An Unwelcome Dx

“Mouth” by Phineas H @ flickr.com

It should not have been a surprise when I received the diagnosis; after all, I was a shrieking cheerleader in high school. And while I never had a single voice lesson, I used to sing in a band. For fifteen years, I shouted to my father while he pushed his lawnmower to let him know that I’d brought him a drink and some cookies. I hollered when riding snowmobiles, dune buggies, motorcycles and motorboats, and I shouted to get attention in noisy places: bars, restaurants, at concerts, hell, even while at the salon while under the hair dryer. During my years at summer camp, I intentionally tried to scream the loudest to show my spirit, and over the last decade, I’ve morphed into that crazy mom (you know the one) who cheers for everyone’s kids at the baseball games – even the kids on the opposing teams. I laugh a little too loud. I squeal and carry on when I am reunited with people whom I haven’t seen in way too long, when a friend’s child dives into the pool for the first time, or when I find out someone has just gotten engaged. In my car, I am Madonna, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. I try not to shout when I am mad, but sometimes I can’t help it.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that after a day of teaching, my voice is pretty shot, that I am hoarse and I strain when I speak. At first, it was kinda cool: I sounded like Stevie Nicks, all husky and sultry. . . but when I developed a night-time cough and realized I’d lost more than a full octave when singing, even I knew it was time to make an appointment with the Ear, Nose and Throat doc who told me exactly what I didn’t want to hear: I’m a vocal over-doer.

Yup, that’s my diagnosis.

Dr. Anat Cedar and Dr. Robert Bastian coined the term “Vocal Over Doers Syndrome” to designate an individual whose manner of voice use can be considered excessive and thereby put the person at risk of injury. Typically, the vocal over doer is talkative (Check.) And possesses a life circumstance that demands much voice use. (Um, double check.)

I’m supposed to rest my voice and do these weird breathing exercises to prevent further damage. It’s called practicing “good vocal hygiene.”

I am supposed to avoid nicotine and caffeine, shouting, cheering and excessively loud laughing. I am supposed to clear my throat only when absolutely necessary. I am not supposed to cough or make “strange noises” with my voice. (I swear, I am not making this up.) I should talk when I wish, but not too much. (I’m finding “too much” is too relative of a term.) I am supposed to avoid spicy foods and substitute skim milk for whole milk. When I teach, I am supposed to sit in the center of the room so I can be heard easily without talking loudly. (That one cracks me up.) The list goes on, and truth be told, I fail miserably on nearly all fronts, except the nicotine. That one is easy: I don’t smoke.)

Alas, I don’t know how many more years (or semesters) I have left in the classroom. It has definitely become more difficult for me to project my voice the way I used to, but I am still wildly enthusiastic about my subject matter, so it is incredibly frustrating when I open my mouth and a tiny squeak of nothingness comes out instead of my intended passionate auditory gush over a well-placed comma or properly used semicolon.

You should hear me on roller-coasters. Terrified, my hands balled into fists, my mouth agape, I’m positively silent.

There is a compelling gospel song that repeats the line, “God is trying to tell you something.” Maybe this is the case. Perhaps some cosmic force is trying to tell me to quiet down, exercise my ears, and become a better listener. I am open to anything.

tweet me @rasjacobson

27 responses to “An Unwelcome Dx

  1. I know 435 “Vocal Over-Doers.” They operate in this big white building with a big bubble towering up in the middle of it. The place has a lot of really cool statues. Unfortunately they are real good at the “vocaling” and not very good at the “doing” part. That last unemployment check came and several million people will not be “doing” grocery shopping next week and certainly no holiday shopping.

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  3. It should be very quiet around your house now and libraries will appreciate you more. When I was teaching, I used to get laryngitis every February without fail. I guess it’s a “perk” that comes with the job.

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  4. Thank goodness you still can write and we the reader can enjoy your blogs. Most important take care of your voice.

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  5. I hope this diagnosis doesn’t come with any likely potential of more voice loss in time. I would be terrible if told no caffeine. Spicy food would be tough. Not being dynamic in the classroom? No way. Maybe you could introduce pantomime and interpretive dance to your lectures. Maybe I will just do that for fun.

    I can only relate to you in this manner. I am about to spend 13 hours lecturing on Government and I woke up today with a respiratory infection. Can you say movie day?

    My greatest prof ever swore by daily tea with honey & vinegar. He never missed a day. Maybe try some o’dat.

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    • Are you implying that I need to start douching my throat regularly? I don’t know. And anyway, I have seen the slides: the damage is done. I can’t sing anymore. My voice is toasted. And, yes, if I am not careful about allowing myself some “quiet time,” I will continue to lose my voice, so I do have to be very careful.

      Can you imagine me quiet? I mean, I know we barely know each other, but… you get that I’m not really the silent type, right?

      I hope you feel better. Did you really give a movie day? Your students must LOVE you.

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      • No movie day. Too much to cover but my voice was cooked last night. I will see how long it lasts today after they finish the test they’re taking right now. And no, I don’t think of you as mutish. Hope it gets better.

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  6. What about using a microphone in class? Is there any way to amplify your voice so that you can speak in a moderate tone and still be heard by all your students? I’m thinking of something like an open fm system. Our daughter has some hearing loss, so in K-2 her teacher wore a small microphone on a cord around her neck and it was amplified through a tall speaker on the floor. Her assigned seat was that closest to the speaker. (She now uses a personal fm system instead of the open fm system, so she wears a receiver in her ear instead of there being a speaker.) So, I wonder if something like that can be used for a teacher who needs to amplify her voice for everyone’s benefit, rather than just for the benefit of one hearing impaired student. Maybe check with the IT Dept. to see if they have anything that could help.

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    • Ah Faith. Ever faithful.

      Tried. Tried and Tried.

      Unfortunately, if I wanted to purchase some kind of amplification system the cost would be on me. Also, I would have to lug the system around Remember, I don’t have my own classroom like a primary or secondary school teacher. Like a wandering salesman, I roam from room to room at my college – so that technology would actually be really cumbersome. The technology folks told me they only provide microphones for special events and while I like to think of my class as being an event, apparently, I’m in the minority there.

      My son was in a classroom with one of those amplification systems last year. It was sooooooo cool. I think his teacher said it cost about $10K to get the room wired, have the “brain” installed, and get the corded neck-microphones. I think I’m a good Instructor, but I’m not foolish enough to think anyone is dishing out that kind of money in this economy to make sure that I can continue my stay in the classroom. My days are numbered. Numbered.

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  7. Did they test for vocal chord nodules? As a voice student in college, my voice teacher made all her students have a doctor check for vocal chord nodules every six months just to make sure we werent damaging our voice.

    Also, a good voice teacher can really help with how to speak. I thought it seemed strange at first, but my voice teacher in college also had students who came to her to learn how to speak correctly (plus she liked to tell all her singing students we were talking wrong and reteach us how to speak.) Even if the damage is already done, it can really help in preventing further damage.

    Beth

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    • Yes, I was scoped to see if I had nodules. Fortunately, negative on the nodules. I did work with an audiologist for a while. It took forever to get an appointment, and when I finally did, he turned out to be a total perv. Seriously. So, after a few sessions, I decided it wasn’t worth it and to keep doing the exercises prescribed on the worksheets at home. I really do try to be quiet in the evening hours, but sometimes it is just not possible. We teachers do a lot of talking, ya know.

      I do wish I had a good voice teacher way back when. It could have probably prevented a lot of damage. I wish someone had even mentioned the idea of vocal chord damage back when I was cheerleading, performing in school plays, or when I was in graduate school to become a teacher. That would have been nice. Vocal chord damage really is an occupational hazard. Nearly every teacher I know says he or she gets laryngitis when the school year starts up: who knew that was damage in disguise?

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  8. Sorry to hear the news, I too was born without an “Inside voice” and have often paid the price at the end of the day.
    Best of luck.

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  9. Yogi Tea (in the nature’s Marketplace Section of your Wegman’s) has a lovely tea called Throat Coat…very soothing :0

    I feel your pain (sort of) I am having more and more trouble singing over the past few years after about 30 minutes my voice starts to ‘go’ …Now, I DO have to quit smoking again (starting Chantix tomorrow with a quit date of next weekend) but some of it seems to just be age and circumstances catching up with me…

    Hang in there and maybe u could learn some sign language🙂

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    • What can I say? We have OLD vocal chords. I hate not being able to sing. You know how I LOVE(D) to sing. I really can’t do it now. At least not for sustained periods.

      Believe me, I have considered taking a class and learning ASL. And there are certain people, I’m sure, who are looking forward to the coming of my “sounds of silence.”😉

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  10. A life-altering diagnosis is not fun. I know. I’m there, too. I went from being a healthy 34 year-old to being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis this past January. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I have had to make many lifestyle changes (thankfully, I CAN still consume caffeine!!)!

    I have also found the positive amidst the negative. In the past year, I have realized what is truly important, and I have learned to prioritize. My energy is limited, so I had to cut back on my class load this semester. I couldn’t maintain the load I was teaching and still have energy to be a mom, wife, etc.

    I am not a Pollyana who smiles all the time and looks for the beauty in everything. But I do believe that we each have a road to walk, and sometimes the road sucks! I can either dwell in the misery or deal with it. I know (well, as much as I can gather from reading your blog) that you will deal with it as well!!🙂

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  11. Oh boy. It’s hard to teach when you permanently have laryngitis! Or, are trying to prevent permanent laryngitis? Good grief “talk only when necessary.” It’s ALWAYS necessary! Good luck with all that!

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  12. I’ve got nothing for you, except I feel for you! The vocal rigors of teaching are challanging enough. Then, outside school, how difficult to practice the doctor’s litany for verbal hygiene.

    Does this mean you will take a vow of semi-silence and down daily 4 cups of lemon tea? Maybe that works for opera divas and Elton John. Sounds difficult for a teacher, parent, natural born talker.

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  13. What God is telling you is this: Speak in French. Or if you can’t do that – adopt a faux French accent, scattered lots of alluring “how you say”s into your sentences. Husky voices were made to speak French.

    Failing that – sometimes whispering rather than shouting gets attention.

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  14. If I couldn’t make strange noises, I don’t know what I would do.

    The amp systems are great; all of our classrooms have them. I don’t have a voice that projects at all, so it really helps. Coincidentally, I am in the midst of having no voice right now, going on about five days. Just ordered a mega-humidifier for our house, hoping that will help.

    If it’s any consolation, you can’t lose your writing voice, and yours is a damn good one. Maybe you’ll just have to write more. That would be good for all of us.

    Take care, Renee.

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    • Chase: I am responding two years later because I just saw this super kind comment. I have a feeling that it is time for me to work on the writing voice. My vocal chords are toasted. For real. It’s ridiculous. Is that what you have been doing? Working on something big because your posts have been pretty intermittent. I just have a feeling you are busy with the brood, but I’d like to know that you are working on something because you have one helluva writing voice, my friend. And I miss you.

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