As I write this, the Oscars have just been handed out, and “The King’s Speech” has won Best Picture, a prize it richly deserves. Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and Helena Bonham Carter were superb, as well as the director and screenwriter. I love the scene where Bertie gives his first radio speech, buoyed up and egged on in every possible way by his voice coach. I also got a kick out of the moment when Myrtle Logue, the coach’s wife, first encounters the new king of England and his wife right there in her own house, managing to convey both fluster and composure beautifully.
And now I have reason to relate to this story in an altogether unexpected way. Because I, too, have been sent to speech therapy. Not so I can help the Free World endure a world war (God forbid), but so I can speak without going, well, speechless.
The term for my dilemma is dysphonia. It means “disturbance in the normal functioning in the production of sound,” which sounds like my computer when the mute button is accidentally ticked. It’s not the same thing as laryngitis, which I’ve had several times in my life, and is a real pain to deal with. People tend to shout at you when you can’t get a word out; it’s very odd. Being mute is not the same as being deaf. Doctors have told me that whispering is very bad if you have laryngitis, only making matters worse, but try telling that to someone who wants to communicate with you. It’s better to just stay home, where people (one hopes) will stop pestering you.
My dysphonia seems to be a consequence of a very sore throat that took hold for two long weeks late last October. October! I thought I was developing a cold, but that was it — just two weeks of a very sore throat. A strep test came back negative, so I figured I would get better and go my merry way. And I did, for a while.
Then I began to develop symptoms whose details I will spare you. Let’s just say I had to – still do – cough and clear my throat a lot, and those guys with the suitcases in the Mucinex commercials have not been persuaded to leave, either by Mucinex or Prilosec or anything else I or the doctor can come up with. I’m doing everything he tells me to, and trying to be patient. He had the same thing, he told me, and it took months to recover. So I’m trying to be philosophical, taking the long view, hoping for recovery by, oh, July.
In the meantime, he referred me to speech therapy, because, as he put it, my “false” vocal chords are trying to protect my real vocal chords, and it’s giving me a very feeble voice. I mean, if I were trying to read this column to you, the audio would have petered out three paragraphs ago.
My speech therapy isn’t nearly as dramatic as the king’s; my therapist doesn’t have me jumping up and down or swearing a blue streak or reading aloud while listening to crashing music on headphones. Of course, my problem isn’t that I stutter. It’s more that I tighten up muscles I didn’t even know I had, until it’s a wonder any sound escapes at all.
I also don’t know how to breathe, it seems. This is something I’ve known for some time. It first came to my attention when I took Swim Lessons for the Timid Adult. I wasn’t exactly scared of water; I’d grown up, after all, going with my family to “our” lake, Minnesota’s exquisite Lake Ada, every summer, and felt comfortable splashing about and doing an acceptable side stroke around the edges of the lake. In high school gym class, I could sort of tread water, though I never did learn to dive. But I would jump off the low board on a dare.
The thing I had trouble with was the ordinary crawl. It wasn’t until this adult swim class that I understood my problem. I turned my head just fine as I moved through the water, but instead of taking a breath when my head was raised, and blowing it out when it was underwater, I waited until I raised my head again to blow it out. Inefficient? Yes. A recipe for hyperventilation? You bet.
My college flute teacher also pointed out my lousy breathing. I’d been playing under very handicapped conditions since fourth grade; no wonder my sound was feeble.
How did I develop such bad inhalation habits? I have my suspicions. Like many American girls, I grew up painfully conscious of my body – how it looked, how it measured up, not only against my friends and classmates, but also against the impossible role models I saw in magazines like Seventeen and Glamour, as well as in the movies. This was the era of Twiggy, the anorexic’s dream, not to mention Mia Farrow and Ali McGraw. Flat stomachs? They were concave! That, of course, was what I wanted.
My own mother weighed over 100 pounds only twice in her life – while pregnant with my sister and me. When menopause shifted what little fat she had to her abdomen, she bemoaned her tiny belly loudly and often. It’s no wonder I couldn’t breathe right.
So that’s the first thing my speech therapist had to teach me – how to take a good, lung-filling, diaphragm-expanding breath. It feels good. Try it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about flat stomachs around your daughters. Let them inhale. Let them exhale. So their voices can be heard, loud and clear.