What’s it like to lose your voice?
Or to speak, but the words don’t come out right, your voice sounds weird, it sounds like someone else?
What’s it like to be silenced?
When Silence is Necessary
A few years ago my son and I were in a Christmas production, a story of a family all stressed out, all at each other’s throats, forgetting the true meaning of Christmas. A familiar story. We only had a few months to prepare for the two evening performances, so we had a few tiny copies of key parts taped where we could catch a glimpse, here and there, hidden on the prop door frame and the little golf cart we used as our family car. A silly inside joke, a little insurance we’d get our lines straight when the time came. Our stage “family” was bonding, and we were so excited to perform.
But on performance day I awoke with a scratchy throat. Okay, no problem, I’ll just sip tea, suck on cough drops, and muddle through. It wasn’t too bad. And as a busy mom, I had places to go, classes to teach! Sure my throat hurt a little, but “It’ll be fine,” I told myself.
Feeling pretty confident, I stepped up on stage and uttered my first line. Oh, no.
It wasn’t that I was silent. No, my voice came out all right, distorted into a raspy, throaty croak, and croak I did, all through the show.
My castmates looked concerned. A couple of times, they asked me if I was okay. No one knew what to do, really. We didn’t have anyone to take my place, and well, the show must go on, as they say.
Near the end of the play, I was supposed to sing, “Silent Night.” As a solo. Oh, great. I walked out, picked up the microphone, and “Silent night, holy night…” Whoa, the croak was gone – hey, my voice sounds good! Maybe my voice was saved; maybe I could sound normal, not like some sickly frog when I spoke my next lines.
Nope. Out they croaked.
After the show, the director and my cast mates swore me to silence till the following night’s performance. So I obeyed; I hid all day in my room, sipping hot tea with honey and lemon, popping zinc lozenges, and speaking to no one.
Keeping silent was hard but necessary. If I pretended all was well and refused to silence myself, I could lose my voice. Plus, I’d let my castmates down. The show was better the following night because I chose silence.
Choosing silence can be a good thing. Especially when speaking just makes things worse.
I’ll Bet You Can Relate
* Trigger warning: The following section is about giving an oral report in front of a class *
On the flip side, here’s a scene I think most of us can relate to. The dreaded Oral Report in front of the class. You’re in high school, in Ancient History class, the class you kept snoozing and jolting back awake in. Why is history class always after lunch? Why is it so boring?
On this day, you’re trying to breathe, thinking about what to say, how to say it. I’m not ready for this! I wish I could run away, maybe pretend I’m sick *cough *cough…
Then the teacher calls your name. You grab your notebook and open it on the little podium. The words are a blur. You look around, and everybody’s looking back, waiting. Your mind’s blank. You’re silent.
Silent, trying to find words, all cotton-mouthed because today’s the day the oral report was due, and you left your notecards at home.
Oh, and those notecards? Scrawled hastily overnight last night because last night, around dinner time, Mom casually mentioned, “Hey, don’t you have a history report due tomorrow? How’s that going?” Icy panic ripped through your belly. Oh NO! I thought it wasn’t due until next week!
Somehow you get through it. Somehow you either get an extension or muddle through. Oh, but if only you’d remembered! If only you put in the work a little at a time, all those helpful history bits would be there on the tip of your tongue when you needed them.
You’d have your voice, and could speak with knowledge and confidence.
Do you ever think, “If only…”?
If so, you’re not alone
Silence is Golden. Until it’s not.
What is silence? Let’s have a look, shall we?
- complete absence of sound:
- “sirens pierce the silence of the night”
- prohibit or prevent from speaking:
- “she was silenced by the officer’s stern look”
Silence as a noun is pretty obvious. It’s not a thing you can taste or touch, though it’s often palpable. It’s the absence of sound. And sure, there are plenty of instances where the best thing to say is nothing. To listen and not interrupt, to show through our faces and stance we really care.
Silence can indicate a variety of emotions, from contempt to genuine concern to abject terror.
To choose silence is often wise.
To be silenced is an altogether different thing.
Fear Chokes Us
What silences us? Under it all, beyond oral reports and the voices in our head telling us it’s better to shut up than to speak and put your foot in your mouth? What makes us stand back and watch instead of intervening when a loudmouth pushes people around?
Why don’t we say something?
The answer under all the scenarios we can imagine is fear. Ultimately, it’s the fear of death.
We’re afraid of what might happen if we speak, so we don’t. What will they think of me? What if I lose my job, my friends, my reputation? What if my speaking turns the bullying onto me? What if, what if, what if…?
So we let fear have the last word. We’re paralyzed by it, or it makes us lash out. It makes us cower. It steals life and joy from us. It keeps us from acting, doing something, and overcoming the problem.
We feel it pour in, and any coherent thought pours out. We’re trapped, and we don’t know how to get free. And that feeling is legitimate because our body automatically reacts, whether we like it or not.
“To choose silence is often wise. To be silenced is an altogether different thing.“
The Science Behind Fear
What happens to us when fear pours in? Let’s see how our bodies respond.
- The Brain: It all starts here: The amygdala, tucked deep within our temporal lobes, hijacks conscious thought, and we go into flight, fight, freeze, or fawn mode.
- We start sweating, the kind of sweat that smells different, the kind of sweat no antiperspirant can handle. The very smell of it piques our alertness.
- We breathe faster, our hearts beat faster, and the blood shunted from our brains goes into our muscles. We’re ready to fight.
- Adrenaline surges in, and cortisol levels spike.
- We become hyper-alert.
Not all of this is bad. In fact, that last point about becoming hyper-alert? That’s a good thing. The problem comes when we don’t have clear, conscious thought.
Our logical, rational mind is overtaken by fear, and we can’t think straight. It’s just what happens. And there’s no stopping it. However, we can learn to take charge of our minds again, with training and practice.
In our Women’s Self-Defense class, after we’ve received a number of useful techniques, we do an admittedly unpleasant activity called a pressure test. Done in a safe and secure situation, this testing is very effective.
We’re dropped into a situation where we feel fear. We learn how to calm our minds in the midst of this fear, and begin to strategize.
What’s happening right now? How can I best handle what’s coming at me? What should I say in this situation?
During these pressure tests, our fellow students encourage us, and our instructor is right there to give us the help we need. Because no one is good at this at first.
We Train Out the Automatic to Take Back Our Voice
Calmly handling a scary situation flies against all our innate responses to fear. Naturally, we wouldn’t know what to say or how to say it. We’d just be standing there staring into the headlights like the proverbial deer. We’d lash out or beg for our lives or some other useless automatic response.
The goal of training, why we walk into self-defense class to learn hard things that don’t come naturally to us, is we want to take our minds and our voices back.
We refuse to let fear have the final say. We’re going to speak what needs to be said, in the appropriate voice, and with the right words. We’re going to defend what’s ours and the people and places in our sphere.
We can’t even protect ourselves, let alone anyone else, if the situation creates a fear we can’t overcome. So we choose to do the hard work. We choose to walk into self-defense class again and again, and again.
We submit to all the training that comes our way, learning what we wouldn’t know otherwise. In the process, we find our voice. And when faced with fear, we speak into the situation. We take charge with our voices as vital tools.
Yes, it’s hard. It’s difficult to find the time to do this. We are all busy, we all have lives, we all have reasons, (and sometimes excuses) keeping us from learning what we need to learn to not only survive but thrive in this crazy world.
We must choose the most important things. Our family is counting on us to speak up. Our friends depend on us to speak up. Our lives could depend on speaking the right word at the right time.
Stay tuned: next week, in part 2, we’re going to explore the first step: learning how to growl. You’re gonna love it.
We’re here to help you find your voice. You’re always welcome.