
    • My plan of taking 2 days to recover turned into 2 months, which turned into 6 months (optimism crushed again!). I was then able to work 2 hours a day.
  • 2019 – the next 12 months.
    • The continual headache is decreasing in intensity. I start very basic singing exercises, being careful to not create too much pressure. Pressure = headaches and vertigo. I reframe the process as an opportunity to rebuild my voice from. With excellent technique. It’s strangely comforting.
    • I signup for a 6 x 2hr improvisation (improv) acting course at The Conservatorium of Music. This was a huge step for me and I was so excited to be there. With no lines to learn, this was a great way to stretch without worrying about my memory. I made 4 of the sessions. The other two I turned up and was too exhausted to get out of the car and walk up the carpark stairs. Those days I had a nap in the car instead, paid my parking and went home to bed. My biggest learning from the course was to control less. Go with the process. Rely on people around me. There is beauty in imperfection. I re-gained some confidence. Even though I still noticed big deficiencies, I realised others had no idea. And didn’t care.
    • During this period I had another mini-stroke. The impact was mainly on my balance and increased my fatigue (again!). Although dancing was not an option, I continued to walk and started jalking (jog/walking!). Hiking became a great activity for balance and coordination, and to experience nature.
  • 2020
    • In the midst of COVID lock-downs I had a heart operation to close a hole in my heart. It was a planned procedure and I knew what to expect. A nice change from my other hospital trips. I took a couple weeks off work and was able to get back to light exercise in a month.
    • At the two year rehabilitation point, I finally felt able to start singing lessons again. It was a very emotional process. I was glad to be in the safe guidance of the wonderful Jason Barry-Smith. It’s well researched that the body can store trauma. We began a process of unlocking and rebuilding. I often feel that singing is like therapy. There is no instrument (like there is when you play a violin or piano), your body is the instrument. So everything your mind and body is experiencing comes out through the voice. Having that trusted relationship with Jason allowed a healing process of my voice, my soul and my confidence.

At the end of 2020, as COVID-19 in Australia was better controlled. Theatre companies starting releasing audition notices! I came across an audition for a local production of Xanadu. Thoughts started to bubble to the surface. Thoughts like “you’re probably going to be too fatigued so don’t bother auditioning”. Or “you haven’t sung in-front of people in 3 years, what if you freeze?”. Or “you’ll have to learn a dance sequence by memory, can you even do that anymore?”, or “There will be lots of people, noise and lights in a production, are you sure your brain is ready for all that hyper-stimulation?”. This opportunity was something I have wanted for the last three years, and fears were starting to take over. I had to really work through what fears were valid, and what weren’t. 

I realised that I was physically ready. Plus, if I didn’t audition, I would be a hypocrite! I ask my clients everyday to get outside their comfort zone, yet won’t do it myself? So I decided the goal would be to book and turn up to the audition. That was my measure of success. Turning up. Regardless of the audition outcome, I had to show up. 

As the title of this post indicates, I did turn up. And I did get cast in the musical. Something that a few years ago I would have taken for granted, but this time it’s different. It was a huge milestone.

And tonight…it’s opening night.

Over the last three months I have juggled late night rehearsals and zombie-like fatigue. Dancing and keeping my eyes on one point at the back of the theatre to keep my balance. Replaying recordings of choreography over and over to remember them. Voice recording my lines and playing them ad nauseam in the car. But the singing? It was like I had never left. My voice is stronger and clearer than ever before, and singing in harmony came easily.

There are so many things I have learnt working towards this goal. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Big goals are great, IF they are split into acheiveable steps and continually calibrated. Otherwise goals become overwhelming and disheartening. There will be ups and downs, so look at the big picture not the downs, and keep trending in the right direction.
  • Do not attach the feeling of success to the outcome. Celebrate showing up instead. I set goals to book a yoga class and go (even if I spent the whole class in child’s pose). I set a goal to got to a singing lesson (even if I could only manage 20minutes of the 60 minute slot). Or celebrating going to the audition (regardless of how well I sang on the night). I can’t control if I get the part. I can’t control the outcome. But I can control ‘showing up’. Abhyasa and Vairagya – “never give up and always let go”.
  • What if this is a gift? I remember feeling in early stages of recovery that I was wasting my life because I couldn’t do any of the things I wanted to do. I wasn’t leaving the world in a better place. I watched a TED Talk called “My Stroke of Insight” By Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. She refers to her experience of stroke as a gift. This reframing was so helpful for me. I often think – where is the gift in this experience? What can I be grateful for? The experience has given me a greater grounding in myself. To be with nothing, and still feel peaceful. Plus, I never would have taken a whole year to retrain my singing voice from scratch. The rebuilding process was more than just vocal.
  • Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s experience with brain injury, vertebral artery dissection and stroke is different. Everyone’s recovery is different. I have felt both extremely lucky and extremely ripped off. Often at the same time. I am continually learning to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I cannot accept, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Some of the cast of Xanadu, including Kate Peardon in lime green and auburn wig!
Some of the cast of Xanadu, including Kate Peardon in lime green and auburn wig!

Tagged: positive psychologypositive leadershipleadershiptransformational coachingtransformational leadershipmindful leadercoachingcoaching questionsInternational Coach Federationstrokevertebral artery dissectiongoalsJill Bolte TaylorStroke of InsightStroke RecoveryBrain Injury

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