‘People get tired of asking you what's wrong and you've run out of nothings to tell them. You've tried and they've tried, but the words just turn to ashes every time they try to leave your mouth. They start as fire in the pit of your stomach but come out in a puff of smoke. You are not you anymore. And you don't know how to fix this. The worst part is...you don't even know how to try.’ (Nikitta Gill)
Losing my voice was a painful experience. It started with frequent sore throats and laryngitis but steadily got worse. After a while, I had to suck on throat lozenges to be able to speak at all. My voice became very weak and, if I had to project it in a group or tried to sing, it felt afterwards like I’d been garrotted. Feeling increasingly concerned, I saw my doctor who referred me to ear-nose-throat specialists. They ruled out throat cancer and vocal cord nodules yet still couldn’t work out what was causing the problem. I lost count of how many cameras they ran up my nose and down my throat.
As time went on with no improvement, they referred me to speech therapy. By now I was having to carry a sign at work to say, ‘Sorry, I’ve lost my voice’ and a clipboard to write down what I wanted to say. (It was amusing to see how many people wrote down their responses for me to read too. I had after all lost my voice, not my hearing.) The speech therapists were puzzled by the symptoms and tried various techniques without success. For 2 years, I virtually couldn’t speak at all. It took another 10 years of cameras and speech therapy before they finally worked out the underlying problem.
Bizarrely, I had somehow learned to speak as a child without using the complex muscles around the larynx correctly. It was, in effect, as if I had found a way to imitate normal speech. That was OK to a point, until my work demanded more strenuous use of my voice. That’s when it became strained and failed. Apart from the intense physical discomfort, the social and psychological effects were profound. Over the years, I got tired of explaining my predicament. I became far quieter than usual and people related to me as if I was incredibly introverted, or simply didn’t relate to me at all.
It became so very isolating. Not only did I lose my physical voice. I felt steadily as if I was losing my personal identity, presence and influence in social situations too. I felt helpless to resolve it and had no idea if it could or would ever be resolved. Salvation came in the form of a new friend, David, whom I met in a church and who had suffered from debilitating hearing loss for many years. When he described the social and psychological effects it had had on his life, for the first time I didn’t feel alone. It demonstrated the power of empathy and its place in healing. Now I could learn to speak.
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