Vocal Cords With Character

Emily Mullin describes how developing a voice disorder altered her sense of self:

A few months after the onset of my strange symptoms, I was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that causes muscle spasms in the vocal cords and affects one to four people in 100,000, according to the National Institutes of Health. The result is choppy, unstable speech quality. I was told there was no cure but treatment was available in the form of voice therapy and shots of botulinum toxin, or Botox, directly into the vocal cords. But even with treatment, my doctor told me that my voice would never be the same again. I had lost my voice.

Like other physical characteristics such as height, weight, and hair color, our voices help identify us.

The sound of our voice influences how other people perceive us—possibly even more than the words we actually say. “Our voice is our ambassador to the rest of the world,” says Dr. Norman Hogikyan, director of the University of Michigan Health System Vocal Health Center. “Often a first impression is based upon a person’s voice.” For people with voice disorders, a part of our identity is stripped away. Our weak voices can be unfairly associated with emotional sensitivity, a lack of confidence, lower intelligence, and sometimes, physical illness.

Meanwhile, Adam Clark Estes discusses how becoming partially deaf affected his relationships with others:

I got pretty good at reading lips. I got great at nodding and smiling. I found myself always retreating into music, because good ear buds would pump sound waves straight past my broken ear drums, past those tiny bones, and straight to my brain by way of the auditory nerve which, luckily, managed to remain intact despite the infections. Bass felt good, because I could feel it.

My reality was a quiet one, peaceful even. The busy streets of Brooklyn never bothered me at night because I simply couldn’t hear the car horns or the garbage trucks. It was easy to stay cool in tense conversations, because it simply didn’t register when people raised their voices. Maybe I did become a little brusque over time. But I was luckier than many people with hearing loss. My right ear was in better shape than my left, and I leaned on it like a crutch. When walking down the sidewalk, I made it a habit to keep people on my right side. I figured out how to get by, but I was constantly thinking about my hearing loss, as I tried to piece together conversations from muffled voices.