Let me start by clarifying: NO, I did not go on some sort of hippy-dippy silent meditation retreat. As much as I would love to take a month off of work to sit around in the woods discovering the color of my aura (pretty sure it’s brown because #farts), my reasons for silence were far less voluntary.
Two years ago, I developed a polyp on one of my vocal chords that gave my voice the sensual raspiness of a grizzled old diner waitress named Barb. A lot of people thought my gravelly voice sounded cool, but I earn a portion of my living as a singer, so for me the change in my voice meant a change in my income and Gurl – I gotta pay that rent.
For two years I tried to heal myself with herbs, steamers, voice lessons and body work, but it wasn’t until the prince of my heart Mr. Barack Obama came riding in on his courageous and beautiful steed called the Affordable Care Act that I was finally able to find relief. That relief came in the form of a super dreamy surgeon who specialized in voice disorders and a laser surgery called a laryngoscopy.
For a period before the surgery, and for several weeks after, I was ordered by my doctors to be on strict vocal rest. That means no talking. At. All. In total I spent a little over a month giving everyone in my life the silent treatment and as you might expect, it was incredibly eye opening.
Here’s some of what I learned when I had to STFU:
1. You say it best, when you say nothing at all…
Well, not really – words are still super awesome and I’m glad I can say them again, but after a while I got pretty good at expressing myself using nothing more than my face and hands. I couldn’t mouth words because that put strain on my vocal chords, but I could use my entire body to express anything I wanted to, and I have to admit, it made me acutely aware of all the strange things I routinely talk about (check out the sign I made for frontal-lobotomy below!).
The period of silence actually opened up a whole new line of communication for me and my partner. Before my surgery we had been stereotypical hyper verbal New Yorkers, always using our words and very seldom using our eyes or our bodies (bow-chicka-womp-womp). Not being able to speak forced us both to look at each other when we were communicating and helped us immensely when it came to understanding each other’s emotions and expressions.
*Note: Getting it on without making a sound is exactly as awkward and creepy as you think it will be.
2. You Don’t Need to Say Most of the Things You Want to Say
Omg, everyone talks so much about NOTHING! If you really listen to yourself, most of the time you are saying garbage words that don’t mean anything.
“Omg this place is cool. I really like cool places like this cool place. I heard there is another cool place in this cool area that is supposed to be super cool. Bla bla bla bla Buzzfeed list about pancakes.”
I couldn’t speak, but I still felt the social impulse to fill all silence with a whole bunch of inane chatter. Being silent made me aware of that impulse, and allowed me to examine the motivations behind all that meaningless rambling. I realized that a lot of what I was saying didn’t lead to a meaningful conversation and it often actually hindered meaningful conversation. I had been talking a whole lot, but never saying anything real or true. I get it, it’s not like I’m going to talk about my deepest darkest demons with a stranger in a bar (or will I?), but I also don’t need to fill the space with a bunch of lame chit-chat. It’s false and boring and unnecessary.
Also here is that Buzzfeed list about pancakes.
3. What it is Like to Live with an Invisible (albeit Temporary) Disability
Moving wordlessly through the world, without being able to say “excuse me” or “thank you” or “may I please have a carnitas burrito with black beans and brown rice” was unsurprisingly pretty alienating. I learned to point at what I wanted and accept what I got the same way I do when traveling to a country where I don’t speak the language.
When I first started my silence, I was determined not to let it keep me from an active social life. I went to bars, parties, shows (because I’m like soooooo popular and stuff), and at first it was actually kind of fun. It was like playing a constant game of charades – I would pantomime full sentences and stories to people and they would laugh and clap when they correctly understood what I was trying to say. After a while though the constant effort to be understood began to feel not only exhausting, but very lonely.
When I was out in the world, interacting with people who didn’t know I couldn’t speak, I was met with constant confusion. Often people would assume I was deaf and I even had several people try to speak to me in ASL, but for the most part, whenever I had to interact with a stranger it was complicated and stressful and I could tell the other person felt anxious having to interact with me.
I have never had a real disability, but experiencing the world without being able to speak made me aware of just how structured our society is around an assumption of non-disability. It also made me realize how bad most people are at interacting with the disabled. According to the US Census Bureau, roughly 19% of Americans have some sort of disability, that’s almost 57 million people. SO MANY PEOPLE! We seriously need to get better at not being super awkward around 19% of the population guys. Furreal.
My brief moment of silence gave me a tiny tiny tiny window into what it might be like to live with a disability and my hope is that this experience has strengthened my empathy/compassion muscles (cause god knows my ab muscles aren’t very strong) and helped me understand that all people should be given the space to be understood.
4. Listening to Others Can Be Incredible
Listening is dope. It is so cool to just listen to someone talk. When you stop directing the conversation with questions or comments it allows the person you are listening to to follow the stream of thought that interests them. Some of my favorite moments during my silence where those moments when I just sat with a friend and allowed them to talk. I learned some awesome things about people in my life who I thought I knew well and I learned that if you allow someone else to lead the conversation, it can go in incredible and surprising directions.
5. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all…but if you can only say 3 words a day, make sure they are nice.
When I started speaking again after the surgery I was allotted a certain amount of speaking time each day. A lot of this was spent doing silly sounding exercises given to me by my speech therapist, but the rest I could use as I pleased. I learned pretty quickly that when you’re given 12 minutes of speech a day, you think very carefully about how you want to use that. Saying “I love you” to my partner before bed was an excellent ways to use that 12 minutes. So was saying “I’ll have a carnitas burrito with black beans and brown rice please”.