September 20, 2020

Heidi’s Other Voice

The obituary last May stopped me cold. In high school, she was vibrant, beautiful and an enormously talented soprano. These days I knew her as valiant, brave and determined to win her fight against a devastating biological brain disease. In spite of her courage, Heidi Robena Whitehouse died suddenly at the age of 29 from a brain aneurysm.

Heidi wanted a professional singing career and she had all the ingredients: an expressive, bell-like soprano voice, charisma and dedication. Music became her life and she even projected a singer’s aura: her smile dazzled us while those incandescent blue eyes blazed. Long, wavy curls in lavish abundance completed the picture.

Occasionally, when the voice was not just right, there would be a kind of meltdown. This happens to almost all young musicians at one time or other and carefully needs to be dealt with to enable these talented individuals to grow in extra-musical ways. Heidi’s parents were always there to see her through those times in the same way they were there to celebrate her successes.

One memorable success came after Heidi won a prize at the Arcady competition. An invitation to sing at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor resulted. Channel 7 was there to capture Heidi singing Brahms’ “Lullaby” in perfect German, closing out the evening’s news. At home, we sat spellbound watching Heidi sing as the camera swept over the audience. It showed people of all ages, from very young to very old, perfectly still, with heads tilted, mouths agape, totally enchanted by her crystal-clear, expressively beautiful voice. Heidi sang directly from her heart into our hearts.

After high school, we seldom met. Heidi was very busy studying, performing beautifully, until something started to go very wrong midway through her years at Eastman School of Music. As Heidi’s mom told me at first, it was “… devastating inherited brain disease.” Heidi graduated and returned to Maine. Her dream ended.

Over the ensuing eight years, there were various labels for Heidi’s condition, with appropriate medicines designed to alleviate her symptoms. At times, it was a torturous path of trial and error. Other times, when the formula was just right, the relief was incredible but never lasting very long. New combinations of medicines were forever being tried again and again.

Heidi fought to keep the voice going but her body and soul were facing the battle of her lifetime. Treatment necessary to make her life bearable made it impossible for her to sing. Heidi’s voice was lost. During this time of sheer agony, Heidi found her Other Voice. Heidi’s compassion and sense of appreciation gave her an understanding of what her songs were about. That is why she always sang so meaningfully. As she came to grips with this illness that changed her life, she saw the opportunity to use her education, intelligence and voice to bring public awareness to the problems of mental illness.

As she found her niche in her new life, Heidi became a role model for individuals living daily with difficult mental illnesses. Knowing full well what her new friends daily endured, Heidi lifted her voice to say that they should be respected and supported, emphasizing that they should always be viewed as the valued human beings they are, not just as their medical diagnoses.

Heidi’s Other Voice lives on today in occasional TV public service announcements she made long ago. She advised that mental illness was to be faced and coped with, not to be kept silent about. Mental illness hits families and neighborhoods like a flaming meteor, completely unexpected and seemingly at random! Mental illness smashes lives. It can financially ruin and wreak havoc in families who do all in their power to help and understand their loved one. It is epidemic throughout America today, affecting our whole society. We need to avoid the secrecy that helps nothing. We need more scientific research and more public support.

Oct. 14 is Heidi’s birthday. October also is mental health month. We can give no present to Heidi more significant than public awareness.

At Heidi’s Celebration of Life last May one thing deeply affected me more than any other. It was this: Heidi often visited family support groups and children’s classrooms to show that as a person with this tragic condition she still was a delightfully funny, whole, unique and wonderful human being. In my mind’s eye I clearly could imagine those brilliant blue eyes, as blue as the sea on a sunny October morning as she softly explained to her audience, “Please don’t call me ‘mentally ill’! Call me a singer. Don’t call me ‘schizophrenic’! I … am … Heidi!”

Ann Mills was Heidi’s singing teacher during high school. Mills is a longtime resident of Lincolnville Beach.

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