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.
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