There’s a popular philosophy that silence can equal strength. Saying nothing often says more than any words. But what about when you’ve been silenced involuntarily?
Like many people this month, I’ve found myself flattened by a cold. This is not rare or unusual except that at the exact same time the virus hit me, I experienced an allergic reaction to the massive amounts of Christmas tree debris that some of my neighbours left strewn about the elevators and hallways of our building as they took their dead trees to the garbage. Even though building staff seemed to be vacuuming continuously, we were finding needles in the rugs in our (tree-free) apartment.
I’m allergic to evergreens but the worst I usually get is itchy ears in the spring when the conifers pollinate. So when I woke one night unable to breathe, my throat swollen near closed from inflammation and likely a bit of anaphylaxis plus the typical cold-related mucus gluing it all together, I was terrified and really shaken.
I typically get a bit of laryngitis with a cold, and I’ve had pollen-related allergic laryngitis on two different occasions in my adult life. And while those events were scary, they were nothing like this. I had no voice at all and hustled off to the doctor the next day with my symptoms typed out and a plea for steroids to help with the inflammation.
The cold has passed but the laryngitis lingers. Not the worst case I’ve ever had (10 really bad weeks in 2015, where my doctor would just shrug at me when I begged for her to do something, and for which I ultimately found a cure on a website for opera singers), but still frustrating in many ways.
Mostly because not talking is really fucking hard.
I can write my thoughts on a notepad or use the notes app on my phone, but that takes far longer than just speaking. And when I’m walking the dog and need to give a command to sit or heel, I have to use my voice.
Resting the voice is the best option with laryngitis, better than all the glasses of water or humidifiers or lozenges. Better too than the steroids which worked for only a few days and left me seriously twitchy and anxious. Well, except for that almost dying bit, because even the doctor agreed that I might have died, so the steroids served a useful purpose.
So when you can’t (or shouldn’t speak), every single thing you might want to say has to meet some specific criteria. Is it worth the effort and pain to use your sad scratchy voice for a snarky off-hand comment or dumb joke? Do you need to say “good morning” to your neighbour in the hall or can you get away with a smile and a nod? Can you use sigh language at the bakery counter? And how about when what you have to say is actually important or interesting or relevant but there’s no way you’ll make it to the end without honking like a goose or making your voice far worse, or both? Even though I know my ailment will eventually get better, there’s frustration almost to the point of anger at the inability to make myself heard. Just because it feels good to communicate, to laugh, to joke, to share a thought.
Back in November, I experienced being silenced in a different way.
At a tenant’s meeting for my building, where we had gathered to discuss fighting our landlord about a rent increase, I was speaking about work the landlord had done to the building when a representative from a local legal clinic interrupted me and began speaking over me. Three times I said loudly, “Excuse me, I was speaking, will you please let me finish?” He continued to speak, assuming perhaps that I was trying to say something in favour of the landlord (I was not, I was just trying to get to my point carefully).
After my third request to be allowed to finish, I could hear every woman in the room take in a sharp breath as they realized what this guy was doing to silence me. Yet not a single person spoke up and said “let her finish.” Not even the couple who were running the meeting and who had invited the community advocate to the meeting.
I could have insisted, gotten louder, stood in front of him, cursed. But there were children present and I would only have come off as shrill. You know, that bitchy lady who won’t shut up. So I walked out of the meeting, quit the tenant’s group, and gave the organizer a piece of my mind the next time I saw her. Because if nobody was willing to stand up for me, as a neighbour and a human being, to allow my voice to be heard, then they don’t deserve my assistance and support. Their loss, given my decades of media and PR experience that would have been extremely helpful to their cause.
While the situations are not exactly the same, both are frustrating in their unfairness. We all have a right to be heard, to voice our thoughts, feelings and concerns. To share our ideas, to tell someone we love them, or just that we like their hat.
My laryngitis will heal eventually. It requires patience that I am in short supply of, but my voice will return, albeit likely half an octave lower. But the voice that was silenced by some misogynistic jerk who thought I was going to say something that didn’t support the message he was pushing on my neighbours (because don’t think for a second that he and his organization didn’t have their own agenda in helping with the fight against our landlord), I can never get back. The points I had to share, which might have been very useful (again, 20 years of media and PR experience here), were deleted, gone. Silenced. And that felt absolutely awful, on so many levels.
There is definitely a certain type of strength in silence, but there’s also an incredible amount of strength in using your voice, of speaking up, of sharing your thoughts with others. I have a new appreciation of both the physical and social aspects of that now.