Here is a science lesson: pearls are formed when an irritant invades an oyster. The oyster probably wishes it could just get rid of the irritant and go about its business. But it can’t. It has to live with it. So it hides the irritant. It excretes a fluid to coat it, glossing it over until the sand or parasite at its core is no longer recognizable. It’s become something else. What was painful to the oyster becomes beautiful and desirable to someone else. (Of course, it’s ultimately stolen from the oyster, so all that hard work of coating and hiding was for nothing.)
Our life stories are pearls. They often start from pain, but we learn at an early age that no one wants to see the pain. So we find ways to cover it, to dress it up and make our pain socially acceptable. We drink. We alter our bodies. We use humour. We work too much. We deny ourselves, our feelings. We lie. We fit in.
There are stories you can tell, and stories that you are supposed to lock up inside you. The ones we lock inside us aren’t pearls, though. We still feel the irritant, the pain. We can see what they really are. All else is fairy tales.
I’ve been quiet here over the past several months. So many times, I’ve sat in front of my laptop and started typing. Each time, I edited. Coated the irritant. Ultimately, I deleted.
After writing about my experience in politics in my #metoo posts back in February, many people reached out to me. Most were supportive. Many wanted to hear more or to share their own stories.
A few others, though, wanted me to just be quiet.
Sometimes, it only takes a few voices of dissent to silence us. Ninety-seven voices can tell us what we’ve said is relevant and important and helpful. Three voices can tell us we’re stupid and misguided and should just keep our stories to ourselves.
Guess which voices echo loudest in our heads?The voices that wanted me to be quiet were not mere internet trolls. They were people I knew — people close to me, whose opinions mattered. They told me that sharing my stories about mental health, misogyny and motherhood could harm my reputation and the well-being of those around me. They told me criticizing the political establishment could have severe repercussions for my career (such as it is).
I took these voices seriously. Surely, they had my best interest at heart. Their best interest too, no doubt, but it was cloaked in concern for my best interest.
So, for almost four months, I’ve been silent. But look – four months of silence is nothing. I’ve spent entires years of my life being silent. Like an oyster, I’ve taken my irritants and coated them with things that would make them palatable to me and acceptable to others. I’ve bitten my tongue, ripped up diaries, quit jobs, and literally tried to shrink myself to take up less space in the world.
This oyster is SO done.
My goal as a writer – as a person – is not to share a long litany of things that irritate me (that’s what therapy and friends are for). Nor is it to share dirty laundry and give up every shred of privacy. My goal (I’ve come to realize over these past four months of silence) is to share my truth in a way that might be helpful to others.
The eating disorder that took over much of my 20s often felt like I was trying to take up as little space in the world as possible: shrinking myself down, silencing myself. If no one noticed me, no one could hurt me. It’s taken me another 20 years to allow myself to take up physical space again. That means I’m learning, once more, that people often don’t like when you take up space or make noise. Particularly when you are a woman.
How often do we hold in our truths for fear of what someone will say? How long do I need to keep my stories inside before it is acceptable to let them out? Are my stories only valid if they don’t implicate or involve anyone else? Are my own memories only valid if they match up identically with the memories of others (as though my stories are on trial, my truths to be judged)?
There have been other times in my life when people said, “That’s not your story. That’s not what’s happening here. Are you sure those are the facts? Are you sure that’s how you feel?”
Retract. Edit. Delete.
Over and over, I’ve done that. I’ve altered my stories for the comfort of others. I’ve allowed others to make me question the validity of the facts my heart knew to be true. I’ve deleted (or tried to delete) entire memories just to survive. Sometimes it was gaslighting. Sometimes, I just allowed myself to be silenced to keep the peace, or to not make someone else uncomfortable.
I’m done with that. If my truths make you uncomfortable, you’d better examine your own.
I have truths. I’ll speak them. I’ll take up space.
Sometimes, I’ll give you the pearl, but don’t forget: at its lustrous core is a pain I couldn’t rid myself of.