The Symbiotic Relationship Between Singing and my Eating Disorder


Siyuan Carter-Patkau

date published

May 22, 2024, 12:40 a.m.



There are a few key things to know about me: First, I love to sing. Second, I am a perfectionist. Third, I have a chronic eating disorder. These things do not make up my entire life, but they are my most relevant features here.

As a child, I remember singing along to anything I heard, knowing every note to every moment of Mozart’s The Magic Flute as a tiny four-year-old, singing in choirs, singing in church, taking voice lessons, singing, singing, singing. And yet, despite my love of this art, there was a period during which I quit. To put it simply, I became paralyzed by my own anxiety.

I have always been a perfectionist, and although it should be noted that perfectionism is not necessarily a bad thing — my perfectionism also makes me ambitious and tenacious — there lies an issue in a perfectionist’s lack of flexibility. Perfectionism leaves no room for error. It is an exacting task master, and it will beat you down until you are nothing but a shell with shaking hands and a fear of failure.

Naturally, my perfectionism extended to my music. I grew up playing violin, a difficult instrument that requires many hours of practice. I adored the violin and the precision it needed. To me, it seemed that there was an easy formula: do the work, and get the result. Playing violin was a meritocracy, and I liked that. And, I must admit, I liked that I got a lot of praise for it. I am nothing if not driven by external validation.

I also received a lot of praise for singing. The point at which I decided to quit, around age twelve, coincided with the waning of positive feedback. This confused me. My voice confused me. It was beginning to change, as all female voices do during puberty, and I failed to understand why I was doing all the same things and not getting the same results. I became afraid to go to lessons and even more afraid to perform, where people would hear and judge me. I quit because it became hard. I quit because I was becoming less perfect.

This phase lasted for two years, until my teenage depression hit new lows and my mother asked me what might cheer me up. I replied, “I miss singing,” so she found me a new teacher and I have not stopped singing since. For the most part, I was okay. The worst of my vocal transition seemed to be over, and I was beginning to be praised again for the sound I produced. I managed my performance anxiety enough to get into a university music program, and then I packed my bags and went away to school.

I have not yet talked about my eating disorder. This is deliberate. It is difficult to discuss something that shapeshifts by nature, and mine continues to shift in new and surprising ways. What I can tell you is that it started when I was a young teenager and has been my constant companion ever since. I am like Linus from the Peanuts comics, who carries around a worn blue blanket wherever he goes, except my blanket is all in my head. It was easy to slip into, really. It felt like I had discovered a secret formula, the answer to life. Like playing violin, controlling the body, too, was a meritocracy, where you get what you expect for the work that you put in. (Of course, I would learn later that the body is far more complicated than this.)

I will not define my eating disorder here, because I do not think it is important. But I will tell you what I have learned about it: all manifestations of my ED are essentially the same problem in different clothes. There is an emptiness inside me and disordered behaviours are the only ways I know how to fill it. But at the end of the day, though I may be good at staying small, I am rubbish at feeling small enough, and the emptiness is still there.

A lot of things can impact this emptiness. When I went to university, singing turned out to be a major player. My peers often evaluated me negatively. I did not get along with my teacher, personally or professionally. I failed to get into the performance stream. I genuinely wondered if I was simply inadequate, as everyone else seemed to have figured out the secret to success.

My perfectionism ran rampant. The more I felt I was not measuring up, the more I pushed myself physically, mentally, and vocally. There are a few unfortunate things about this, two of which were obvious: I was miserable and on the train to burnout. Another downside to this approach was that in singing, pushing is generally the least helpful thing that one can do. Singing is powerful, but it is also gentle. It hinges on the release of the breath, on allowing everything to be open and flexible. Pushing creates tension, which inhibits these things. I was essentially shooting myself in the foot and then wondering where the wound had come from.

Here is another way in which pushing yourself in every area of your life makes singing difficult: your body is your instrument. While the violin feels like an extension of myself, I have always been incredibly conscious of the fact that I am my voice and my voice is me. I cannot manipulate my vocal folds like pulling marionette strings, and I cannot remove my larynx from my throat and exchange it for a newer model. This awareness sparked a vicious cycle. The more I pushed, the worse I performed, the more I felt like I was failing, the worse my perfectionism hounded me.

And the worse my eating disorder became. I remember I was constantly sick during undergrad. Laryngitis, pneumonia, bronchitis, strep, common colds that lingered for months. This constant sickness impacted my voice, which made the cycle begin again. I think at some point I determined that my body was failing me — it was failing to stay healthy, it was failing to sing — and that made me want to punish it even more.

I lived this cycle until I went to graduate school, at which point I began to get my life together somewhat. When I arrived, I began to study with a new teacher. She promptly informed me that “your problem is you sing with your brain and not your body.” Though at first I thought, But of course. What use is the body? I quickly realized that I would have to be healthy in order to sing to my full capacity. I was still engaging in disordered behaviours every day, but gradually I began to engage in less of them. It helped that I had a roommate who was absolutely normal with food: we’d order pizza and watch a movie on Friday nights, and it was both thrilling and terrifying. Eventually, between healthier habits and my excellent teacher, I finally began to get out of the vocal cul-de-sac I’d found myself in during the past few years. And, interestingly, that emptiness started to shrink.

This is what I have learned since committing to recovery, though of course there have been relapses along the way: health and singing are intimately linked, and my eating disorder will always make itself known in my singing. I have also learned that my voice is my favourite thing about myself. It is not a voice I particularly like, but it is a voice that is mine, a voice that I can use. The ability to sing is the strongest motivator to take care of myself, more than any promise of long-term health. Throughout the last decade, my voice is something that I have usually been able to choose over my own worst intentions, simply because I have an inexplicable, undeniable urge to use it. I live to sing and for the experiences that singing grants me. 

I am not yet good at being healthy. But once again, it is my voice that keeps me from getting in too deep. Rock bottom, for me, would be the inability to sing, and nothing is worth that to me. Singing is my lifeline, because when you sing, your body is your instrument, and in that moment it becomes something special.

Siyuan Carter-Patkau is a young musician, writer, and graduate student. She loves reading, sewing, and her two cats. You can find her at siyuan_ab on Instagram.

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