Early this morning, I pulled into the parking lot in front of the office of Dr. James Thomas, a laryngologist familiarly known as "the voice doctor." Singers come from all over the country to see him; I had been referred to him by my singing teacher, in hope of discovering why I become so hoarse so quickly when I practice. Fifteen minutes of sustained singing makes me scratchy for an hour or so afterward, and sometimes I can't speak normally for up to six hours after my lesson. My teacher wanted to make sure that the issue was technical rather than organic in nature. I was quite sure I knew what the problem was: a combination, I thought, of acid reflux and continual sinus irritation causing my throat to be inflamed.
I was very sure of this. So sure, in fact, that I came close to cancelling the appointment, because the thought of going sent me into a mild panic. I wasn't afraid of the doctor snaking his little camera up my nose and down my throat . . . I was afraid of having to sing for him. I was afraid even though his entire goal was to hear how bad I might sound. I was afraid even though I was paying him to diagnose me; even though he would not make any sort of value judgement regarding my talent or lack thereof. I sat in the parking lot for a moment, trying to tell myself that I was trembling due to the cold weather, but I knew it was nerves -- I could actually smell my own fear, sharp and cloying.
I am quite accomplished at hiding my fear, which follows me around like a half-tamed wolf: sometimes merely a threatening presence, sometimes drawing blood, sometimes unforgivably savage. Therefore the nurse who took my blood pressure raised a mildly questioning brow when the reading was high enough to make me a candidate for an immediate stroke. "Usually it's 120/60," I said. "I'm nervous."
She smiled at me kindly. "Is there anything I can explain about the procedure? A lot of people are a little fearful about the camera -- but we numb your throat so you don't feel it."
Perhaps it was her sweet expression, perhaps it was the gentleness of her hand on my wrist, taking my racing pulse. I found myself saying something to her that I have never admitted to a stranger . . . that I haven't been willing to admit to myself. "I have an anxiety disorder," I said. "I find being here very stressful. I know there's nothing to be afraid of -- but I'm a nervous wreck anyway."
A little frown line of bemusement appeared on her forehead; she was, I think, suprised at my announcing this so calmly, while making eye contact with her. But she had the evidence of my panicked heartbeat beneath her fingertips. "I'll be all right," I said. "It's just hard to be here."
When she left with my chart, I was overwhelmed with shame at having told her the truth. I hated myself for having said it. I hated myself for it being true. I hated myself for being ashamed to tell the truth. I hoped she hadn't told the doctor, but I think she must have; he was very nice to me, and he is known for being rather brusque and dismissive with his patients.
After he had asked me a lot of questions about how much I talk during an average day, and how much I sing, he put his camera down my throat and observed my larynx while I went through a series of vocal exercises. The picture from the camera showed on a viewing screen in front of us, so I was treated to the grotesque spectacle of the workings of my own voice. Dr. Thomas watched, and after a little while he chuckled and smiled broadly.
"Those are your vocal cords," he said, pointing to a pair of white bands on the screen. "Do you see how they curve inward a little bit? Yes? Your problem is that your vocal cords are underdeveloped, so of course they get tired quickly." He slipped the camera back out. "That's a fine voice you have, and your throat is perfectly clear. You don't use your vocal cords enough . . . you have to exercise them more, and then they'll gain strength, and you'll be fine."
"Oh," I said, a little nonplussed.
He regarded me with a suggestion of a twinkle in his eye. "You need to speak up more and make some noise," he said. "That's all that's wrong with you."
I thought about this when I was safely back in my car. I wondered if being honest about my fear counted as speaking up. I think it did, but not in the way he meant.