It’s Lucky I Am A Woman: A History Of Silence.
Words are my lifeblood. Typed, spoken, or scrawled on the space of a thank-you note, they are my connection to the world.
Some words flow easily. They pour out like water from a jug. Others are slow like molasses. I draw them out carefully, luring them into their proper places on the page.
I write about the world, about science, about the feelings of others and the ways in which they matter. I write to make things make sense.
Those words are safe. I can suit them for their audience until they fall softly.
But there are some words I do not write, or speak. The words that are mine, for me, that won’t bend themselves to the listener. These words catch like iron in my throat, bulging into the soft tissue until I choke them out.
Those are the words that did not come. They are folded in on themselves, welded tightly together, sealed inside.
“I love you. I’m not mad at you. But I have to spank you.”
This refrain echoed throughout my childhood. God said our hearts were rebellious. God sent us our parents to drive it out.
The worst offense was a bad attitude — talking back, dragging our feet, complaining — followed by delayed obedience. God could only give us a good, long life if we obeyed our parents first, in all things.
I wanted to be good. I changed my attitude. I turned on the cheerfulness whether I felt it or not. I served enthusiastically. I volunteered first. I chose to believe that sacrifice could be fun.
As a child, it was my duty. As a Christian, it was my responsibility. As a woman, it was my calling. Anything less was a betrayal of a God who had given everything for me.
I gravitated towards stories of those with strong self-control — missionaries and martyrs and stoic, stereotypical Native American chiefs. I heard that one had a leg amputated without anesthesia and never made a sound. He was my hero.
I filled my mind with the suffering of the martyrs and the sacrifices of missionaries. I determined to make myself ready for the challenge. I determined to make myself worthy.
They found the scoliosis when I was a teen.
I began a regimen of inversion tables and chiropractic adjustments and physical therapy to help straighten my spine.
Most of the therapists were taught in a time of No pain, no gain. I learned to steel my body against the touches that were meant to heal. Deeper pressure would lead to a deeper release, they said, so I distracted myself and redirected my thoughts and lost all contact with the mechanisms my body used for its own defense.
“Is this okay?” they asked. I didn’t make a sound.
I’m trading my sorrows
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying them down
For the joy of the Lord.
It became just that easy. I could simply let the sorrow go, like the pain, like the words. It’s especially easy if you just change the definitions.
I was well-practiced. How could it do any harm?
I was getting sick.
I held my mask together in front of my boss for the umpteenth time as he berated me in German-accented English. But my body couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Bodies have a way of doing that when we are lying, even to ourselves.
I left, even though I knew it made me a failure. I couldn’t be strong anymore.
I lay on the table at the chiropractor’s, on heating pads that were turned up too high. They told me to lie here until they came to get me, I thought. But I’m so hot. The words fought their way up my throat. Should I call for help? Move? They told me to lie here. What if I mess something up? What if I do the wrong thing?
I sweated instead, growing dizzier by the minute.
No one told me I could say something. No one told me I should.
The book had birds on the cover. It called me to what women once were. But the questions it asked made no sense. “What is the sound of a woman screaming with her hand over her mouth?”
I didn’t know. There was a hand, alright. There just wasn’t any screaming.
How can you know what silence is when you were never free to speak?
It took a stranger standing on a chair to show me that I was in charge of my own words. My own self.
The profanities were the first to make it past the fist that squeezed my throat. When I realized I had the choice — to speak them, or not, everyone else be damned — the shell cracked open.
Other words would follow. But only the four-letter ones were strong enough at first.
Soon, I was married.
My lover moved deeper into me, as he had many times. But this time, the pressure was becoming too much.
It didn’t hurt that bad. It was mostly fine. It was kind of good. He seemed to be enjoying it. I could wait a little longer. I didn’t need to say anything.
Then, suddenly, it didn’t feel good. At all. I didn’t want this, not right now.
The word pushed its way out of my throat as I pushed away the one I loved. I couldn’t bring myself back, no matter how hard I tried. My body was done.
He stayed close and held me softly. He waited for the words.
They came slow, like molasses.
I chose to hide, all those years ago. I admire those who fought instead. Their scars are more visible, tattooed along the edges of their anger and passion and grief.
Still, I am inked to my core. The sharp edges of my daily dying cut me to the bone. I taught myself to bleed on the inside.
There is a lot of blood, now. I am sometimes sick with it.
It’s lucky I am a woman. I know how to bleed. It can be a purifying ritual, to bleed my insides out, letting go of the world that could not be. Rushing out of me like a torrent, painful and raw, released into space and emptiness.
Words are my lifeblood. They finally flow free.
Ellie Ava is rebuilding her life after decades of trying to be someone else. She blogs at Ellie’s Aviary.