The man who thought he couldn’t speak (i.e., me).

Case study in psychosomatic laryngitis: me.

For the last five weeks, I’ve had whooping cough (pertussis). Though I’m well on the road to recovery, this thing is nasty and lasts a long time and I don’t recommend it. If you haven’t already, do get your booster shot—as I, unfortunately, didn’t.

That isn’t very interesting to anybody else. What comes next is. For over three weeks, I’ve been unable to speak. I lost my voice about ten days after getting sick and never got it back. While an amusing upside is that I’ve perfected the stage whisper that I could never master in drama class, it’s no fun to be unable to call out to people or talk clearly on the phone.

Laryngitis is a common complication of whooping cough. But its lasting this long is not at all common. After consulting a series of baffled GPs and Internists (each of whom said “come back in X days if it’s not better”), I finally got referred to a voice specialist. What he told me I would never have expected: there was nothing much physically wrong with my voice. I’ve got a little something on my vocal cords, probably a fungus, which may (when it was worse) have caused the laryngitis in the first place. But it’s nowhere near big enough to keep me from speaking.

Essentially, my lack of speech turned out to be a bad habit that I’d fallen into. After a few days of not being able to talk, but wanting to communicate, I’d trained myself to stage-whisper instead of talking—and that training had persisted after the underlying condition had cleared up. Apparently this is not unknown; and the longer it persists, the harder it is to get the sufferer talking normally.

I might have been skeptical of this explanation—if not for the fact that the doctor, after giving me a few voice exercises, i.e. starting with humming and working to speech from there, got me talking again, croakily but comprehensibly, within about three minutes. I have to observe a regimen of practicing my voice and then resting it, but I’m now confident I’m on the mend. (I wonder how likely it is that my voice will be high quality afterwards but totally different from how it was before. That would be strange.)

They say that nobody ever forgets how to ride a bicycle. That’s not completely true either, as I found a few years ago after a hiatus since childhood. But I’m astonished that it’s possible to forget how to speak.

To paraphrase President Obama’s sentiment in the last campaign, “A lot of this sh*t would be really interesting if it weren’t happening to me.”

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

11 thoughts on “The man who thought he couldn’t speak (i.e., me).”

  1. “A lot of this sh*t would be really interesting if it weren’t happening to me.”

    Thanks, that’s a great line and I missed it.

    And congratulations on getting your voice back.

  2. Similar phenomenon occurs with well-learned limps after an injury that is completely healed.
    Glad you are on the mend.

  3. Isn’t that kinda what happened to Diane Rehm? I guess I could Google it … but it’s Fri, I’m lazy.

  4. I wonder how likely it is that my voice will be high quality afterwards but totally different from how it was before. That would be strange.

    Maybe you’ll be able to sing.

    Patient: Doctor, after the operation, will I be able to play the piano?

    Doctor: Sure. I don’t see why not.

    Patient: That’s funny.

    Doctor: Why?

    Patient: I can’t play the piano now.

  5. Thanks to all for the kind wishes.
    James: I’m the only intellectual in America who hasn’t seen *The King’s Speech.* But it’s at the top of my Netflix queue and I’ll let you know what I think.
    Bernard: Good joke! But I can actually sing adequately well already (or could), having been in a mildly selective chorus. I hope that comes back.

    My favorite story along these lines is that of Joshua Chamberlain, the Union Army officer and hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. Those who saw the movie *Gettysburg* may remember Chamberlain haranguing his troops in a sort of mild but unmistakable sing-song. That was historically accurate. Chamberlain spoke in a sing-song because he was a stutterer. Using the speech centers of his brain, he could rarely get a full sentence out. Using the parts devoted to singing, he could not only speak adequately but hold a peacetime job as a professor of rhetoric–and apparently a very good one.

  6. This reminds me that a while back, one of the tv magazine shows did a segment on a doctor who’s found that some people who have lost their voices can’t talk because of a muscle spasm somewhere in the mechanism. He manipulates it, has them move their heads in certain ways, and back the voice comes, usually. The segment focused on a patient who’d been unable to talk for years, if memory serves. Sounds like your doc did something similar– glad it worked out.

    Re Chamberlain, I didn’t know about his stuttering. But somewhat apropos for this audience, when I was watching the DVD and he and his troops had saved the Round Tops, the friend I was watching with explained it by saying yes, of course, the dean told him to.

  7. Altoid, thanks for the kind wishes. The doctor did move my neck into an odd position for a few seconds, so maybe that was part of it. Or maybe he was just trying to make sure my epiglottis was as clear as possible.

    As for the joke: pretty good, but true only back then (before tenure). Nowadays, if a professor/officer’s Dean asked him to hold a position through a heroic bayonet charge, he probably would regard that as a good reason to surrender unconditionally–and vice-versa.

    By the way, Chamberlain went on to become the president of his college (Bowdoin, I think), and Governor of Maine.

  8. Thanks, James. Actually, if my research can be trusted, whooping cough is one of the few childhood diseases that’s less dangerous in adults than in kids. Newborns (up to a few months) not infrequently die from it, and are too young to be vaccinated themselves–which is why they’re now obsessive about warning anyone who might be around babies to get his or her TDaP shot, to provide herd immunity. But the older you are when you get pertussis, the more likely you are to get a mild case–many adults with whooping cough don’t know they have it, because they don’t get the gasping-for-breath whoop–nor are life-threatening side effects at all common. My own severe case, akin to the kind more typical in children, is unusual.

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