Nick Robinson, former political editor for the BBC and now a presenter on the Today programme, last week spoke about 'the battle' to get his voice back. This was an event hosted by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists attended by a packed room of journalists, speech and language therapists, and curious hearts and minds from many walks of life. The evening was a dialogue between Nick, who has now made a full recovery from lung cancer but in the process suffered damage to his larynx, and his warm-hearted and guiding speech and language therapist, Julia Selby, who accompanied him on his journey through vocal rehabilitation and return to public life.
Nick told us how hard it was - 'devastating' - to lose his voice. For him, his family, his colleagues and for everyone who heard his 'rasping, croaky voice'. He felt he had lost himself. Receiving a cancer diagnosis was almost secondary. Gladly, he is now doing well, following the skills of vocal surgeon Guri Sandhu, and with Julia's quietly reassuring and meticulous help. She is a present-day female Lionel Logue of The King's Speech fame, on hand behind the camera and in the studios when Nick begins public speaking again on the BBC and Radio 4, with supportive hand-gestures, steam inhalations and mint tea to remind Nick of his strategies and techniques. Nick spoke movingly about losing his identity - his core identity which comes from his voice.
The battle to have the voice we think we should have is something many trans and non-binary clients I work with are grappling with on a daily basis. Some find a comfortable place quickly and absorb voice exercises and skills easily; others are clear they are happy with their voices as they are; some take a bit of time to leave old habits behind and find new ones which feel true and sound authentic. Nick Robinson's inspiring story reminds us that our voices are in the public domain and we have to learn to handle people's perceptions of and responses to us. But people who are exploring their voices related to their gender and social role transition are moving from a place of the known to the totally unknown. They don't know how their voices will sound at the end of therapy, or maybe what they are aiming for.
This is the true nature of what might be called a healing process - the aim is to take people not back to a state previously known, but forward to a new territory of self-awareness and understanding, of self-confidence and possibility. And so this has been for Nick - his voice may sound largely familiar and as it was remembered, but as he told us, he has journeyed to a new land of self-resilience and understanding, and he has had to make adjustments.
Nick's voice is what defines him - to himself and to us - as a professional speaker and commentator - but he could not totally return to his old voice and has battled and gained to accept himself as he is now, and be accepted as he is by everyone who hears him. Speech and psychological therapists know that change emerges from new relationship and gaining new insights about the skilful ways we can cope with what life brings. New stories are revealed. Gender transition is a liminal space, a threshold where individuals decide what to leave behind and what to take forward with consciousness. I am reminded of one of my clients recently and her wise advice about voice exploration for other trans individuals: 'I did the exercises, I tried things out, I left things behind, and then one day it just clicked and it was a kind of vocal magic'. Voice is an expressive, exploring but ultimately a doing thing - in travelling to the new, we let go of old patterns that no longer serve us, we claim our new identity and 'go for it!'