For most of my life, I’ve seen silence as a guardian, a companion, an essential part of who I am. I’ve lived with silence like cotton in my mouth, shoving all my words back into my lungs. And I thought that was natural for me, that I had nothing to say anyway, that I was lined with silence inside and essentially nothing. I was nothing.
The thing is, I’ve always thought of myself as a self-contained unit, an island of neurosis. Sure, I studied enough sociology in college to know that our feelings and behaviors are learned to some extent. But I thought my mental illness was in a separate category – that it came up fully formed from my subconscious like a sea monster, independent of anything – even myself – just here to destroy me.
But maybe what forms in our brains can be either quieted or amplified by the culture around us. And maybe emotions like fear and self-hatred can be fed a very steady diet from the messages we get all the time. Messages that there’s something wrong with people like you. Messages that the world is a fundamentally hostile place.
I woke up this morning with a joke in my head: “Meh, who needs the patriarchy? I do a pretty amazing job oppressing myself.” Censoring myself, hating myself, hurting myself. And I always thought the problem was just me. Just me and my defective brain.
I’m not saying that mental illness is purely a social problem, that individual psychology and biochemistry aren’t factors. I’m convinced they are. I’ve just been giving a lot of thought, lately, to the places where personal vulnerabilities meet larger social problems. And I’m starting to see self-care as not just a good idea for me, personally, but as an act of resistance.
I’m rethinking silence, what it’s done for me and what it’s done to me. What it can accomplish, and what it never can.