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June 23, 2003

Days Of Silence

Fairly recently my family and I had what may be considered a summer cold. (Technically we caught it in late spring, but you get the idea.) My 2-year-old daughter got a big of a cough and a runny nose, as kids will get. My wife seemed to get off fairly easy with only some extra phlegm that she had to contend with. Lucky me, I got the interesting end of things.

I had been producing extra phlegm much like my wife was, but that Saturday I woke up with a slightly husky voice. I didn't think much of it throughout most of the day, until late afternoon when it became quite apparent that my voice was quickly degrading. First I sounded slightly sexy (at least, I hoped so), then kind of hoarse, then outright gravelly. Late that evening I realized that no matter what I did, I was going to lose my voice whether I like it or not. To spare what little voice I had, I talked at only a whisper to try to let my malfunctioning vocal cords rest a bit. Sure enough, waking up on Sunday I had absolutely no voice above a whisper. Thus began my day of silence.

As interesting as losing one's voice can be, I can't say that I'd care to be silent like that again for a while. Had I spent the day at home, it would have been at least bearable, other than my wife constantly saying, "I can't hear you... oh, sorry." As it turns out, it was a fairly busy day, which made it that much more aggravating for me.

First on the list of aggravations was, oddly enough, being at home. If you have a 2-year-old around, you're generally always barking out warnings, singing, laughing, praising them, or simply talking with them. I could do none of that. As if being all but unable to communicate with my family wasn't enough, we headed to church where we met up with quite a few of our friends. Of course, my contributions to the ensuing conversations were rather limited, and I had to greet people with a wave, then point at and slash across at my throat to indicate that my voice was gone. Of course, that in and of itself starts a conversation thread, which my wife had to pick up.

After church I headed to Home Depot, thinking that I could simply pick up some materials I needed for a fence project with a minimum of contact. Hah - I made the grave mistake of confirming the materials I needed with one of the orange-aproned experts. I managed, between whispers and a quick note jotted on a scrap of paper, to ask him what I needed. Unfortunately, his advice and my expectations of what I'd need were very different, causing more confusion than I came in with. In the end, I left with no materials, and then had to explain to my wife (whispering, of course) what happened.

In a fit of uncommon business, we then headed off to the mall. My wife found a booth that was taking pictures, the main selling point being that they would digitally add one of a number of nice backgrounds to the picture, and angel wings to my daughter. How cute is that? Of course, this involved a dialogue about preferences that I was incapable of. Not to mention that trying to direct a toddler through the mall without a voice pretty much means the toddler has free reign.

To close out the day, we went to our favourite restaurant - Swiss Chalet. My wife by this time knew enough to order for me, but even so being in a public place requires some degree of personal interaction with people (especially if your toddler is as openly social with the people in the next booth as mine is). I'm sure the friendly gentleman waiting with us couldn't have realized that my voice was shot, but he struck up a conversation, which I valiantly tried to participate in. Argh.

The rest of the day was pretty relaxing. Our daughter went to bed, and the house was quiet enough that conversing in whispers was sufficient. I went to bed with faint hopes of having a voice by morning, but I somehow knew that it was unlikely. Both my wife and I wondered how working without a voice would work, but I'd have to make it work one way or another.

Sure enough, I woke up to lots of phlegm, but still no voice. As it turned out, Monday at work was less aggravating than Sunday was. Perhaps it was simply because I'm the new guy on the job, and all I normally do is sit at my desk and work on the computer all day. Personal interaction isn't something I get a lot of. With all my co-workers knowing I was mute, they kindly avoided drawing me into any conversations. Contrast that to Sunday, where I was in public places most of the day, and you'll understand how Monday turned out to be easier.

Tuesday was more of the same. Being at work and not being able to talk started feeling very isolating, and not because I couldn't communicate with others. For some reason, the entire office decided that they were not going to, or somehow shouldn't, talk to me. Normally, I get at least a few snippets of conversation throughout the work day, but Tuesday the most I got was one co-worker asking if I had regained my voice. He actually didn't ask me - he mouthed it, as I would have to do. That, and nodding "good morning" to everyone when I arrived, was the extent of my interaction that day. Very isolating.

Wednesday morning, my voice started its audible comeback. Although I accidentally spoke a few times Tuesday night, I wanted to rest my voice to ensure it came back as quickly as possible. Wednesday, however, speech was almost easy. A few times I actually talked to someone without realizing what I had done until seconds afterwards. Believe it or not, it's actually much easier to speak when you don't think about it. (This is perhaps why some people are so good at talking - they simply don't bother to think about what they say.)

I must say that I learned an awful lot during my three days of muteness. I had a brief taste at what it is like to have a disability that interferes with communication. E-mail was my friend, and any face-to-face conversation was brief at best, frustrating at worst. I learned how much idle chatter my life is filled with - chatter that I was incapable of. A lot of that chatter is pointing things out to my daughter, but simple offhanded comments were no longer something I could physically do. The mental drive that creates these comments was still there, so being unable to speak them brought my awareness of the sheer volume of these comments to the forefront of my consciousness. I also learned that we take non-line-of-sight communications for granted. If I couldn't see my wife at home, the only way to get her attention was to whistle or bang on the floor.

The one thing I had hoped for at the outset of my loss of voice was that I would still be able to use the phone using the TDD system (Terminal for the Deaf and Dumb), now called the Bell Relay Service. Unfortunately, said system is only available to people who actually have the equipment. I was really hoping that this service would be brought into the Internet age, and available online to anybody with a keyboard, however with though I can see how this would make this service vulnerable to abuse and overuse by people who don't really need to use it.

All in all, it was an interesting few days. I'm not sure I'd want to repeat it, although it certainly was a learning experience. One of benefit was that I learned a bit more about one close friend of mine, who is hearing impaired. Although losing my voice for three days does not compare to a lifetime of profound hearing loss and the associated speech difficulties, I now have a better idea of what he goes through on a daily basis. I'd say that three days of near silence was a small price to pay for that insight.


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