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I was diagnosed as clinically mute not long after I learned how to talk. I spoke solely to my immediate family members and sparingly so, even to them. It was not that I couldn’t speak or that I didn’t understand the utility of language. Rather, it was my hyperawareness of its power that made language a precarious resource and one that I dared not use recklessly.
Kindergarten was an ordeal, to say the least. I dreaded “play hour,” the seemingly endless portion of the day allocated to compulsory socialization. I would regress into a catatonic state at the mere thought of having to approach another child and ask to play. When my teachers would become frustrated and plead with me to “use my words,” I would hyperventilate, turn blue and pass out. (This was a function of my cyanotic spells, with which I was subsequently diagnosed.)
For years, I persisted in my silence. On multiple occasions, I rode all the way home in carpool without my seat belt on because I couldn’t do it up myself, and I was too afraid to ask for help.
“You’ve been sitting here all this time without your seat belt on?” the carpool mother would say. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I thought but never said, “Because I’m terrified of speaking.”
I was almost seven years old when I “broke my silence,” so to speak. I was on a walk with my mother when we bumped into her good friend. She was a woman whom I was well acquainted with and also a woman whom I had never uttered a single word to. When I saw her approaching, I promptly performed my routine procedure, concealing myself behind my mother’s legs.
As I observed the two women converse, I felt unaccountably moved to say “hello.” It was hard to fathom this impulse; it was so foreign, yet so instinctual. The desire to talk came over me like a tidal wave – wholly and forcefully; it was a phenomenon that was not a result of perseverance, but a product nature.
Having had no experience with the task of greeting someone, I managed a meagre “hi” before cowering in confusion at the sound of my own voice. She didn’t hear me, but that didn’t matter. Because, with that one word, I unleashed myself into the realm of talkers, inexplicably leaving behind my trepidation.
My shyness no longer debilitated me, but I remained frugal with my words throughout elementary school. My brothers would return home from school and share drawn-out stories about their day or excitedly exchange predictions about the upcoming hockey game; they spent their words frivolously. I, on the other hand, preferred to express myself through drawings and diagrams, providing brief verbal explanations where my artistry failed me.
“Is that a ladder over there?” my mother asked softly, with one hand pointing to the fence that I had drawn and the other resting gently on my shoulder as she carefully examined my artwork.
“It’s a fence,” I explained.
As I matured, I became increasingly liberal with my use of speech. The gnawing fear of words that once controlled my life eventually dissipated. I was completely emancipated from my childhood anxiety. I was unrestrained. I was reckless.
When I was in seventh grade, I learned what shame tastes like. I was sitting with my friends at lunch, chatting mindlessly about TV shows and the latest gossip. One of my friends began remarking about the new haircut of a girl in our grade.
“She looks like a boy,” my friend snickered.
“I know,” I replied, “it looks horrible!”
Our words were careless. Idle. But powerful, nonetheless.
The following day, I found myself in conversation with that girl; we were discussing our work during class. After a few minutes, she looked down at the ground and whispered to me, “I don’t like my haircut, either.”
I had never felt so ashamed, and, in that moment, I realized that my words were possessing me in the very same way that my silence once did.
That was in seventh grade – the day I reclaimed my fear of words, and that fear has remained within me ever since. I know this now, as I knew it when I was in kindergarten: Words are powerful, far more so than the person who speaks them; perhaps silence is not my disease, but my remedy.
Laura Goldfarb lives in Toronto.