A Catholic Monthly Magazine

On Losing One’s Voice

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

Over the last year I have progressively lost my speaking voice as the nerves in my throat and larynx give up the ghost. The throat muscles are down to about 25% capacity and my voice is a strangled monotone. My voice started to fail after a bad turn in August 2011. Things came to a head at Martinborough during Easter ceremonies 2012 when my voice went into meltdown, much to the alarm of the congregation. The attendant difficulty in swallowing means an excess of saliva which does not help.

While most of my public ministry is curtailed, the effects on normal communication are drastic. Eating at meals is a struggle, and speaking is impossible. My mother used to tell me not to speak with my mouth full. Now it can endanger my life, if I get a chest infection. To join in the conversation one must empty one’s mouth of food and have a mouthful of water, before venturing to speak, by which time the conversation will have moved on. Late in life I have to learn to be a good listener, and practise non-verbal signals.

However life can be normal in all other respects. I can and do carry on my work at the Messenger, though answering the phone is marginal at best. At the current rate of deterioration speaking on the phone may be impossible soon.

Meanwhile the cell phone helps enormously. Texting (SMS) has become my main method of discourse with others. I have downloaded an application that will speak out loud what I text, (with a choice of four voices!). It is called Speak it, and is suitable for short soundbites.

Also gone is my ability to sing. My light baritone voice is just a memory, and I liked singing. The tunes are still in my head but have no way out. Some people who have had strokes can still sing, but not after a bulbar palsy which was the first sign of Motor Neurone Disease with which I was diagnosed in November 2012.

I also have a small whiteboard on which to communicate. Though ‘low tech’, I am told it could end up being my only contact with the outside world. The first time I used it, others started writing on it, and I felt like shouting,’there is nothing wrong with my hearing! Speak to me!’

As of now (April 2013) I cannot celebrate Mass vocally, but can concelebrate with others, saying the important words sotto voce. It does feel strange to be up there with my fellow concelebrants, and speechless.

I feel like a stationary exhibit. Although friends have pointed out that it is helpful to them to see a concelebrant with a major incapacity still able to represent them on the altar. 

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