July 14th is the most important day of the year for J-Ro. If the planets align and all goes according to plan, I will be heading over to London to ask a nice man with letters after his name to shoot laser beams down my throat and give me the gift of speech and song once again. HOW MAD IS THAT? Fucking sorcery. Or modern medicine. Whichever you prefer yourself. My only disappointment is that I’m not allowed keep the lasers. I may ask if I can keep the nodules, to put in an ornamental glass jar on my mantelpiece, with the words “LEST WE FORGET” engraved on it. I’m sure he gets that request all the time.
So with about three weeks to go, it feels like I’m feeling the loss of my voice even more than I have in the previous fifteen months that I’ve been living with this condition. More than anything at the moment, I’m pretty fucking angry at how little of a general fuck was given when I finally got an appointment at the ENT clinic to see what was actually going on in that weary overused throat of mine. After a few months of feeling miserable and wallowing, I had finally gotten it together enough to head to my GP and say (read: whisper hoarsely) that I’d been hoarse for two or three months and that wasn’t okay, and please help me because I can’t even make a phone call, not to mind sing and make a bit of a living. He sent off a letter, and quick as a flash FIVE MONTHS LATER, I got an appointment. Christ Almighty, don’t they know how much you can Google about something wrong with you in that time? Dr Gregory House had nothing on my diagnostic skills.
Naturally, because I’d been Googling and self-assessing, and more relevantly, because I’m a complete Anxious Agatha, I was terrified that it was cancer. Singing in outdoor pub areas for a good while had not been doing my throat any favours anyway, and being very aware that lots of non-smokers who played live music for a living had suffered in varying degrees from throat issues ranging from chest infections to occasional hoarseness and right up as far as fatal throat cancer. I had always kept the story of late eighties television presenter Roy Castle (read his story here) in the back of my mind, as an example of how non-smokers could be open to the dangers of secondary smoke, so thanks to the good old HSE waiting lists, I was able to dwell nicely on that for a good 20 weeks or so. Lovely. Cheers.
So eventually I found myself sitting in the ENT clinic with the consultant with a teeny tiny tube camera up my nose and down my throat as he promptly informed me I had “two fine nodules there all right”. I was relieved that at least there was something tangible and real that was causing my hoarseness and that it wasn’t psychosomatic – there are no lasers for that. Yet. At least this was something that could be dealt with, and I could get on with my life with the slight chance I may be able to sing again…right?
Before I knew it I was back out the door armed with two A4 sheets on ‘Caring For Your Voice’ and a recommendation to start speech therapy. That was it. The voice-care stuff I could – and have on many occasion – obtain myself by faffing about online. They were all lovely tips on how to care for your voice, so as not to GET nodules in the first place. That was pretty fucking handy for me, wasn’t it? He may as well have given some guy with a shattered femur two paracetamol and a leaflet entitled “How Not To Break Your Leg” and sent the poor bastard home. Bollocks to that, I thought. I wasn’t at my most optimistic leaving the clinic that day…
My only option was to research and look up the various avenues open to me. I’d been told quite categorically by my doc “Oh, we don’t do that surgery anymore, unless what you have is malignant”, so basically if it wasn’t cancer, I could thank my lucky stars AND go fuck myself at the same time. BRILLIANT. Sure who needs a voice anyway? It’s one of those useless things your body still hangs on to, like your appendix, or your first crappy tattoo. God forbid I’d need it to try and make a living or use the phone, or go to job interviews, or pursue a career in television or radio like I had been contemplating. God, no. I should be happy for the rest of my lonely mute life with a mini-whiteboard and dry wipe marker around my neck, hoping the person I’m talking to can read my writing, or just simply read. Fuck that noise. I was getting mad now…
So after months of feeling sorry for myself, and a few serious bouts of depression where I had to fight with myself for hours just to get out of bed, not to mind have the headspace to launch into independent research on what the shit to do with this voice of mine, I finally got a molecule of motivation. I decided that I wanted surgery; no amount of speech therapy was going to magically make these nodules simply disappear of their own free will. They needed to get the fuck GONE. So eventually after lots of time rambling around online medical journals, I sent out my first query email to the office of the man who had worked on the voice of singer Adele over in Boston, Dr Steven Zeitels. Now I knew there was no way I could ever afford his services (thanks, American Healthcare System) but I figured if i could at least get the ball rolling, he might point me in the direction of other surgeons in the field closer to home.
You could have knocked me down with a feather when one day out of the blue in the park, I get a call on my mobile from Boston, MA – and the Doc himself is on the other end! He knew within a minute of talking to me even on the phone that simple speech therapy was never going to help me, and I felt so vindicated I indulged in some serious air-punching, Judd Nelson Breakfast Club-style. We chatted for a bit, and he gave me some names of consultants and put me in contact with other people who could give me some info and help. Thankfully, there were some London names on that list, and the search was on with serious gusto.
Once I had some information for the UK, it took less than an hour to find a reputable consultant in the London area. The laser surgery area is huge nowadays, and I read about TV presenter Holly Willoughby and some guy from The Wanted both having undergone laser treatment for exactly what I have, and been ecstatic with results. So after two or three emails back and forth, I’m now sitting here blogging about how it took all of an hour in total to get my 15-month voice problem fixed once I decided to not take no for an answer and get some second and third opinions outside of this wonderful country of ours. As I was told by Dr Zeitels, it’s not that they don’t do the surgery here anymore; it’s that they can’t. So if I hadn’t gone off on my own and done some research, I’d be sitting here right now drowning my throat in expensive jars of Manuka honey, breathing deeply, drinking gallons of water and resigning myself to forever sounding like Marge Simpson’s two sisters after a Lamb Of God concert.
It’s really quite something to have the gift of a voice taken away from you; especially when it’s your source of income, how you express your personality, your ability to communicate effectively, how people define you, how YOU define you, your go-to place when you’re on your own and you just want to sing until you feel better about life. When you have no voice, it’s surprising how much it affects your self-esteem, and how those around interact with you.
Without meaning to, people can ignore you, interrupt you, and talk over you. Most group conversations are a bit of a battlefield, with lots of strong personalities loudly debating, or joking, or just having the chats. If you have no voice, you’re meek by comparison. It’s survival of the fittest; and you’re the weakling of the herd. If you happen to be under 5ft like myself, and you’re out in a pub with mates with the music blaring; forget about it. They can barely hear you down there when you’re at peak vocal fitness, so your husky little squeaks or froggy croaks are never going to cut it. So that’s fun.
I’ve found it so fucking hard to get on with being me without the voice I was known for; be it from singing or just from being out & about. Up in RTE last year when I was doing the social media for Connected, I got to meet a lot of influential people, but my voice was so bad at that stage I doubt I even made any sort of an impression. I’ve never been so self-conscious of something about me in my life. Being short, I can handle. Even if well-meaning friends make jokes or remarks about my lack of height and they sting more than they should, I can still brush them off and square myself up on the outside. But my voice is / was my pride and joy, and something I thought I could depend on. It helped to define me. So trying to meet new people and opening my mouth to speak and hearing only an alien croaking sound used to destroy me, and therefore any confidence I may have initially had. I don’t even have my own laugh any more, it’s just a hoarse squeak. It’s fucking horrible, I feel ugly and insignificant and I hate it. Many’s a day or night I’ve come home and burst into tears, feeling like the invisible girl. I’m not used to that.
One thing I’ve learned though, is about changing my personal definition. I had to keep telling myself that I am not my voice, it is a part of me that needs some TLC at the moment, but it does not make up all of me. It’s helped my writing too, in that I’m doing way more of it because I can’t bend the ears off my poor friends like I used to do any more. All this useless drivel has to come out somewhere. (I still try to be a chatterbox, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect when you’re whispering). What is hilarious though, is when you lean in and whisper your news to your friend, he or she starts whispering too – even if we’re sitting in their car alone.
Anyway, I soldier on, like the rest of the world. I’m very lucky and grateful that I was able to book the surgery, and it costs less than the average eye laser surgery treatment, which is fantastic. I’m really looking forward to crapping my pants the night before going under general anaesthetic, but my trusty best friend Olivia will be keeping a watchful eye on me as I lose the rag, and also as I emerge bleary-eyed from post-op. I can only imagine the fun she’s going to have at my expense. I can’t even have one of those YouTube video clips of me talking utter bollocks after surgery, because I won’t be able to speak AT ALL. I suppose if that’s the only disappointment and regret I’ll have about this whole thing, then things are pretty fucking good right now don’t you think?
I’ll leave you with my favourite mute cartoon character.