You don’t have to be a King to find your voice

This is a post I’ve literally waited over a year to write. It concerns something only a handful of people have known about me to this point.

king george vi

king george vi

In late 2009, I found myself in a Wikipedia-induced causality loop. You’ve been there. One search leads to another one and then a morning has suddenly passed. I don’t know where this particular one began but it ended with the story of King George VI and the commencement of production on “The King’s Speech.” I immediately put the film on a Google Alert.

Reading the ever-increasing number of stories and blog posts about the stellar film was excruciating since I apparently live in the last place on earth the movie would ultimately run. I’m proud to see the film is as beautiful and brilliant as I’d hoped.

Why the weird obsession? Because it’s my story too — and the story of many others who conditions that affect their hearing and speech. While most of us will never influence the course of history, the struggle is much the same.

The Beat of a Different Drum

From the time I was a child, I knew I heard things differently than other people. I could discern sounds no one else seemed aware of in some situations, but there were others in which I couldn’t make out the words of someone standing talking directly into my ear (particularly when there was background noise). Severe ear infections throughout my pre-teen years led surgery to put tubes in my ears and have my adenoids removed. The pain went away, but the problems with sound and articulation continued. My family moved a lot in those years, and with each new school, I’d eventually end up in a speech counselor’s office.

Several years ago, I got fed up. I’d been to audiologists, speech pathologists, and had my hearing checked countless times. My hearing was perfect–hypersensitive even–so how could I have so much trouble understanding and articulating speech? None of the local doctors could tell me.

Finally, I turned to the ultimate “expert,” Google. I listed every hearing and speech-related symptom that was driving me crazy.

Here were the top two search results I saw:

I was dumbfounded (no pun intended) reading those entries. Literally numb. Having a name for my “defect” didn’t change its reality, but it changed everything about how I viewed it. In that moment, I remembered the nine-year-old boy hiding in the corner at public events because the noise was driving him mad and didn’t feel contempt for his weakness. Instead, I felt respect for someone who never gave up hope that some day he would find a way to make a contribution.

Life with an auditory processing disorder is a Skype conversation with a long time lag, or hearing someone speak a language you don’t know and waiting for the translator. Sound comes in, but has to settle before the can brain process it and forms a response. The kicker is that the response, no matter how perfectly formed in the mind, doesn’t automatically articulate itself the same way vocally. Additionally, the ability to filter sounds is limited, so I can hear conversations going on throughout a wide area.

Me at one week

They say I took the heavyweight crown in the week-old division.

APD is thought to be caused my two things–recurrent ear infections as I mentioned earlier and oxygen deprivation during birth, which also fit my story. In 1970′s small-town Louisiana, your general practitioner was your only doctor and you didn’t question his word even if it killed you. My 4’11″ mother had a difficult, prolonged labor with me before her doctor realized her pelvis was too small and performed an emergency c-section. Besides a temporary conehead and scratched-up face (from my fingernails), those hours in the birth canal resulted in flattened cartilage and an unknown period of time without oxygen.

Again, I contacted doctors, audiologists and pathologists throughout Louisiana, certain they could do something with this new information. I got one acknowledgment, which was “this condition can only be treated in children. There’s no point in a diagnosis, because the wiring in your brain is set.” Probably true, but I wasn’t willing to stop there.

My odyssey led to Judy Paton (the second link in my Google Search) in San Mateo, Calif., who specializes in working with adults. She performed the testing, confirmed the diagnosis and provided advice to keep challenging the speech and hearing center of my brain. One of the things she suggested was to work with a vocal coach. The musical element would improve diction, timing, rhythm and tone.

Just Breathe

Another Google search led me two buildings from where I work in rural Louisiana to Terrie Sanders, one of the few McClosky-certified vocal trainers in the country.

As in the film, we did some of the funny exercises (lying on the floor, skipping, swinging arms, stretching the tongue). The emphatic cursing trick depicted in the movie I discovered purely on my own, and it is frighteningly effective. But the biggest revelation was awareness of my breath.

I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie.  ~Lionel Logue, The King's Speech

"I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie." ~Lionel Logue, The King's Speech

“Inhale from the diaphragm and let the words flow out with the breath,” my teacher would say. “Just breathe.” It seems like the most natural thing, doesn’t it? Biologists say it’s an involuntary function of the body. For sustaining existence, that’s true. But I would discover that deep, life-giving breaths are a matter of intention. If two words can sum up a personal philosophy, “Just Breathe” became fuel for my thoughts, a moment to decide, a prayer — and perhaps most surprisingly, the foundation of a decent tenor singing voice.

So why am I in the communications field? Seems like the ultimate masochism, doesn’t it? Sometimes, absolutely! But we all have “something” to overcome in the quest for a legacy. And meaningful connections can be forged in so many ways that have nothing to do with skills of articulation.

Still, public speaking is no longer just the realm of world leaders and Dale Carnegie types. We all have to do it to be effective in our work. That was one of the reasons I threw my hat in to present at O’Reilly Media’s Gov 2.0 Expo last spring. The presentation was selected to be included in the last round of “lightening” keynotes, which meant the presenters had about five minutes each. My presentation wasn’t going to be one of the philosophical types that frame the future of governments and the world and wow the audience with its profundity. The audience wasn’t going to be blown away by its delivery either, as I’d have to read it to maintain my timing. But it was MY story: a simple and direct explanation of who I am and what I do. This presentation would be my declaration that cultural heritage defines our humanity as much as climate change, national defense or the value of currencies. It was also a powerful testament to the power of the online community, as friends like Lorelle VanFossen and Lisa Louise Cooke, both natural speakers, spent their valuable time helping me to refine it. And other online friends who I’ve never interacted with, like Todd Henry, Chris Guillebeau, and Liz Strauss, whose blogs and podcasts have, over time, empowered me with transformative habits to make a difference by focusing on the “now.”

Ultimately, the experience was a continuing reminder of the power of family. Watching the experiences of the historical Queen Elizabeth portrayed in The King’s Speech, I chuckled to think of how familiar they might seem to my own wife, ElizaBeth, in bolstering a recalcitrant husband to discover his message and believe himself worthy to deliver it.

When my name was announced on May 27, 2010, deep gratitude for so many supportive people had replaced any lingering fear. Emerging into glaring spotlights and a podium in front of several hundred people (including a livestreamed worldwide audience), I didn’t think about the first words I would say or how I would look on the 30-ft HD screens on either side of the stage. I thought only two words again and again:

“Just. Breathe.”

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