Music and my curvy spine – Charlotte Champian

It all started when I used to complain to my mum that one of my hips stuck out. As my ever-supportive mother, she would reassure me that I was just growing, and that it would even out. Then one day during a volleyball game, as I was bending forward to serve, my PE teacher noticed a significant curve in my spine. She took me to one side and asked if I had been checked for scoliosis and a little while later, I was diagnosed with 51-degree lumbar scoliosis and Bertolotti Syndrome at 15 years old. Suddenly my teenage aches and pains made a lot more sense but deciding what to do next was not so straightforward.

The journey from diagnosis to surgery was extremely confusing. I was assigned a consultant but saw a different registrar every time and they each gave me very conflicting messages. They emphasised that it was my choice whether to have surgery, but I didn’t feel like I knew enough about the pros and cons to make a proper decision myself. I often left my appointments in tears because of all of the confusion.

Eventually I saw a new consultant who gave me a clearer idea of my condition and the pros and cons of surgery. I decided I wanted to have spinal fusion surgery but that I’d wait a few years and enjoy finishing my A levels and going to uni first.

I went to study Music and Chinese Studies at Sheffield University and did a year abroad in Nanjing, China. Throughout university I struggled more and more with pain and discomfort. I switched from piano performance to singing, then from singing to composition as I struggled with the physical demands of long practise sessions and the related pain.

I decided to go ahead with surgery to fuse 5 vertebrae in the summer of 2015 to prevent further deterioration of my curvature and take the strain off the other parts of my body. The 8-hour surgery was successful and I recovered in hospital for 11 long days.

They did the anterior surgery (getting to my spine through my side) which meant that they had to go through a lot of muscles and tissue and this made for a slower recovery than I had anticipated. It was a very hard, life-changing time.

A few months after surgery, I found myself in my university bedroom crying every day and feeling extremely anxious. I was taking strong painkillers that were causing massive dips in my mood whenever they wore off. Alongside the physical pain, I was also growing so frightened of my mental pain. I found that small anxieties that had only bothered me a little before surgery now felt like huge monsters that would dominate my thoughts. “I just made a mistake,” became, “I need to be perfect.” “I feel safe,” became, “I can’t trust myself or my body.”

I hated to be on my own because my anxious thoughts became so overwhelming. I could barely leave the house or walk a few steps and relied on taxis to get me around the insurmountable Sheffield hills. I asked myself, “Who am I, now that I can’t ‘do’ and be ‘perfect Charlotte’ anymore?” Perfect Charlotte was always friendly, always on top of things, always involved and getting stuck in.

I was going into my final year of university and threw myself into academic work to keep my mind occupied. I had a rising suspicion that I might be struggling with depression, but the mere thought of labelling it as such made me feel like I had failed or that the label itself would have power over me. 6 months of tears and fear later, I plucked up the courage to speak to my GP and I reluctantly began the journey towards getting help.

Fast forward to me now, 6 years post-surgery. I am no longer ashamed of saying that I have struggled with anxiety and depression. In fact, the more I talk about it, the more I find out that my friends and other people just like me struggle with it too. I have found that accepting help when I was struggling was the most courageous thing I could have done. Counselling and CBT are some of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, and I have cultivated a new compassion for myself that I never had before.

I am learning to find the ‘just Charlotte’ side of me with less striving for perfection and more living out of knowing I’m loved. I am learning to sit with what ‘is’ going on right now and not living out of pressure to be all better. Now, I write songs about mental health. I write songs about real life issues that everyone faces because I want people to find solace and solidarity in my music.

I’m still in pain every day, but I’m not so afraid of resting and listening to my body’s needs. I have a monthly self-care routine of visiting a chiropractor and sports massage therapist to keep my muscles from stiffening too much. I also do Pilates and LISS exercise with Build & Breathe, which I found through SAUK. I am much stronger and my breathing and vocal power have improved hugely after surgery. I still have big set-backs and flare ups, including a herniated disc in May this year. Surgery has not been the ‘cure-all’ for my scoliosis, but I think it’s given me a more stable physical starting point for the next adventures in my life. I also really don’t mind being 3 centimetres taller!!

Like in the Abba song, my mum always said I began to sing long before I could talk. My love of music definitely started with my musical family and we are well-known for our 3 part harmony songs around the dinner table. I sang in musicals, at church and in concerts at school, joined every choir that I could and took piano lessons.

I wanted to share my music with people. I really love the connection that music makes with an audience and music has always felt like a gift that I wanted to share with people. Now that gigs are happening again, it’s such a thrill to be performing again and I hope that people will find a chance to boogie, rest, reflect and heal a little through my music.

My new album is a collection of songs that I’ve written over the past 3 years. It’s a journey from jazzy songs that talk about social media addiction, bullying and empowerment through to soulful love songs and reflective songs about self-compassion and mental health. I’ve arranged and produced the music myself from my home studio in Birmingham and worked with friends and online musicians to record and master the tracks. My album launch gig is happening on September 24th and BSL Reserved Seating Tickets and Live Stream tickets are still available. The album will be available to stream and purchase (as a CD) from October 1st! You can listen to my latest single ‘Shimmer’ on all streaming services.

Scoliosis is so life-changing for so many people and I wish I had known more people with my condition as a younger person. Now I have found this fantastic community of scoliosis warriors through SAUK and Instagram and I really want to help other people to find that support. It’s also very important to me that my music is as accessible as possible. I have so many memories of struggling to attend gigs and events because of pain and seeing others excluded from live music because of other disabilities. I applied for funding so that my album launch gig could be BSL interpreted and I’m trialling a new gig format so that I can take a rest break halfway through my performance. I hope all of these things can be small steps towards promoting accessibility in the music industry.

‘As the Summer’ is Charlotte Champian’s debut album. Featuring 8 tracks, the album showcases her beautiful melodies, insightful lyrics and jazzy, soulful song writing. Trumpets, keys and the double bass combine with her velvety vocal harmonies to make beautiful music that comes from the heart.

Find out more about Charlotte on her website charlottechampian.com

If you would like to talk further about any aspect of scoliosis, SAUK is here to help; please call our helpline or contact us via post or using our e-mail address info@sauk.org.uk.