Muscle Tension Dysphonia is a bitch. It’s not an injury. And it’s not something that can be seen or removed with a laser. By my definition, it’s the body’s way of pulling on the reins of your life when you’re going in the wrong direction. My Speech-Language Pathologist or SLP was a little more scientific about it. He showed me how the neck muscles can play games with your vocal cords. They tug when they shouldn’t. Hard. And most often, that tugging shows up when emotions are running high. If I had gone to see him at the first sign of trouble, I might have worked through it, the physical part anyway, in six to twelve sessions. But in my case, the tension had firmly established itself over a handful of years. He warned that it might take a little longer to get back on track.
Was I in this situation because of the emotional rollercoaster of my childhood? Only time would tell. No matter the cause, I would finally decide to invest in something other than what the provincial health system had to offer. I would go all in and customize my care.
When you have mommy issues, eventually, you look for a therapist. In 2004 I found a therapist with kind and clever eyes. His name was *Shawn. I worked with him for a couple of years. Because money was an issue, I’d tried out a few other people, psychiatrists mainly because they were covered by the province. But, you get what you pay for. Zero dollars seemed to equal zero empathy. One doctor worked out of a building that looked like a bomb shelter. I sat on a hard chair at the back of the room. He spoke in a whisper and had basset hound eyes that gazed up at the ceiling and never quite at me. Another therapist had a beautiful husky dog asleep at her feet on a matching silk carpet. She made me lie on a couch with my back to her. I would crane my neck in an attempt to gauge her reaction to my story. It was so twisted.
When vocal issues crept into my life, I knew I had to return to Shawn. Once, I relayed to him the time when, at the Winnipeg Symphony, I discovered my mother crying at my dressing room door. She’d had a fight with her sister. I said that intermission was over and I had to go back on stage, “But what am I supposed to do?” she asked. I grabbed my score and rushed her down the hallway to security. I barely made it back on stage. Shawn’s eyebrows shot up. I realized at that moment how much time I had wasted working with the wrong people simply because they were free. How could I have thought that I would heal with that mindset? Wasn't I worth more than that? Shawn wouldn’t bat an eyelash when I’d stroll in and re-enact the latest Schitt’s Creek episode before diving into my real life. One time, we laughed so hard I slid right out of my chair. He later asked, “What if you let things get messy, and then, try not to clean it up?” Dressed head to toe in black I replied, “Look at me. I don’t do messy.”
At my very first appointment with the Speech Pathologist, he immediately recognized that I had been singing at a high level under a lot of emotional stress - like it was normal. This would launch a series of bi-weekly treatments over a period of three years.
Here’s what a treatment is like with my Speech-Language Pathologist. He tap-dances his fingers down the front of my neck to see where things at. He nudges my collarbone. His index finger and thumb tuck themselves in and around my larynx. The jaw is always the worst. He presses and then slowly wrenches it open. Owowowowow. It never mattered how skilled or gentle he was in each session, my jaw always held on to the past like a pitbull with a bone. I should have been scared. People die from being choked. But, my body never fought him. It never rolled over and played dead, either. My SLP always carried on without batting an eyelash. And each time, something cool happened. I let go. It’s as if my body said, “Ok, I’ll give you that one. Next.”
This was a period of my life where I felt completely out of control. In an attempt to put energy into something other than my problem, I took classes at The Second City. It felt like living in a frat house. One time, I had to hump a fish. I discovered the hard way that improv isn’t about being funny. It’s about being agreeable. It’s about being comfortable with change and having a theatre kid say, “Hey, I see you’re humping a fish,” and you immediately have to act like you’re turned on by a fish and say, “Yes, and…” I was fine telling a twenty-year-old what to do. But how could he possibly know what a forty-two-year-old female should do? I was in the wrong room. That experiment lasted a year.
But the most important thing was that I had finally built my vocal dream team. I was so grateful. I felt like I might actually be able to sing again. Holy shit.
*Shawn is a pseudonym, of course. :)
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