The sound of your own voice. Speaking. You probably never even give it any thought. I know I didn’t. It is just something most of us have done naturally since we were little. It is effortless and easy…until it’s not anymore. Then, it becomes a whole different world.
Recently, a virtual friend, who has speech issues due to a stroke, posted a video on Facebook of himself speaking. This may seem like no big deal to most people, but having my own speech challenges resulting from a brain injury occurring five years ago, I was in awe at the bravery and courage which I knew that it must have taken him to do this.
In the brain, speaking is a complex process involving many parts working in cooperation and communicating efficiently. An interruption in any part of this process can result in communication challenges.
Roger Ebert, the well known movie critic who lost the ability to speak, eat and drink as the result of surgeries for salivary cancer, summed it up well when he said through Alex, his virtual, Macintosh voice that translates written words into speech, in a TED Talk: Remaking My Voice :“For most of my life I never gave a second thought to my ability to speak. It was like breathing. In those days, I was living in a fool’s paradise.”
He also expressed how the act of speaking or not speaking is tied so indelibly to one’s identity. Think about it. Your voice is a very integral part of who you are just like your height or hair color. A commanding, baritone voice yields a very different impression than a high pitched, whiny voice as does very fast speech and very slow, slurred, hesitating speech. Even if subconscious, different perceptions are formed in the person speaking as well as the person hearing the speech. “What value do we place on the sound of our own voice? How does that effect who you are as a person?” Roger Ebert asks. He points out that not being able to speak creates a distance, a disconnect between him and others and a separation from the human main stream. He also points out that people have little patience for his speaking difficulties. I would agree with both.
Right after my brain injury, my speech was very slurred, slow, flat without any natural rhythm or inflection. It was an effort to speak physically as well as mentally. It required conscious effort to put thoughts into speech. It was laborious, frustrating and mentally exhausting to talk. “How could something that had been so effortless…so easy…before be so damn hard now?” I often thought. The voice that I heard in my head sounded nothing like the voice that came out of my mouth. For a while, when I spoke I was continually surprised at the sound of it.
I got the puzzled looks and “Whaaat?” from people a lot. People would often finish my sentences or act like they had understood me when it would become apparent that they had not. I found this very insulting and began telling people “If you don’t understand me, just ask me to repeat myself. It won’t hurt my feelings.” I figured it was better to deal with the issue up front and put it right there on the table in an effort to make the other person and myself more comfortable.
Through neurofeedback, Brainwave Optimization, and voice therapy my speech has greatly improved, but I don’t think I will be posting any videos anytime soon. While my speech is still not completely normal, it has come a long way from where it was. For that, I am very grateful. Now, I am so used to it and comfortable with it that it surprises me when people give me the “Whaaat?” I speak understandably, for the most part, but my speech definitely gets worse as the day goes on and gets noticeably worse when I am tired. People hearing me for the first time soon realize that they have to pay attention to understand me. Not a bad thing in my book.