My voice has always been hard to find. I remember as a child someone asking me: “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” I was livid, and yes, it DID feel like a cat had my tongue. If someone asked me to repeat something, I would repeat it, but a little bit quieter the second time. The story goes, that I took a long time to start talking. When my mom would ask me what I wanted, my sister would answer for me. My mom, eager to have me speak for myself, would ask me if that’s what I wanted. I would just nod. I have no idea if it actually was what I wanted, or if agreeing to it was preferable to speaking.
As I write I can feel my chest getting tight and my throat constricting. The decades of work learning to use my voice can disappear in an instant. It’s not so much the memories or stories themselves, but the feeling I associate with not being able to talk. I imagine it’s something like the feeling of drowning or claustrophobia. It’s not just that it’s hard to speak, but my body actually won’t allow it sometimes.
Throughout my life, in situations where I have to speak in a group (or even when I think I might be called on to speak), I have experienced an adrenaline rush as the moment looms near, or I feel like there’s something I want to say and am psyching myself up to say it. The sensations include increased heart rate, sweaty palms and armpits, dry mouth, and dizziness, among other things. I hate it, with a vengeance, and part of this is because I want to communicate. Contributing who I am to the world, and being present for others in the world demands that I learn how to communicate and that’s why I have spent years learning to function in an extroverted world. What I have discovered through this process is that finding my voice requires two things: a space safe enough to allow me to find my voice without coercion, and a willingness to travel back in time to reclaim the pieces of my voice I have lost.
The first piece in finding my voice – a safe space – would come in the form of talented and gentle professional support. Over more than a decade of regular somatic and therapeutic supports, I began to trust that my voice was there. Not all of these relationships were positive, and what those taught me was, any directive or controlling behaviour immediately shut down the feeling that I had a voice. I needed safety and care. I needed someone to hold the space, but not insert themselves into it. Finding my voice was a very scary endeavour, and I needed it to be 100% mine.
The Expressive Arts Therapist that I did sessions with throughout my schooling as an Expressive Arts Therapist said that finding the work felt like coming home. This was exactly what it felt like for me. As client-centred work that is about process more than goals or results, it offered a safe container that allowed me to reach deeper. I found a place where I could let go of my fear of taking up space. I remember one day bringing a poem along with an art piece to class. The art piece was on a long roll of paper, and the poem had some questionable language in it. When it came my turn to present my piece, I paused for a moment, considering whether to apologize in advance for the language, and whether or not to roll out my obnoxiously large art into the circle. I chose not to apologize, and dramatically (in my mind at least!) sent the end of the paper rolling across the room, filling the entire space. It was like a breathe of fresh air. And it was the safety I felt in the group that allowed me to step into that.
The other beautiful thing about Expressive Arts Therapy is that there are a number of modalities available to explore. I found that using my voice was far from the only way to discover it. Sometimes there was an easier way to access my voice without actually using it. During my individual therapy sessions, I would sometimes laugh if my therapist asked me if there were any words or sounds that came as part of movement I was doing. She knew it was hard for me, and yet, she kept offering me the opportunity because she had faith that it was there. I’m grateful I could laugh about it, but underneath that laughter was a feeling of tightness in my throat – almost like it would be impossible to say anything or make any sounds. But sometimes through painting an image of my voice, I could feel it deepen, or by writing poetry and then reading it, I could express what wouldn’t come directly.
Then there were the beautiful moments when my voice came into the space, even when I thought it couldn’t. In one very vulnerable moment after movement, I hummed myself a lullaby that was tender, raw, and comforting all at once. I don’t always know how to get back to that place, but if it happened once, I know it can happen again. This is one of the most powerful things about Expressive Arts Therapy I think; the opportunity to experience somatically, something that the body can remember and return to.
The other piece around finding my voice is going “there and back again”. Travelling back in time both to rediscover who I genuinely am, as well as to reclaim the moments that have disempowered me, is what gives my voice grounding in the present. This is, most importantly, about coming full circle. It is easy to get trapped in the past, and it is also just as easy to adamantly avoid the past, pretending it has no impact on the present. A willingness to travel full circle is a very powerful process. Experiencing and honouring the challenges and beauty of my past, and using those insights has brought great depth to my life in the present.
Growing up with religion is one of the experiences that stole my voice. As a pre-teen, I would lie awake at night, my stomach in knots, worrying about when God (with a capital “G”) would descend from the clouds and take some of my family away from me. I never questioned whether it was okay or not, or whether I should believe it or not. I knew it was true, and I dreaded the moment it would happen. I had no say. I had no control. I could only wait, and this made me feel helpless.
Travelling back to this time in my life – sometimes through art and sometimes through finding my way back to a more holistic spiritual connection – allows me to see that time through wiser eyes. It allows me to experience the terror of those moments while bringing the wisdom and care I have gained over the years. More pieces of this remain to be uncovered, but I don’t let them hold me in that place at the expense of my present.
Discovering the beauty of who I was born to be is sometimes found in memories of who I was before I started to retreat into myself. Photos from that time or art I did as a young child can sometimes offer a window into that part of me. Playfulness and movement also open up this window. In our class in clowning in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program, I discovered my capacity to play. This is not an experience I have often had as an adult, but working through “turns” in front of my classmates allowed me to travel back to a feeling of play and a sense of the parts of me that have been covered over by life’s challenges.
As we travel through the process of birth, childhood, challenges, putting on our burdens, carrying them until we get weary, and working our way back out, it is nice when we can find a thread that allows us to measure the changes, and measure our progress. For me this is singing. I used to sing in church with my sister – her presence giving me courage I wouldn’t have had alone. I started playing guitar at 17, and joined high school choir shortly after. My musical friend would sing our alto part in my ear until I learned it because I couldn’t read music well. The night after my son was born, I sang to him as I held him in my arms late at night. In my late 20s, when I was venturing out on my own as a single mom, I would play guitar late at night, sometimes tears running down my cheeks, processing all the layers I was trying to get out from under. As I continued the work to get into my body, I slowly began to feel the strength coming back into my voice. The sound now comes through more clearly and the shaking is less noticeable. Even when I talk, I feel a certainty in my words, and I feel the sound coming from my abdomen instead of my throat. In this world filled with uncertainty and change, I hold onto these measuring sticks like a lifeline. It’s hard to recognize our own shifts, and hard to gauge how that’s impacting other people. My voice has given me a way to measure my progress.
I read a book once about writing an autobiography (maybe I will someday!) and although I don’t remember the author, I do remember that she talked about finding a thread in your story. If you wrote down the events of your life chronologically and factually it might be interesting to your family to have a record of it, but it wouldn’t make for a very good story. As humans, we look for meaning in the world around us, and in the same way, finding the thread (or threads) in your life can help you see how far you’ve come and give you a sense that there is continuity and meaning in your life. I have discovered that my voice is one of those threads.