Generation Grit: She lost her voice, now she helps others

Crystal Goh planned to become a singer-songwriter until she lost her voice to a rare neurological condition. Over time she found it again, though not in the way she expected, she tells The Straits Times in this series about millennials who inspire us.

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Singer-songwriter Crystal Goh lost her voice after being diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia. She later recovered and founded Diamonds on the Street, an initiative where she teaches vulnerable teenagers to turn their life experiences into song.

SINGAPORE - The day is etched in her memory. Ms Crystal Goh woke up one morning in April 2011 and could not muster a decipherable word.

"It sounded like I was having a very bad sore throat. Like I was being strangled," she said. "People couldn't understand me when I spoke."

Her world came crashing down.

Though the National University of Singapore Arts and Social Sciences graduate worked as a writer at World Vision Singapore, a humanitarian group, her real passion was to sing, which she did at pubs, weddings and other venues during the nights and weekends.

As long as Ms Goh, 32, could remember, singing was an integral part of her life.

It was something she inherited from her father, an engineer, who loved to sing and was a fan of country music. In fact, he named the older of his two children after American country singer Crystal Gayle.

From the age of five or six, Ms Goh knew she had a talent.

"My voice was my main source of beauty. I knew it was something people would applaud me for," she said. "My plan was always to go into music full time some day."

When she realised she had lost her gift, it was devastating.

She went to several family doctors, who all thought it was probably a sore throat from the flu.

When it didn't get better, she went to three or four specialists until one finally put her name to her condition - a rare neurological disorder called spasmodic dysphonia, in which the muscles of the voice box go into spasms.

The doctor told her he did not know of anyone who had recovered from it and the only treatment was to have Botox injections through the neck into the vocal cords to stop the spasms temporarily.

It was a painful option and not a long-term solution to her problem.

"As someone who loves to communicate, that joy was gone. I not only found it hard to sing, I also had little reason to sing," she said. "I would cry in my room, asking God why something so precious and so much a part of me had to be taken away."

Everyday tasks like having a conversation with a friend or ordering food at a hawker centre became a hurdle to overcome. She shunned social gatherings.

This went on for close to half a year until she experienced a few breakthroughs.

She had written a song for the wedding of a good friend, who insisted Ms Goh perform it herself on the big day.

Ms Goh hesitated, afraid her voice, which was breaking every few seconds, would ruin her friend's wedding. In the end, she did sing, though not before explaining to the wedding guests why her voice was the way it was.

To her surprise, many in the audience were moved by her performance and told her.

She said: "From then on, I realised it is not about how well I sing and if I impress others. By singing, I can share my story and to give hope to others."

At work, her boss was supportive and encouraged her to continue singing and writing songs. She also told her a story from the Bible of a woman who found the strength to sing, despite her despair at her circumstances.

Miss Goh read that story almost daily for a year as it was "a glimmer in the darkness".

Inspired by it, she wrote a song, There Will Be Spring, to remind herself of the importance of hope.

The song also sparked the birth of Diamonds on the Street.

On Christmas Eve in 2012, Ms Goh visited a home for female delinquents with some friends.

Though she found it still a struggle to speak, she wanted to share her experience and encourage the young women there.

Soon, she started volunteering at the home, helping the girls turn their life experiences into songs.

Thus was born Diamonds on the Street, an initiative named for those precious stones that emerge after being tested by pressure and heat.

Through songwriting and storytelling programmes run by the group, young people explore their life experiences and relationships that shape them.

The process helps them to learn more about themselves, and begin to accept themselves and their loved ones, Ms Goh said. They also learn that they are not alone.

For example, one 15-year-old girl composed her first song and dedicated it to her estranged older sister, whom she yearned to reconnect with.

Their relationship improved after she shared her song with her sister and they began to speak more openly to each other.

So far, Diamonds on the Street, which she started with two friends and is now registered as a social enterprise, has reached out to about 200 vulnerable youths, such as those from troubled families.

By 2013, Ms Goh said, her voice had improved significantly.

She can now speak audibly, though she has bad days when her voice troubles her.

She is also taking a part-time master's degree in Music Education at the National Institute of Education to be able to better design and run music programmes, especially to reach out to vulnerable youths.

Ms Chua Jia Lin, a 33-year-old public servant and a good friend, said she was struck by Ms Goh's resilience.

She said: "It's this hope that Crystal has that enabled her to start Diamonds on the Street and make the best out of her condition. The hope that she will recover and there's a reason for her condition."

Today, Ms Goh makes her living as a freelance writer and music teacher.

Though this is not the path she once envisaged for herself, she can say, with honesty, that she has no regrets about what happened to her.

She said: "Though I lost my voice, I'm now part of a bigger collective of people helping others who are struggling to find their voices."

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