Losing My Voice
When I was 19 years old, I was not sure just who I was or what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. I was going to college, struggling in Biology. I had the fantasy that I wanted to be a game warden besides everything else I wanted to do like sing, act and write. I tried my hand at ROTC, figuring I could pay for college by going into the Army Reserves, but weighing 90 pounds does not cut it in the armed forces and the rude awakening for me was hanging upside down from a five story building on the UW-La Crosse Campus because I was trying to rapell down the building like everyone else did. Screaming for your mother and crying does not a soldier make. Not the most courageous moment in my life but it also taught me that I might be tough but there’s a certain cut off and I had hit my limit. It’s a lesson one should learn at a young age.
I wanted to be a singer and an actress. I figured I could do both someday and would be successful. I had been going to voice lessons in high school and took one of the hardest pieces of music ever written for a soprano voice to the Wisconsin State Solo and Ensemble Contest my senior year in 1986. Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade is not for the faint of heart but the moment I heard it sung by one of the seniors of the previous year for our girls’ choir in the spring of 1985 I knew I had to go for it. So, I did. I scored the highest score anyone could that day before graduation in 1986. In fact one of the judges asked me if I sang musical theater, I said no. She said I needed to. In retrospect I should have followed her advice.
Through all of the confusion as to what I should or should not be doing is I had that singular talent. Some people can paint, some can write, some can build jet engines or have the talent to think in a way that affords them the ability to learn languages or mathematics with ease. My voice was my ticket and I did not use it. I had the dream to be a singer and a fantasy to go off to Nashville to prove a point. New York was too big and scary. But I was also afraid. I loved to hunt to and that was where I spent my passion. If I had done what I day dreamed about my life could have been different.
This is not about regret. Regret is a foolish word. What is done is done. I cannot look back and cry over something that occurred close to 30 years ago. But I can look on it as a lesson worthy as remembrance. And the reason is this: there are many young women between the ages of 12 and 30 who have never had anything happen to them that was life altering but they think that their worlds are crashing around them. You know it when it hits the fan and let me say when it does everything you took seriously becomes something so laughable that it has to be mocked. My personal insecurities and worries were insignificant but when I was 15 they were obstacles to everything great in the world that I thought I wanted. Mostly it was other people standing in my way and I because I was 15 and did not know better let them.
I was anorexic. I am 5ft 5 ½ and I weighed 90 pounds. The reason for this has nothing to do with some strange brew anal and type a personality mixed up together. It had everything to do with the fact a woman I thought was a hero told my mother I was fat when I was 15 years old and I heard her say it. When I graduated High School I weighed under 100 pounds and the reason is this, she challenged me and because of who I thought she was I ran with it and I was determined to show her she was wrong. My dog ate very well for a few years as he got Thanksgiving Turkey, Pot roast, hot dogs, mashed potatoes literally everything on my plate. I existed on small handfuls of rice, low calorie soup and popcorn. And I worked out like a demon. My parents didn’t know how bad it was because I could hide it and like my older sisters I was thin. To them I was fine. I felt fine. I had control over something in my life. By the time November of 1987 rolled around I weighed 90 pounds. I thought at the time I was winning that war. But I was not and I learned the hard way I was not.
Meanwhile my music began to suffer. I stopped voice lessons the fall of 1987. I was asked to sing at a recital and I should have but it conflicted with my deer hunting so I said no. I quit choir at the University and concentrated on the outdoors, and keeping my weight down. There was in my fearless 19 year old mind time to sing. I’d come back to it or so I thought.
After shooting a decent 6 pointer in the river bottoms of the Upper Mississippi Wild Life Refuge the first Saturday in November of 1987 I got sick with what I thought was the flu. I have heard since that a very bad strain of bird flu of some kind had been going around and that’s what probably started my downward slide. That flu and it was diagnosed by the doctor at the University Health Center as the flu turned itself into double pneumonia. So after seeing this man on a Monday my condition had digressed to something critical. The moment that same doctor saw me carried and dragged into his office by my sister, Joan he said I had pneumonia and needed to go to the Emergency room at Saint Francis, our Catholic Hospital in La Crosse. It just got worse from there.
The last thing I can remember clearly was laying in my hospital bed and seeing a little Catholic priest and waving him down. His name was Father Paul, and I asked him to pray for me. Probably the best decision I made in my young life up to that point. I know he helped. I would not be here without his prayers. One of the things I remember from Saint Francis after I went unconscious was my choir teacher, Mardell Allen standing at my bedside telling me I had to get the tube out of my throat. The doctors had me intubated, which means my lungs were so bad that I had a tube running into my throat through my mouth, between my vocal chords, from a respirator. I could not breathe on my own. But her visit was one of the only things besides my brother Dan reading to me and my Dad was there, my brother Jon and my Mom. I guess my nurses braided my long hair. But I was not aware of that. Nor was I aware that that the most critical and scary moment Mayo One, Mayo Clinic’s rescue chopper was on the helipad and they were taking me to Mayo Clinic.
That Thanksgiving was the worst of my family’s history up to that point. I am very sure though the Thanksgiving after my Dad passed away wins title of worst ever though. There were several times the doctors thought I was giving up the ghost. One of my doctors, a man who will forever be considered a hero, Fred Zeller kept telling my parents all we need is a nickel from her. I gave them everything I had. I cannot remember everything from Mayo. They’d had me under a semi drug induced coma though I was already unconscious before that. I remember flashes people talking to me, my Dad was always there. A doctor apologizing for putting a chest tube in. The pain of those thing cannot be quantified. I won’t go into how they are inserted but let’s just say I’d rather be stung by a Hawaiian Red Centipede or have my horse stand on my bare foot with her shoes on. But after about 6 weeks I started coming out of it. The medication was lessened and the Pneumonia which had spawned Septicemia, a fungus, and other lovely evil things was letting up. I was not out of the woods but better. Christmas was spent sitting in a bed that moved because the fluid in my lungs then couldn’t settle in one place. They had put a tracheotomy in the base of my throat, the Super Sternal Notch as it is called. Better for me in one way but it also hurt my vocal chords as bad as the intubation tubes did. It would be until the last week of January that the trach would be in. Then they buttoned the hole in my throat up. I was breathing on my own, but something had changed. My voice was gone.
Not gone completely, but while my voice in the most basic way became stronger it never came back the way it used to be. I never sang again. So the talent I was blessed with was lost. I have not sung a clear soprano note since before November 18, 1987.
The one thing I learned through all of that and it took me decades to figure it out was this: Never let anyone hurt you so badly you would put your life in danger to prove them wrong. Maybe as a high school freshman and sophomore I was pudgy. But those words to my mother said out of faux concern dug deeper than any punch I’ve taken and hurt worse than any kick from a horse. Here is why, teenage girls are the most insecure human beings alive except for teenage boys. That fact will never change. Telling a girl who is not popular, who gets teased and bullied that she is fat is about the worst thing anyone can do and when its someone admired by that girl saying that about that girl it’s like driving a knife between her shoulder blades. Trust me she knows she’s fat, she doesn’t need to hear it from anyone in her family because the kids at school say it to her face, gleefully. And what’s worse, when that girl does lose the weight, and turns into the thin sublime swan she longed to be those kids pick on her more. It’s just what bullies do. She is a victim.
I am determined that any girl suffering from obesity, or anorexia, or whatever kind of crime against teenage rules that is big right now who reads this understands that she’s not a victim. That she can overcome every person out there who feels free to criticize her by doing better for herself in a way that makes her life better and her body stronger. She does not need to be a victim. There’s no celebration of victimhood. I lost my voice because I let someone victimize me into doing something extreme and when the time came to fight for my life I had so little I barely survived.