Of all the peculiarities that make me up, I could point to one that has had such persisting and devastating consequences in my thirty three years of living. The inability to voice my feelings during stress.

I think back to school in Chennai, India and how I hated the lunch my mother packed me. Of how I was nauseous every time I finished my packed lunch and how I’m still nauseous after a full meal of rice. Of the unwavering curd rice, stiff yellow dal rice and the soggy fried potatoes. I took the same food to school for 10 years every single school day. I gagged at every lunch, dumped the curd rice onto the plants as I was afraid to take the lunch box home unfinished. The only saving grace was that my best friend shared her mum’s delicious food with me.

When I think of my friend’s kindness now, I’m overwhelmed. She saved me without her knowledge from a subtle and persistent abuse. That of the abandonment by my mother of all of my childhood needs except certain basic ones. I don’t recall ever complaining to my mother. When I told my mother a few months ago how I hated the food she sent me, she said that I never told her I didn’t like it. My bringing back the food uneaten was likely not a cue that she could pick up on. Instead I’m guessing I got a round of scoldings, which led me to feeding the plants with rice.

Neither did my school environment encourage me to express myself. Talking at school was punished during school hours. We were to maintain silence except for the break which was for an hour and twenty minutes. I learned that speech was unusual, offensive and  punishable.

Speechlessness. The voice box that chokes on emotions every time. My mother uniquely complemented my speechlessness in childhood by being totally unable to pick up on my feelings, so I never came out of the circle of silence. As a child I was most definitely afraid, shy, angry at times and frustrated, but these emotions all swirled around inside me—never heard or acknowledged by me or by any of the adults around me. As I grew into my late teens I had a little bit more control over the circumstances around me so when I was overwhelmed by emotions, I took to running away, from groups, from authority figures, from upsetting friends. Sometimes I forced myself to stay but I still could not convey in words what I felt to the person who triggered it. I could however, years later, recall the exact words by a specific person that had caused me pain.

Later I got caught in the swirl of Indian-style matchmaking in my mid-twenties. I didn’t know to speak to prospective partners about my expectations or ask them about theirs. The unsuccessful outcomes forced my family to try harder to find me a match. These unspoken, unsupported tough times of rejection and cravings led me to depression. I felt that I was a machine that was failing and that there was no hope.

Did I unwind from this darkness and unhealthy silence? I don’t think fully yet. When I was 28, I discovered Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication technique. This was a communication model that brought some hidden stories from me. It also gave me a clue as to how to connect with other people. I notice that sometimes I feel emotionally numb and don’t know what to say when people talk. Now I express my emotions more and listen more.

I’ve been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. The thyroid gland is close to the voice box so it doesn’t surprise me. There’s still a lot of unexpressed emotions stuck in my throat. Sometimes I sing when I’m happy, but I want to really sing and release my voice. I feel that I would know I’m fully healed when I can sing without feeling terrified or judged.

Read about using art as a way to express yourself in Painting to Heal>>

by Archana Sankaran
image: Ramona.Forcella (Creative Commons BY)