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(Re) Finding My Voice (and Relearning how to Communicate)

What would be your deepest fear? Of being alone? Of not being loved? Lack of recognition?

This year something happened to me that gave me insight into my worst fear – not being able to communicate. After feeling unwell for a while last year I had a blood test that showed that one of the glands in my neck was overactive and needed removal in routine surgery. One of the rare complications of that surgery was potential damage to the nerve which controls one side of the voice box. Being a “glass half full” and generally being resilient I thought that complication would not happen to me. Imagine therefore my dismay on waking up after the surgery with the sense that although the surgery had been deemed a success my voice was lost to rasping breathlessness. The surgeon was dismissive of my rasped concerns and suggested it would all be right in two weeks.

A follow up with another doctor had to be dealt with by pen and notepad. I scribbled that as a barrister I needed my voice.

“This is a very, very rare complication” he said and “at least I had a voice”.

I laughed noiselessly. “I should be worried if it was still like this in six months” he said.

My thought was that this is not good news for someone who is purely court based and as an advocate speaks up for other people and, being self-employed, is not sitting on six months’ worth of funds. After leaving that consultation I had a cry and dusted myself off. The tipping point happened a couple of days later when I bumped into a doctor friend who instantly recognised what had happened and indicated that it would take six weeks to heal. She was right to within a day or so.

It has to be said that they were a long and tiring six weeks. Whilst people try hard to be sympathetic and understanding, it cannot be underestimated how much of everyday conversation is a tennis match of “call and response”. If you cannot respond it is as frustrating for the other person as it is for yourself.

You have to choose your words with extra care if you have limited breath to say them. People definitely look at you differently if you struggle to communicate. While you are the same as a person, other people view you differently. I gained an insight into those with communication difficulties whose intelligence is unimpaired but who are underestimated.

In an effort to speed the recovery I tried a number conventional (and less conventional) methods, mostly for my own peace of mind. Time of course though was the great healer. The recovery though slow was, in the end, exponential and is now complete.

My take away from all of this – lessons, dare I say, clichés which I already knew – “Hope for the best, plan for the worst” – so much of your character is expressed through your voice. You can’t practice your craft without it.

Louise McCullough (1991 call) is a barrister at Charter Chambers. She is The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.