by Elissa Weinzimmer
Hi I'm Elissa. I’m a voice and movement teacher, which means that I work with performers and professionals to help them communicate with presence, power, and ease. I got into being a voice teacher after I lost my voice at age 21. I won’t go into the whole story here, but suffice it to say it was a major event in my life and a turning point. Looking back, I now see it as a blessing since it led me to where I am today, and taught me the value of framing big challenges in a positive way. (If you want to learn more about the story of when I lost my voice, I wrote about it here.)
Well, lately my ability to do the positive reframe has been put to the test. For the past couple of years I’ve been going through another big challenging thing with my health, and I’m writing this blog because I’m ready to come out and talk about it.
I have an autoimmune condition called psoriasis, which means I get red, scaly, itchy spots on my skin because my skin cells are replicating too fast. I’ve had the condition since I was very young, but growing up in California it was never a huge deal… just 5 or 10 spots on my body at any given time that would linger and eventually go away. However over the last two years I have had two massive flares of psoriasis. We’re talking my skin is covered in spots. My joke is that I look like a leopard. Though until recently I’ve had a very hard time finding the lightness of the situation.
The first time my skin started to majorly act up was in March 2014 when I was living in Edmonton, Alberta completing the final semester of my graduate degree. I was under a lot of stress, it was freaking freezing outside, and I was away from almost all of the people who form my primary support structure. Since I was spending most of my time in a classroom with students, I didn’t want to distract or disturb them by talking about my condition. So I wore long sleeves, kept the issue to myself, and sunk into some pretty real obsession and depression over it all.
I don’t want to take too much time to detail the drama of the following months, but they went something like this:
- I spent one month trying to do just acupuncture and herbs, but I was really uncomfortable and I wasn’t seeing results.
- I went on a drug called methotrexate (for the record, a cancer drug – *eesh*)
- The spots didn’t get much better on the medicine. However when summer began I got a bunch of bug bites on my ankle and scratched them. Because my immune system was now so weak (thanks methotrexate), they turned into a staph infection.
- I spent the rest of the summer at home at my parents house in Northern California taking three rounds of antibiotics to heal.
In the fall I returned to Edmonton, where I watched my spots slowly fade away and my energy slowly return. In January 2015 (yes, this year!) I was finally feeling well enough to make my planned move to New York City. For the first stretch of months in New York I was on top of the world, especially since I was preparing my autobiographical 30th birthday cabaret show about reclaiming my voice (it was the first time I’d sung in public in 8 years!). In the show I shared lots of stories, including the story of getting sick with the psoriasis, recovering, and the lessons I’d learned. It was so easy to put a pretty bow on the whole thing: “I got sick but I took some drugs and now I’m okay. Woohoo! “ (By the way, if you’re interested in hearing the stories and my singing you can watch my 30th birthday cabaret show here.)
The thing is though, autoimmune conditions are ongoing issues… they don’t necessarily just go away. Shortly after my birthday, I felt my energy drop. In fact I spent the whole summer feeling pretty darn lethargic. I was in denial but I had a strong sense of what was coming. Sure enough, in August I got a cold and then a bunch of bug bites (both psoriasis triggers), and a week later my spots were back.
So here I was, covered head to toe in spots for a second time. In fact, this time it was worse.
It was time to ask myself, “Elissa: what the heck is going on here?”
It’s no mistake that two weeks before this most recent break out, I’d started reading a book called The Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss. Myss is a medical intuitive who helps sick people heal by uncovering the emotional and energetic patterns that have led to the ‘dis-ease’. I sat down and started to think about the emotional and energetic patterns that might be leading my body to express itself in fiery red spots all over my skin. In the middle of my writing, I blurted this onto the page:
This whole thing is skin and bug bites and fatigue and weakness.
It’s things piercing through my boundaries and sucking the life out of me.
As soon as I’d written the words, I knew they were true. Skin is our boundary. It’s the biggest organ in our body. While it’s designed to be permeable, we can’t let everything in – we have to protect ourselves. Immediately I thought of multiple situations in my life where I was getting depleted by not fully drawing the boundaries that I wanted to. They cascaded through my brain like dominoes. I knew that if I wanted to heal I’d have to take a hard look at the areas of my life where I was allowing myself to be depleted and make some difficult changes. I’d have to speak my truth. Which made me laugh because Aghhh!!! I’m a VOICE teacher! DUH!! (They say we teach what we need, and boy is it ever true.)
At this point I needed medical help too. I was very eager to approach my healing holistically and not rely on medication to mask my symptoms. I was lucky enough to be referred to an Ayurvedic Marma practitioner. (If you’re not familiar with Ayurveda it is traditional Indian medicine, and I like to describe Marma as the Indian equivalent of Chinese acupressure). Together my practitioner Bud and I started working to help me make dietary, physical, and energetic changes. Bud began by explaining to me that from an ayurvedic perspective my body was over-heating (my pitta was overactive), and we needed to take steps to cool my inflammation down. The changes Bud has asked me to implement are major lifestyle things and huge shifts, but when you’ve got itchy spots all over your body you make the change. (Side note: for those in the psoriasis community, I plan to write up a more detailed outline of the changes I’ve made that are helping. Ayurveda is magical and Bud is a miracle worker… you can learn more about what he does here).
Especially in the last month I’ve gotten down to serious work. I’ve shifted my diet radically. I’ve implemented daily practices to help me stay cool and grounded. I’ve been thinking and talking and working through my shit. I’m being much more open with my students and even strangers about what’s going on. And very importantly, I’ve had the tough conversations I was avoiding, and I’ve spoken my truth. Here’s what’s happened this time:
- During the tough conversations, the people in my life have said: “Elissa, it’s totally fine that you feel that way” or “Elissa, I feel the same way too!”
- My students have been so kind, supportive, and even grateful that I’m sharing my experience with them. I don’t have to pull down my sleeves, and every week they ask me how I’m doing.
- My energy and enthusiasm have returned and I feel better than I have in months.
- Exactly two weeks ago when I woke up, rolled over, and looked at the spots on my arm, they were fading. I shouted out loud and cried. Every day since then I have been getting better not worse.
I AM HEALING.
Last time when I got sick I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. This time I’ve realized it’s part of my healing to speak my truth.
I have no idea if my psoriasis will stay away forever once it’s gone. Probably if I go off balance again, it will show back up to remind me of all of these things. At times when I’ve had less insight and felt less empowered about this situation, I’ve felt sorry for myself and lamented: “Why me? Why do I have to have such a sensitive system? Couldn’t I at least have had a condition that people can’t see?”
Ultimately though, I am deeply grateful to have a sensitive system. It lets me know when I am off balance, and it shows me the absolute importance of listening to my gut and honoring my intuition.
Psoriasis, I am grateful for you. Thank you for demanding that I speak and live my truth.
Elissa is currently launching a course called "How Your Voice Works," explaining the anatomy and mechanics of vocal function. Check out her Kickstarter project to pre-purchase the class, which will help you care for and maintain your vocal health.
Elissa Weinzimmer is a voice and movement coach and vocal health specialist based in New York City. She is the founder of Voice Body Connection and the Managing Director of Vibrant Voice Technique, working with performers and public speakers to achieve presence and vocal stamina. In addition to her work as a teacher, Elissa is also a performer, a director, a lifelong student, and an avid yogi.