The Year I Couldn’t Speak at All

First I lost my job, then I lost my confidence, then I lost my voice

iStock / VectorPocket
iStock / VectorPocket

On March 13, 2009, I lost my voice. The night before, I’d been at a birthday dinner my best friend had thrown for me and someone had pulled out a guitar and I had sung along like Geddy Lee channelling Janis Joplin on drugs. At one point, I had screeched out an obnoxious high note and had felt a sudden glitch in my throat, like a car being forced from fifth gear into second at high speed. By the time the music stopped, my voice felt weak, like my vocal driveshaft was failing. Given my background as a screenwriter, I refer to this experience as “the inciting incident.”

The next morning, I woke up feeling fine, if slightly hungover. But when I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. I whispered my way through the next few days, waiting for my voice to return. But it didn’t. For almost a year.

Almost everything about losing my voice was ironic. I’m a comedy writer, and my voice loss coincided with the virtual dissolution of my writing career and, with it, my sense of humour. The story actually begins with a humour piece I wrote for The Walrus in December 2007, which led to me being courted by two international literary agents, one from New York City and one from London (UK!). Both encouraged me to write a funny book that they would help sell.

The timing seemed positively karmic, as I had recently suffered a career-slash-nervous breakdown as a result of being trapped in a codependent work relationship with a TV writer/producer I had allowed to run my life for over two years. The promise of one day maybe becoming head writer on the show we were developing had lured me. She had no boundaries when it came work, calling me at all hours of the day, including weekends, to discuss scripts or her latest brainstorm. As a conflict-averse WASP (tautology noted), I had no idea how to stand up to her or for myself. One day, I worked sixteen hours straight while sick to get a draft to her on a Saturday night. The next morning, for the first time in two years, I ignored her call. A few minutes later, I remember listening an angry voice message about how “disappointed” she was, and how I appeared to be losing my “mojo.”

Instead of calling her back to express my anger, I spent most of the morning sobbing in my friend’s bathroom. By the time I got home, I was seething with rage. I decided to quit and did so by sending the most imprudent email of my life, written not to my bullying collaborator—I was too afraid of her reaction—but to the show’s producer. I explained how the working relationship had exhausted me creatively, physically, and emotionally. After I sent the email, I told everyone I was putting my TV-writing career on ice—although, to be honest, it got flushed down the toilet the moment I pressed “send.” I couldn’t have cared less. I felt hugely relieved. From now on, my career would be based on my ideas, my stories, my voice.

I opted to sign with the UK literary agent because his accent on the phone reminded me of Hugh Grant and seduced me as much as his credentials, which included a recent $400,000 advance for one of his memoirists. I even had a book idea—The Joy of Failure, a funny memoir about my passionate and conspicuous relationship with failure, from childhood to present: I have been kicked out of ballet class at age three and fired by five jobs, two singing teachers, and one acting teacher; I have had one failed marriage, and I have failed to reproduce or be a homeowner. Add to that my failures as a FIMO-jewellery maker and cloth-diaper-store clerk. The book would kill. I promised to deliver a proposal within weeks.

Months passed. I set new deadlines with my agent and eventually sent him what I called a “partial rough draft of a proposal.” He sent back what felt like an autopsy report, eviscerating what I’d written. Worse—I knew he was right. There was one semipositive note: “Tonally,” he wrote, “it reads more like a stand-up comedy routine than a book proposal.” At least he found it funny, right?

Failing to write a book proposal about failure was so painfully obvious that it offered no comic relief. My self-esteem was lower than my income. Around the same time, the global financial crisis of 2008 decimated the magazine-and-newspaper industry, which was already on life support because of the internet. Every freelance writer I knew was scrambling as opportunities and remuneration plummeted. So much for Plan B. The glib voice of cheek in my botched book proposal had failed me. All the jokes about my WASPy upbringing and self-sabotaging tendencies—including “I have a black belt in beating myself up”—came back to burn me like acid reflux. All my jokes were on me.

By the time my family doctor got me an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, I’d been unable to speak for six weeks. The specialist’s name was Brian Hands—Canada’s voice doctor to the stars: members of the Canadian Opera Company, Stratford Festival actors, Mirvish Productions staff, artists with major record labels, and more.

Hands asked why I was there. I told him about “the inciting incident” and how my online research led me to believe I had nodes. He slid a laryngoscope, a thin plastic tube with a tiny camera at the end, down my throat and asked me to try talking. I gagged and threw up. On Hands’s hands. Remarkably unfazed, Hands removed the laryngoscope and led me, a sobbing mess of vomit and humiliation, to the sink to clean myself up. He handed me a box of tissues.

“The good news,” I remember him saying, “is you don’t have nodes. In fact, there’s no damage to your vocal cords.” He invited me to take a seat and fixed his gaze on me. “So. What’s going on in your life?” Hands listened patiently as I told him about my book, my disillusionment with writing, the apparent loss of my career, and how difficult it had all been. I would have liked to go on, but he deftly cut in.

“Look,” he said, “it makes sense to me that you lost your voice. Do you do yoga?”

I nodded, secretly worried he was about to recommend difficult poses.

“So you know about the chakras?”

I nodded, even though that was an overstatement.

He said the chakra related to the vocal apparatus represents self-expression, which is very important to a writer. He explained that below it is the heart chakra, the centre of love, which is close to the diaphragm, which plays an essential role in voice production.

I don’t know what was more surprising, the fact that a medical doctor was talking to me about chakras or the enormous sense of relief I felt already. I remember Hands showing me a laryngoscope photo of what appeared to be two short pieces of linguine lined up beside each other.

“This is what healthy voice production looks like,” he explained. “See how the vocal cords come together like that? That’s what needs to happen in order to produce sound.” He walked over to his laryngoscope and produced an image from my own photo shoot that looked noticeably different. My vocal cords formed more of a V shape rather than two parallel lines.

“What you have is called muscle tension dysphonia,” he said, pointing to the V. He explained that the muscle tension in my throat was preventing my vocal cords from coming together to produce sound.

Hands’s theory was that the vocal glitch I experienced singing at my birthday party was a minor injury that triggered my voice loss. Whereas healthy vocal cords can recover quickly from such an event, mine couldn’t because all the emotional anxiety regarding my life and career had created a state of extreme muscle tension in my throat. The inciting incident would probably never have happened if the muscles in my throat weren’t already so tense; once they were injured, my voice couldn’t recover because of the same tension that helped cause the injury in the first place. Classic vicious circle.

“Stop beating yourself up,” said Hands. “Nobody’s job or career is perfect. You think I want to come in here and do this every day?” he smirked. “Use your voice!” he said. “Whispering is the worst thing you can do. Do you like singing?”

“Yes, but—”

“Great. Sing “Happy Birthday.” Right now.”

I looked at him like he’d asked me to defenestrate myself.

“Happy birthday to you,” he sang, coaxing me to join in.

“Happy birthday to you,” I sang, producing almost a normal level of volume. I was shocked.

“Great. Now I want you to get in your car and sing all the way home. Sing as much as you can.”

“I can’t believe I can sing but not speak,” I whispered, confused.

“Just be nice to yourself,” he said. “In the end, this is all about love.”

Before I saw Hands, I had been struggling for over a month to make myself audible enough to explain to people that I had no idea what was going on. Finally, I felt understood. My condition even had a name, muscle tension dysphonia (MTD). I got in my car and started to sing. To my amazement, I sounded almost as good as ever. How was this even possible? It felt miraculous. I actually sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” tears flowing from my eyes like party streamers.

It’s still hard for me to believe I could sing but not speak. But the phenomenon is not uncommon. Singing activates parts of the brain related to cognitive, emotional, and physical functions and abilities. It’s an established rehabilitation technique for stroke patients and an effective therapy for people with dementia. A 2017 article on MTD in the Journal of Voice referenced a study that described how one patient with mutism—a woman who could not even whisper—could still sing.

With no known cause, MTD could be considered the fibromyalgia of the ENT world. It’s a “functional disorder”—something is clearly wrong, but there is no consensus on why it’s happening or how to treat it. Women are more likely than men to experience vocal problems, including MTD. A review published in 2011 by the US National Library of Medicine cites a variety of causes for the gender discrepancy, including anatomical differences in our laryngeal systems, hormones, and a variety of emotional, social, and/or behavioural characteristics. “The voice,” the study concludes, “with its close proximity and connections to the major lifelines of the body, seems to be susceptible to many physiological systems and functions which on first glance would appear unrelated to the voice.” In other words, it’s complicated.

My initial elation over reclaiming my singing voice didn’t last. My speaking voice had become a strange, volatile entity that I couldn’t trust. Some days, I’d wake up and feel like it might be coming back, but within a few hours, I’d be whispering again. Many days, my voice never showed up at all. Communication with the outside world was often limited to email, because I couldn’t make a phone call, let alone place my order in a loud café or restaurant. When I tried to whisper “Anne” to a barista at Starbucks, they assumed I had something stuck in my throat. One day, I broke down and sobbed after our internet stopped working and I couldn’t make myself audible to a technician.

Four months after the inciting incident, I began to fear I would never speak normally again. I had no cure, only a diagnosis. Yes, I could always sing, but unless the world around me morphed into a Broadway musical, I was shit out of luck. What I had assumed was a temporary suspension of vocal freedom now felt like a potential life sentence.

My voice has always been a blessing and a curse. When I was a child, I had a high speaking voice that my elementary-school teacher detested. In retrospect, I think it was me she hated. She would roll her eyes whenever I put up my hand, as if to say, Not you again. I kept trying to make her like me. But the more I tried to impress her, the more I spoke. And the more I spoke, the more insufferable she seemed to find me. By the end of the school year, the teacher’s public ridicule of my “squeaky little voice” had planted the seeds of self-loathing deep in my throat.

She wasn’t the first one. My parents’ common refrain to me as a child was, “Oh, Anne, you need so much attention!” Because, as we all know, children don’t need attention. Gradually, my desire to be noticed was accompanied by conflicting shame and anxiety for wanting it. As a teenager, I remember that my father frequently suggested I “lower” my speaking voice—“your mother has a lovely, low register to her voice,” he would say, adding, “people will also take you more seriously.” It occurs to me now that father’s attraction to my mother’s voice may explain why she smoked for thirty-five years. After quitting, her smoker’s voice got higher and started to sound more like mine.

There is no shortage of strong opinions about the female voice. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion about young women’s “vocal fry” (the glottal growl at the back of the throat as exhibited by Kim Kardashian). In 2015, feminist icon Naomi Wolf wrote an article in the Guardian titled, “Young Women, Give Up the Vocal Fry and Reclaim Your Strong Female Voice” in which she asserted that the lives of many young twentysomething women were being “hobbled” by vocal fry. Wolf’s article cites a 2014 Time piece written by Maya Rhodan about young American women’s vocal fry and how “their creaky speech may be hurting their future job prospects.” Rhodan describes a study, funded in part by Duke University, that found “women who exhibit vocal fry are perceived as less competent and less hireable (not to mention less educated and less trustworthy) than those who do not.” Rhodan adds that “this laconic tone can sound just plain annoying to many people.” For her part, Wolf tells the story of a young female “star” in a male-dominated field who sounded “far younger than her years.” Wolf explains that the woman “took voice training, and her career soared.”

Wolf’s findings make me want to scream. Her quest—to help women become more assertive, confident, and successful—appears high minded but feels utterly patronizing to me. Why are we trying to make women more appealing to patriarchal culture? Why stop there? Why not suggest women wear high heels, get boob jobs, or permanently shut up? As Michelle Wolf—a comedian whose high-pitched, piercing tone is the butt of her own jokes—says, “You don’t get to choose your voice!” How is any of this helping with the real issue—that women’s voices are still marginalized and often not welcome in our culture? Countless brilliant, worthy, and successful women out there who speak with vocal fry, up talk, and other “annoying” traits are proving they’re worth listening to. Instead of trying to make female voices sound “normal,” shouldn’t we be trying to make more female voices the norm?

About nine months after the inciting incident, I realized I hadn’t contemplated “my book” or had an inspired comedic thought in months. All I could think about was my voice, or lack thereof. The worse I felt about it, the worse it got, creating more feelings of isolation and despair. I became addicted to evening TV and avoided bars, restaurants, anywhere I couldn’t make myself heard, which, in Toronto, felt like pretty much everywhere.

I started to fantasize about death and had trouble sleeping. I felt like I was being slowly buried alive. One night, after lying awake in bed for hours, I gave up trying to sleep and went into my office shortly before dawn. I began blubbering my way through a box of tissues while writing about my pathetic feelings of impotence and despair. The Diary of Anne Phlegm. I might have made it through the whole box but was distracted by the sound of a bird singing outside my window. This was one aggressive bird, reciting the same notes over and over, loud enough to wake the whole neighbourhood. Who the hell did he think he was?

I opened my blind and glared at him. I was jealous of a robin.

Shortly after, I started seeing a psychiatrist. Her services were covered by OHIP and a safe place to express myself, even if she couldn’t hear me. She sat about four metres away from me in a noisy room facing one of Toronto’s busiest streets and rarely said a thing. I started to suspect she might be a sadist. One of the only pieces of advice she ever offered was “maybe you need to grow thicker skin?” But one day, after I recounted yet another party at which I locked myself in the bathroom and cried because I was unable to make myself audible, she suggested I try antidepressants. She recommended duloxetine because it worked as well for anxiety as for depression and didn’t interfere with sexual function, one of the few interpersonal pleasures I could still enjoy.

Perhaps too quickly to be anything but the placebo effect, my spirits lifted. I sighed less and breathed more deeply. I made a new rule: I was not allowed to entertain a negative thought about myself longer than it took to recognize it, at which point, I would immediately replace it with the word cloud. I would then visualize a small white cloud in the middle a calm blue sky—a virtual time out for my psyche. I experienced considerable relief as a result of this new habit, which I later learned was my own improvised version of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Why had it taken me so long to understand the destructive effects of my negative thinking? It was almost comical to observe how quickly being kind to myself resulted in a stronger, healthier speaking voice and more creative energy. I do know this: my inability, or unwillingness, to speak up for myself and demand the respect I needed in my working relationship with the TV writer damaged my vocal cords. Once my other career trajectories failed, I had nothing to fall back on and no resilience. My only defence mechanism was self-sabotage, which exacerbated my feelings of anxiety. In a sense, I lost my voice because I lost my voice.

Anne Fenn
Anne Fenn's comedy writing experience includes TV, film, radio, print journalism and stage. She lives in Toronto.