The title of this blog also happens to be a comment I received from a new contact I’d made through work and had been working with over email for a few months before virtually ‘meeting’ them for the first time on a video call. I mean, the guy was absolutely 100% correct, I did sound like a children’s entertainer or Stuart Little. My voice on that particular day wasn’t that bad, it was better than it had been and my words were at least audible but they changed in pitch and were unpredictable. They certainly didn’t sound like what my ‘normal’ voice sounds like in my head, especially when verbalised.
The guy wasn’t being mean, I didn’t take offense. I think he was trying to acknowledge and make light of a strange situation. For me though, it was excruciating, I wanted the virtual ground to swallow me up, I wanted my internet connection to drop out and I wanted the meeting to wrap up immediately. Of course, when meeting new work colleagues or new people in general, first impressions count. I’m keen to come across well and in a work-setting, I want to be able to articulate points clearly. I definitely don’t want to sound odd or be at the receiving end of a joke during a work call with a stranger.
Over the past year or so, I’ve had several fleeting issues with my voice. Mainly as a result of a condition with my vocal cords that also impacts my breathing. Over the past 6–12 months, this has become more frequent, more disruptive and more unsettling as the periods of voicelessness have lasted longer and on several occasions, I’ve been unable to identify the root cause or trigger.
In lockdown, I had a period of 7 weeks where my voice was as good as useless. For at least 4 weeks, it was barely audible. It rarely was able to produce a sound. I progressed to the odd squeak and indescribable noises, then what sounded like a raspy whisper, and after numerous video calls with a speech and language therapist, I managed short bursts of conversation but would have to take breaks and use my voice sparingly.
In lockdown, I’ve had a further few episodes of voice issues and breathlessness, all lasting for at least a week and many appearing out of the blue. I’ve woken up from a nap and been rendered speechless, I’ve been sat on the sofa relaxing and had a coughing fit creep up on me and then been unable to speak for the next fortnight.
Not being able to speak and communicate in the way that you would like, not being able to freely articulate yourself and not recognising your voice when it leaves your mouth is really disorientating. When shielding during a pandemic, losing my voice has been even more distressing. Being socially isolated from friends and family, working remotely and being separated from my partner made me rely more than ever on my ability to communicate.
Zoom calls have become the bread and butter of the working day. They are scattered across my Outlook calendar more frequently than standard meetings, catch-ups are scheduled to replace the casual chats that would naturally happen in the corridor. The difficulty being, these are usually group chats, they are tiring and crowded. The usual pauses that I’d rely on to know when it was okay to speak are missing. People talk over you, the social cues are missing from the meeting room. All of this is overwhelming when you’re really not sure if your voice is going to be recognisable or audible when you try to speak. It undermines points you’ve made before you’ve even attempted to make them. It only acts to isolate further as you have to decline meeting requests because your voice just doesn’t work.
This is the case for Zoom catch-ups with friendship groups, quizzes, normal phone calls and even speaking to my Grandma — she can’t hear me at the best of times but when I can’t speak, we can’t communicate at all — surprisingly, she isn’t on email or WhatsApp. I found myself having to ration my voice, selecting when and how I would try to use it. I couldn’t have a casual chat to pass the time of day and I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls I’ve missed from friends and messages I’ve sent trying to explain that “yes, really, I genuinely can’t speak at all…it’s not just a sore throat.”
As I type this, I’m having another period of forced silence as my voice isn’t working, I’m breathless and it’s uncomfortable to attempt to speak. The only difference from the beginning of the post is that, now, instead of sounding like I’ve been sucking on a helium balloon I’ve ‘matured’ into sounding like Patty and Selma Bouvier, Marge Simpson’s sisters. Does that count as progress?