For more than a month now, I have sounded like Elmo from Sesame Street. Sometimes, instead, I sound like a twelve year old boy whose voice is changing. I’ve always felt like there was a hand around my throat, but I’ve never sounded like it before. It’s like there’s a damper pedal muting at least half of my vocal chords and I have no way of making it let up. I can hit a handful of notes in the upper part of my range, and sometimes a low note will drop in and then disappear again. That’s it.
I did have a cold three months ago, for about a week. And my voice was hoarse, which meant that my voice was actually lower than usual and it was the upper notes that were muted. But when the cold resolved my voice went back to normal. I assumed that this current vocal constriction was a sign of a cold coming on again, but the cold never showed up.
So I went to my primary care doctor. She stuck a tongue depressor in my mouth and said that my throat “could be” red. She wrote out a prescription for antibiotics, and a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist, to use only if the antibiotics made no difference. I hate antibiotics, they wipe me out and never seem to actually kill off any of the bad stuff, only the good stuff. And they didn’t do anything for me this time either.
I went to the ENT next, and the first thing he did was to spray something evil into my nose, to numb my throat. It tasted bitter, and the spraying device was sharp, and when I responded like a normal human by pulling away, the doctor said I was going to hurt myself, as if I were the one holding the metal skewer and he had nothing to do with it.
After the spray started to numb my throat, he took a garden-hose-like device (only a slight exaggeration) and started to feed it into my right nostril, telling me to sniff, swallow, and sing at different points, until I was afraid I would swallow the garden hose entirely. And then he did the same thing down my left nostril.
Once he was done he said that that my sinuses were “pristine,” and there were no nodules, or polyps, or cancer, and there wasn’t even mucus on my vocal chords. He said that my nervous system was messing with me.
When we got home, Mom googled and found out that vocal constriction is yet another weird symptom that’s been associated with MS – Multiple Sclerosis – which all of the tests say I do not have. If I go back to the neurologist with this new symptom, he’ll just tell me it’s Fibromyalgia, or a psychogenic disorder, and he’ll ask me if something is going on in my life that I’m converting into a physical symptom. And I will have to kill him. So I’m not calling.
The dogs don’t seem to have noticed the change in my voice, which bothers me. I’ve always thought that the girls found my voice soothing, but when I talk to them in my cartoon character screech, I get the same reactions as before.
My vocal weirdness hasn’t kept me quiet. I still speak up at Friday Night discussions at synagogue and talk to neighbors and friends. But I am nervous about meeting new people with this voice, and having them think that this is who I really am. People who already know me can ignore it, but new people will use my voice as one of the ways to get to know me, and they will make assumptions and get impressions of me that can’t be right.
What would happen if Butterfly, whose voice is very low and resonant, suddenly shrieked in a high soprano? Would it change who I think she is? Or even change how she thinks of herself? Her rumbling bass represents something essential about her personality, just like Cricket’s high trill gives you a clue to her emotional life. Who would Cricket even be without her shriek?
No one has actually commented on my voice. Sometimes I’ll mention it, but mostly I let it speak for itself, and no one asks what’s wrong. Either people are very polite, or they assume I have laryngitis.
Almost everything I say in my high pitched voice sounds funnier than usual, and I don’t mind that. I like that I can make Mom laugh without even trying. But when I’m trying to talk about something serious, or just ask if the dogs have gone out for a walk, I still sound like I’m trying to be funny and it’s hard even for me to take myself seriously.
Sometimes during the day now, my voice is closer to normal. And last night at Friday night services, I was able to sing most of the regular notes – though I did have to shift octaves a few too many times. But, inevitably, by the end of the night, my voice was up in Elmo territory again, and the older people have trouble hearing anything pitched that high, so I had to repeat myself a lot.
Losing my voice, no matter how temporary the loss may be, seems symbolic, and ominous. I keep accumulating these odd, non-specific, undiagnosable symptoms that make doctors shrug and treat me like I have no voice at all. Luckily, the dogs understand me even when I can’t talk. They always think I have something important to say, whether it’s about chicken treats, or walks, or naps, or how much I love them.
The doctor said that my voice would probably go back to normal on its own, but he prescribed speech therapy just in case it doesn’t. And Cricket is chomping at the bit to be my vocal coach. We’ll start with growling exercises, to warm up my low notes, and then move into barking, to build vocal strength, and then, maybe someday, I’ll be to the full up and down, loop to loop, of arguing for a piece of chicken that is not yet mine. Though, and I think Cricket would agree with me, that would be quite advanced.