The Art of Silence — What I Learned from Nearly 2 Months of Complete Vocal Rest and Nearly 2 Year’s Worth of Healing

In September of 2015, my ENT (Ears, Nose & Throat) doctor strongly advised I undergo a surgery on both my problematic sinuses and vocal folds that would require total silence as post-surgery recovery. As a singer-songwriter, actress, yoga-instructor, and all-around vocal over-user, the prospect of not speaking for 2 months terrified me. I was in the process of finishing songs for a debut E.P., had a big singing opportunity coming up, and was working on a film. I mean, I would be unable to work…that was a given. But how would I communicate? What would I do to order a simple latte or call Time Warner Cable? Like many things, I took my voice for granted until it was gone (as I suspect most of us do). Thankfully, having incredibly expressive facial muscles can come in handy for something other than a game of charades and premature forehead wrinkles.

What led me to the point of going under the proverbial knife is a long story that continues on to this very day — a chronic autoimmune disease affecting my thyroid that in turn affects my stomach and leads to chronic acid refluxing, reaching and burning both my larynx and vocal cords, chronic sinusitis that after months of antibiotics just wouldn’t go away (see immune system disorder above), living long-term in an apartment that contained toxic black mold inside of the ceiling unbeknownst to me due to a pipe leak (that further weakened said immune system), lots of talking and singing over the above irritation for work (and, well, a social life) — mix in a big singing opportunity that I needed my voice for ASAP and you’ve got the perfect storm. This is just the short gist of it. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s a complicated issue that I have continued to endure and fight to piece together. Health — another thing we take for granted until we can no longer rely on our own body to sustain us.

The most disheartening feeling I’ve ever experienced is when your heart, mind, and soul is desperately willing, ready, and able to tackle a dream, but your body isn’t there with you.

The journey of going to doctor’s office after doctor’s office, appointment after appointment, resting, then inching forward, has taught me many things. A few of which I will reflect on here.

*If you just want to read the journal entry I wrote during my extended period of complete and utter silence — scroll down to “Not Speaking — The Art of Silence”

Okay, continuing on:

  1. Doctors are, for the most part, just intelligently guessing when it comes to a diagnosis. It is absolutely insane how many doctors all agree something is wrong with me, but have very differing opinions on what that thing is and/or what has caused it. These are top doctors in their respective fields we are talking about — looking at the same tests, the same ultrasounds, MRIs and laryngoscopes. I say this with the utmost respect to doctors. Doctors are life-savers and ultimately necessary. My dad is one, himself, and he has agreed with my sentiment that diagnosis and treatment within the medical community is ultimately, oftentimes a strategic experiment of trial and error. Being a patient in need of a remedy, this isn’t comforting to hear. But, from my experience, it is the truth. I have since taken a more holistic approach to healing involving diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes. Trust me when I say that I have tried most everything under the sun (within my sphere of awareness that is) and that when you are not well, all you want more than anything is to be well.
  2. When you have a dream — no matter how distant or impossible that dream is starting to feel and look — you fight for it. There have been so many times when it would have been easier to just throw in the towel. There have been many times that others have suggested I should.
“You’re great, Kara. Really, really talented. BUT, say we have a basketball player who is the most incredible player on the planet, but he also has a torn achilles…he’s not cut out for the NBA.”

And it makes sense. I get it. I truly do. These are the doubts that echo in my own mind when I’m on the brink of giving up or breaking down. So to hear it from someone else is nothing new or surprising. But I love singing more than anything. Performing puts me in this moment unlike anything else. Songwriting brings new life to my stories. It’s made me realize how deep the desire to create in this way lives within me. I’ve still encountered the same trials and tribulations that one may encounter chasing an “unrealistic” dream as a performer, but add health problems that prevent you from potentially even getting to step 2 on top of that and it becomes all the more disheartening. Heck, I’ve even surprised myself with how tenacious I have become in the pursuit of a dream. What does all this mean? DON’T GIVE UP. Even when things feel impossible, even when they seem to prove themselves as impossible — don’t give up. We will find a way. Even if that’s a road that we haven’t yet spotted or we end up driving around potholes we didn’t expect, hitting dead-ends along the way and then turning back around to take the side streets. It’s like that really annoying freeway closure. We will find a way. Okay. Cheesy metaphor over.

This leads me to my next thought

3. Stay in your lane. Don’t compare yourself to others. You may end up having to do something in a way that is entirely unconventional. I know this is said a lot, but I feel it needs to be repeated. It doesn’t matter how fast you go as long as you keep moving. The wrong people will hop off your bus and the right people will hop on. I’ve had to repeat this to myself over and over and over again. It’s incredibly easy to look at people who (have their own unique battles) and judge your own path and progress. But don’t fall into that trap. I’ve had to learn not to rush things and to trust that I am exactly where I need to be. After surgery, I have since discovered that it was ultimately unnecessary and also harmful. The doctor removed essential turbinates that I will never get back and that affect my breathing, especially within high-altitude. It’s very hard not to beat myself up over that decision. Why didn’t I take more time to make it? Why did I blindly trust a doctor? Why did I think the opportunity I was rushing it for was the end all be all, when it clearly wasn’t? It’s definitely taught me a lot about patience and taking care of yourself and your health first and foremost. I’ve had to accept that the timetable in my head is not and was not necessarily reality. That vocal rest I was freaking out about that I thought would only be 2 months (lol)? Well, it’s been off and on for 2 years. My expectations were totally inaccurate and it’s been a journey of learning to surrender. It’s not about how fast you go — life is about the now, not about the destination. I know that’s easier said than understood. I have a hard time with it. But, truthfully:

I feel more joyful, more fulfilled, more capable and more grateful when I am accepting and surrendering to where I am at, instead of fighting against it.

4. Set boundaries. Give yourself the space and time to heal. As a people-pleaser, it can be tough when others don’t necessarily understand what I’m going through as oftentimes I do not want to inconvenience them and will jump through hoops to do things as not to disappoint even though I’m not feeling great myself. I’ve had to learn to say “no” more and I’m still working on it. This does not come innately to me whatsoever. My tendency is to say “yes” and to help and to “make it work.” I’m actively trying to become more and more conscious of this tendency. It helps for me to realize that each of our feelings are our own. That meaning, I can’t make someone feel a certain way, just as someone else can’t make me feel a certain way. Just because someone is disappointed or cannot understand why you declined their party invite to rest, doesn’t make you responsible for their disappointment. It is codependent to believe we are in control over another’s feelings and that if we do x, y, or z they will be happy and pleased or vice versa.

All of that said, I am now in the process of making my debut album (you know, the one that I was starting at the beginning of my story —oy vey). The songs have been written for a while (though a few new ones have snuck their way in, here or there), but I am finally, after a looonggg road, back to recording. I still feel many of the symptoms that started me on this journey nearly 2 years ago, but have also learned new techniques with which to cope with those symptoms and to push on anyway (as gracefully as possible). Some include weird nasal rinses, strange steaming contractions, odd exercises, 70 different supplements…I digress. Sometimes we have to take a big and scary leap, even though we don’t see the net and actually have many, many, many reasons (some may say evidence) to believe that the net isn’t actually there.

Leap and the net will appear.
-zen saying

Now that I’m starting the next chapter of my creative life, I discovered a journal entry that I wrote in the middle of my initial 2 months of complete and utter silence (post-surgery) nearly a year and a half ago. I brought around a white board and dry-erase markers. I used this app in my phone that you could type into and it would “speak” in this hilarious automated robot voice. I must admit that the aftermath has been more challenging than I could have ever imagined, but this initial period of silence was one of my favorites and so transformative. This is what actually spurred this post as I re-read the below entry and reflected upon all that I have come to experience and learn since. Here is the original journal entry (when I use the word “you,” I am mostly speaking to myself as it is an entry):

Not Speaking — The Art of Silence

I actually kind of like not speaking. On the one hand, it’s difficult because no one understands what you are saying and so you feel kind of powerless; voiceless — and in many ways you are. On the other hand, no one can bother you in the same ways or expect you to answer them as you normally would (and there is a power in this). They can text, but they are aware that your response is going to be limited, perhaps slow or delayed. People in public leave you alone more — mainly because they believe you are disabled.
But it makes me realize that we all speak a lot of unnecessary words. Much of what we say is fluff, just to fill the air. Because silence terrifies us. Silence allows for the thoughts we have buried in constant chatter or distraction to surface. And with nowhere to run or no one to turn to, but back into our own minds, we are forced to deal with them (assuming we aren’t self-medicating through some other, more lonesome distraction).
People have been very kind to me. They do treat you differently without a voice — perhaps because so much of my self-image and personality lies in my ability to vocalize. Two men hit on me while I was playing the guitar (so I couldn’t write out, type, or mime anything). They asked if I was deaf and then left, not knowing what to do or how to respond. It was an interesting experience. I may have to try this tactic in the future when attempting to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, such as the one that was ensuing.
My friends have said mixed things. On the one hand, some friends have said my facial expressions are so on-point that they pretty much can hear me saying what I’m thinking and that I write with a rhythm that mimics how I speak. On the other hand, some friends have said that being around mute Kara is a very “weird” experience, being that it is the polar opposite of me energetically speaking all of the time.
I’ve noticed that some friends, in which I normally dominate conversation, don’t know what to say. Some say more and I then realize that perhaps I was not listening as closely as I should have or could have been before.
Those I share my life with and talk philosophies of the universe with until the wee hours of the night (well, a.m.), have the hardest time with silent me. I can tell. Though, they also make the most effort to find alternate forms of communication.
People act like you’re not as bright when you can’t speak. The truth is that you may see and know more. When you are carefully observing, I have noticed that your other senses are heightened and much less goes unnoticed.
I could tire myself out talking before — giving over so much of my energy through words — filling in all of my friends, listening and advising them in my typical long-winded manner. Now I can listen and not offer up a solution…and sometimes I think that is all we’re really looking for when we speak anyway. The answer is already within ourselves, we just talk it out in order to find it, taking in advice from all of those around us and then trying to find our own voice amidst the noise.
Sometimes I do feel trapped inside my body, especially on the days when I’m out and about (ironic, huh?). Mainly because everyone starts to put words in your mouth and assumes what you’re saying (when it’s not what you were, in fact, trying to say). One day, I felt it all bottling up inside of me and I could cry in an instant if anyone had let me — mostly, no one noticed the mood shift because I was silent (and normally that would mean something was wrong, but now that’s just me being there).
The people who always call and “need” you seem to begin to find their own way. And that is both comforting and important for you to realize — you are NOT the end all, be all. When you must take care of yourself, others can and will take care of themselves.
It’s mentally exhausting to be around people like this, writing your thoughts down takes triple the amount of time than saying them. So you just say less. And you accept that much will be misunderstood — which is particularly tough on someone who thrives on mutual understanding and connection — so much so that she will write this, tons of songs, a screenplay and act just to find some semblance of it. But there is something to be said about being okay with being misunderstood, accepting that not everyone (or even anyone) must understand you.
Silence means going inward. It means taking naps when you never have before. It means listening to albums start to finish without a phone call to distract you. It means asking yourself what you really want and just deeply knowing what that is, without the chatter and opinions of the outside world pulling you in different directions. It’s trusting others to speak for you. It’s enjoying being home more than being in public. It’s reading books. It’s song ideas with no way to document them, a melody lingering until it fades into oblivion. It’s sleeping when you need to and realizing that’s more than you usually do. It’s being happier and more mindful in the stillness than in the mindless going, going, going. It’s recognizing goodness in others that you’ve perhaps missed or overlooked. And it’s knowing that when you have a voice you must use it. But only to say what you really must. To say what you would die without saying. Though mostly, you would find a way to do that anyway — speaking voice or not.
It’s also realizing that those who love you would in many ways go to the end of the earth for you. That there are so many more people on your team than you ever thought. And that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Because even though you hate it, people really do want to give much more than they want to take (well, for the most part).
I deeply hope that everyone gets to experience this kind of silence and the internal reflection that comes with it at some point or another (hopefully not for the same reasons and instead self-determined).