Silences

This is an original essay I wrote for my collection on mental health, Learning to Breathe.

I have never been good at keeping quiet. But I had to learn how, growing up, if I wanted to know anything, being that silence was the currency that we traded in, I had to learn to listen to those silences, to the small spaces between the silences, in order to glean whatever scraps of information I could find, to be able to fill the spaces the silences left in my heart.

We were a family of secrets. But occasionally, there were cracks where the truth would come out, and if I was quiet enough, I could be there when they happened. There were gaps and lacks in my small, young mind, as I realized that I really wasn’t like other kids, that my house wasn’t like other kids’ houses, that those differences were inarticulate but no less powerful.

You had to learn to keep quiet about those differences because they were dangerous. When the differences showed, when they manifested themselves, I learned there were only two consequences – denial and dismissal or exclusion and expulsion. Often both. You had to pretend there was nothing wrong because, it was asserted, there wasn’t anything wrong, but because you would seem to insist in one way or another that there is, then you are excluded.

I was loud, which I learned can be attributed to my ADHD – we can’t modulate our voices because of our differently-wired brains. I was so loud and so full of words, and when they did spill out of me, they often weren’t heard, not well-received. I struggled to find someone, anyone, who at least tried to understand me, but time after time as I was dismissed and excluded, so I retreated into silence because at least it wasn’t as humiliating as filling the world up with my unwanted noise.

I filled the silences and corresponding spaces with written words, first through books, and then through my own writing. I couldn’t spell, my handwriting was terrible, but I filled notebook after journal after scraps of paper after blank spaces on a screen. The constant narration going on in my head now had a place to go, because while outside was filled with silences, my head was no. It was never quiet inside, never calm, never settled. It was all rushing thoughts and feelings and words, so many words, words that seemed to come from nowhere strung together in ways I couldn’t contain.

And I got a walkman, that essential piece of late-1980s, early-1990s technology that allowed me to fill my ears with music, to counter the silence, to engage one part of my brain so the other could better concentrate on the words I needed to write, that a few of the streams could be still for some precious moments, listening to the music. I would listen to music and write and write and write and the world became so small and manageable, somehow less isolated and lonely.

Silences growing up where rarely calm. Instead they were tense, on edge as to not wake up my shift-working father, not to provoke him and then not to provoke my step-father. There were silences that were the aftermath of the provocations, choking back tears, swallowing shame, pushing down anger until I broke again and again and again. Showing up at school, sobbing uncontrollably, unable to stop, to talk, to explain, just pain and shame and exhaustion from holding it in, holding it down, holding it together.

I was always expected to be happy. Always. I had to make things better with my smile and complacency and my chipper willingness to just go with the flow. Except when doing the things that made me happy wasn’t acceptable. I had to be happy within the narrow definition of what happiness should look like. Be more gracious, be more enthusiastic, be more diligent, be more satisfied. I now struggle to watch the movie Inside/Out even though the conclusion of the movie is learning to accept sadness, accept feeling sadness and anger and disappointment as normal and necessary. It is my son’s favorite movie to watch when he’s struggling with his emotions, as it gives him the message that it is ok to feel your feelings. I watch with him and sob, demonstrating that same lesson.

I longed for loud. I longed for laughter and stories and sharing and intimacy and connection. I was tired of secrets and shame. I was tired of there only being one acceptable emotion to express. I was tired of after-the-fact, like finding out much later my grandmother was an alcoholic or that my mother also suffered from postpartum depression or that my other grandmother had probably also been depressed. I learned not to ask questions, but keep quiet instead hoping I could piece together some truth, some explanation as to why we were what we were, who we were.

I wanted to wrap myself in loud, and as I got older, I found loud on the dance floors of the 1990s, thumping dance music, droning alternative music. I could release the loud through my body, through dancing, through singing along. I could connect with the people on the dance floor as we moved separately together to the same beats. It was one of the only spaces where I could relax. I’m sure the alcohol helped, but I was usually too broke to drink all that much, so it was just the energy of the music and the dance floor that pushed me along, fed me, freed me.

You were supposed to be too much on the dance floor. In everything other space I was always too much or not enough but on the dance floor I was just me. Don’t be so loud, don’t be so emotional, don’t take up so much space, don’t talk so much, don’t be sad, don’t be mad, don’t let them hurt you, don’t laugh so loud. On the dance floor, in the relatively darkness, none of that mattered. None of it. It didn’t matter that my brain worked differently and I didn’t know why. We were all the same on the dance floor.

I wanted silences to be filled with intimacies, with sharing, with connecting with another person, let the silence be filled with their stories, with empathy and compassion and openness and understanding. After writing, my other hyperfocus was people, people and their words, their feelings, their stories. I wanted to hear as much as I wanted to be heard. When you notice everything, to have your field of vision filled with one person, to then experience that one person, can be a beautiful thing.

It can also be intense, unexpected, startling, too much. And often people aren’t as ready to offer the same kind of space in return, so the silence returns. When you can’t simply answer the question, how are you, with the expected response of “fine”; when you can’t tell a story straight; when you ramble because you care – this makes it hard to connect, to make friends, even though that’s what you are trying to do. But it doesn’t work that way, so silence returns.

I have made a house of loud, of feeling your feelings, as free from shame as society will allow. I see my kids struggle at making friends, their too-muchness sometimes rejected, just as mine still is today. But I also see them connect, truly connect, with the people who will matter to them, and for whom they will matter, and I rejoice. There will always be silences, but I hope that our silences are spaces of, if not peace, if not relaxation, if not calmness, because an ADHD mind is almost never those things, then at least a space where they are comfortable in that space, supported, loved.

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