I Took My Voice For Granted
When I write the phrase “I took my voice for granted”, I don’t mean my metaphorical voice, such as my right to free speech or anything like that (although I probably take that for granted as well). I mean my literal voice. My ability to phonate through my throat to make sounds, words, melodies, etc. For those that know me, or have looked through this website enough, it’s clear that I’ve always loved to use my voice. I’ve been an amateur singer for ages, taking years of voice lessons. I did choir all throughout college. I’ve done over 15 community theatre shows, most of which were musicals that involved lots of music rehearsals and singing. I’ve given public presentations, and have always excelled in public speech. And those who are friends with me can attest that I’m a “talker”. This means I love to talk, and am perfectly capable of and willing to dominate and lead conversations amongst small groups of friends.
So one of the worst things that could happen to me—losing my voice—started just a few months ago.
It started with a sore throat. To be honest, I’ve had lots of sore throats throughout my life, so it didn’t particularly concern me. But after a couple weeks, I realized my speaking voice felt raspy… and had been raspy for a while. My voice would tire quickly in meetings, and it sounded like I was consistently losing my voice. It’d get tired, I’d rest it for a few hours, and it would seem to get a little better… until the next day at least, when this would repeat again.
I realized my singing voice began to lose an octave (or maybe two) on the top register. I was no longer a proud soprano, but becoming a mezzo, or maybe even an alto. And, when I’d try to hold out long notes, my voice would crack, which is something pretty new to me.
After about six weeks of these realizations, I decided to visit an ENT. I was very lucky, and managed to find an appointment within the week as long as I was willing to leave the house at 7am and drive an hour and a half to get there. I figured it was worth it. At the appointment, I (with too many words) updated the doctor and nurse of what I was experiencing. The doctor put a scope down my nose to take a look at my vocal folds. And there, the doctor saw the smallest bump on my right vocal cord.
It’s hard for me to describe the feeling of loss and sadness that I felt when I saw the bump. And even to this day (two and a half months later), it fills my heart with pain to think about it. I tried to take so many precautions to keep my voice healthy, and yet… I couldn’t save my delicate vocal folds from damage. She told me that this likely is the cause of a specific event where I overused my voice, such as a sporting event with a lot of screaming. But when I looked back through my past calendar, all the way back to when my throat felt healthier… there was nothing specific. So, the real reason(s) as to why this has occurred remain a mystery, although my doctors have suspicions.
The ENT referred me to a vocal therapist who can perform a more detailed videostroboscopy of my throat. The video recording that the first scope obtained were of poor quality, so she didn’t want to make assumptions about what she saw in the videos. After a couple weeks of making phone calls, leaving voicemails, and chasing down schedulers, I managed to make an appointment… for a month later. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get an earlier appointment, considering this very much felt like an emergency. But I did what I could, and I asked them to put me on the list for bumping up if an earlier time slot opened.
And a few days later, I got a phone call that the clinic had a cancellation. If I could get out the door in 10 minutes, I could get my videostroboscopy today! Props to my boss for being so flexible with me leaving work on such short notice. And the appointment only confirmed my worst nightmares. I had a polyp developing on one vocal cord, with a vocal nodule developing opposite it (most likely the nodule was the result of the polyp hitting the opposite vocal fold). I was prescribed heavy vocal rest (which turns out to be way more difficult than it should be), a few vocal theraputic exercises (that honestly feel like they’re doing nothing), and few changes in lifestyle and diet to try to cut down on stress and acid reflux that could be negatively affecting my throat.
But the truth is that I have 20-some years-worth of talkative habits built up, and I historically have been a very loud talker. I don’t think I even realized that people could still hear me when I talked quietly. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but when I’ve lived my whole life as a loud talker, well it’s just the way I’ve always been. And I enjoy talking and conversating with people… responding vocally to them in conversation is second-nature. And so, I found heavy vocal rest to be more difficult than it seems. And although I managed to work on cutting down stress and acid reflux, catching a cold and doing pretty constant coughing and throat clearing didn’t help.
So when I went back to my next appointment several weeks later, I was dismayed, but not surprised, to find my throat hadn’t gotten better… in fact, if anything, it almost got worse. My entire throat was red, swollen, and inflamed, and the polyp had grown bigger.
So what’s next? Even more vocal rest. I try not to let myself talk for more than about 15 minutes consecutively, even in meetings. I make myself take words out of my sentences so I’m saying less (and I’m pretty wordy, so I really need to slow down to edit my sentences mid-thought). I track every day what I eat, and how I use my voice (such as speaking loudly, speaking in restaurants, bars, or sporting events, screaming, arguing, emotional talking—talking with high emotions causes a lot of throat tension, etc). And voice therapy. I have years of bad speaking habits and damaging singing patterns built up, and so the doctor has told me that I have to unlearn all of those habits and relearn how to speak, sing, grunt, and even laugh in healthier ways.
The doctors believe that I still have time to correct my voice… my vocal damage hasn’t progressed to the point where it’s unrecoverable, and I don’t need surgery (yet). But at the same time, I don’t know when it will get better… or even if it will get better. I don’t know when I’ll be able to sing again, or when I’ll be able to audition for a show again. When my whole life has been built around using my voice: talking, singing, and speaking loudly, it certainly feels like I need to rewire myself and become a different person (a “non-talker”) if I want any chance of being able to sing a soprano aria with ease ever again.
Below, I’ve attached a few pictures from my videostroboscopies. I’ve hidden them by default so my readers can choose whether to view them or not. Warning… they’re of the inner human body, so they may be icky to some people.