Someone I’ve known for just shy of twenty years said something to me back in September, and I’ve been ruminating over it as I approach my fortieth birthday. We were talking about our inner voice. You know, about what we say to our selves in the quiet of our hearts; the things we think, but keep to ourselves – that internal existential screaming (I know I’m not the only one). I’ve always had a contentious relationship with this person for various reasons, but we’re older now. Time has passed and there are children, and far bigger things than just us. She said she hadn’t changed much at all – that she still just blurts what comes out of her mouth without too much thought.
‘I have no inner voice,’ she laughed. ‘You never had one, but you’ve changed,’ she said. ‘You’re not like you were at all.’
‘I should hope not,’ I replied, smiling as I bounced her beautifully chubby baby in my lap.
I laughed it off with some friends later, although a couple of them were a little affronted on my behalf. Being offended was the last thing I felt. For me, it was like the linchpin of this year, because it anchored and grounded me in both spirit and purpose. I’m really fucking relieved I’m not the same person I was eighteen years ago, although …
From the outside, I’m so far removed from ‘who’ I was, or what I embodied. Certainly, I’m not as loud or as shut the fuck up ready to roll at any given moment, as is evidenced by the photos above. I was never one to take no for an answer, I would introspect and rage in equal measure, I’d rarely walk away from a situation without a fight, and if someone said I couldn’t do something, I damn well did it. It was never about ‘winning’ – it was about being heard. I learned from a very young age that growing up with a terminal illness like Cystic Fibrosis, I was either going to sink or swim.
I’m talking about what us old skool CFer’s call the ‘good old days’, when we had no mother to keep us safe at night in hospital when things like IV’s and naso-gastric tubes failed. Where any old doctor could waltz in in the middle of the night and have you held down with excessive force as they tried to access a vein. It was brutal. Parents couldn’t just decide to stay the night beside their child because it was never an option. It’s only very recently made sense that my first visual memories are of steel bars, as if looking through a jail cell. That’s how hospital cots were designed, but that’s a story for another time. So sink or swim, I found my voice very early and was quite the ham (conservative statement).
You see, the voice I was born with – my literal voice – was a gift, a weapon and my currency. It was how I steered myself in the world and was often my greatest ally. It was always with me. It didn’t matter where I was – I could use it, and use it I did. I could sing delicately and brutally, create incredible sounds and boom over all and sundry. I had twenty-one years with that voice, and when I woke up after my transplant, it was laying paralysed across my larynx in a state of eternal dysphonia.
I’d lost my gift, my weapon, my currency, and what I believed was my essence. Who was this squeaky woman so afraid to speak in case the wrong noise slipped out? Over the years I’ve buttressed myself against the world without it, and while I could say it’s taken me time to realise that my fractured voice was just a metaphor for life, that seems so trite and platitudinous, because we are all so much bigger than that.
I still sing every day. Some days I squeak like a pre-pubescent boy, and some days I can belt out a sound akin to a finalist on The Voice for very brief periods of time. I’ve learned to embrace the mystery, because singing with one vocal cord can be tricky.
Every year, my best friend and I go and see Deva Premal, Miten and Manose, where we sing, chant, laugh, cry, hold hands with people we don’t know, and connect. In February, I joined Deva Premal and a room full of strangers on a three day chanting retreat – all of whom I ended up praying with, hugging, eating with, and singing to. I re-engaged with my voice and felt connected to something tangible from what actually is a lifetime ago. On the first afternoon, my mind was filled with picture perfect captures of my pre-transplant life. It was like a Vipassana of my voice, where every moment played on a loop in my head.
I remembered competing and winning eisteddfods for primary school choir and vocal group, winning drama prizes in high school, and when I sang in the school musicals. The fun I had, the friends I made and still have, and the music director of one of Brisbane’s best GPS boys’ schools stopping me mid-song to ask if I’d sing in his jazz band. His well known jazz band, at that. I wish I could have, but in senior year, I was in survival mode with study and sickness and death.
I thought about when I was offered a coveted place in the acting strand straight after my audition for my drama degree, but was in full possession of the knowledge that my health was declining and was never going to get better. The acting strand was voice and movement oriented, and the physicality it would have demanded in such a small collective of students meant that I would have needed to not be sick. I didn’t want to let anyone down, so I politely declined and instead enrolled in the ‘open’ strand with most of the other drama students. I declined not because I couldn’t do it, but because I made a conscious choice not to start something I couldn’t finish. Did I ever resent my illness? Did I ever look at that elite group of actors and think ‘that could have been me?’ Of course I did, but I’ve never had a case of terminal pissed-off ness. I focused on what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t. In some strange, yet pernicious way, I turned my attention to more academic pursuits and did very well.
So while I meditated and seemingly went back in time on the first day of the retreat, I felt a towering shift where I was able to finally let go of my voice. I cried, my body moving like a metronome, ticking from side to side, and for the next two days, I was immersed in a space of love, support and devotion (and vegan food – nothing’s perfect, after all).
Was this a broken piece of me on it’s way to healing? It was not. As I’ve already alluded to, by the time my left vocal cord was paralysed, my life as I had known it was already over, and another that had been waiting for me was busy being born. A person is not and cannot ever be the same when they’ve experienced something as profound as a transplant. It’s like a one-sided exchange and a permanent declaration of gratitude. A debt you can never repay, except in compassionate actions, kindness and love.
Was losing my voice a blessing? Oh, yes. But more than anything, it was a powerful lesson in economy and expansion. Economy of words, sound, emotion, and so many other things. Expansion in compassion, empathy, love, self-awareness, and purpose.
Most of my fellow chanters said they’d be back next year, but I knew that I wouldn’t be. I walked into that hall with no expectations, but left with what I needed and more. Three days of memory tripping, chanting and emerging into the quiet heart of my mind, and I was full. This year has been one hell of a lesson – an awakening, if you will.
I perhaps Some people have called it a fucked year, but with what I’ve learned about myself and other humans – the good and not so good – I wouldn’t swap that for anything. Three years drug-free, one year off opiate-antagonist therapy, and I am FLYING.