I had always known something wasn’t right with my voice but, like many singers, I assumed it was my fault. For 14 years I’d worked professionally in theatre, hiding the fact that every few months, my voice would completely disappear. Despite steaming my head over bowls of hot water, giving up alcohol and praying to Dr Theatre, as the final curtain fell on each production my melodic soprano would disintegrate into a husky Tom Waits. A few days of silence and it would return. The shame I felt at losing my voice was paralysing. But why?
All performers feel the pressure to deliver. It’s a competitive industry and if you take time off you can be replaced. Singers have always been held to a different kind of scrutiny though. If an athlete sprains their ankle it’s an occupational hazard – we sympathise. But when a singer loses their voice we question their technique, their lifestyle, even their commitment.
The voice is mysterious because, without specialised equipment, we can’t see it. So instead we judge and speculate. We mythologise tragic stars such as Edith Piaf, Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse who seemed to defy the rules, delivering iconic performances through illness, addiction and fatigue. They say the show must go on … but at what cost?
When I was little I sang for pleasure, but over the years it became something I had to get “right”. I lost the joy of connection with my own body. I’d always sung instinctively until I studied for a postgraduate course in musical theatre. From day one I felt as if I didn’t fit. I had some brilliant teachers, but the focus wasn’t on learning about your own authentic sound. Back in the 90s we were being prepared to fill the shoes of an endless round of West End turns, replicating the precise vocal placement of the last person to play that role. So I strived to manipulate my voice into the shape of someone else’s. As a result I spent the best part of my year at drama school on dreaded “voice rest”.
There were always students on voice rest. You knew us by the thick scarves around our necks even in the middle of summer and the doomed looks on our faces – cautionary tales, sitting out rehearsals while others took our places. Had I been sent back then for a laryngoscopy (a tiny camera inserted into the larynx to observe the vocal folds) they would have discovered two soft polyps in residence. Instead I graduated and embarked upon an endless cycle of work, secret collapse and hidden recovery for the next 11 years. I got away with it until one day, I finally lost my voice on stage during a show. I was mortified.
I saw a specialist and he discovered my cysts which, he thought, had been there since childhood. They were soft, which explained why my issue was sporadic. They often laid low and let my vocal folds vibrate together, hundreds of times a second to create sound. But as soon as I got tired, stressed or ate the wrong food, they would swell up. I would push to make my folds meet, inflaming the cysts further and creating that familiar breathy sound.
The consultant asked me if anything had happened to me in childhood to traumatise my voice, specifically under the age of 10. Suddenly it all made sense.
When I was seven years old I had been sexually attacked in broad daylight. They never caught the man and after the initial distress, I never gave it much thought. But the hand on my mouth, the stifled scream … what the mind forgets, the body remembers.
My consultant and I agreed on self-care and for the next few years it worked. I guested with cabaret megastars Fascinating Aïda, made a BBC radio series with the Showstoppers, left a toxic relationship and gave up my greatest love of all, coffee.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. Three years later, performing a show about Julie Andrews for six weeks through bronchitis (the irony was not lost on me), true to form, I finished the run and in walked Tom Waits.
This time the surgeon decided to operate. My cysts had burst and in the end he sliced off less than a millimetre of scar tissue. But it was life changing. Recovery was slow and scary but the result was unquestionable. My voice was healed and singing was, for the first time since childhood, effortless.
I was excited to reveal my new voice to the world but instead industry gatekeepers warned me that if I let anyone know about the surgery I would be perceived as damaged goods. I had to stay silent if I ever wanted to work again. Instead, I spoke to other singers and heard similar stories. We needed to reach out to each other in solidarity not fear.
Eight years on and the world is slowly changing. High profile artists such as Adele going public about their vocal health has helped. Attitudes are beginning to shift. There are many reasons we lose our voices. This happens to be my story but until we feel able to speak up we are all silenced. I hope that in sharing my experience, I can help others to share theirs too.
Sarah-Louise Young is a performer, writer and director appearing in The Silent Treatment at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 3-28 August