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My Story of Losing and Finding My Voice

Children should be seen and not heard was a frequent refrain growing up. I'm sure my mother copied it from her mother, who was born in 1913. We weren't allowed to share our thoughts or feelings about an issue when we were displeased. My Dad was loud when he got angry, and I internalized that loud voices were scary and that it wasn't safe to disagree with someone in charge.

Still, my voice wanted to be heard. I won several poetry recitation contests in the 2nd grade, beating several high school students from other schools. Being a middle child, I loved the attention and would ham it up for the video camera every chance I got.

I wasn't afraid to get up in front of people until a mishap in high school. I participated in my big southern baptist church's youth Sunday, in which the entire service was led by youth. I was supposed to read several scriptures, alternating with a girl named Sara. Sara and I were buddies, and we somehow got so tickled hearing our voices booming from the microphone that we started laughing and couldn't stop.

Tears rolled down our pink faces. I crossed my legs as I doubled over in laughter, praying I wouldn't pee on myself. The podium microphone picked up every sound as we tried in vain to suppress our laughs. The more I tried to read the scriptures, the harder I laughed. Sara had to read my scripture and hers while I stood by shaking with laughter. I was beyond mortified. Although many faces in the crowd were laughing or at least smiling along with us, my dad wasn't one of them. I can still see his beet-red face staring at me; teeth gritted in anger and disappointment.

I swore I'd never get up in front of a crowd and be the center of attention again. However, I cared about my grades more than embarrassment. I pulled it together and forced myself to participate in my small speech class at my community college despite my body's new habit of turning blotchy and red whenever I was embarrassed.

In my sophomore year, I transferred to UGA and quickly learned it was safer to play small. Smart wasn't cool, at least not in my circles. I was also highly self-conscious about my exaggerated southern accent. I spoke as little as possible in class.

When I went to PA school at Emory, I was mortified that we had to speak in front of 50 classmates and teachers the first day. I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide. During PA school, I again hid the fact that I was smart. I played the role of the ditzy southern girl. My classmates admitted they were surprised when I graduated Summa Cum Laude.

When we moved to Montana early in our marriage, I was shocked that I couldn't even ask for something at the deli counter without everyone noticing my accent. I felt like pretending I was mute and putting it on a sheet of paper to slide across the counter. I got a job working at a bakery. I dreaded Thursdays when we had wine fig bread. The customers would notice the way I said my long "i" in the word wine. The number "nine" came out sounding the same way. It was a relief the first time we went home to GA over Christmas. I was in a department store and heard other southern accents for the first time in months. I felt like I fit in again.

When we moved back to Georgia, I felt immediately at home. My accent no longer stood out. Even though I stopped hiding my voice, I also didn't use it to stand up for myself or speak what was on my mind. I'd started a new job with a female boss who wasn't afraid to fire people. I was a yes ma'am girl. I did as I was told and worked hard to be a pleaser. It worked. As long as I kept doing whatever was asked of me, everything was smooth. The problem was a little nagging voice inside that said, "Why are you putting up with this?" It urged me to find my voice. I couldn't. I kept quiet. My migraines worsened, and a lab test revealed my thyroid was under attack from my immune system.

I didn't feel like I could tell my boss how I felt about the way she was treating me, but I finally decided I had to quit. My mouth was bone dry as I handed her my resignation letter and squeaked out the words. I think my throat chakra came alive after that. All of a sudden, I started getting strange urges. I felt like giving talks--about what, I had no idea, but I went to a Toast Master's meeting and signed up to give a solo talk to pre-PA students. I also began getting the urge to learn a new language, Spanish. I hired a Spanish tutor and began learning the words and pronunciations in earnest. Lastly, I'd always been a writer, but I now felt a pull to get my words "out there." I started a blog the same year and joined a local writing group.

I'm slowly learning to listen to my inner voice and trust it. I spoke out at the dentist this week when he wanted to perform a procedure I felt in my gut wasn't safe (removing a mercury filling without proper equipment). I'm also feeling more and more comfortable speaking in front of groups. I don't know if I'll ever be able to handle an auditorium of people staring at me, but at least I control the nervous giggles now.

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