Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: The voice that I earned

Published: 02-09-2023 1:13 PM

The smell of harsh antiseptic stings my nostrils — even through my mask. Every six months it’s the same routine for the physical therapy re-evaluation, which is a requirement for me to receive insurance authorization approval for the treatment of my condition. The physical therapist yanks on my limbs, using a torture device known as a goniometer, to measure the extent of range of motion in my arms and legs. Toward the end of the visit, I have to fill out a questionnaire about my voice challenges. I have never understood the purpose of it because it’s not as though my answers ever change.

“Does your voice make you feel handicapped?” My answer: “Always.” “Are you ashamed of your voice?” My answer: “Always.”

There are several other questions on the questionnaire, but those two always stand out to me the most. It’s probably because of the lump that consistently forms in my narrow throat whenever I voice my answers. But it also could be because of the look of sheer pity that crosses my physical therapist’s face, combined with the fact that it forces me to admit such a deep-rooted insecurity that all but pierces me to my core.

Because, to be perfectly honest with all of you, my voice is my biggest insecurity. This is saying something considering that I have had a boatload of insecurities since I grew up enough to be self-aware, but I have always despised my voice the most.

And the sheer complexity of having my voice being my biggest insecurity is that it seeps into virtually every single aspect of my life, from professional to personal. I go out of my way to avoid verbally talking to most people. When I’m in class or conducting an interview with someone via Zoom, I communicate by typing into the chat. When I have been on dates in the past, I have had to have a caregiver present, to translate for me, which I’m sure as you all can imagine does not exactly bode well for forming a romantic connection with anyone. People do eventually get used to my voice, but it’s a definite learning curve to get to that point. And one of the hardest truths that I’ve learned over the years, is that not everyone wants to try to understand me.

The one good thing about having a voice challenge is that it’s a common problem that individuals with my condition face. However, just because it’s a common problem doesn’t mean it’s any easier to navigate.

I don’t recall when exactly I realized that my voice was unintelligible to most people, but I do recall the fact that my entire demeanor changed when I came to the realization. My early elementary school self was outgoing and precocious — a chatterbox, some might say. I made friends with my classmates very easily and consistently wanted to be at the center of attention.

At this same point in my life, I was also having speech therapy at least once a week. Because I was so young, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I remember being told that it was because I had difficulty pronouncing the harsh “k” and “g” sounds, because my tongue just couldn’t form the correct movements to produce them.

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But little did I know that the garbled nature of my voice, due to the mucus coating my windpipe that my weak swallow cannot manage, is not something that could be remedied from the exercises that I spent years doing. It was the result of the muscles in my throat atrophying from the first time I was intubated. And little did I know that it would only become more prominent as the years wore on.

I was in high school when I became attuned to the fact that people had difficulty understanding me; the tell-tale sign became people’s eyes glazing over whenever I opened my mouth. And once I became conscious of it, I began to open my mouth less and less, especially once I became aware of the difference between people who genuinely wanted to understand me versus the people who just wrote off anything I said because of my physical predicament. Call it a sixth sense, but I’ve learned the difference between the two, and I’ve learned to conserve my energy.

Fortunately, I have stumbled across another very effective method of expressing my voice.

I began writing when I was 8 years old, and since that point, writing has become my preferred way of expressing myself. At most times in my life, I have felt as though my most authentic self has spilled out onto the page. It is a voice that is unhindered by my physical constraints. It is a figurative voice that is an actual representation of me.

And while my literal voice is a part of me I will have to live with for better or worse for the rest of my life — a part of myself with which I’m slowly coming to terms — my writing voice exists as a more prominent extension of it.

And because my writing voice is one I have earned, somehow, I think that gives it more weight.

Gazette columnist Joanna Buoniconti is a freelance writer and an editorial intern at INCLUDAS Publishing. She can be reached at columnist@gazettenet.com.]]>