Tony and Emmy Award Winner Kristin Chenoweth is one of Broadway’s most vibrant and positive stars, but many may not know that she has quietly fought a personal battle with Meniere’s disease, a disorder that affects the inner ear.
“It’s a battle, one that I’ve taken on and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to talk about it,” Chenoweth said. “A lot of people have had it and can’t describe it, and once they know and understand what it is, they can deal with it better.”
The side effects of Meniere’s can be debilitating. Tinnitus (a ringing or fluttering in the ear) and migraines are common symptoms.
“The main aspect that I suffer with is vertigo,” Chenoweth explained, “which can feel like either falling down an elevator very quickly or spinning — imagine if you were in a helicopter that was spinning.”
Balancing career and health
As a live performer, such symptoms can be at best frustrating and at worst incapacitating.
“It’s been very frustrating in a work environment to have vertigo hit me, or a migraine, or any of the various symptoms while I’m trying to work,” she said. “You look sort of like you’ve had too much to drink. You can’t quite keep your balance, or you can’t see.”
Meniere’s symptoms usually arise without warning.
“You can’t decide when it’s going to happen so you can’t work around it. Inconvenient is a very respectful word for a very disrespectful disease,” she said.
For a singer like Chenoweth, the scariest side effect is the potential loss of hearing.
“One of the ways to help Meniere’s is to have an inner ear surgery to help to correct what I would call a piece of tape in your inner ear that holds onto the little bones that help your balance. So let’s say my piece of tape is bad and needs to be replaced, but with the replacement, you will most definitely be deaf,” she explained.
To alleviate some of these symptoms, Chenoweth offered some advice. “There’s something with the sodium in our inner ear and the water in our bodies that affects it greatly, so I have a low sodium diet. I do a nasal rinse most every night. I sleep on an incline — there’s something about sleeping flat that can bring it on for me, personally. That’s just how I begin,” she said.
Managing a lifelong illness
When the symptoms kick in, Chenoweth said there’s not much she can do but wait for it to pass.
“When I feel it coming on — it sounds silly, but everybody has their way — I definitely pray immediately, and I ask God to just help me through it,” she said. “And I call my mom for support.”
Chenoweth said that the best resource for support is the love of friends and family. “I’m very lucky that I have a very small but tight-knit, close, loving group that surrounds me with love,” she said. “Love can get you through a lot of things.”
Taking positive steps
For those suffering from rare diseases like Meniere’s, the constant battling can feel lonely.
“For people who feel hopeless — which I’ve been there, believe me — I look for things to inspire me,” Chenoweth said. “A lot of that comes through music.” Chenoweth’s latest album, “For the Girls,” available September 27, is an ode to female musicians that have personally inspired Chenoweth, from Dolly Parton to Ariana Grande.
While Meniere’s disease has been a burden in Chenoweth’s life, she feels that sharing her story has helped her move beyond the burden by helping others understand.
“I like to do something where I can give to somebody,” she said. “I think when you give, you receive, and that’s the secret right there.”