A childhood trauma left me mute – as a singer, I had to find my voice again

Unable to sing or even talk, Sarah-Louise Young realised the causes may not only be physical

First Person

A childhood trauma left me mute – as a singer, I had to find my voice again

Singer Sarah-Louise Young in her show The Silent Treatment (Photo: Steve Ullathorne)

By Sarah-Louise Young

Most people don’t really understand how the voice works, and will look at a singer when they perform and see a kind of magic. But when a singer doesn’t perform well, people can be very, very critical.

I am a professionally trained singer, travelling the world doing cabaret and making my own work. But I had been struggling with episodes of voice loss since I was a child.

My voice would be fine for the run of a show, but on the day the run was over I would have no voice at all, and that was terrifying.

The first time it happened during a show was in 2010. For a few days I had been struggling to get the notes out. As a singer, you can change your approach to a note, to sing it a different way, so that untrained ears can hear nothing wrong. But this time I was really pushing and pushing and it was like I was working on an engine that was running out of fuel.

Then one dayat the end of the run of shows, I woke up and I just could not even speak.

There was the shame in having to cancel work of course. But it was more than that – how did I know if my voice would come back?

As a singer, Sarah-Louise Young travels the world doing cabaret (Photo: Steve Ullathorne)

My voice did recover after a few daysbut when you can’t speak it’s terrifying. You have no voice, so you speak with a kind of rasping sound. I knew there were things that can help your voice recover; you hydrate, you sleep, and breathing steam can help get heat into your voice. But I was doing all of that and I still wasn’t able to make a sound.

I had a fantastic singing teacher and she had mentioned that she could hear there were a couple of notes in my range that were not quite as strong as the others. After I experienced the total loss of my voice, I went to see a specialist surgeon privately.

He was brilliant and performed an endoscopy, passing a tube with a little camera down my throat. The vocal cord is only a few millimetres long, and to see on screen the work that tiny body part is doing is astonishing.

The surgeon could very clearly see that I had two soft polyps (benign growths) on my vocal folds.They only intermittently became an obstruction when they would flare upand this helped us understand why my vocal problems were only sporadic. When my voice was normal, these polyps let my vocal folds meet as they should.

I was ecstatic because suddenly everything made sense. I had spent months, years, decades even, thinking, why is my voice not working? Why is this happening? Why is it so unpredictable?

Sarah-Louise Young’s show The Silent Treatment is currently showing in Edinburgh (Photo: Steve Ullathorne)

“These are not new,” the surgeon said. “You’ve had these for a long time, since you were younger than 10.” Then he asked: “Is there any incident or moment in your life that you can think of that these might have been caused by?”

The mind-body connection is something modern science is still exploring, but a simple example is how your body responds when you’re stressed or anxious – you suffer from physical problems like backache and tension headaches. Trauma can have physical manifestations and poor physical health can affect the mind.

Previous psychological theories have treated us all like minds that are entirely separate from our bodies but increasingly it is being recognised that the two things are part of one whole system.

Polyps can be removed surgically, but the surgeon suggested that first I should have therapy.Once I did so, I began to join the dots. It was a lightbulb moment.

I remembered that when I was seven I had been molested on the way home from a trip to the swimming pool. I had been aware at the swimming pool that this guy had been watching me and then on my way home from the pool I realised he was following me. Then he was touching me and my logical brain was going: I don’t think this is right – but maybe he’s just accidentally got too close to me.

I turned off to go home and to my relief he actually passed me. I was safe. And then as I turned off, he ran back and picked me up and put his hand over my mouth and brought me behind a bush. I was really young and naïve and the thought that I had in my head – the most horrific thing I could possibly imagine – was that there would be people behind the bush and they were going to make me smoke.

I was terrified and somehow managed to escape and legged it home. If I had not got away it could have been an awful lot worse. Itold my parents when I got home and they called the police.

After the visit to the surgeon, I read books about the mind-body connection and somatic responses to trauma, such as The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and the works of Peter Levine.

After reading advice on diet, I gave up coffee and spicy food. I went to therapy, I did yoga – all of the things you are supposed to do to look after yourself – and for four years I was fine and I had no vocal problems. I was really living like a saint and I thought, great, I’m cured.

And then in 2014, I was doing a show about Julie Andrews – who, coincidentally, also lost her singing voice after getting vocal polyps – and I got bronchitis. I had to sing through it – and my voice was in shreds again. I had another Edinburgh tour to get through and then I arranged to have the surgery. The minimum recovery time from vocal cord surgery is four weeks and I had four weeks and a day before taking the Julie Andrews show to open in Toronto.

I went in for the surgery and when the surgeon went to operate, he saw something surprising – the polyps had burst and so what was left was scar tissue. He cut off less than a millimetre of scar tissue.

The fear after vocal cord surgery is that your voice will not sound the same. At first, I didn’t know if the surgery was successful because you have to be completely quiet for a week. No singing, no sneezing, no coughing, no throat clearing. Then I had three weeks of very, very gentle vocal rehabilitation. And then, I could sing.

It was scary for the first six months. I kept thinking, is it going to work? And I still had to continue doing two hours of vocal rehabilitation every single day, but since then I’ve had no issue, and I’ve pushed myself to some crazy places vocally, and it’s as if I’ve been gifted back my voice.

The storyteller in me would like to tell you that these cysts came into being because I was a small child screaming for my life and my body tried to protect me – and in the end, my body grinding to a halt rather than me pushing through meant I got the help that I needed. The last thing to do was to cut out this scar tissue that I didn’t need any more.

There’s a writer I love, a Jungian analyst called James Hollis, and he talks about having a long overdue appointment with yourself, and I think that’s a phrase that helped me make sense. This was not a failing, this was an important meeting point that needed to happen.

As told to Emily Jupp

Sarah-Louise Young is a performer, writer and director appearing in The Silent Treatment at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 3-28 August

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