One of the most important things I’ve learned on this word strike is that not talking does not negate you from your responsibility in actively participating in a conversation. Even though you can’t answer, you are, or should be, just as active in the process. If anything, you must be more so. I heard in AA many years ago this sage advice to newcomers: Take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth. If you want to learn to be a good listener, an active and strong listener, stop talking. It’s that simple.
Well, nothing is ever that simple. Nothing is ever as simple as the words used to describe the task. “Just say the word!” And then what? It’s done? So let it be written, so let it be done? I thought I was just going to shut my mouth and that would be it. I couldn’t wait to shut up. I wanted to disappear into this silence and vanish off the fucking radar. And then a friend’s mother went into the hospital. And then a friend crashed on her motorcycle. And then my sister told TD she was going to be in Myrtle Beach next week. And then one of my best friends from nursing school posted that she was on her way to North Carolina for a vacation. People were saying stupid things that I wanted to respond to, I realized that saying even one word could settle an argument and that TD was horrible at charades and couldn’t lip read to save her own life. It is not as hard to remain silent when there is something major or earth-shattering to say than it is to remain quiet when listening to two people argue over what color the VW bus was in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine.”
This happened last night when I got my hair cut. The stylist took a great interest in my word strike and asked TD a bunch of questions. He said it reminded him of the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” and how one of the character’s in the film had taken a vow of silence. “It was funny because when he found out he was color blind, he jumped out of the van and ran out into the dessert and screamed, ‘FUCK!’”
Funny? In the film, the main character gives her brother a test for color blindness, which he fails. The brother had aspirations of being a pilot and it was all he ever thought about. When he realizes he can’t distinguish between the colors red and blue, he realizes that he will never be a pilot, and his entire world falls apart in half a second. So no, not funny at all.
“I think we saw that movie,” TD said. “They were driving around in an orange bus.”
“I think it was green,” said the stylist.
“I remember it being orange,” TD said and looked at me. “Maybe that was another movie.”
“I think there was a bus, maybe it was orange, or was it an RV?”
I have never wanted to say the word “yellow” so badly before in my life.
The other night at dinner I mouthed the word “butter.”
“Banana?” TD asked.
“Your butt hurts?”
I pantomimed spreading butter on a piece of bread.
I pantomimed sticking a knife in her eye.
“You feel locked out? Frustrated!”
There is always a notebook on the table now. Otherwise, I text her. Sometimes I just nod to whatever she guesses.
So far there has been no one who could say they knew someone else that had ever gone on a word strike or taken a vow of silence. I would never call this a vow of silence because I do laugh and I do cry and I do growl and make other threatening noises. A few people have said that this experiment has reminded them of movies, like “Little Miss Sunshine.” The guy at the camper place said he remembered an episode of The Twilight Zone where a man took a bet that he could stop talking for six months for a million dollars. He was put into a room with a bunch of microphones and watched on a 24-hour basis to make sure he didn’t speak. At the deadline, he had not spoken a word but the man who bet him said he didn’t have the money to pay him. “Then the mute guy tore his shirt open and revealed a scar on his neck. He had cut out his own vocal cords so he wouldn’t talk!” My friend Shelly reminded me of the novel “The World According to Garp.” In the book there was a group of women, the Ellen Jamesians, named after an eleven-year-old girl whose tongue was cut off by her rapists to silence her. “Remember?” Shelly asked. “The women in the group all cut out their own tongues in solidarity.”
I didn’t have anything in common with them. I didn’t have a reason. I didn’t have a cause. I wasn’t getting paid to do it. And so far, I wasn’t getting anything out of it but frustration.
“What have you learned from it so far?” my therapist asked.
“That most of our words are unnecessary,” I said immediately. “I think it is helping me be a better listener.”
“In what way?”
“I’m not thinking about what I’m going to say while they’re talking. I’m just listening to the words. I’m hearing what they’re saying. I’m hearing what they’re not saying.”
“But you do this anyway. You’re a trained, professional listener.”
“Yes, on the clock, but I am still human and as a rule, I don’t listen to my friends like they’re patients, although, make no mistake, they could be.”
TD was fond of telling people that I had given up speech for religious reasons. I preferred she say it was for political reasons, but at least she gave them something they could bite. Would it be easier if I had some lofty protest, some political stance, a glorious sweeping platform for justice and peace? I needed conviction.
I once had a patient named Linda who did not speak. She had been running headlong into a manic phase for weeks when she suddenly began to sing everything. And not just regular song or humming or alphabet tunes. Everything she sang was like that high octave opera from The Sound of Music. “Oh John is alive, with the sound of farrrr-tinnng!” and “Sue, a tech, a female tech, Sue, the biggest bitch arounnnnnnd!” One day she sat at the patient phone and dialed a number. She sang while waiting, something that sounded like it might’ve been set to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody. I watched her intently as she listened. Her affect was angry, her mood cold and belligerent. After a few moments of humming “I see” and “Of course” and “I understand,” she stood up and used her full weight to slam the phone into the receiver. Before storming down the hall to her room she looked at me briefly and sang in the most beautiful melody, “My brother just told me to fuck myself!”
There is something about silence that is frightening. It can get very loud. This white noise, this vacuum, begins to swirl and suck the air in around you and you begin to notice that your breath is getting shallow. You start to feel that there are molecules pulling away from your skin, evaporating into empty space, hollowing you out and exposing you to hazardous environmental toxins. The feeling is almost challenging, nagging, even daring. Speak and the anxiety will dissipate. Say the words for what you’re feeling and you’ll be rid of them. Your soul will be free. Your mind will be cleared. Unleash these infinitesimal neuronal explosions and be right again. Be empty. Be safe.
I needed faith. I needed a doctrine, a creed.
Many years ago I worked at a hospital in Cincinnati on the Intensive Treatment Program on the nightshift. It was the first time I ever worked nightshift and I thought I was going to hate it, but I loved it. One of the surprising things about nightshift on a psych ward is finding out that screaming is not the scariest thing you’ll hear; laughter is. It will run ice through your soul. Cincinnati is, hands down, the city with the most insane population I have ever seen. The hospital had a psychiatric emergency room that was hopping every night of the week and I was more than happy to float down there whenever I could. One night they called our unit and said, “Cops are bringing up a patient. Says his name is Heavenly Comforter. No ID, psychotic as hell. You’re gonna love this guy.” They brought in a man about six-feet tall, about 250 pounds, handcuffed, hog-tied, wearing a spit-hood and spouting Bible verses. My first thought upon seeing him was that he was an eery harbinger and a chill ran down my spine. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away!’” he shouted. We got him into the seclusion room and out of the cuffs just to lie him on the restraint bed to put him in four-point leathers. He didn’t resist. He looked at me and smiled. “But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
“What’s your name?”
“No,” I said. “What is the name your father gave you?”
“My Father is the Father of all men. I have the spiritual DNA of the Lord, Jesus Christ.”
“Tell me what day it is.”
“It is the day of reckoning.”
“Are you hearing voices that tell you to hurt yourself or others?”
He began to sing.
“Are you seeing things other people don’t see?”
“I have no problem with things I can’t see. God and heaven, I have no problem with those. It’s the things I can see that I have a problem with.”
He was in restraints for most of the night. I took the last cuff off right before shift change. When I leaving he was up and walking around the unit, preaching, praying, kneeling and holding his hands over his head. He caught me before I made it out the door. “Miss Tracy, there is a light in you,” he said and squeezed my hands. “Don’t gaze upon evil with those eyes.” Later that day one of the nurses noticed him in the quiet room kneeling in the corner. He was squatted low, his hands in prayer over his head. There was a strange object on the floor by his foot. It was his right eye. He had torn it out and thrown it away.
Now that was a man with conviction.