What if your Inner Voice is a jerk?
Years ago when I was in my early 20s and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had surgery on my throat. Afterwards I was instructed, in no uncertain terms, to be silent - absolutely silent - for three weeks. (No talking, no muttering, no whispering).
Now I am a talker. I love a word or two or twenty or thirty or more. And if someone should ask me a question, I’m happy to get right in there with an answer. In fact, I'm happy to just have a chat whether a question was asked or not.
And back in those days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I loved a good heated argument. But those were in the old pre-Trump days when you didn't have to worry that the person you were arguing with, might turn out to be some pretty normal-looking conspiracy lunatic - Ah those halcyon days when full-blown crazy people would be more conveniently recognizable by wearing tinfoil hats or the like.
Anyway, the point is that as a talker who could not talk, the only solution open to me was to give myself nobody to talk to. So, I retreated to a little Scottish island where I knew nobody, nobody knew me, to live out my three weeks of silence on my own.
The island in question was the Isle of Cumbrae just off the west coast of Scotland. It has one little town, Millport, where pretty wee souvenir stores, cafes, and cycle hire shops dot along the promenade. My Dad used to say that he believed that in good weather, it was the most beautiful place on Earth, and only a fool would disagree. On a clear day, you can see across the Clyde estuary to Ben Lomond, and in the Summer months this tiny little island gives off an air of all being right in the world.
When I arrived for my self-enforced exile, it was October and the rain hammered down like glass rods.
Nevertheless, the first day was really quite lovely. The house was on the seafront. I put the fire on and read a book, occasionally glancing out the window to watch the waves dancing in the wind. When night came though, and there was nothing to see from the window but darkness, my troubles began.
It started in a small way as all the most terrifying things do, with a simple thought that muttered, “What if…?” in the dark recesses of my mind.
“What if you never talk again?” It said. “What would that be like?”
I didn’t like the sound of that at all, so I pushed it out of my head.
“I mean, they’ve said it should be fine, but nothing in life is a given and they won’t know for sure until after a month. There are no guarantees.”
Again I pushed it out of my head, only for it to return like a bad smell.
“Because if you aren’t able to talk again, think about all of the things you won’t be able to do. Maybe you should prepare yourself.”
“I’ll be fine. I’d manage.” I argued to myself.
A matter of point here: Arguments inside your own head are much more difficult to handle than arguments with full-blown tinfoil-hat-wearing crazy people because, when it's a tinfoil-hat-wearing crazy person you can walk away when it all gets too much, but when the crazy person is inside your own head, there is no escape.
“It's not all about you though, is it?” my asshole inner voice continued. “How about your family? How about your friends? How difficult would it be for them dealing with your brokenness? Think how much of a burden you’d become. How much of a burden you probably are already. Imagine.”
“Uhm no. I don’t want to imagine. Thanks, but I don’t. For fuck's sake, it's only throat surgery. I am going to get better.”
"‘Oh really? This time last year, you didn’t even know there was a problem with your throat. And look at you now. Just exactly how good are you at judging anything?”
And so it continued till the daylight hours, or until I was so tired of arguing in my head, I'd fall asleep exhausted.
And that is why at 3am on the second night, though the rain still hammered down like glass rods, I stood on the shoreline, looking out to a sea so dark I could only sense it through the roar of the waves in the blackness. I was cold and wet and shivering but I didn't care. I thought if I could feel something physically, then I might be able to drown out the noise in my head.
I’d like to tell you that the next day things improved, but they did not. I lit the fire, took out my book, made cups of hot tea, but my mood would not lift. My sorrow hung around me like a dampness I couldn’t shake off.
And I dreaded the night when the argument would begin again. “What if…? What if?”
One more matter of point: When it comes to arguments, some you win and some you lose. But when you are on your own in the middle of the night, suck it up, you are going to lose.
On the fourth day, I went for a walk during daylight hours. I’d been avoiding going out during the day as I was exhausted through lack of sleep and also I didn’t want to bump into anyone and have to be silent. (Bad enough to not be able to talk to those who know you. Bloody impossible to try to explain to those you’d never met before.)
The rain had stopped. The sky was overcast -the clouds heavy with the promise of another downpour. The seafront was deserted. But I could see the light from a little grocery/souvenir store someway in the distance. I thought about changing direction, knowing I should avoid people. But I didn’t. Instead, I walked towards the store and looked in the window.
There was a daft wee display of novelty cups, a teddy bear with a kilt on, and a selection of little tartan notepads. I’ve always been a fan of the tartan, and the notepad that I wrote my emergency “I’m sorry, I can’t talk!” notes in, was running low. So, I decided to treat myself.
Through a series of polite smiles and nods, I was able to conduct the business of buying the notepad, but instead of buying the little tartan one, I bought a full-fat A4 sized, lined notepad.
I took it back to the house, made myself a cup of tea, sat down and I wrote.
I wrote a list of things I wanted to do. Things I was sorry I hadn't done already. People I wanted to say sorry to. Things I wanted to forgive myself for. I wanted so much to stop the argument.
I set out how I was going to change my life. I wrote about what I would say if I could speak and who I would speak those words to.
And when the darkness came and the ‘what ifs’ started again, I wrote a list of those little fuckers down on paper too, so that I could attend to them when, or if, I ever needed to, rather than let them run riot in my head. And afterwards, for the first time since the surgery, I slept a solid 10 hours.
Up until then, whenever I’d written anything, it was mannered - like every word on the page had to please someone else: a schoolteacher, a college lecturer, some imaginary critic I’d installed in my head. Like writing was some form of dressage I had to train myself for in a competition.
But there was no place for any of that in my self-enforced exile. Just me, my A4, and my pen.
So, the fire burned in the hearth, and the rain poured outside, and the waves roared in the darkness, and I wrote and I slept and I wrote and I slept. And then it was time to return home.
Back at the hospital, the doctors were very very pleased with my recovery. They asked how I’d managed with the three weeks of silence. I said nothing and gave them a winning smile. I was given a clean bill of health and the freedom to go enjoy my life, with the instruction of no shouting or singing for a while.
And obviously my speaking voice completely repaired, although there are days I’m sure not everybody sees this as a great advantage.
Though this happened such a long time ago (I was in my early 20s and dinosaurs were roaming the earth) what I learned took up residence in my head, and gave most of the ‘what ifs’ their eviction orders.
I learned that fear will always be a close companion when I am going through any form of change. And I learned not to pay fear too much attention because the whole point of existence is change. I know how much I need people even though that annoys me - because frankly some of them are assholes.
I like to think I can handle everything on my own, but, truthfully, at precisely the time when it feels like the hardest thing in the world would be to talk to someone, that's exactly the time when I know I absolutely should.
I try not to get into arguments with myself. As I know all my own weak spots I can be fairly brutal, and my inner voice can be a pessimistic, belligerent, cruel, fucking jerk. Life can be tough. Sometimes through no willful fault of your own, you can find yourself cold and shivering looking out into nothing but the roaring darkness.
I know that feeling when your inner voice is kicking your ass and nobody can hear you, and you can’t see the future. Just as I know -to my very core- that when I find myself grieving for all I have lost, I am literally on the brink of some incredible beauty yet to be found.
And also I miss the days when fully-fledged, bat-shit-crazy lunatics had the civility to wear full-blown, tinfoil hats.
Till next week
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