Down-home Diva Finds Strength and Comfort in Prayer

A popular actress's successful life and career are firmly grounded in a bedrock of family and faith.

By Kristin Chenoweth, Los Angeles, California

As appeared in

Some years ago in the town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, there was a young couple who had a son and longed for a daughter to round out their family. Then the wife was told she needed to have a hysterectomy and wouldn’t be able to conceive again. She and her husband put their names on every adoption list they could find but hadn’t gotten any calls. She knew the wait would be long, maybe forever. Still, she prayed and prayed for a little girl. The day came when she checked into the hospital for surgery.

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At that very same hospital, a young unmarried flight attendant (no connection to the one I just mentioned, of course) was about to give birth to a baby she planned to give up for adoption. Her doctor had helped line up a loving couple to adopt and raise the baby. Then that wife discovered to her surprise that she was pregnant. "Please let the baby go to another couple," she told her doctor. The ob-gyn consulted the young couple from Broken Arrow. "You mean we could have our new baby now?" they asked. Absolutely, they were told. And wouldn’t you know, that baby turned out to be a girl?

"I went into the hospital to have surgery," my mother liked to tell me, "and I came home with you." I marvel at how many people’s prayers were answered: my parents’, the couple who was originally going to adopt the baby, my birth mother’s.

Leave it up to God.
Remember I said I have trouble flying? Did I mention it’s partly because I get migraines and I have this disease with a big fancy name called Ménière’s that makes motion sickness seem like a walk in the park?

The first time it hit me was 15 years ago. I was in New York City, rehearsing a Broadway musical called Steel Pier. I woke up that morning with a ringing in my ears, got out of bed and landed on the floor. The ground was tilting at a 90-degree angle and the walls were coming at me. I crawled to the bathroom and got very sick. So sick I was convinced I had a brain tumor or a stroke.

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I peeled myself off of the bathroom floor and called my mom. She came to New York and went with me to countless doctors’ appointments. I had all kinds of tests. Nothing showed up in a CT-scan. The doctors ruled out brain tumors and strokes, but they couldn’t quite figure out the diagnosis. They decided it was some sort of vertigo and it would go away. It did, but then it came back six months later. And again and again after that.

How could I go on performing with my ears ringing and the floor rolling like the deck of a storm-tossed boat? I prayed hard about it, and I recalled something my beloved voice teacher, Florence Birdwell, said to me back at Oklahoma City University when I had strep throat and wanted to back out of a competition.

"You can’t make excuses in the real world," she said. "People will have more respect for you if you sing through it. Just do your best." So that’s what I did in show after show like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and the incredibly popular Wicked and as Miss Noodle on Sesame Street and in my own short-lived TV show, Kristin.

Finally I got a diagnosis: Ménière’s disease. According to the medical literature, it’s "an inner ear disturbance that causes vertigo," which sounds so much milder than it is. There is no cure or relief with the possible exception of a surgical procedure called a cochleosacculotomy (another fancy word). I can’t risk that because it could cause hearing loss.

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So I do what I can to control Ménière’s without surgery. I limit the sodium in my diet. I sleep on an incline (you can imagine how popular this makes me with hotel staffs). I take anti-nausea medication. When I’m feeling really sick, I call up my mom and my six aunts and ask them to pray for me, sometimes right there on the phone.

I’ve got a magnet on my fridge that says, "Good morning, this is God. You don’t need to worry about all your problems. I will be handling them today." That’s what I do with the terrible brain-churning, room-spinning, think-you’re-gonna-die problem of Ménière’s. If the misery is on a scale of one to 10, I’ve discovered I can still perform at a six or seven.