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Suddenly Silent: How My Voice Was Gone for Months

Tina painful voice | WHYLD Podcast

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"Maybe I Caught a Cold"

It is a frightening experience. Never had I imagined that one day I’d lose my ability to speak, my voice… and that I’d be stuck in this state for months on end.

It started with a sore, swollen throat. A few days later, I developed muscle pain, hot flashes, a headache, and fatigue. The Covid test was negative. “Maybe a cold”, I thought. A cold that came completely without the typical running nose.

Since I am working from home and I felt better soon after, I started to work again. The day after, I developed a severe cough. And when I woke up the next morning… my voice was gone.

My mom, whom I had texted, warned me not to be hasty with starting to speak again – else, my voice issues could become chronic. So, I remained silent. Learned how to navigate day-to-day life with my partners without being able to talk.

In the beginning, it was like a little adventure. I tried my luck using wild gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Somehow, I managed. It was meditative, even. Years prior, I had paid good money for this sort of experience during a “silent retreat” on Bali. Being forced to triage every thought I had and only communicate what was absolutely necessary, was an interesting self-experiment. Like (non-)verbal minimalism.

Imagine being liberated from all the defending and discussing and arguing that you feel triggered to do in daily life… and instead surrendering into a peaceful sense of “I am not responsible, I do not have to react at all”.

What might sound like torture, like being trapped inside yourself and not being able to talk back at a remark you don’t agree with… well, it can actually be a relief if you allow yourself to let go. So, this illness was quite a character-building life lesson., my voice

If it had not been for the unyielding pain in my throat.

The days passed. My general practitioner, whom I had seen soon after all this began, prescribed antibiotics, without examining whether there even were bacteria involved. The antibiotics did not change a thing. When, three weeks into my voicelessness, I still wasn’t better, I went to see a specialist.

He treated me as if I was an annoying fly whirring about his office.

“Your vocal cords look normal. What are you afraid of?”

I didn’t understand the question. What was I afraid of?

“I am not afraid. I am in PAIN. I cannot speak. I cannot work!”

He sent me off saying that it was just a cold, that I had to wait it out and did not need anything to treat it. Oh, and that I definitely had not needed the antibiotics the general practitioner had prescribed at the beginning of this ordeal.

I left his office feeling quite dejected. Was he just being dismissive or was I being overly dramatic? This experience definitely discouraged me from seeking help elsewhere for a while. It all could have been over sooner had that doctor cared more and done his due diligence at the time.

Since I did not want to watch any more Netflix, I ignored the sick note I was handed by my specialist friend. Instead, I found ways to work and NOT SPEAK while doing so. Which is quite a feat, given I work as an Agile Coach and talking to people is my main vessel for being of value.

My dear colleagues enabled this despite my temporary disability. In my many online meetings, I would write my thoughts in the chat, then someone else would be my voice and read it out loud. That’s how I was included. But writing is a slow art and I was well aware that I did not deliver the value I was supposed to. It was all fun and games, but I could not continue being a voice-less coach, week after week after week.

No Voice, No Podcast

Off work, the situation was just as glum. For the past 3 years, I have been pouring my heart and my soul into WHYLD Podcast. I have invested so much in this passion. Built my little studio, bought and refined my equipment. I am spending 3-4 working days on average on each episode. Hardly ever does an evening and a weekend go by without me devoting a significant amount of time to researching, organizing, writing, and creating something for my passion project. Now, while I was still capable of creating cute little posts for social media and other such things, I was unable to do the main activity: record an episode.

Luckily, I still had content recorded in the past months up my sleeve but that stock was due to run out. Unless I experienced a miracle recovery soon, I was facing the prospect of missing a publication date. And that was something I did not take light-heartedly. I pride myself on being really disciplined and I publish every month on the 15th, consistently.

But now… I simply couldn’t. I could not speak.

Using my voice as a vessel to express myself was something I had fallen in love with over the years. I even thought about trying out being a speaker for audiobooks one day.

Because of my rheumatoid arthritis, my hands and the tendons in my forearms get inflamed regularly. Not being able to type and becoming unable to work is a massive fear I have. Since I love writing – expressing my soul through typed words – this would be a disastrous loss way beyond my ability to make a living.

However, it never occurred to me that I could lose… my voice.

I have never questioned, nor have I ever consciously appreciated, my ability to speak.

It was like breathing, effortless, natural to me.

Now I knew: It wasn’t. It was a gift of life which not everyone got to enjoy, or keep forever, throughout their lifetime.

I am both a person who is capable of going down the death spiral of worry as well as an optimist who always seeks the good in every experience. So, I asked myself: Why was this happening to me? What was the lesson encapsulated in all this?

I realized this wasn’t the first time my body had stood in the way of my free vocal expression. As part of my rheumatoid arthritis, my left jaw – the temporomandibular joint – has been inflamed for years. As a result, I am losing mobility in my jaw. Opening and closing my mouth becomes painful and difficult due to physical obstructions.

Sadly, this stands in the way of my other big passion: singing. I cannot sing when my jaw cracks and hurts in doing so. Hence, I lost the joy I used to experience when singing these past years. When I do attempt to sing these days, I hold back a lot out of fear to experience pain or even create damage.

At least, speaking does not require opening my mouth too widely and, thus, my physical restrictions do not stand in its way. Well, they used to not do so. Until this latest health crisis.

Will It Ever Stop?​

A few weeks into my illness, I did try to speak some again. After all, navigating your everyday life with zero words becomes very challenging – especially if you are thrown into muteness lacking any warning, without knowing sign language or being around people who know how to deal with you. A few quiet words a day, though, were enough to increase the pain and swellings.

After my experience with the dismissive “specialist”, I tried to wait it out for two more weeks. I started to feel soreness in my lower respiratory tracts again and a worsening cough developed. It was time to quit with the passive waiting stance and see another specialist.

She was more empathetic than her predecessor and took me seriously. What a relief. She, too, told me that my vocal cords looked all right. My throat appeared sore, though. She took a swab from my throat and had it tested.

It took 7 days for the lab to send the results back to the doctor’s office. Frustratingly, it took 7 additional days – and me calling the doctor’s office multiple times a day during this period – to receive the result. After 7 weeks in the dark, I finally had a lead:

Enterobacter. I had bacteria in my respiratory tracts.

Since my general practitioner, way back when all this had started, had not taken a swab and analysed the result before prescribing antibiotics, the ones I had taken were useless against Enterobacter. Now, I was recommended to take another round of more tailored antibiotics.

So much for the statement of “specialist” number 1 whose unfounded judgement I had trusted…

Had he, too, taken a swab, instead of pushing me out of his office without any further examination – could my ordeal have ended earlier?

Meanwhile, I gave up on working handicapped and not being able to bring full value. By that time, I felt like a total burden. My ups and downs and ever-changing health updates had rendered me uncomfortably unreliable at work. Being reliable is a big pillar of my identity, so I hated being that undependable.  I would schedule meetings and then postpone, postpone, postpone. One day, I would beam with relief because I was able to facilitate a little workshop. Two days later, I would have to revert to written communication again.

I felt embarrassed, useless, and utterly helpless. The truth was: I could not tell when – or if – this would ever end. Even when, finally, the diagnosis came in and I had a lead on what was hopefully an effective treatment plan, full recovery was still a vague hope.

I decided that this insecurity, this back and forth, was no good for my colleagues. That it would be better for everyone else to count on me being UNavailable all the time, than gambling on me delivering some of the time.

So, I surrendered and handed in my sick note once more.

One week off work passed. I was taking the antibiotics – yet, no change. Another week on sick leave. I felt ashamed and like letting people down. As the second week off work ran through my fingers, I felt this big knot in my stomach. Dreading Sunday when I would have to decide and inform my colleagues that I still had not recovered and could not come back. When would I ever?

Meanwhile, the side effects of the antibiotics got more severe with each day. The nausea never left my side. I was dizzy and my vision was so blurred, I had trouble sitting upright and looking at a computer screen. I did it anyway. Writing and working on WHYLD’s website was what kept me busy, kept me feeling somewhat productive.

Just when I felt like giving in to desperation, fearing that the drugs would not bring the cure I so yearned for, the last days of my antibiotics regimen came with something other than just worsening side effects: The cough got better and its origin moved higher up my respiratory tracts. My throat felt less and less sore. I could speak longer and with more strength with each day.

I WAS OVER THE MOON. It worked! I finally saw myself getting better!

Would this all be over now?

The Sunday I had dreaded before was the last day of my medication. Though still nauseous and dizzy as f***, I was enthusiastic. I had been talking to my partner throughout the entire day and it did not result in a setback, even if I was still a little hoarse at the end of it.

I could not wait to surprise my colleagues the next day and show off my voice!

On Monday morning, I had my surprise moment and everyone was happy for me in that first video call. Then came the second, then the third video call. Uh oooh… my elated mood inflated light a balloon that just popped.

Pain, swellings, worsening hoarseness. I quickly came to realize that speaking with my partner was a completely different story than speaking in a video call. At home, I spoke rather softly. At work, I needed to project my voice and I automatically brought more emotion into it. After all, facilitating a fun workshop or debating a difficult topic does not work that well using a soft, monotonous voice…

What Is the Learning in All This?

I faced the fact that just because the bacteria were gone (hopefully for good) this did not mean the tissue that had been harassed and strained for two months was back to full strength already. Rather, it would probably take a significant period of time to heal fully. I had to learn to speak again like a patient has to learn to walk again after breaking their legs in an accident.

I am still asking myself for what reason life decided to throw this at me. Was (is) there anything to learn? What would I have missed had this not happened to me… happened for me?

There is no definite answer I can give. 

I did surely practice one thing, though: surrendering to what IS instead of fighting it.

With this whole authenticity thing, I always preach that the cure for a big part of people’s pain is to be mindful and accept the reality we find ourselves in. Sure, I was entitled to be sad and desperate about my situation but the latter would not be changed by it. Instead, I suffered even more by resisting my condition and feeling sorry for myself.

I went through a lot of hesitance when it came to cancelling meetings, dropping commitments, and, ultimately, calling in sick. I felt ashamed for being so volatile in my ability to work. At times, I tried to override my physical limitations by stubbornly thinking I could bend them to my will. Needless to say, I paid the price each time, delaying my recovery unnecessarily.

But I also told myself over and over again: It does not matter how I feel about it, what matters is that I AM sick and I simply cannot do what I used to.

Not fighting what is real, surrendering to this simply truth, helped me navigate this challenging time. It does not make the monkey mind go away but it is a force that is stronger than any of the anxious, resentful, shame-fuelled inner chatter. And so, for what it’s worth, I at least have passed another one of life’s classes in turning to authenticity even when it is uncomfortable.

Also, I have gained a new perspective on disability. There is not an impenetrable membrane between disabled and able-bodied people. It is permeable.

Some people never experience disability. For some, it is a trait they are born with. For others, it is one they acquire throughout their life time. And for others yet, it is not a trait but a state. An experience that has a beginning and an end.

With my voiceless journey, I fall into the latter category.

My personal belief is that, with this, I have an obligation to feel especially grateful for all the abilities I have. And I sure take them less for granted now.

photo: Tina Hewelt

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