Growing up I had the perfect poison for extinguishing a voice: I was female, Asian, immigrant, undocumented.
Outside our home I learned to stay in the shadows and not rock the boat.
Inside the home, I was an explosive acid of pent up frustrations: loud, uncensored and callous. The fumes that boiled within had to come out somewhere and at somebody, but there was no willing ear, no one accustomed to voicing his/her own feelings let alone capable of dealing with another person’s.
My family loved generously, but in ways that were different from western culture, the only culture that made sense to me at the time. We never spoke of our emotions.
The rare person who got close enough to catch a good glimpse of me often reacted with such surprise. I remember the friend in 6th grade, after our first phone conversation: “I didn’t know you were so interesting! You are so quiet!” And my freshman year English professor: “I had no idea you had so much to say until I read your paper…I would love it if you spoke more in class.”
I credit my four years at a women’s college for re-introducing me to a word – Voice – that up until then I had only considered a physiological mechanism. English lit classes were about George Eliot, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf…and, in so many ways, about us.
But studying these pioneer women writers was only a first step in understanding the courage to speak. While I admired our foremothers, I didn’t yet make that connection between their achievements and my duty to myself. Coming out of college, I am not sure how truly empowered I was. I failed to defend myself against women bullies at my first job, or to recognize abuse in my first serious relationship.
It’s taken me many years to understand the consequences of an early life in which emotions are not acknowledged, expressed, talked about, dealt with, or validated. You learn that certain (many) emotions are shameful, and you decide to keep the poison inside. You are used to having negative emotions dismissed, so when you feel disrespected by a boyfriend who (for example) threatens to dump you if you gained weight, you choose to ignore your instincts. You are not used to getting feedback on your emotions, so when you are upset with someone you love, you lash back with a venom that isn’t warranted by the offense.
I was like that for so long.
Voice began emerging for me, once I started to build up small successes. Like stepping inside a gym for the first time, after a lifetime of not believing in my body. Being loved by friends after the trauma of childhood bullying. Being happy without a man after once needing a man so badly that I tolerated abuse. Giving a talk before an audience of 250 in New York when once upon a time teachers and classmates never heard the sound of my voice. Finding a compassionate and committed life partner after so many prior failures. Becoming a mother when once I believed I didn’t have what it took. Co-founding my own company when my first boss didn’t trust me to answer the phones or much of anything else. And speaking up to and taking action against a teacher who hurt my son…after a lifetime of allowing everyone else to be right.
And somewhere along the way new friends began laughing if I tried to tell them I considered myself shy. These days I have to consciously hold down my hand at parent-teaching meetings so I don’t dominate the Q&A, and my husband – the one man I’ve dated who needs it the least – gets earfuls of my “I Will Survive” tirades.
A few years ago I took my first writing class, and in a class of supportive strangers I nervously began to share experiences that I had only begun to find words for. I’ve since had a few personal essays published, and today I celebrate the three-year anniversary of Only You. During these three years I’ve gone back and forth on numerous posts, publishing and unpublishing, torn between catharsis and fear of judgment, between confidence and doubts that anyone cares. I’ve been attacked on Motherlode in the New York Times for expressing my opinions (heh, who hasn’t been?), and I’ve been personally put down for writing a “mommy blog.” (But I’ve always been proud of writing about motherhood, and of bearing that most awesome, significant and beloved title of Mommy.) This blog has exorcised whatever shame, doubts and depression that I still sheltered several years ago, because it became a vehicle for me to face and process the emotions that never before met with trust. I am so grateful to you, some of whom I’ve been privileged to become friends with through your comments, many others who I know return quietly with each post, and some of you whom I met the old fashioned way, before blogging became a word. In many ways old friends were the ones I was most afraid to share my writing with. I can’t thank you enough for being that listening ear I’ve been needing all these years, for allowing this Voice to come out, and for nurturing it to grow. You’ve saved me.