We need to talk about silence. We need to talk about the way that silence kills loved ones. We need to talk about the way victims who break their silence find themselves re-silenced or turned away from. We need to understand who benefits from silence and who suffers. We need to notice the moments when we stay silent and uncover why we were so afraid of speaking that we swallowed down our words. We need to take individual responsibility for the times we silence other and the times we silence ourselves. We need to talk about silence. Let me start by telling you about mine.
My silence started young. In fact it started at birth when my twin sister and I arrived in the world two weeks early and I was born with 'primary atelectasis' (or 'lazy lung syndrome' as I prefer to call it). I don't know if military hospitals are particularly overcautious but before our mum had even woken up from surgery I had been baptised by the military chaplain. I'm not sure if I was put on a ventilator but if I was then I would have soundlessly been crying. In any case I almost certainly did not come out of our mother's womb with the customary vagitanus screams of a new born infant.
And then my silence deepened. My twin sister and I were in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first two weeks of our lives. I've only read fairly recently that a crying newborn will stop crying out within a matter of days if they are not attended to. That certainly sheds new light on our mum's observation that we were exceptionally well-behaved babies who very rarely cried throughout our early infancy. And I've also discovered over the past year that my challenging entry into the world, together with the impact of other traumatic childhood experiences, not only meant I was predisposed to becoming a future victim of abuse from day 1 but also that my life quality and life expectancy were somewhat dented from that moment on.
And so my silence continued through childhood. No one really even had to tell me to be silent, a single glance from an irate adult and I effortlessly silenced myself. But I also found ways to speak up ... unfortunately they were silent screams in a world that doesn't want to hear the voices of those who are suffering. Headaches, sleep walking, sleep talking, earache, sore throats, ravenous reading, fainting without warning, excelling at school, fitting in, seeking sanctuary and respite in the school sick bay and our local library. My school reports largely comment on what a "pleasant" child I was. But early on a teacher venomously asked me if I knew the meaning of the word 'hypochondriac' and other teachers made it clear that I was trying too hard and my raised hand in class increasingly went ignored 'to give the other children a chance'. As the years went on I stayed silent through emotional abuse, bullying and intimidation. I stayed silent on the outside and put all my energy into trying to make sense of the world I found myself in on the inside. Tears and words swallowed down as easily as aspirin.
Through the eyes of a child my silence makes complete sense and, even though it didn't always keep me safe, it did keep me alive - even if I was simply surviving rather than thriving. Looking back now it is the silence of others that I find the silence of others most shocking. The doctor who diagnosed me with tension headaches, the teachers who didn't ask why I was trying so hard and worrying so much, close family who didn't ask my stepfather why it was necessary for young children to eat every meal in complete silence. And in recent years those who have responded to the news of my depression and anxiety first with sympathy and then with untold personal stories of their own suffering in silence. And also the silence of my current GP and the healthcare profession as a whole who seemingly have not once thought to tell me that the circumstances of my birth alone left me vulnerable to a profound sense of aloneness that would be very likely to lead me early to my grave, either at my own hand or as a result of the ghostly shadow my "early life adversity" is likely to have cast over my nervous system, my brain and my heart. It seems strange that when interventions to tackle the damaging after-effects of early adversity were first being rolled out, no one thought to ask 'and what of the walking wounded, the spirit murdered and those who harbour a terrified child within their soul? What of the damaged parents who will be taking these newly protected children home? What can we do to heal them? And what cost to humanity if they continue to roam the world unhealed?' Silence is met with deeper silence.
Silence told me I would be safe if I didn't talk back and that even rolling my eyes was a crime against my stepfather's authority. It told me that I was wrong to trust my innate sense of injustice and that I should ignore the swallowed down fury that made my throat hurt and my bones shake. Silence told me that the sky was not falling in and that threats to my safety came from strangers, not in my home. Silence told me not to shout for help, not to raise the alarm and not to cry unless I was alone. Silence told me I was invisible and that no-one was listening to my screams. Silence told me everything was okay. Silence became my home and silence nearly killed me.
I appreciate that my words above are veering dangerously close to being hyperbolic and maybe I am grossly overstating the risk. Maybe I'm not a fragile ticking timebomb after all. Maybe I should just shush up and get on with forgetting about the past. But the very fact that it feels like that's exactly what everyone hopes I will do makes me convinced that it's the last thing I should do. Maybe the new early life interventions will break the cycle of domestic violence, child abuse, rape, murder, poverty and despair ... or maybe we need to collectively break our silences and learn how to offer and receive solace rather than outsource our compassion to charities, experts and pharmaceutical companies. Maybe then we will stop having to bury people for the want of a shoulder to cry. Maybe then we can sit with our own suffering instead of reaching for the knife drawer, the wine bottle, the sleeping tablets or lashing out at our kith and kin, destroying someone else's sense of safety and security or travelling half way across the globe to lawfully murder other people's sons and daughters. Maybe then we'll see silencing ourselves and others as the most dangerous form of violence there is.
"Before you can exploit others you have to silence them." - Derrick Jensen