It was an early Saturday morning in late March that Larry and I traveled from our home in Liberty, South Carolina and headed up to Charlotte, North Carolina just a couple hours to the north. I would be attending a symposium with a hundred or so others who had come in from all over the country. As I entered the hotel lobby later that morning, I immediately noticed how diverse our group was. It seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women, but ages ranged from young adults to some who appeared to be in their seventies. And as for the dress code, there didn't seem to be one. Some were in jeans and t-shirts while others opted to dress up a bit. At first glance, it didn't seem like we'd have all that much in common. Well, that was until we opened our mouths.
A little over five years ago I noticed something weird going on with my voice. Right after Christmas I had what I thought was a simple case of laryngitis, possibly brought on by allergies. Several weeks later, however, the laryngitis had developed into a persistent rasp. I scheduled a long overdue physical which revealed absolutely nothing. That doctor referred me to an unimpressive throat specialist who checked for nodules, found nothing, gave me some pills to try and sent me on my way. The problem progressed. It was harder to get words out now, and I felt as if a fist had clamped itself around my throat. I was teaching music and directing our church's worship and drama ministries, and I didn't know how much longer I could continue. Out of desperation I pleaded with God to give me a name for this thing that was disrupting my life.
One afternoon I sat at the computer and went on a Google search. I typed in everything I could think of throat related, looking for anything that might solve the mystery behind my troubled voice. Then suddenly, there on the monitor, was a list of symptoms that described perfectly what I had been experiencing over the past several months. I knew this was it, my answer.
It had a name, Spasmodic Dysphonia, a neurological condition. It was causing specific muscles in my throat to go out of control, forcing my vocal cords to open and close erratically, making it difficult for my words to come out. Initially I felt relief. At least I knew what I was fighting and was ready to do whatever was necessary to get my voice back, to have a reprieve from the nasty spasms that had become a constant companion.
I opted for the most reliable treatment available: botox injections into those out-of-control muscles every few months to calm them down. And they worked for awhile. Well, sometimes. I had good weeks, bad weeks, good days, bad days. During the good times, I was grateful that it was possible to talk without fatigue or embarrassment. I cherished those days when I could call my children or make an appointment over the phone. But there were also those times when it was easier to avoid people, hoping and praying that I wouldn't have to talk to anyone, dreading the curious looks. My voice felt like it was in prison.
When I traveled to North Carolina that morning, my voice was having one of its good days. I was having pretty good results with my new doctor in Atlanta. And though it was unlikely I would sing again, my speaking voice was the strongest it had been since all this had started. I felt confident, sociable. Well, at least for now. But I also knew the spasms would come back, they always did. And that's why I needed to be here, to meet and learn from others who had been through it, who understood my loss, and more than anything, to find out if things would ever feel normal again.
As I approached the registration table, there was a cacophony of voices like I'd never heard before. Some seemed almost normal. Most likely they were benefiting from their injections as I was. But others struggled to be understood or heard, some much worse off than I had ever been. That lobby seemed a bit surreal, like a tiny universe with its own peculiar inhabitants speaking an odd language. Except that I was a part of this little microcosm, and for the first time in a very long time I felt a connection. Though these people were strangers to me, we all shared something in common. We all had broken voices.
Before the day was over I would hear story after story of people whose lives had been interrupted as mine had been. There was Leta. I had met her once before in my doctor's office in Atlanta. Tall and striking, she had a successful career in sales before her voice broke. Warm and vivacious with a vibrant faith, she talked about the challenges she now faces daily in her line of work. There was the young missionary wife who had plans to go to Russia with her husband before their mission board advised them to consider another field where people would be more tolerant of her less than perfect voice. I still hear the frustration expressed by the recently diagnosed police captain who feared that the sound of his voice would cause his men to lose respect for him. I'll never forget the pastor who discovered he could preach by whispering his messages through a microphone, the national radio show host who had responded well to treatment and had continued on with her career, or the teacher who showed up everyday in her classroom with an amplification device to be better heard and understood by her students.
When we climbed back into our car that evening for the ride home, I knew that God had prearranged this day for me. During one of the sessions I had asked the question, "How long does it take to quit grieving what you've lost?" Several immediately rose to tell their stories, some of whom had lived with broken voices for a long, long time. Unequivocally the message was the same. Things will get better. And I would make it.
They were right. Things did get better. I still faced challenges, of course, and at times became discouraged. One of my next treatments didn't work, and because of insurance issues, I went several months without any relief from the spasms that plagued me. But I was better able to handle the setbacks and disappointments in part through the example of those whose resilience and courage had so inspired me. Their voices might have been broken, but their spirits were not. They said I'd make it. They'd be pleased to know they were right.