Losing My Voice

At speech therapy wearing a TENS device

The facts are sobering.

Every forty seconds, someone is struck with a stroke. It is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Most people will never make a full recovery, and more than two-thirds of survivors have some kind of disability associated with the attack.

Those are the statistics.

It’s a good thing I don’t believe in numbers. I believe in proving them wrong. The history of the world is filled with people who were told “It can’t be done,” and yet they persisted and succeeded. Against all odds.

I believe that people don’t equal statistics.

Going by the stats, it seems reasonable to believe that I would never fully recover from the stroke that struck me six months ago. But I chose to be unreasonable.

Last week I wrote about my road to recovery, and I promised you to open up about the one thing that terrified me most. It was something I didn’t want my colleagues or clients to know, because it could ruin my career.

HOW IT STARTED

Let me take you back to March 26th, 2018, the day I woke up on the floor of my voice-over studio wondering what the heck was going on. In hindsight I had the classic signs of a stroke: a sudden and pounding headache, loss of coordination, and blurry vision. One side of my body was paralyzed, my face was drooping, and I had trouble speaking.

That last symptom manifested itself in two ways: I had difficulty speaking sentences that made sense, and my speech was slurred. This usually means that the part of the brain that controls language is not getting the blood supply it needs. It was in fact dying.

As I was being transported to the hospital in a helicopter, my wife got a phone call from the surgeon who was on standby to operate on me. “When Paul comes in, I probably won’t have time to introduce myself,” he said, “so I want to take a moment to speak with you now. I’ll be totally honest. Everything we do will depend on the results of Paul’s CT scan, which will show us what parts of his brain are still intact when he arrives. Timing is crucial.”

He continued: “Be prepared that he might not make it, or that he’ll end up being severely handicapped and dependent on others for the rest of his life. If the scan looks good, we can do a thrombectomy to remove the blood clot from his brain, and take it from there.”

Since you’re reading these words, you already know the outcome. I guess it wasn’t my time to go, and I beat the statistics. Annually, out of the 1600 stroke patients that arrive in the hospital I was admitted to, only 80 are eligible for a thrombectomy.

THE RECOVERY BEGINS

So, my surgery was a success, but this did not mean that all was well between my ears. The scans showed a black area on the right side of my brain where cells had died. Those cells do not grow back. In order to compensate for the loss, the brain has to rewire itself and have other parts take over the function of the cells that are lost. To make that happen I needed at least five things: a positive attitude, a solid support system, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy.

Even though I no longer sounded like a drunkard, clear articulation wasn’t my forte in the first few months after my stroke. I suffered from dysarthria. That’s a fancy word for unclear speech caused by brain damage. It’s a weakness or lack of coordination of the muscles of the tongue, lips, palate, jaw, and larynx. On top of that I had word-finding issues, indicative of memory loss.

By far the weirdest symptom of my post-stroke condition was the fact that I didn’t sound like me. My speech had become rather robotic and monotonal. It came in little bursts of language, just like the thoughts in my head. In the weeks to come, I discovered that I had the hardest time infusing my words with emotion.

No matter the subject, I sounded as passionate as a concrete wall. After I came home, I tried my hand at a few voice-over scripts for existing clients. It took countless retakes before I was somewhat satisfied with the result, but clients were noticing that something was off. The feedback I consistently received boiled down to this: “Once more, with feeling, please.”

The problem was that I had no idea how to access those right brain feelings. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed incapable of translating instructions like “confident,” “warm,” or “excited” into sound, whether in my studio, or in ordinary conversations. This was infuriatingly frustrating. I felt like a soccer player unable to handle the ball, or a painter who can’t hold a brush to add color to his canvas.

Would I ever be able to reach these emotions again, or were they part of the right brain that was destroyed by the stroke? What would this mean for my voice-over career?

Twice a week I went to speech therapy to learn how to improve my articulation. With my therapist, I also worked on regaining memory, and on sharpening my information processing skills. Very soon I realized that all of this wasn’t going to be as easy as flipping some internal switch. It needed time, energy, and lots of practice at home.

Speaking of home, on top of her busy schedule my wife became my designated driver, my patient advocate, my caregiver, my personal chef, and my hero. She made sure I got to all my appointments, that I took all my medications, and that my recovery would be pretty much stress-free. Her delicious meals were almost always based on fresh, locally sourced and unprocessed ingredients. You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.

MORE TROUBLE

In the weeks after my hospitalization there was something else about my voice that concerned me. For some reason I was hoarse all the time, and I had no vocal stamina for long conversations and even longer scripts. I was tired, and I sounded like it. Something told me that if I didn’t take care of this, my career as a professional speaker would be over.

In May I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist who specializes in working with actors, singers, and public speakers. She performed a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy whereby a small endoscope is inserted through one nostril and guided through the nose to the back of the throat. It’s a funny feeling.

This revealed a slight laryngeal tremor. That’s an involuntary tremor of the vocal folds that causes changes in the voice. My ENT also concluded I had laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), a.k.a. “silent reflux.” Why silent? Because it doesn’t necessarily trigger the usual symptoms of acid reflux, such as heartburn. It does lead to hoarseness, coughing, and throat clearing because stomach fluid travels back through the food pipe to reach the back of the throat.

It is likely that the laryngeal tremor was caused by the stroke. Perhaps it will go away over time. Perhaps it won’t. I’m treating my LPR in several ways. I avoid spicy and acidic foods. I limit my intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, mints and tomato-based products. I’ve stopped snacking before bedtime, and I’ve lost about twenty pounds. I’m also taking omeprazole which decreases the amount of acid the stomach makes. A new wedge pillow raises my head in bed, and keeps the acid down where it belongs.

Experts estimate that forty percent of the population may have undiagnosed LPR. If you’re experiencing hoarseness, a need to clear your throat, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or a red, swollen, or irritated voice box, please see an ENT to get to the root of the problem.

POSITIVE RESULTS

The good news is that after months of speech therapy my articulation and ability to focus has greatly improved, and the robot voice is gone. Only when I get really tired, it becomes more monotonal. I’m relieved that my speech has become more expressive, allowing me to continue to work as a voice talent. I’m also back to doing four-hour shifts as one of the announcers at the Easton Farmers’ Market.

Twice a week I work on strengthening my vocal folds and building my endurance with my speech therapists. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I’ve started recording longer scripts again.

RECOVERY CONTINUES

It takes a positive attitude, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy to recover from a stroke. Add to that a support system; a network of caring people who provide you with practical and emotional support. Reading and responding to your comments on last week’s blog post, I realize how lucky I am to have such a supportive group of friends and colleagues!

Thank you for your kind words, good thoughts, and prayers. Your positive vibes revitalize me, and give me energy to keep on beating the odds. The process of healing goes on, which means that I have to be careful not to do too much, too quickly. So, if you don’t hear from me within 24 hours, and you don’t see me on social media, rest assured that I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself.

I hope you will do the same.

Paul ©nethervoice

Important: the information presented here does not substitute for medical consultation or examination, nor is it intended to provide advice on the medical treatment appropriate to any specific circumstances.

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal

28 Responses to Losing My Voice

  1. Leila Edmunds

    Wow! I don’t know what to say except to thank you again for sharing your another chapter in your story. May you and your wife triumph over this adversity and continue to find ways of supporting each other through this challenging time.

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  2. Paul Payton

    Paul,

    I can’t believe how hard you’ve worked on your “comeback.” Then again, I can, because you’re always 100% present in your life, both knowing you in person and reading your posts. You are a true inspiration. Since I’ve known you, I’ve said to people that when I grow up I want to be juist like you (well, without the stroke part!) – and then I realize how much younger than me you are! Oh, well, you’ll keep me young!!!!

    Seriously, keep on keeping on, my friend! Your fan club here is rooting for you!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I look forward to singing with you at Uncle Roy’s 13th VO BBQ (if my voice allows it). After my performance you might not want to be me, but that’s okay. See you soon!

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  3. Lee Cameron

    Hi, Paul,

    I’m a fellow voice actor, not working much these days but that’s another story, and I really appreciate your writing about your experiences. I decided to celebrate Heart Health Month with a heart attack on February 2, a bit of pneumonia from being in the hospital, and my own stroke just over a month before yours. Twas the season for VOs, I guess. I was super lucky with mine, it doesn’t seem to have affected my speech. I was worried about my voice for a while, but it seems to be back to normal and nobody who knows me in life or VO hears a difference. And I survived! I’m kind of glad I didn’t really know the stats before. These trials are really opportunities to learn about ourselves and allow life to take us in directions we never expected. I hope you’re finding new and fascinating things about yourself through all this. It sounds like you are.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m so glad you’re doing so well, Lee! You’re right: these episodes are learning opportunities, and I’m still discovering life lessons. Take care!

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  4. Kent Ingram

    Very inspirational! Something I read about and tried, to CURE acid reflux disease, were gelatin-filled capsules that you can buy at most nutrition stores. I’ve had GERD (or whatever you want to call it) since adolescence, which was a symptom of childhood-to-adult Sleep Apnea. All the best in your continued recovery, Paul!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for the tip, Kent. Unfortunately, most gelatin is not kosher (it’s made from pigs hooves), so I have to avoid that. Perhaps there’s a vegetarian alternative.

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  5. Larry

    Paul….God isn’t done with you yet, Paul! You have more encouragement and inspiration to hand out to others! Losing your voice as the day wears on hits home for me. I am finding that as I age, my voice is not as full later in the day. So best time for me to do voice work is prior to about 2pm. Easy does it, young man!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I have the same thing, Larry. I do my best work in the morning when my voice is still fresh. But as my vocal fold strengthen I hope to extend the time I can record.

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  6. Rhett Samuel Price

    Wonderful to hear you’re recovering Paul. It’s been quiet without you.

    Rhett

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Ahhh… that’s such a nice thing to say. I have been publishing a blog post every week since my stroke from my “vintage collection.” This month I finally had the energy to start writing again.

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  7. Monique

    Paul you are such an inspiration to me and so many orhers.

    You know, I lost my voice during VOA back in March. I thought it was just a virus, but when it didn’t come back after a month, I knew something was wrong. I had immediately gone to my ENT at the start of my symptoms but all his treatments were not effective in speeding up the recovery of my voice. He sent me to a gastroenterologist and I had tests run showing I had GERD, which was irritating my vocal folds. But like you, it was “silent” so I was not treating for all the years I had it. The virus probably triggered an episode which altered me to the problem.

    After some lifestyle changes and medications my voice e eventually came back…but like you, it was not my original voice. My lower tones were missing and I was running out of breath support. As someone who also makes their living using their voice to perform and teach, I too was feeling pretty devastated.

    Fortunately, with continued care, rest, eliminating coffee etc…elevating my head, and taking meds… my voice is back to normal after 6 months and has been back on track. I plan to make sure I do what I can to prevent that from happening again.

    You are far more stronger than I am Paul and are surrounded by an unbelievable support system. I have complete faith that you will continue to overcome these challenges and use this to further strengthen your career. Love and Cheer!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    VO Atlanta is easily THE place to lose one’s voice. I didn’t know it took you months to get it back. Prevention is the best cure, and I’m glad you made some changes to ensure that this won’t happen again. I’m following the same path. I hope to see you in Atlanta in 2019!

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  8. Jan Eliot

    You are an inspiration! Your positive outlook along with your positive actions means so much. Amazing strides on the road to recovery- thank you for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Jan. I’m very optimistic about my recovery, knowing what the brain can do to compensate for the loss of cells. It is miraculous!

    [Reply]

  9. Moe Rock

    Wow Paul!!

    The statistics are mind boggling! I’m so happy you beat the odds. You show such strength and positivity!

    Also, a HUGE kudos to Pam for all she is doing for you. I know that can’t be easy. I’m so glad you have each other.

    We are all here for you… cheering you on! You are an inspiration!

    ~Moe Rock

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    And I’ll be seeing you at Uncle Roy’s BBQ. Yeah!

    [Reply]

  10. Susan Hadash

    Paul, you are an inspiration. All best wishes for your continued recovery. I am glad that you have such a supportive wife and that you are being taken care of, and taking care of yourself, in the best way possible. I have no doubt that your positive attitude is giving you a real advantage.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Susan. I’ve started singing again to strengthen my voice, and I love it!

    [Reply]

  11. Conchita Congo

    How wonderful of you to share such details of your recovery journey! It will surely help so many others. I learned so much about stroke when I helped my mother through her recovery. There were no platforms like this to share information at that time.
    As someone who experiences TIAs, I am so appreciative for all you share.
    May your journey to perfect health continue smoothly.
    Thank you.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Conchita. I would be nowhere without my caregivers. They deserve a lot of credit.

    [Reply]

  12. Brad

    Paul, you’re the BEST.
    Thanks for sharing the struggle and the coming triumph… truly inspirational and helps me be more focused and grateful for the simple things.
    Please your bride that she’s a hero!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’ll let her know, Brad!

    [Reply]

  13. Paul J Stefano

    Keep up the good work. I know you will.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Sometimes doing “the good work” is not doing any work at all, and I’ve become quite good at it!

    [Reply]

  14. Dave johnston

    Good early morning Paul. This latest blog is so inspirational to me. Your passion and tenacity for this business of voiceover rivals the best of them. Since reading your book, ” Making money in your PJ’s.” I have continued to follow you. Thank you for the update. You have been, and will continue to be a guiding force in my life. May you continue to be blessed with continued recovery. You truly are amazing!!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for reading my book, and for following my career. Healing is a team effort, and I have to thank my doctors, therapists, friends, family, and colleagues for surrounding me with care. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

    [Reply]

  15. Steve Krumlauf

    Paul, you are a walking and now talking miracle! Thank you for giving us all hope. You are an incredible inspiration to all of us who struggle with any kind of challenge, medical or otherwise. With what you’ve shared with all of us, you have just written a manual on how to survive and thrive after a stroke. Well done, sir!

    [Reply]

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