Voice and identity

Pretty much everyone cringes when they hear recorded versions of their voice. It’s hugely different to how it sounds in your mind. My voice has always sounded ‘normal’ to me. It’s been steady and regular and it’s developed alongside my vocabulary and life experience. Speaking objectively, my voice is a little higher than average. It’s laced with northern undertones which places me within the community I grew up. Other than when I’ve been forced to do some public speaking, I take my voice for granted. It’s natural, it’s consistent and I don’t have to think about it. It’s almost a reflex, just like breathing.

Now, I consider myself as somebody who really likes science. I have huge respect for and trust in the scientific process. So much so that I studied towards a degree in Biomedical Science and took it further in to my career where I advocate for the communication and translation of science. There’s usually always a series of factors or logical processes I have been able to follow to make sense of the world. That being said, and despite all of my academic and professional endeavours – I just didn’t know that your vocal cords could stop you from breathing and that this in turn, could affect voice, my voice – my identity.

That being said, I am no stranger to respiratory issues, I was always one of those wheezy kids in school clutching on to a blue inhaler but as I got older the problems became more complex and harder to solve. The unpredictable nature of my breathing issues puzzled doctors and led me down a convoluted route to a diagnosis of tracheomalacia, essentially a floppy windpipe. As I wrapped my head around the prospect of having a condition that hasn’t passed the desk of many GPs and even specialists in chest medicine, my voice became more important than ever before.

It goes without saying, I use my voice to communicate – we all do. It’s how we tell people we’re happy or sad, it’s how we connect and form relationships, it’s how we express ourselves. We use it to let people know we’re scared, expressing frustrations and fears and our deep emotions. It’s how we order a coffee. It’s a form of currency and becomes a trademark, recognisable to those who interact with us. A voice can say a lot about you without you realising it. They say that a deeper tone of voice gives the air of authority and confidence, even assertion. A quiet voice can make you seem weak, awkward and lacking in conviction. No voice at all can mean you get overlooked.

I’m fortunate enough to have several slightly obscure and relatively unheard-of health conditions. They’re not your ‘run of the mill’ stuff but they all stop me from breathing properly and one, unpredictably, even damages my voice. Vocal cords are two bits of tissue that have muscles and membranes attached. They work because air that travels up from the airway makes them come together and vibrate, creating sound. We can shape sound using our teeth, tongue and jaw to give us our natural tones and expression but essentially, it’s tiny vibrations of our vocal cords about 200 times a second that gives us our voice. Mine ends up being compromised because of asthma, a floppy airway and laryngeal obstruction – right near the voice box.

I’ve said before, I can deal with being breathless and wheezy. The sensation isn’t pleasant by any means but it is familiar. What is harder to navigate is my voice. It occasionally just disappears halfway through a conversation, decides it won’t work when I wake up or will dramatically change in pitch. Some days my voice will sound high and squeaky with a colleague highlighting that it sounds as though “someone has let down a balloon inside your throat,” other days my voice morphs wildly in to that of a seasoned chain smoker. It’s completely unreliable and still shocks my family at the other end of the phone.

Besides being repeatedly offered Strepsils or experiencing sympathetic nods for my ‘sore throat,’ losing your voice is incredibly isolating. It has left me unable to express myself in meetings, unravelling my authority and diminishing my points for me. It’s let me down when I want to join in conversations with friends and scared countless strangers as I croak out words, too deep to recognise. It limits my ability to talk to my Grandma sometimes, she’s already hard of hearing and my voice won’t muster the power to be heard. It stops me from singing in the car. All of these things seem relatively trivial on their own but taken together, they stop me from expressing myself as fully as I’d like. I have to rest my voice, withdraw from cracking jokes and turn to text messaging over phone calls with friends. It affects my identity and sense of self and I’ll never again take my high-pitched, squeaky tones for granted.

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