August 3, 2011

Maybe It's Me: Voice, or, True, Necessary, and Kind

When a virus attacked my vocal cords jeopardizing my ability to speak, I quickly realized that I had lost more than the ability to make sound.

I had lost my voice.

While physically it’s the range of sounds distinctive to one person made by the controlled expulsion of air and resonance of the vocal cords, having voice truly means so much more than that.

Voice is our unique personality, tone, inflection, or style of articulation. It’s being able to convey ourselves with strength and conviction our opinions and attitudes, our knowledge and information with others. Verbal communication is an integral component to how others understand us.

And, maybe it’s me, but if verbal communication is “10% what we say and 90% how we say it,” then how can we effectively express ourselves if we can’t physically say anything one way or another?

Being unable to speak immediately presented huge problems. I couldn’t call out of work, and I couldn’t phone my doctor’s to talk to them about what was going on with me. I couldn’t explain to the pharmacist what had happened, and I couldn’t say thank you to the cashier. I couldn’t swear at the bad driver cutting me off, and I couldn’t greet my neighbors.

So everything I wanted to say, I said inside my head instead. Great, lengthy conversations and short, quick quips resonated between the walls of my brain building unnecessary pressure as they were unable to be released into the world to be heard by the people they were intended for.

Because I couldn’t speak.

And because I couldn’t speak, I had to exert the extra energy to drive to work to physically show them what was wrong with me. Because I couldn’t speak, I had to go into the emergency room and make gestures with my hands; I was taken care of immediately since I couldn’t explain to them what was happening. Because I couldn’t speak, the pharmacist didn’t ask me the usual questions and just trusted me; I appreciated that level of customer service so much more than I ever had before. Because I couldn’t speak, the people behind me in line at the cash register visibly thought I was rude when I didn’t answer the cashier’s questions; the cashier, on the other hand, saw there was something wrong with me and smiled politely. Because I couldn’t speak, I was a much more patient and forgiving driver. Because I couldn’t speak, the most I could do was smile and move quickly away from my neighbors to avoid any real interaction.

It was a strange, exhausting day.

And I never said a word.

Despite the fact that I knew it was a temporary problem, spending so much time in my own head led me to start obsessively worrying about what would happen if it became a permanent health issue. What if I had lost my voice for good? I would still be me, but it would be much more difficult to project that to people without being misunderstood. I knew I was strong enough to personally adapt, but I started thinking about all the little things I would no longer be able to do . . . .

The first thing I thought of was singing. The soundtrack to the memories of my youth include my mom singing. In the car and in the shower, while driving or doing art she was always singing. I have always found it comforting and absolutely lovely. Even now, when I get the chance to hear her sing at church or catch her when she’s cooking, I feel right at home, and filled with peace, like there’s not a single thing in the world that could hurt me. And I always thought if I had kids I would want to sing for them the way she did for my sister and I: lovingly, joyfully, and effortlessly.

I thought about dinner. The freedom of being able to ask questions about the menu out at a restaurant; or express my appreciation or criticism of the food, the atmosphere, and the wait staff; or simply just ordering something off the menu would be compromised. All I could visualize was other’s ordering for me. And how dependant that would make me. I was already stubborn and hated asking for help – all of those feelings would have to be tabled as I relied on other people to just help me order food.

And finally, I thought about intimacy. I would never again make any noises of pleasure or pain when being intimate with my significant other. Fearfully, I confided in him with this thought. And his beautiful response was simply: “I have faith that we would relearn your body so that I could read you better and you could physically show me what feels good and what doesn’t. We would be okay.”

Frantically, and maybe a little codeine-induced, I started researching American Sign Language. All I knew was “Thank You,” (which I already sign while saying – not sure where or when or why that habit started, either, but I’m now thankful for it especially given it’s a sign a lot of people happen to know), and I suddenly felt like maybe I needed to know more. At least simple things like “You’re Welcome,” or “Please,” or “Sorry,” or even, “Hi, my name is . . .” If anything ever happened where I couldn’t speak, writing out what I wanted to say would only get me so far (people do not have the patience to wait for you to write out an entire sentence, for them to then have to read it, and then respond to only to have you write an answer back out again). Learning a non-verbal language seemed like a worthwhile skill to have.

A day and a half later, my ability to speak came back. My voice was still not my own – it had a rough, scratchy sound to it – but I could verbally communicate once again.

But I suddenly had nothing to say.

Spending so much time in my own head made me consciously aware of some of the ridiculous and unnecessary things I let slip out of my mouth every day. While not a Buddhist, I do appreciate some of their lessons. When it comes to speaking, they follow three basic principles: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Not everything I was thinking (that I would’ve said aloud with a voice) was true, necessary, or kind and really did make me take a cold hard look at the way I use my words.

In the end, while I might have lost my voice I gained perspective. I realized I didn’t have to speak to say everything I wanted to; and, not everything I said was worth speaking out loud anyway.

And yes, while the unique-to-just-me sounds produced by my vocal cords went missing, my personality didn’t: my sass and sentiment and sense of self were still conveyed with strength and conviction.

Perhaps verbal communication is 10% what we say and 90% how we say it; but, how we say what we need to say doesn’t necessary mean the tone, inflection, or style of articulation in which we use. It can mean eye contact, body language and facial expressions, gestures, the power of pouch, and the air we give off. Though it was a struggle at times, the information and knowledge I needed to pass along got passed along in one way or another.

And it was more true, necessary, and kind than anything I had said – or not said – in a long while.